Dancing brings people together. Holding hands with strangers in pairs, eights and circles, spinning and circling in joyous rhythms from around the world, we touch our common humanity.
As in a dance, when we come together in groups and the rhythm is right (and of course being out of synch at times), more becomes possible. This is even more important when there are differences and disagreements between us. We need to be able to have those difficult conversations so that differences don’t become fixed into rigid positions, and conflict generates new ideas and energy instead of hostility, fear and anxiety.
It these conversations were a dance, what would they be like? How would we move through them?
In a dance, each person has a place and a role. So too, in a work or other situation where people have a common interest – though all too often roles aren’t clear, and views and feelings aren’t known. Before coming together as a group, start with asking, listening and learning about what’s important. In our role as facilitators, by doing this we’re already including everyone and listening is key. Our openness and curiosity help to build trust and relationship, which starts to create a shared field of understanding. This practice of attending to what’s present – described by Otto Scharmer and colleagues as ‘co-sensing’ – also enables us to identify themes and questions to bring to the group when they meet.
We build on this when people come together, from the moment they walk into the room. At the dance, there was a welcome at the door, decorations, tables round the room and an open space for people to gather and talk (and dance!). The first set dance was easy, everyone could do it, we felt relaxed and were looking forward to the next one. The equivalent in our group is to connect, hear all voices right from the start, agree what we’re here to do and then get going.
Sometimes we danced with a partner, sometimes in a four, sometimes in an eight. In a group, mini-conversations between two or three people have everyone engaging at the same time, and meeting as a six or an eight enables people to share and develop their thinking together. Facilitators can help people develop their own listening and enquiry skills in by giving simple guidance – such as having each person speak in turn before opening out the conversation.
There was also wild dancing! When there are strong views in the room and things are heated, people need to know it’s ok to express different views and feelings. But this isn’t about letting rip, knocking into or hurting each other. Firm, compassionate facilitation establishes the conditions for respectful behaviours – such as ‘criticise the idea not the person’, and providing space for everyone to speak in turn. Listening circles and conversation cafés are ways to do this.
We don’t know what will emerge, and as facilitators we need to embrace not-knowing, while tuning into what is taking shape. That might be helped on its way with moments of quiet, alternating with sharing, writing, drawing or literally modelling what’s there.
The evening’s dancing ended with a line and a circle, the music slowed and we came to stillness. And then the talking started again, with good-byes and good wishes into the night.
As a facilitator of meetings and gatherings, it’s a great feeling when it’s going well and awful when you run into the sand. There’s nothing quite like the first stirrings of unease as you realise a session isn’t going to plan. And speaking personally, that reaction stirs a prickling of sweat glands, a stirring in the stomach, natural components of the fear response.
Reflecting on the process of coming to agreement, which is the next ‘phase’ of our loose six part model of ‘typical’ events, brought me to remember how often tensions are raised in these sessions. The process of prioritising, selecting and re-prioritising, means some people will have to give way on ideas they value. It is also the key exit route from the ‘messy middle’ which is another way of visualising Sam Kaner’s ‘groan zone, which we described in our earlier post on this phase.
Keep Calm and Carry On
25/10 Crowd Sourcing is one of those creative methods from the Liberating Structures people, designed to both stimulate new thinking within a group – using a form of quick brainstorming – and help a consensus form about the most promising ideas. It’s a curious method, almost algorithmic in the way it tries to use a rapid process to bypass deeper reflection and questioning that can slow down, or interrupt a group’s convergence on what is common.
“First, every participant writes on an index card his or her bold idea and first step. Then people mill around and cards are passed from person to person to quickly review. When the bell rings, people stop passing cards and pair up to exchange thoughts on the cards in their hands. Then participants individually rate the idea/step on their card with a score of 1 to 5 (1 for low and 5 for high) and write it on the back of the card. When the bell rings, cards are passed around a second time until the bell rings and the scoring cycle repeats. This is done for a total of five scoring rounds. At the end of cycle five, participants add the five scores on the back of the last card they are holding. Finally, the ideas with the top ten scores are identified and shared with the whole group”
I’d had warnings from that ace facilitator, Ewen Le Borgne – about how easily the process can go wrong. Ewen’s response to most things is to laugh, which is a great way to deal with problems and stay in touch with other people in the room. The problem with the 25/10 method seems to be that the apparently straightforward sorting process is unusual: it’s mix of allowing people to talk about an idea, and then asking them to simply score the rest on a rapid appraisal. There is some movement too and music is meant to help. But when the process broke down during a large event we were working on last month, it suddenly made it all worse. There was too much noise and even more confusion about when the music should be on or off. So there we were, meant to be starting round two of the five scoring rounds and some of the ideas cards already had three or four scores on them. Uneasy looks, prickling of the skin: we had to laugh, and my first reaction – scratch out all the scores and start again – was quickly corrected by the group to the more logical and easier start the scoring again on the other side of the card. Dunh!
