Facilitating emergent conversations – variants on Samoan Circles and Fishbowls

Trying to ensure that the brains and experience of all participants are brought into the room is one of the more enjoyable challenges of facilitation. It’s mainly a question of finding the right balance of different approaches since there are so many formats that provide opportunities for different combinations of people to share knowledge and questions. Our knowledge of those formats comes from ideas and stories freely shared by other facilitators, in person or via resource bases like the KS Toolkit. We do a lot of event facilitation using those ideas so to give back to the Commons we’re sharing here some recent workshop experience.

One element of a good balance is to do with mixing up deliberately ‘leaderless moments’, where natural leaders or burning discussion topics can fill the space, with more structured processes such as those that promote particular people as conversation guides, or even gurus, around whose ideas and presentation discussion flows. Samoan circles and Fishbowl formats can lend themselves to most points along that spectrum of options, and we happily experim

Samoan circle discussion during 2015 BDS convening

ented with two variants at the recent annual workshop of a large Sanitation programme.

At its core it’s a simple method: a small group of people have a conversation amongst a wider group of participants. The difference with panels, for example, is that the small group sit in a circle surrounded by the participants. Samoan circles are possibly the purest form of the approach[1]. In this format the central group begin discussing the topic. People in the outer circle cannot speak unless they replace one of the speakers in the centre. If somebody wants to participate, she taps one of the current speakers on the shoulder as a sign of intent that she wishes to replace one of the current speakers in the circle. The conversation continues until the time is up or the conversation dies.

The democratising nature of the format generates a particular energy that drives people into the inner circle, in an active and engaged way. And crucially, people are able to intervene at precisely the point in the conversation which engages them, rather than having to wait and ask questions later, that then take people backwards to an earlier point. As a consequence conversation tends to flow organically– assuming of course that the chosen topic is interesting to the participants and that they are comfortable with and trusting of each other. It’s not a tool to use very early in a workshop.

The Feldman variation

The Feldman Variation

The excellent Liberating Structures group propose a variant, in which the outer circle ask questions, but not randomly. At a given point the conversation in the middle stops and the outer circle talk among themselves, agreeing questions, which they then put to the speakers. Peter Feldman, one of the main organisers of our recent sanitation workshop, proposed a variant in which there were two spare chairs in the central circle. The central speakers stayed in the ring and other participants could join the conversation by sitting in one of the empty chairs, or join by following the tapping convention to replace one of the speakers, but only those in the extra chairs.

We used the Samoan circle and the Feldman variation in the workshop, in two sessions, one focusing on Sanitation financing and the other on Behaviour change. The choice of topics meant that there were many people with ideas and opinions to contribute but it was interesting to see how the two formats operated. We used the Feldman variation for the Financing discussion, partly because we believed there was a great divergence of experience amongst participants, so having a group more familiar with different approaches operating as an expert panel seemed appropriate. The format engaged more participants in the conversation than would be normal in a traditional panel discussion, partly because the conversation didn’t always return to the experts but followed on from ideas introduced by the ‘outer circle’. However, having one group of people always present meant that the conversation was anchored by their experience and confidence in speaking about the topic.

For the Behaviour Change conversation we used the Samoan circle format. The topic and the format generated a lot of debate, lasting a full 90 minutes – at the end of a long day, and the fourth day of the workshop at that. However, the conversation ranged around the interests and opinions of participants and wasn’t anchored in the same way. Our conclusion was that in this format someone, either the facilitators or a participant, needs to step forward pro-actively, intervening to summarise, reflect back opinions so far and point out questions that hadn’t been properly answered or addressed.

The workshop was organised around wide range of activities, including two straight-forward presentation and discussion sessions, world cafes, 1-2-4-All, field visit and feedback sessions, spectrogram exercises, group discussions – and the emergent conversations above. That variety scratches all the itches – allowing participants time to listen, reflect and engage participatively both individually and collectively. It’s probably one of the reasons why participants were so positive about the Fishbowl exercises, which they were. Organising opportunities for participants to stretch both their legs and brains in stimulating conversations about issues that matter to them is a great way to earn a living!

[1] And apologies to co-facilitators and participants at the 2015 BDS convening, I was calling this a fishbowl!

[First published on EuforicServices.com]

How do we know we’re learning?

