While my partner cycles across Europe I’ll be hanging out in the UK with my buddy Johnnie. I’ve just finished the last of my scheduled work in Australia, so my mind is now turning to packing and re-locating for the next few months. What an adventure. What a privilege. Can’t wait.
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Today I was a guest with John James for a webinar about tips and tricks for newbie facilitators.
Here’s some of what we covered.
Why would a group need a facilitator?
Facilitation is a form of group leadership that focuses on group knowledge and interaction. If there’s no opportunity in the meeting to use group-generated knowledge or there’s no possibility of interaction amongst the participants, then you don’t need a facilitator.
Here are some times when it might be worth thinking about facilitation:
Sometimes a group is stuck. That might mean stuck in habits of how they meet, stuck in their thinking of the way they are looking at a problem, or for whatever reason, unable to move forward. A facilitator can provide ways to become un-stuck.
I’m sure you have experienced those meetings that have agendas so full there’s no way everything can be covered during the meeting, and everyone leaves frustrated. Facilitation actually begins before the meeting, in deciding the purpose or focus of the meeting and helping the organisers choose what should be included and what should be left out. Facilitators bring a sense of timing and of what’s possible to avoid ‘scope creep’ – “Can we just add…” There’s a big temptation in some meetings, especially when they are a irregular, or once a year, to try and cram in as much as possible to make the ‘best’ use of the time together. It’s a false economy and simply doesn’t work.
The very presence of a facilitator, either brought in from outside the group or someone taking on that role for the group from within, is a disruption. It’s not business as usual. It’s an opportunity to explore different ways of sharing, generating and making use of the group’s knowledge, and of interacting with each other. It can be a gentle nudge to wake people up, or it can be a ‘holy cow!’ experience. In either case, facilitation can be the circuit breaker a group needs to reboot itself and get on with the work that matters.
The challenge with tips and tricks for newbie facilitators is that everyone wants methods and processes. “Use this process, and voila!, your meeting will be transformed.” If only it was that easy. The bad news is that there is no one method, or even suite of methods, that will transform your meetings. The good news is that you can do some very small interventions that can start to improve your meetings. That’s where we are going to start – with things that anyone can do to improve meetings. And by all means, check out processes you might use if you are facilitating – it’s always a good idea to have a kit bag full of approaches. Just don’t fall for the trap of having only one tool in your kit bag. If you want some ideas you can check out my Facilitation Resources in the menu bar at the top of this page.
5 Tips for Facilitating Groups (that anyone can do)
1. Create a welcoming space
How many meetings just happen on top of the previous meeting, with no regard as to how the space could be set up? People might even arrive to the meeting and be presented with a messy space, used coffee cups, white boards full. Urgh. If there’s no time to prepare the space before the participants arrive, get them involved. Spend the first 5 minutes getting them to help re-arrange the space for your meeting. Not only will you be more comfortable it helps with the next tip too.
2. Set the scene
You arrive at a meeting having just left the last meeting, which ran over time. You’ve checked your messages on the way, and met someone at the coffee machine who asked you a tricky question. You sit down at the next meeting wondering what this meeting is about and someone brings the meeting to order and jumps straight into a discussion about a major decision that needs to be made.
Do you feel stressed and exhausted just reading that last paragraph? Imagine how the people arriving at a meeting feel? Take a few minutes at the start of the meeting to warm people up to the meeting and it’s purpose. Help them to be present, both physically and mentally. Set the context. By context we mean stating clearly the purpose of the meeting, why it is important, what you will be doing and how long it will take.
3. Instruct clearly and briefly
Remember I suggested facilitation is about group-generated knowledge and interaction? It’s not about you – the facilitator. Your job is to get the group working and interacting, and part of that is giving instructions. Do this clearly and briefly, and then get out of the way. Some groups will want to ask a lot of questions before starting. Sometimes the questions are useful and relevant, mostly they are a way of avoiding starting. It’s just like me making a list of what I need to do rather than just getting on with it (especially when book-keeping is involved).