And like magic, a quietly-spoken participant, not at all one of the most vocal during the earlier three days, started making sensible suggestions during the rest of the process, but talking very softly, almost into my ear (confession: I tend to panic over numbers and counting, early educational trauma!). It was both an intensely practical way to help the group, via helping me, and also very calming for me. As a result we ended up with a series of ideas that the group in general found the most interesting – the method does work.
Can you hear what’s in my head?
My learning, not for the first time, was that however clearly you think you’ve given instructions always remember that you will have thought through any specific activity carefully and several times. Whereas for participants it may be the first time they have heard the idea. So have visual support – flip charts or projected slides – and summarize, and check, and check again. A great lesson for all facilitators in the perils of communication is the tapping game spelt out in a lovely piece that cropped up in an email exchange in the ever stimulating KM4Dev community:
“Elizabeth Newton …. (in a game) … assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.
Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?
When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune”.
So what do you do, how do you stay cool and in touch with participants in the event while you interpret what is happening and consider options? The stakes are high as a facilitator: you’ve walked into a room of people claiming the right to lead, steer, shape, bring people together through process over hours or days. Participants have agreed to that new relationship, But it’s a fragile one, especially if you are external to the group of people in the room. Participants’ confidence is slowly gained and quickly lost.
A first level of response is to make sure you can tap into your own normal, learned coping mechanisms to fear. Do you breathe deeply, smile to yourself as you remember how you’ve managed similar situations in the past, hum a tune, walk a bit faster? Whatever works for you works, but be ready because it will happen!
A second level of response, at least personally, is to remain honest and open about the process, talking to and connecting with participants. Ask what’s happening, check that participants are feeling the same as you: often, if you’re using a method or approach you’ve used before you may be identifying problems before they are apparent to the participants, happily engaged in the activity. In the example above, I was helped enormously by the fact that this was the third occasion I’d worked with many of the participants in the room, so we had a level of mutual trust. And this activity was on the fourth day of five, so we’d also worked through normal group formation processes, and were performing well.
Finally, if it’s not working – accept it and move on, which of course means having back-up plans in place. All facilitation planning needs to include back-up activities for such eventualities. During our Facilitation Anywhere courses, as in all joint work, we discuss progress and listen to feedback during the days, and meet in the evening to plan, and re-plan.
For example, at the CARIAA annual convening earlier this year mentioned in the blog on ideation, the target was for the consortia to identify new and/or emerging ideas around which research might coalesce and, crucially, form groups to take ideas forward – and then make plans that could carry on beyond the event. It was quite a large group of around 100 people most of the time, so we used a variant of Open Space. Building on earlier activities in which participants had presented in plenary, in smaller groups and on posters, we offered space for participants to suggest what they would like to talk about and possibly work together. We set a series of time slots, and arranged for constant check-ins, to gauge progress, allow for people to move between ideas, and coalesce around those with the most potential. It’s wonderful to co-facilitate in such complex situations. Working in a team with Blane Harvey and Marissa Van Epp, both experienced and ready to experiment, meant we all shared the tension of having to re-think and adapt. We had to constantly adjust the programme, and keep in touch with all participants, over the key central parts of the three-day event. The resultant event was probably 60-70% recognisable as what we had originally planned, and even then a lot of the detail was different.
So what’s your route out of the messy middle? Please share your ideas
“One day a woman went hoeing in the field. Before she started hoeing she put her baby under the shade of a tree. Whilst she was working in the field some baboons came and stole her baby.” The constantly original and creative Charles Dhewa grabbed instantly our attention during a session at the 2011 IFAD ShareFair as he told one of the Bantu narratives he describes in his powerful paper, “Traducture and Sensemaking: Experiences from Southern Africa“. We were working together in a session exploring sense-making as a process, and the stories were triggers for us to reflect on how different people take different meanings from a single prompt.
