Emergence and sense-making

When people meet in groups they begin to think and feel differently, whatever the purpose of the gathering. In our second blog we talked about how our own ideas are being challenged and enriched as we design the Facilitation Anywhere training course. This process is amplified in groups. We think about and change our ideas – whether about each other, the specific work context or program, the subjects being discussed, or even ideas or subjects entirely unrelated to the workshop but in the forefront of our minds.  In the collective learning that happens in groups (often referred to as social learning), people recognise shared beliefs and what they have in common, begin to shape new concepts, identify their differences and come together around what they can agree on.

Being the facilitator

Making sense of what’s emerging is probably the most complex part of a workshop or event, for both facilitator and participants. The facilitator needs to notice and reflect on what’s happening and, in consultation with the organisers, share this with the group to help trigger further conversation. Facilitators play a central role at this stage, not because we’re driving the event, but because it’s one of the key moments when, as the person ‘holding the space’, we have the potential to add most value.

Practically speaking, this  isn’t something you can do on the first morning.  After surfacing ‘what we know’, now’s the time to start to sense into what’s emerging, give people space to reflect and see what insights, patterns and themes are taking shape.  It’s necessarily messy, often chaotic, frequently uncomfortable and can also be exciting!  As facilitators we have to call on all our internal resources to be in tune with the group, stay centred, listen and adapt to what’s arising.  Let go of the choreography and improvise!

Reflecting reflections

Of course you have your design, even though you know you’ll almost certainly have to adapt and change it. A useful tool to have as a framework for sense-making, that also enables improvisation, was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) over forty years ago. Commonly known as ORID the simple format is summarised below:

OBJECTIVE Facts e.g. What can you see?
REFLECTIVE Reaction e.g. Where have you seen something like this before?
INTERPRETIVE Implications e.g. What does this mean to you?
DECISIONAL Actions e.g. How might this principle be used?

This blog from ace facilitator Martin Gilbraith is a good introduction. And here’s a story of how ORID was used in a workshop in Hanoi to encourage and support reflective processes.

Insights and shifts happen when people  are listening together and are open to what’s arising.  Conversation cafe, world cafe (left) and fishbowl create spaces for this kind of sharing and enquiry into emerging questions. Have a look at the Art of Hosting for ideas for convening and hosting emergent learning. All three methods are also reviewed in the KS Toolkit, and the great Liberating Structures folks have their own variants.

Nobody knows you’re a dog online

Sense-making is one of the areas when the differences between face-to-face and virtual gatherings are most obvious, especially for the facilitators. Not being able to see reactions between people, on their faces, in how they move, glance – or glare – at each other, for example, makes keeping track of what is emerging much harder. Rachel Smith of Grove calls the channels available for communication the collaboration bandwidth. Technology defines what channels are available – the collaboration bandwidth – in the virtual world, and there is a wide range of possible channels. Thinking about how these types of connections might affect sense-making is a good example of how we need to prepare specifically for online or blended events:

text chat the narrowest of channels: requires constantly checking in with participants, encouraging people to comment, while explicitly and regularly leaving space for reflection and comment
phone/voice as above, plus hearing voice adds hugely to the ability to stay collectively in touch as people think with each other
voice & chat (or text based web tools like meeting words.com) now we’re getting real: the sense of connectedness and awareness enhanced through consistent visual reinforcement and the purposeful engagement of people in reflective processes, as well as the opportunity to comment in real-time or at agreed points in a meeting
video & audio adding another dimension: even in low resolution, furrowed brows or grins are immediately visible
video & audio & chat the difference between face-to-face and virtual begins to reduce: careful meeting management can blend the two modes
multi-channel room + presentation (webinar) Probably a step backwards, often to death by powerpoint
multi-channel room + presentation + text opens up interaction possibilities, though still a step backwards in terms of collective awareness of where people are at
multi-channel room + presentation + text + whiteboard participation many web-conferencing platforms have this as the standard configuration, which allows for a rich variety of facilitation options – though we need to remember the basics of managing online connections (an issue we covered in an earlier blog, pointing to a great resource from Susan Stewart )  
multi-channel room + presentation + text + audio/video participation The high-end option – if you can’t deliver effective, blended meetings with this level of resources, then you need a training programme!

A good, general introduction to the issues is provided in, ‘20 Tips for Facilitating Virtual and Blended Meetings’ from Grove.com.

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