4. Make sure the group does the work
A Chairperson has a particular role in a group – they are a part of the group and take an active role in the discussion and decision-making. A team leader might also act like a Chairperson. A facilitator is not a Chairperson. Their role is to focus on the way people work together, not the content of the work. If you find yourself at the front of a group, marker in hand and seem to be doing all the work, ask yourself if you are working too hard? And find ways to get the group to do the work.
5. Finish on time
I know, it didn’t start on time, so why not take a few extra minutes to finish what you had planned? That’s why most meetings don’t start on time – because the previous one didn’t finish on time. As a facilitator I have no control over what time people arrive for a meeting. I can control what time it finishes though. And because I don’t want to contribute to time creep, and because I want to honour the people who have turned up and acknowledge that they have other things to do, I always adapt my facilitation and make sure the meeting finishes on time. Every time!
Making the best use of people in the room
If facilitation is a form of group leadership that focuses on group knowledge and interaction, then it’s important for facilitators to know how to make the best use of people in the room.
Conversations, relationships, then transactions
Provide opportunities in meetings for people to have conversations and to relate to each other, then focus on what needs to be done. Skipping conversations and relating simply leads to decisions and agreements that are superficial and based on not much at all. All too soon you’ll be meeting again to find out why the agreed tasks are not yet completed.
The purpose and the experience
Every meeting of people – no matter in what context – includes a reason for them being there and the experience they have. Think of the last non- work gathering you went to: a football match, a theatre production, a funeral, a dinner…
There was a clear reason for you to be there. And whether it was planned for or not, you had an experience. You would have felt some emotion – joy, sadness, elation, boredom, excitement – maybe many emotions.
Meetings tend to focus on the purpose and forget the experience, yet what most people forget is the purpose and remember the experience. So be clear about why you are meeting, and also pay attention to how you will meet – the mood and atmosphere that you will create to support the reason people have come together. People forget content; they remember experiences.
It’s common to bring in an expert to talk to a group – to provide information, to inspire, to share their knowledge. Sometimes there’s little or no opportunity to interact. It’s a one-to-many, efficient way of sharing knowledge. Or is it? Maybe it’s a wasted opportunity? It’s a good idea to provide ways for the group to interact with – not just listen to – an invited guest. And to share their own knowledge, ideas and impressions.
How do you become a facilitator?
The same way you learned to walk and to talk – by doing it. Find opportunities to do small ‘f’ facilitation – everyday facilitation that can tweak your existing meetings. Big ‘F’ facilitation is for those times when you have a greater say in the design and structure of an event. Soon you’ll be looking for opportunities to do that too.
Facilitation | Comment (1)
Do you go to a lot of meetings?
Luckily I no longer work in an organisation where I have to go to meetings. Most often, my meetings happen at a cafe or over Skype. I know people who spend most of their working day at meetings. Like everything, these meetings vary from the mundane to the significant. Work gets done, decisions are made, plans developed, negotiations held, alliances formed, information shared. Or not.
I wonder what would happen if we cancelled existing meetings and were forced to find another way?
Or have meetings become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to think of any other way?
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While using some improv games in facilitation training recently, I had a nice little insight. It was serendipitous because of the combination of games I'd chosen. In some of the games it was necessary to focus just on one or two people, in other games you needed to be aware of all that was going on. Switching between these games made me realise it was great way to practice focusing or expanding our awareness. A necessary skill for facilitators. And yet anther reason to play games to hone our skills.
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Regular readers will know that I’m pretty keen on bringing meetings to life, and that Johnnie and I have published a book. We also offer face-to-face workshops to share our ideas and approaches (the next one is in London on July 15th). Now we’re also offering an on-line course in collaboration with James Allen of Creative Huddle.
There’s full details here, including information about a nice little discount.
What’s that? You’re wondering about that sleeping reference. This is one of the characteristics of global collaborations. Johnnie and James are in the UK. I’m in Australia. So while I’ve been blissfully asleep, Johnnie and James have been working away during their day making the introductory video.Collaboration, Facilitation | Comment (0)
There are ways to facilitate meetings and events of all sorts that encourage participation and engagement. This week, while working in Papua New Guinea and helping community leaders learn how to facilitate in isolated communities, I’ve come to understand the following.