Dhewa developed the sense-making framework illustrated above that embraces the complexity of this process, especially when working with people from different cultures and with widely varied experience. The paper explores the dimensions illustrated above and it’s a good introduction thinking about the role of a facilitator in working with large and small groups of people as they sense together and shape ideas and new meanings from their discussions.
As we described in our first blog on sense-making and emergence, the process of collective learning and making sense of what is emerging is probably the most complex part of a workshop. Several popular and well-tested facilitation techniques can be used to support these processes, including:
World Cafe, where participants have rounds of conversations on linked sets of questions, with ‘hosts’ at tables recording the progressively richer exchanges.
The different approaches to Appreciative Inquiry, with their emphasis on seeking the affirmative and positive as the basis for considering future actions
Future Backwards or Backcasting – taking people out to a future they construct, either or both ideal or nightmare and then considering how they will or did get to that future, as the basis for thinking about what they might do next
We’ve gathered together a wiki collection of resources and links sorted by the six typical event phases that we use loosely to structure our Facilitation Anywhere workshops (the next one is 22- 24 November, 2016) which we share with participants at the workshops. Of course anyone who’s prepared to contribute one or two resources can also join the wiki!
Out of the corners of our eyes
The exercise with the Bantu narratives above illustrates that an indirect or sideways approach is often effective in enabling groups to feel their way to emerging ideas and common ground. For example, the graphic facilitation techniques we described in the previous blog are extremely effective in providing participants with a picture of links between and clusters of ideas, as are more traditional approaches using cards and post-its, clustering and sorting them into groups. Similarly, frameworks to enable free-flowing, participative conversation techniques like Fishbowls or Samoan circles, where participants both participate and observe the passage of ideas, provide material to be reflected on and processed. And of course reflection takes time. Scheduling activities in two parts, that allow participants time – often overnight – for processing of ideas and conversations, can enable new conjunctions or understanding of balance between priorities to emerge.
Ecocycle planning is another great, practical Liberating Structures synthesis of approaches – itself an example of an emergent idea. The picture above illustrates how we used it with a new program, the merging of two existing grant portfolios, as a way for participants to map their work in relation to each other and the overall program. The placing of the activities necessitated reflection and discussion among teams, but the most valuable conversations followed as participants questioned and discussed both individual placements and the emerging pattern of investment.
What about you? Please share your stories: what are your best, or worst, experiences of working with emergence and sense-making?
This is the third blog of this current series describing some of our experience in meeting and event facilitation. We’re focusing on how to foster and encourage those spaces and times when groups find their creativity together, spark off each other and generate ideas that are entirely new or re-visions of current thinking. It seems such an obvious and straightforward process, and there are gazillions of relevant approaches and methods in resources like the KS toolkit. We suggested some ideas of our own when we first blogged about this phase in an event. But all too often the post-it notes are written up (or photos shared) only for the energy to dissipate and the promising ideas to wither in the storm of everyday pressures. The challenge is to create an environment that provides the best chance for the most realistic or promising ideas to take life beyond the event.
Time, time, time – just give me a little more time
The challenge can be envisaged in three parts. The first is the process of engaging and energising participants in creative ideas generation. Many of us find we do our best thinking and reflection in the moments when there’s nothing much going on – in the shower, out walking or on a long journey. One of the reasons that generating ideas is a relatively easy task is that meetings and events are a luxury in most people’s lives, especially if they have a facilitator ‘holding’ the process. Once people find that time is allocated to simply thinking and being creative with other smart and committed people, they usually relish the opportunity.
We get energy and inspiration when the question or issue has heart and meaning. The Human Centred Design approach starts with an exploring situation and issue through the experience of the people most affected, and through this clarifying the critical question. Asking ‘ how might we … ‘ becomes the launch pad to generate tons of ideas – ‘ideation’, in short – when nothing’s ruled out. At this stage, the facilitator’s role is to create a creative positive space, and provide a simple structure for ideas to emerge. You’ll also be managing the materials, displays and documentation, and perhaps providing examples from elsewhere. Ideo have a fantastic resource, with lots of ideas. Note that facilitators are the default provider of simple or fancy stationary so we all have our standard travel kit, like this one.
