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.
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
The year end has got us thinking about the flow of experience from beginnings through to endings and transitions, and how the best of our experience and learning can enliven and enrich the next stage of our lives. So too with gatherings. When a meeting comes to an end, how can we best support people to make that sometimes tricky transition back to the workplace?
In ourfirst blog in this series, focusing on the ‘openings’ of an event, we talked about a key early task for facilitators being to help people ‘arrive’ in every sense of the word. At the start of a gathering we help people transition from the clogged busyness of the everyday so they can focus on their shared purpose and agenda. When a group spends time together, committed to a common agenda and prepared to relax into a more creative frame of mind, together they can make a kind of magic when they find or combine ideas, untangle the knots that block progress, and release energy for joint action.
Meetings and gatherings at their best open up space for focused conversation and exchange, thinking and reflection on the issues and questions that really matter to the people in the room. These are luxuries under normal operational pressures. All the more important then to intentionally create spaces that allow for emergence – that unpredictable and magical thing that happens when ideas and thoughts combine and something else takes shape.
So a good ending really matters. It completes a cycle of learning, energy and engagement so that people can more easily make the transition back into the realities of working and everyday life. Ending is a process, and includes drawing together key learning, deciding on actions and personal commitments, reviewing the event process, saying thank you and good-bye, and bringing everything to a close.
Here are a few ideas about how to do this.
There are all sorts of practical ways that people can draw together their learning and decide how they’ll put into practice what has emerged during the event.
Probably the most commonly used methods are those to do with making lists, prioritising, action planning. ‘Getting on Brilliantly’ is an intensely practical set of resources and ideas for effective meetings (and was the trigger for our own decision to structure our training programme around a set of six typical phases within meetings.) There is a free PDF download as well as a book available from Amazon.com that includes a CD. The resource has a useful collection of models and templates for Sorting Priorities and Planning for Action, cleanly structured and presented like all the other sections.
W³ or ‘What, So What, Now What is a typically snappy distillation of related ideas from the Liberating Structures team. After a shared experience, you ask “WHAT? What happened? What did you notice, what facts or observations stood out?” After all the salient observations have been collected, ask, “SO WHAT? Why is that important? What patterns or conclusions are emerging? What hypotheses can you make?” Then, after the sense-making is over, ask, “NOW WHAT? What actions make sense?
In her article, ‘Changing the Organisation One Conversation at a Time’Lisa Kimball talks about the ‘hypoglycaemic effect‘ of good meetings, an enthusiasm and buzz that leads to ambitious plans and lists, as well as a crash on re-entry to an unchanged world of work?Avoid unrealistic action planning by getting clear on where you can have most influence.15% solutions is an activity that helps participants focus realistically, based on Peter Drucker’s proposition that most people have about 15% control over their work situations.
Most of these activities work well in online meetings. And if shared online documents or platforms are part of the event then there is the added advantage that ‘there is only one truth’, a record visible and accessible to all participants. Properly done, a set of notes on a wiki or platform like Google documents gives all participants the bulk of their meeting report already compiled!
Creating space for people to make their own personal commitments follows naturally out of the above and helps consolidate intentions, and can have a strong emotional resonance. Participants can write a postcard to themselves, which the session hosts post back to them. Another idea spread out a random collective of photos and invite people to choose one that resonates for them, using this as a means of reflecting on what they are taking away with them. Borrowing the custom of two people tying textile loops around each other’s wrists while each declares their commitment to action is a gentle and surprisingly powerful way to help people make commitments they will keep (especially with the instruction that people must retain the loops until they have at least begun the action!)
These are important for participants as well as the event hosts – serving as a focus for quiet reflection, while providing valuable feedback on the gathering itself. There is a huge range of options – from written evaluation (do this in the room before people leave) through to the more creative possibilities such as a song or a story that captures the highlights. Roger Greenaway has masses of ideas. As ever, having people physically active energises what can often be a process that dampens enthusiasm and connection. For examples, see the spider-gram activity illustrated above or the use of a spectrogram line for a ‘walking evaluation’ as illustrated below. Online, using polls is a quick and easy way to get feedback in the moment.
Bringing the gathering to a close follows on naturally. Wherever possible we like to close with the group sitting in a circle, and give everyone a chance to share a closing reflection. If time is tight this can be as brief as ‘three words’, with the hosts thanking all those who’ve made the event possible, from the logistics through to the participants themselves.
Online the risk is that the closing can feel rather distant, since people can’t see each other, so protecting time in the last part of the session to have people comment or say things is extremely important.
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!
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:
e.g. What can you see?
e.g. Where have you seen something like this before?
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:
the narrowest of channels: requires constantly checking in with participants, encouraging people to comment, while explicitly and regularly leaving space for reflection and comment
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 of us do our best thinking when we’re well away from the desk and computer. When HelpAge International country directors got together for four days to share learning and reflect on the organisation’s new strategy this happened out-of-doors as well as in the meeting room. As the conference lead facilitator I wanted them to have some space to reflect on the conversations so far, and integrate what they were learning. We invited them to pair up, and take some questions for a walk, thinking aloud and listening to each other in turn. Some pairs joined up as fours, and the conversations took their own course. There was no ‘reporting back’. Instead they met up in their regional groups where they shared insights and shifted into looking at actions. Great weather and beautiful countryside all helped!