Facilitation can help the redistribution of power dynamics in a community
Many standard meeting processes, especially those used in communities, are based on the one-to-many model: speaker to talk to the masses and then take questions; discussions in large plenary groups where women, youth and children’s voices are drowned out by male community leaders; well-intentioned NGOs bringing in pre-determined agendas of what they think is important. Using processes that reduce the opportunity for the ‘usual suspects’ to grandstand can contribute to the redistribution of power and provide a voice to those previously silenced. These processes include World Cafe, Open Space and sociometry.
Poor literacy amongst participants is no reason to abandon participation and engagement
It’s often used as an excuse – community members are generally illiterate, therefore facilitation won’t work. It’s true, many facilitation process are not appropriate if there’s poor literacy. But that’s no excuse – it’s up to us to redesign those processes so as they are friendlier for illiterate people. Examples include using smiley faces for prioritising, sociometry again, small group discussions, graphic facilitation, music and found objects. It’s just not good enough to default to one-to-many processes simply because it’s easier.
With a big nod to Rob Poynton, this has never been truer than when working in isolated rural communities. Don’t assume anything. Meetings might take place under a mango tree. It requires a big dose of letting go and noticing what is actually available to support participation and engagement.
Today I was demonstrating Open Space in a building with no walls. That led to a dilemma as to where or how to organise the agenda ‘wall’. Right in front of me was a chain link fence. I just wasn’t seeing it. When my brain finally decided to see what was actually there, instead of focusing on the walls that weren’t there, I saw the fence as the ideal agenda ‘wall’. Duh!
Storytelling can reveal the unspeakable
When people have little or no power, and are suffering terrible deprivations – physical and sexual abuse, discrimination and gender-based violence – storytelling can be a window to safely explore and share their experiences – as long as those listening are open to hearing. This listening activity encourages deep listening and is drawn from Playback Theatre. In groups of five, one person tells a short personal, true story. The others in the group are given one of the following to listen for: the story in three sentences; the essence of the story; a metaphor or image ; and what’s not said. Good listeners can listen for all of these at the same time. This activity trains us to listen with intention.
And I was reminded how a troupe of travelling Playback Theatre performers could do wonders by visiting isolated communities; hearing their stories and playing back those stories thus building connections across the community. I’ve written about that before. If I ever had access to vast amounts of philanthropic funds, this is what I’d do.
We don’t have to ‘dumb down’ facilitation
Just because people live in isolated communities, may be illiterate, and have little or no access to modern resources, are not reasons to drop our standards of facilitation. People are people, with all the same feelings, emotions, needs and wants as someone living in the most modern of cities.Community, Facilitation, Playback Theatre | Comments (3)
I’ve now completed two of the five-day facilitation training that was occupying my mind (and blog). As I eventually remembered (and knew all along, it’s just that I forgot) most things became clear once I was with the group. There were a number of things I could not have known in advance.
The venue is a Morata Haus – that’s an open structure with a thatched roof. There’s a concrete floor and ceiling fans, and lights and electricity – so its not completely rustic. But there’s no walls, and I tend to use walls a lot. It was beautifully set up with tables and ribbons and flowers, so I felt a bit bad about having to remove the tables. I knew I would need the space and I knew the tables would get in the way.
There’s lots of noise, motor mowing, cars, music, people coming and going. The participants speak quietly. It’s hot. And humid. And today it was windy as well. These are the conditions under which most of the participants will be facilitating so I’ve had to adjust what we do. There’s a greater focus on story, on using what’s available, on listening and awareness.
Next,the participants. There’s 13 of them. I expected anything from that number up to about 18. They have varying degrees of experience in facilitating groups, and varying degrees of understanding of English. My initial activities were all about connecting with them, finding out about their world, their work, their experiences of facilitation. So naturally I used sociometry. It worked a treat. Once I had this preliminary information, and knew what resources I had to work with the rest fell into place.