How to capture ideas as they take shape? Pete Cranston says, “writing as someone with the very limited drawing skills illustrated opposite, I am lost in admiration of those that can listen to discussions and reflect both their dynamism and the content as it develops in clear and beautiful graphics”. Nancy White developed the wall-drawing below during several hours of discussion (on Knowledge Management, with a team of Sanitation specialists). The central point, however, is that even simple drawings like the one of the right can serve as a mirror to group conversations (in that case about how organisational change and Knowledge Management). For a facilitator, a graphic-recorder’s vantage point is an excellent place to gently comment, ask checking and summary questions, or note patterns and sticking points.
Sifting, sorting and prioritising
This second stage normally follows brainstorming or similar idea-generation activities, which may include using shaped cards or post-it notes. As ‘experts’ in their own content, participants have a key role in grouping and clustering the ideas. This is important for sustaining ownership and shared responsibility for outcomes. Here, the job of the facilitator is to provide (and guide) a clear process, such as the ICA’s consensus workshop method, which can be found alongside other processes in Brian Stanfield’s The Art of Focused Conversation.
Another fun and creative method is the 25/10 crowdsourcing pioneered by Liberating Structures. A word of warning: this activity seems straightforward – writing an idea on a card, passing the cards quickly around a group of people and scoring when the cards have been passed around several times. This is a slightly more complicated process than participants may be used to from the more normal flipchart and card-based processes, so people can easily get lost. It’s a great opportunity to test how good you are at giving and checking instructions!
Taking it forward
Ideas take life when the people who are involved feel personally engaged and committed, and are supported by a clear process that marries learning and action. At the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) we introduced a three-stage reflection on change. First we focused at the level of collective change, inviting participants to:
‘Reflect individually on a story of collective change in which you have been involved – part of your work, or separate, that illustrates how change works, and how have you been learning in that change’
Meet with two other people and discuss what leads to change’
And then, on an individual level, the subsequent invitation was to:
‘Reflect individually on your own learning history: what can you learn from success or failure that will help you act differently how to act upon learning in an event without falling in the same trap
Share it with another person’
In the third stage participants returned to the thematic groups in which they had been working and were invited to:
‘Reflect and discuss in the thematic group what you will do differently and record conclusions on mini-posters (with contact info.):
In the theme group?
Beyond (more collectively)?’
The thinking was shared and further processed in plenary and small group discussions. Together we found that by connecting to, and sharing, personal experiences of change, peoples’ thinking and conversations became strongly anchored into a sense of reality and a perception of what’s possible. The next step from this is specific, achievable actions – such as prototypes to try out and learn from.
It’s crucial to take time to process how conversations can have influence beyond the event. Variations on Open Space approaches are a good tool for enabling groups to identify common interests, often different to existing workgroups or current projects, and then develop ideas and plans to progress new agendas. Often Open Space simply ends with a series of notes, perhaps stored online, relying on personal interest for follow on. Follow on is more likely if the event includes time for several rounds of group discussions, allowing stronger groups to emerge, gather new followers and make plans. And building in a final public discussion of prospects for action, in plenary, can strengthen motivation and the socialisation of the ideas with the larger group.
We are great fans of wikis, and other forms of online documentation as ways to both enrich meetings or gatherings and lay the foundations for future action. The Climate Change and Social Learning (CCSL) project built up a rich online resource using both a wiki and other tools such as Yammer.com. The wiki was a key resource for all events, which were planned collectively and publicly, recorded in real time and then documented with notes, photos, graphics and links to other resources. The richness of the wiki pages for the CCSL event pictured above, for example, illustrate how the documentation process itself is a way to encourage and embed planning for action, as well as continuing as a rich resource for participants long beyond the event.
What’s been your best experience of a meeting or event that has successfully transitioned from the protected space and time of a gathering into action and change back in the everyday? Come are share with us at our next Facilitation Anywhere Workshop, when we’ll explore these and full range of meeting phases, is on 22 – 24 November, 2016.
The seven openings to events that we described in our last blog are a first step in ‘bringing people’s voices and their different experiences into the room, in a spirit of curiosity and learning’. We used that phrasing when we first blogged about our Facilitation Practice last year to describe what happens as you move from openings to a logical next phase in gatherings: ‘finding out what we know‘. The Tagging and Human Spectrogram exercises we described in our last blog get people curious and interested, and lead naturally into richer conversations in which people find out about each other.