“We will live or die by our critical reflection and ability to internalize learning”, said Darren Saywell, Wash Director, Plan International, in a recent online Q&A on sanitation. That “there is an over-emphasis on Knowledge products and outputs and not enough emphasis on the reflection and learning processes that produce sustainable change within projects and organisations” is something we’ve long argued.And in the KM work we’re doing with a large sanitation program, we explicitly built in activities that foster a self-consciousness about learning, believing that in this way the process of learning is enriched and has a better chance of becoming embedded in how people work and interact (and thereby increasing the likelihood of sustainable change). But it’s precisely this kind of critical reflection that is so often squeezed out of operationally demanding jobs. One programme grantee illustrated the point by recounting how he’d hardly noticed an important innovation when it passed by in an email. It took a visit to the site in question to engage his attention and jog his memory about the email.

We’ve engaged the inimitable Nancy White to work with us on this Learning about Learning process. While talking about preparations for the recent annual convening of programme grantees Nancy suggested we, the organisers, be, “on the watch for those moments when reflection and learning is visible and to note when it’s happening, in what context, why and as part of what process” suggesting that, “understanding these things may help us better architect time/space/structure for learning”.

Learning Leaders

The portfolio manager, Jan Willem Rosenboom, rose to the challenge wonderfully, agreeing to lead group conversations and reflections about learning. Senior staff agreeing to lead and model the process is all too rare, and his stepping forward set the tone for the event. Jan Willem introduced an intriguing approach to the process, known as art-form conversations[1], developed by Brian Stanfield of the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), with whom he’d worked in Kenya and Europe.

At the end of Day One Jan Willem held up one of the flowers sitting in the middle of the tables in the room and asked people to contemplate it, describe what they saw – list its’ attributes. You can imagine the looks in the room, but people began contributing. We were then asked to think of how it related to other flowers that we’d seen, compare it. The group (nearly 50 people) was getting restive, a bit ribald, but answers kept coming. Next, what name would we give it: guffaws and some gently mocking answers, including the ‘Rosenbloom’. And finally a question about what difference this might make to our how we use flowers in the future, at events or at home. There was less reaction, people were acknowledging the process underway, which was reinforced in the next question, “so what did you learn from that process?”

The group had been taken through an aid to reflection, developed by Stanfield, summarised below

e.g. What can you see?
e.g. Where have you seen something like this before?
e.g. What does this mean to you?
e.g. How might this principle be used?

The process was instructive in itself but, more importantly, triggered a reflective conversation about learning, with participants noting things like the fact that knowledge is contextual, that our previous experience defines what we see, that we all have different reactions to the same thing, and so on. Jan Willem closed with a request for participants to reflect on their learning on that first day, first alone, maybe noting some things down, and then chat to another. The whole process worked well with the group, people were quiet and reflective by the end of the session.

And once the tone was set the process continued throughout the workshop. The second day was taken up with field visits, which were discussed in a feedback session at the beginning of Day Three. At the end of that session, just before coffee, Jan Willem asked people:

  • Give me a word, or phrase that you remember from presentations?
  • What surprised you?
  • What would you like to learn more about?
  • What are we learning?
  • Where do you see that can influence your work back home?

Again, the simple process encouraged people to reflect on both the activity and on their own learning processes, which triggered the reflection from one participant that it is very “difficult to be influenced outside our expectations and learning frameworks”.

Small reminders continued: one lunchtime there was encouragement to think about a question that was triggered in the sessions and to share them with one or more people. Another lunchtime participants were encouraged to think about whom in particular would be a good person to have a conversation about the issues of the day.

And what difference did it make?

The workshop was designed to maximise opportunities for exchange, conversation, discussion, story-telling. Overall feedback has been very positive, people appreciating the opportunities to dig deeper into issues, share experience, exchange ideas and build relationships. And while we don’t have objective evidence – it’s not something that would come out from an evaluation survey – my own experience of facilitating and participating was that there was a richness of texture to the exchanges, a greater criss-crossing of exchange than in many workshops. And the high profile leadership meant that learning about learning was explicitly on the agenda, an issue that we’ll follow up in other blogs.

[1] There is a nice description of its genesis in the book “The art of focused conversation: 100 ways to access group wisdom in the workplace” by Brian Stanfield . Googlebooks has the relevant excerpt.