It’s a good reminder of the folly of planning. I couldn’t have predicted any of this, yet I’m able to adapt to it. Quite a difference really.
Facilitation, Learning | Comment (0)
Goodness me, what I pickle I get myself into when I try and plan too much! (see previous post if you must)
I should have just read Harrison Owen’s words about over-planning that was sitting right there on my desk-top. It wasn’t written in response to my current flurry of planning, but it might have been! In part:
“I can’t help feeling that you that you may just be working a little too hard. I understand the pressures to describe a program (series of progressive/linked activities). Funders, etc like all that. But two things come to mind, or at least pop out of my experience. 1st No program ever ran the way it was “supposed to”, albeit a great deal of effort usually goes into trying, and then, after the fact, making it seem like everything “worked according to the plan”. 2nd Detailed Programs tend to take on a life of their own, regardless of what the emergent systems and the environment surrounding them are actually doing. It is called confusing the map with the territory, and is usually very frustrating and painful.”
Wise words indeed. I’m going to the bar for a drink.Learning | Comment (0)
Warning: This post will be quite rambling as I’m using it to clarify my own thinking. It helps to know someone will be reading this – encourages some level of coherence. Maybe.
Here I am in Madang in Papua New Guinea, preparing to deliver a five-day facilitation skills training to local Papua New Guineans who will take what they learn back into their communities. Eek! That’s quite a responsibility. What to include? What to leave out? In the absence of anyone to prepare with, I’m using my blog. I’m at least getting my thoughts down where I can come back them.
In general, people want to learn processes, how to deal with difficult people, and how to know what process to use. In reality, difficult people are rare – oh we remember them only too well, and because of that they can take on a life of their own, way beyond the status they deserve. But in all the many, many people I’ve had in workshops and events, only a handful have been truly difficult. To focus on the exception, rather than the more common experience, seems to be unbalanced. And if you scratch below the surface just a bit, people often want to know how to control a group – not that they’d ever say that explicitly. This accounts for so many one-to-many processes, I think, where control is firmly in front of the group – a speaker, a teacher, a chairman, a panel. And if that’s what you want, that’s okay, just don’t call it facilitation!
I see facilitation more as shepherding rather than controlling – keeping people safe and heading in a particular direction, not so concerned with detours, and maintaining some connection and coherence amongst the group.
What of processes? Tricky. After all, process is at the heart of facilitation. Yet facilitation is so much more. You can’t learn to drive without using a car, so you can’t learn to facilitate without using processes. Attitude, knowing what is appropriate behaviour, having some skills in applying the processes – these are also important. Maybe even more so. It’s easy to learn a new process. It takes longer to develop the qualities and behaviours associated with great facilitation.
What are these qualities? What are the behaviours?
Lets’ start with the behaviours, or skills, if you like. This is what facilitators do when with a group…
- Challenge habitual thinking and behaviour
- Hold space
- Model behaviours
- Notice and reflect back
- Look for opportunities to get out of the way
Do I hear a how? How do facilitators do all of this? By…
- Selecting appropriate activities and processes
- Providing a suitable environment/space
- Keeping track of time and progress
- Clarifying, questioning, sometimes challenging and summarising
- Being non-partisan, not taking sides, not having pre-determined answers/outcomes
- Ensuring the group does the work
- Ensuring that the group’s work is captured, when necessary (which implies knowing when that is)
Hmmm….Is that all there is to facilitating? What distinguishes pedestrian facilitation from great facilitation?
Maybe it’s the personal qualities, or attitudes, that facilitators bring…
- Bravery and a willingness to fail gracefully
If I’m learning to be a facilitator, I probably want to learn the how (processes, techniques, tip and tricks) first. Then I’d want to know about application, when and why I would use one and not the other. Problem is, learning is not linear. It happens in loops and leaps, in small moments of clarity, in confusion and messiness. In other words, learning, and meaning, emerges. It can’t be structured in a way that makes sense to everyone because everyone learns differently (and no, I’m not thinking learning styles – that’s been well and truly debunked).