Presentations become engaging and energising when people are limited to a fixed time or number of slides, or by using a timer approach like Pecha Kucha. This also offers a compromise for those who value the security or ease of powerpoint. When there is a lot of detail to present, doing it this way allows for different approaches to communication and learning. For example, in a recent annual meeting of the CARIAA program, which involves four large, complex research syndicates in detailed and current climate change research, each syndicate gave a 10-minute introductory presentation very early in the three-day event. A bit like a TED talk, it meant that each of the senior scientists and their teams produced rich, engaging and dynamic communication that set the scene and sparked off a range of questions and follow-up conversations.
Posters and Galleries
In both those events the presentations were followed by a ‘market place’, with posters and other information for more in-depth discussions. The Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) program, on the other hand, started with the posters.
The way it’s organised and managed has evolved over the five years of the program:
Each of the grantees, many with large multi-year collaborative projects, prepares a poster according to a pre-agreed template. For a recent BDS convening this had four headings: Progress Update, Learning, Partnership, Change and Innovation. The suggestion was the posters should preferably not exceed 36 x 60 inches (3 x 5 feet).
The posters are put up around the walls of the room(s) the previous evening or during a time allocated around a natural break. This means that if the venue doesn’t like things being stuck on the walls, something like sticky walls needs to be brought in by the facilitator.
The participants then have 30 – 45 mins to simple wander about, to view the posters, ask questions for clarification, and prioritise those they’d like to explore more deeply with the hosts.
There are then three or four rounds of detailed conversations, between 20 and 30 minutes long, when participants join a particular poster and have a conversation with the hosts – who may do a short introduction to their content (illustrated above).
The posters are all photographed and the pictures shared online afterwards.
We’ve used posters, or a combination of introductory presentations plus posters, in a wide range of events. The process is engaging, keeps people moving and awake (it’s key remember the impact of jet-lag on the early part of some events) while providing an ideal context for learning and knowledge exchange. People ask precisely what it is they want to know, when they want to know it, and of a person who is likely to be able to answer it immediately, or provide references. The posters stay on the walls, too, which means that people can view or follow up at their leisure.
This is one of the oldest tools in the Facilitator’s kitbag, and take many different forms. In essence it’s a more formally or tightly organised form of Gallery Walk. ‘Presenters’ are allocated a short, fixed time to engage with groups of participants. They start with a brief pitch – 3o seconds or one minute to the whole event – and then there is a strictly-managed series of short sessions where participants choose to visit those they find interesting.
The exercise can be very informal – presenters in parts of the room, or at tables, or in break-out rooms – or formal, as in the Plug and Play days pioneered by CTA in its work to promote and learn about the uses of Information and Communication Technologies in Agriculture. In the latter, illustrated above, the whole day is given over to a series of presentations, attended by 100 – 300 people in total. The facilitator spends a lot of time in preparation but on the day itself is more of a timekeeper or MC (‘master/ mistress of ceremonies’). This role can be shared with other participants, of course.
There are trade-offs. Posters take time to prepare, time which is often hard to find among busy and often cash-poor projects. But Powerpoint presentations, especially short ones, can be quick to prepare and share afterwards. How do you manage that trade-off, in ways that maximise both engagement and communication without creating a heavy load for participants? And of course we’d welcome hearing about your ideas and experience if you’re interested in joining us at our next Facilitation Anywhere workshop in Oxford on 22 – 24 November.
Almost everyone’s arrived. Some are already sitting down, others are standing around and chatting. A couple of people are late, but time-keeping matters. It’s time to get started.
Suddenly you find yourself in front of a group of people – 15, or 33, or 65, or 128 of them, or more, most of whom don’t know you. You’re the facilitator and the people in the room are putting their trust in you to help them achieve something concrete by the end of the event. You want to seize moment so that the participants come into the physical and mental space for the gathering as quickly and smoothly as possible. Then you can make a start on doing what needs to be done, letting the locus of control move between you and them.
Openings are about coming fully into the present and connecting with self, others and the purpose for the gathering. They enable people to ‘arrive’ in body and mind, relax into what’s happening, ready to engage with the work to be done. People need to be able to meet each other as quickly and easily as possible, to form as a group and create the ground for collaboration. Each group is new, formed in that time and place, meeting for a specific reason, and shaping its own particular identity.
Here are seven ways to open, engage and connect:
Engage people as they arrive
We heard about this from the wonderful Tips for Trainers. It’s a simple way to bring people mentally into the workshop or meeting before it’s even started. Prepare two flip charts and have them in the area where people are arriving, or near the door to the meeting room. Each flip chart has a different heading, for example: a question I want to explore with others today; one thing I’m looking forward to today. As you welcome each person, ask them to put a post-it comment on the chart. You’ll probably find that people start chatting about what they’re writing, and reading each other’s comments.
