In Praise of Retreats

Posted: October 26, 2017


What’s the best retreat you ever attended? What’s the worst?

I’ve recently returned from a three-day program where our 19-member group began by describing our worst retreat stories. I won’t share the grisly details, mainly because my takeaway from the entire experience was an even greater appreciation for how valuable a retreat can be and how effective it is as an organizing format for adult learning. Here’s why.

Immersed and Engaged

The program focus was training, facilitation and consulting, with emphasis on theories of how adults learn. I’m a champion of education and always looking to enhance my knowledge and presentation skills. A big draw of this program for me is the developer trainer and consultant Andy Robinson, one of my nonprofit “gurus” with sponsorship by Marlboro College and its Center for New Leadership, in Vermont. We met in a bucolic setting in New Hampshire, at a charming farmhouse that was both our classroom and accommodations.

Granted, it can be a challenge to drop your daily routines and responsibilities for a retreat, especially one that spans several days. But there’s a lot to be said for being able to concentrate exclusively (or mainly so) on the learning at hand. I was struck by the intensity of my experience. In fact, I assumed I’d have downtime for some non-program reading. Instead, it was hard to shift gears because I was so immersed in the content we were discussing throughout the day. It was exciting to feel so engaged. A great retreat can do that. 

Getting to Know Others

Another argument for a retreat is the “getting to know you” opportunity of sharing a setting with like-minded others for more than an hour or two. We studied together, ate meals together and during breaks or early morning walks could enjoy the autumn landscape together. We formed strong professional friendships in a short time, particularly in our cohort groups as we worked through exercises together.

I’ve made the point before that nonprofit boards benefit when they develop connections of some depth. Board members need to respect one another, to be willing to listen to one another. Those qualities grow from interactions that go beyond a quick hello at the start of a meeting. The beauty of a retreat is the built-in time for conversation about organizational business but other topics too. Board members should know their collective interests, skills and strengths, and there’s something about eating together that just encourages people to relate.

Making It Dynamic

Great retreats are ultimately about learning dynamics. If you’ve ever groaned at the sight of an uninviting meeting room, you know why attention to environment matters. Stuck in a dismal room that’s akin to a cave? Here’s a rescue strategy from Andy Robinson: literally draw windows and put them up on the walls. You immediately spark imagination and set a lighter tone. Rearrange the room, including swapping out furniture, to make it as comfortable as possible for whole-group and small-group interaction.

Along with the content and it’s got to be meaningful and useful presentation and pacing are key to effective retreats. Much of what’s good teaching of children is true of adults as well. That includes providing “wait time,” i.e., allowing silence while people gather their thoughts; pacing so that learning activities change before participants tire and zone out.

Experiential Is Key

“The heart of adult learning is experiential education learning by doing,” says Robinson. That’s what made his retreat so powerful and how, really, any adult learning situation can be greatly improved.

Retreats can have a bad rep, but the problem is not the concept of a retreat. It’s what happens in those hours or days. With the right knowledge and planning, what happens can be transformative or darn close to it.

Looking for board education, including through a retreat? Let’s talk.