Here’s the dilemma. While learning is non-linear, the training is. It starts on Monday, finishes on Friday. Each day has a start and an end. We progress from one day to the next. Doing what? There’s no end of choices really.
It’s the curse of the agenda: in advance, we’ll decide we’ll do this, then that, then something else. I don’t know until I’m in the room with the group what the group really needs. The group becomes its own learning laboratory – it has within it all the complexity and messiness of any group of humans. It comes down to the curse of planning. We have the ability to think ahead, to plan what we’ll do. In many cases that’s a sensible thing to do. If I have to catch a plane I need to plan when to get to the airport, and make sure I go to the right airport. The consequences of not planning are pretty clear. I can apply the same thinking to working with a group of people. I can plan certain things – when we’ll start, when we’ll finish, where we will meet, when we will break for lunch, why we are meeting. It’s harder to plan for what might happen with a group of people, especially once I use a process that is participatory. If I follow a plan meticulously, I might miss some opportunity, or something important. If I have no plan at all…
I’ll need to draw on my ability to be spontaneous and improvise, to use what’s available (including the people in the room) combined with my own skills and knowledge of facilitation.
If an agenda is not so helpful, what is? Learning outcomes? At the end of this training, you will be able to…will understand…will know… Hmmm… There might be a shift towards these things. Learning may happen during the training. Most likely it won’t. It might happen next time one of them is in front of a group. Who am I to determine what learning you need? Nope, learning outcomes don’t help me.
In the end I need to do what I usually do – start somewhere, see what happens. Notice. Respond. Do something else. Explain what I’m doing and why. Provide opportunities to experience different approaches (processes) – not just watch, actually be a part of them, exploring topics that illuminate even more about working with groups. I need to be prepared for a number of possible approaches and to offer a rich and diverse, human, experience that enables people to learn at their own pace, to struggle in their own way, to allow meaning and insight to emerge by providing space and opportunities for them to make their own meaning, rather than me impose my meaning.
The topic of facilitation is so large, I need some anchors, some boundaries: time is one (a one-day course is very different from a five-day course); the participants and their current level of understanding is another (I won’t know that until I work with them). Briefing from the client? Can be unreliable, especially if they’re not sure themselves what they want. Facilitation principles? Too abstract. Qualities of a facilitator? Too obscure.
To be continued…Facilitation, Learning | Comment (0)
The drive from Jaipur to Delhi took over five hours – 270 kms. My driver, Ashok, stopped at a restaurant for lunch. It was packed. It was packed with Indians, the women all in lovely saris. It was noisy. It was Sunday. Lots of families. I felt out of place,
I visited the bathroom. It was also packed. No surprises there. Everyone in lovely saris – except me and the toilet attendant. As I left, I handed her a few rupees. She brought the notes to her lips, and our eyes met for a moment.
We talk of making a difference. We talk of doing something grand, of doing something that will make the world a better place. It is these small gestures that probably make the biggest difference.
Tom Jacobs says it better than I can:
“Humility. We are each of us brothers. Things might have gone differently. Whether we were born in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time, we owe everything to contingency, chance, and providence. As my high school track teacher used to say before a track meet, when we were all feeling wildly anxious: “everyone puts their pants on in the same way.” I never quite knew what he meant by that at the time, but I think I understand now.
Charles Baxter says something somewhere (in his novel Shadow Play) that our lives end at our fingertips. There is truth to this. There are large gestures and small gestures. Most of what matters in this world are the small gestures. Tipping well; being nice to the cashier; dropping whatever money you might have in your pocket into the homeless person’s cup (or at the very least, acknowledging their existence…saying ‘hello,’ type of thing); letting the car in front of you merge when they need to. These are small gestures. The dramatic and pivotal decision that ramifies beyond our immediate experience is rare, and perhaps not worth worrying about. By all means, vote. Like political messages on facebook. But the actual work of a truly democratic society happens in the everyday, in the dust kicked up by just waking up and existing with others in time.”
HT to Johnnie Moore’s tweetJust Stuff | Comment (0)