A variation is to write a statement on a large sheet that relates to the meeting purpose. Below it is a spectrum where people can signal their level of agreement by placing a dot. It gets everyone thinking, and you can refer back to it in the discussions.
A warm welcome – ‘what brings us here’
Starting with presence and purpose sets the tone of the meeting. It’s the first step in creating a hospitable space where people can do their best work together, and falls to the host of the meeting (if that isn’t you). A few words, combined perhaps with a personal story connecting to the purpose of the event is a great way to start and only need take a few minutes.
Meet and greet – informal networking
Invite everyone to get up and greet every person in the room, in three minutes. It’s simple, direct, quick and generates lots of energy! Follow it with the next activity, named Mad Tea by our colleagues at Liberating Structures:
Find somebody you haven’t met before and introduce yourself, giving your name and organisation or project, if appropriate.
Respond to one or two questions provided by the facilitator
After 2-3 minutes – on a bell, or a beep, or a clap of the hands – go and find someone else.
Examples of questions are: ‘What are you bringing that you can share with this group’; ‘what is one thing you’re hoping to achieve or learn’? Questions can also be more targeted. For example, we asked a large gathering of sanitation specialists in Hanoi, ‘What are you doing in your work that could contribute to resolving the global sanitation problem?’ Questions like these can trigger conversations about mutual interests and possibly lead to suggestions to meet further. Two or three rounds expose the range of ideas in the room.
You need to agree the physical set up in advance. For the meeting of 125 people in Hanoi, where nobody knew everybody but everybody knew some of the people there, we had to negotiate firmly with the hotel staff to have chairs in two’s and three’s, randomly, around the room. This was the best configuration for that room and that group for informal networking. ‘But it’s not tidy!’ they protested, as they rearranged the chairs into rows for the second and third time.
Start an online or face-to-face meeting or small group session with an opening round. Ask each person to introduce themselves (if this is the first time for them to meet), and share one thing about themselves others may not know, and one thing they want from the meeting. There are many variations, according to the purpose and subject matter, but the point is to bring everyone’s voice into the room very quickly, in a way that’s relevant and puts people at their ease.
Introduce yourself – briefly, or you’ll burn your fingers!
Asking people to introduce themselves in this way may be the simplest thing to do. If groups are larger than 10 or so, the classic problem is that people may find it hard to be brief, and each successive speaker tends to speak longer. If there are 15 participants and each person takes 3 minutes, that’s 45 minutes, and people are probably getting restless.
Ednah Karamagi introduced a fun ploy: give everybody a match from a box of matches. Each person lights their match and can then speak for as long as it burns. Inevitably the first speakers suffer, but by the end people have worked out how to eke out the match, bending this way and that, so that they can speak for as long as possible.
Finding your own people – using tagging
Classify and labeling online content like blogs became an increasingly important activity as social media began its rapid growth. ‘Tagging’ was the term people used for labeling online, so when we began training Development people in how to use social media we developed a ‘tagging’ exercise to use as an opener.
In a meeting you can ask participants to give themselves a tag, using a post-it note. In a Stories of Change workshop in Addis Ababa for the CARIAA program that we co-facilitated with Blane Harvey, we asked participants to identify themselves in three ways, noting the answer on post-it notes – tagging themselves, in other words:
Something you’re passionate about outside professional life
A skill or experience you are most looking for in Stories of Change
The most valuable skill or experience you are bringing for Stories of Change
There are three rounds, one for each of the above. Participants mingle and find people with the same or similar tags, and form clusters. Each cluster, and those who haven’t formed a cluster, is asked to explain why they are clustered in that way. They could also make a pitch to attract others to join their cluster. It’s fun and energising and is a practical way for people to find out who and what is in the space.
Spectrogram lines are a great way for people to learn in an energizing and enjoyable way who and what is in the room The facilitator lays a long piece of marking tape down a section of the room, or in some other way establishes there is a line. Then participants hear a series of statements in succession which will divide opinion in the room. For example:
The SDGs are going to fundamentally transform the sanitation sector
Maize can be sustainably intensified
Yield gaps are primarily due to non-technical factors
I have 30 pairs of shoes
After the first statement, people choose whether and by how much they agree. One end of the line represents ‘I fully agree’ (100%) and the other end ‘I completely disagree’ (0%). People place themselves along the line according to their level of agreement. They could do this silently, or ask each other why they think they are at a particular spot, so as to gauge where to place themselves. After people have arranged themselves, the facilitator interviews individuals at either end and at the middle, asking them to explain to the group why they chose their position.
Other questions or statements are declared, and the process repeats. Through the movement, the conversations between the participants, and the interviews, participants share a lot of knowledge about each other and the subject matter.
The UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum is an object lesson in how not to engage citizens in participatory and sustainable decision-making. It breaks every rule in the book and the consequences of a process that has divided the country and stoked intolerance are still unfolding.
Debate and voting is the norm for decision-making in Western democracies. Majority voting is used even with highly controversial issues. After all, it’s relatively quick: you have a debate and the different sides argue and defend their position with a view to making the best case (demolishing the other side if possible). People vote, the majority wins and the decision is implemented. Simple. But creating winners and losers doesn’t make for wise or sustainable decisions.
Yet there is no shortage of experience, wisdom and guidance on how to conduct inclusive, respectful debate and dialogue with people who have different views and perspectives. This is fundamental to healthy democratic process across society – whether in public fora, business, the voluntary sector, community groups.
What would it be like if our public conversations and decision-making were conducted through deliberation and consensus? At the heart of consensus is a respectful dialogue between equals. It’s about everyone working together to meet both the individual’s and the group’s needs – working with each other rather than for or against each other, something that requires openness and trust. Have a look at the excellent short guide to consensus by Seeds for Change.
Bringing people together to talk about contentious issues and where there are strongly held views requires care and sensitivity, and rigorous attention to process, including how you’ll make decisions.
Take some time to reflect on your approach, your values as a hosting group and how you’d like these to show up. Who’s in your group? How do you expect to work together? Are you committed to investing the energy/ time that’s needed? How you work together will be felt in the wider group. The mutual learning approach developed by Roger Schwarz connects mindsets and behaviours to results with groups.
Do your homework, talk and listen to everyone who’s involved, to understand and clarify the issue. As Brexit showed, the presenting issue (the EU) may not be the one that people feel is important (eg pressure on public services).
Describe the issue and frame the purpose for the meeting/ conversation and the core question(s), and share it with everyone who’s coming to the meeting/ gathering. They’ll already start to feel heard, and helps get them engaged before coming into the room.
Think about how to create a safe environment where people are able to participate at their best. The welcome at the start, opportunity to connect and get to know each other, share expectations and agree on ways of working provide the ground for trust and openness.
Facilitation skills for dialogue (the Dialogue Kit from the Aurora Now Foundation provides detailed guidance) and consensus include: active listening and enquiry, suspending judgement, summarising, synthesis and forming proposals.
Don’t forget to choose a place to meet that will feel welcoming, is away from distractions (email etc) and is a pleasant environment.
Even better if there’s an outdoor space where people can get some fresh air, walk, stretch. We have that at Hawkwell House in Oxford, so please do join us in November for the next FacilitationAnywhere course we’re offering with INTRAC.
I was so stirred up by Duncan Green’s latest rant on conferences that I posted a comment (my first!) on an alternative to panels and powerpoints.
What if we re-imagine conferences and meetings as gatherings where people can connect, learn and have the conversations that really matter. What if organisers see themselves as hosts, inviting people into a welcoming and hospitable space? Event hosts sometimes need to be reminded that thinking it through, getting people interested ahead of time and good design and preparation is an essential investment of time.
It was wonderful to see 60 climate, health and other academics immersed in conversations at an event I co-designed a couple of months ago. They’re systems thinkers and their research cuts across traditional academic and disciplinary boundaries. The traditional methods (formal presentations etc) just wouldn’t have worked.
People were up and talking right from the start, meeting new colleagues through a variant on speed-networking. In less than an hour everyone knew the best of what was happening, with 3-minute snapshots of what’s inspiring about their work. After that there was a ‘market place’ with posters, information and conversations. In the afternoon there were more in-depth discussions in an adapted open space.
It was a bright and open space, everyone wanted to be there, and there was an open-heartedness and generosity between people. We thought a lot about who was coming, what they wanted to do and the simple design worked. The people in the room did the rest.
This is the kind of thing we enjoy introducing in our Facilitation Anywhere courses, the next of which is on 22 – 24 November in Oxford.
Asking good questions is one of the things going into the Facilitation Anywhere ‘kit’. Participants on the course in January brought particular issues or situations they wanted to practice facilitating. They helped each other clarify the question they wanted to explore, and in the process got beneath the surface of the issue. After this they chose a method to have the conversation and away they went.
When we really care about the issue in front of us, we often just launch into it. That’s fine. But the risk is we get bogged down in the problem, get anxious about getting things done and jump to (the wrong) solutions.
What could be different?
Something different happens if we pause and ask, what’s the issue here, in a nutshell? What’s the question we want to explore? What might be different when this is resolved? Asking questions that invite people’s reflections in a spirit of enquiry has a way of opening up our thinking, generating ideas and building connections.
Questions are there in everything we do as facilitators and getting to the right question is core skill – from understanding the context and clarifying intent through to reflecting on key learnings. In her fantastic resource, Questions That Work, Dorothy Strachan offers six guiding principles for creating and asking questions:
Customize for context
Create inviting questions
Ask with sensitivity
Prepare participants for tough questions
Ask follow up questions
Facilitation Anywhere participants brought their skills and something more. With their own and our questions, they brought listening, curiosity, interest, openness and trust. The group created together a space that made something possible.
Words create worlds
If ‘we live in the worlds our questions create’, as David Cooperider and the other creators of Appreciative Inquiry believe, then the kind of questions we ask matters. ‘… The practice of asking positive questions not only brings the best out of people and organisations, it also amplifies and magnifies the most positive life-giving possibilities for the future’(1).
What’s your question today?
(1) Encyclopaedia of Positive Questions, Using Appreciative Inquiry to Bring out the Best in Your Organization, 2002, Whitney, D et al
Today was the online introduction to the three-day Facilitation Anywhere course, which begins next week. It was wonderful to meet the participants, after all our preparations, and we’re both excited – and properly apprehensive – about next week. After several introduction exercises, increasing the bandwidth as we went along – from text chat to video and audio – we introduced some of the concepts underpinning our design.
Apart from big, all-purpose events, most gatherings engage a group of people with a common purpose. This could be a product they need to develop together, or some planning, or some ideas they need to work through in detail, or a programme they want to share experience and learning on. But of course a whole range of personal, emotional, social and organisational currents operate in and around the formal agenda.
As with all those events, we see the Facilitation Anywhere course happening at broadly three levels:
The fundamental level of exploring and sharing practice around designing and facilitating events and workshops
The reflexive level – a process in which we will all be reflecting on our experience during the course
And the level of a specific ‘topic thread’ around blended and online learning.
We’re proposing three enquiry questions as a way to connect these levels, and frame the process and our learning together:
What does it mean to be a participant and a facilitator in f2f, online and blended environments? (a reflexive question)
How can we maximise engagement making full use of participatory f2f approaches and digital tools or channels?
What are the core conditions for effective f2f, online and blended gatherings? (including people, processes, tech and self)
Our digital footprints
As we start it’s interesting to reflect on our own experience over the months we’ve been thinking about and designing the programme, since we come to the event with very different digital trajectories.
Isobel: “I’ve been facilitating groups for many years, but until now I haven’t done much online, apart from using Skype. Sometimes we just need a push, and the course has given me that. The last few weeks have been a steep learning curve, doing a whole lot of new things at once – blogging with Pete, using googledocs, making a start with online facilitation, and getting used to a new computer. It’s reminded me what resistance to change feels like – I’ve had it in spade loads! Getting out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone is what we’re often asking groups and teams to be doing. It feels really important to be doing that myself as a facilitator, especially as I’m now seeing what’s possible when combining core process skills with skilful management of different communication channels.”
Pete: “I’ve been involved with things digital since the introduction into UK public education of the early mass-produced PCs in the mid 1980’s. In the 1990’s I began working online, riding the Internet wave into Oxfam GB, infuriating some and enthusing others (only a few at first) with email and talk of global networks. I’ve been using online communication channels since that era. I’m still an enthusiast, less for the tech. itself than for what it can enable people to do, especially how it can link, connect, enable people to collaborate and communicate”. So I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with and learning how to integrate social and online digital media into events I facilitate.
We’ve both been living the process of blending deep experience in face-to-face facilitation with online technologies, feeling what it’s like introducing and being introduced to the possibilities opened up by the new digital platforms. We’re looking forward enormously to exploring the issues with the participants, and will be reporting back here on how it goes – what people say, how we’ve learnt and what is changing about our own practice.