Walls, windows and pillars

My dream meeting space is bright and spacious, with room to move around, armchairs or bean bags as well as tables and chairs, plenty of walls and pinboards to put things on, a garden and trees running down to a river perhaps, or even the sea.

But now I’m getting carried away!  Though I can think of a few rather wonderful places that have some or all of these qualities. I know how they’ve lifted my own spirits and I’ve

Flowers every day, Gokarna, Nepal

seen the difference to people’s energy as soon as they walk into the room.

The reality is that we often have to create hospitable and welcoming space in less than perfect circumstances. It’s all part of creating a culture of collaboration, and the conditions for great thinking.

Making sure there are areas and spaces to display the group’s thinking is an essential part of this.

A recent experience in Geneva prompted my co-facilitator Lesley Adams and me to update our checklist. Here are a few tips to share:

Assume nothing

The photos of the big and spacious room looked great. All that wall space! But when we got there the day before we were told in no uncertain terms that we could NOT put anything on the walls. No, not even masking tape.

  • On your checklist – nice walls? Good, but make sure they can be used! And if there are pictures, ask about taking them down (most venues are happy to oblige).

The ballroom was surplus to needNatural light

A few years ago I was facilitator for a Save the Children learning event held in a hotel in Egypt. I’d gone through my checklist with the person booking the venue – plenty of wall space, room to move around. After a 4-hour drive from Cairo we were shown into a huge curtained ballroom. A rather lonely looking circle of chairs in the centre. Dark. No windows. Our hearts sank. The programme manager went into action and thankfully found us another room.

  • On your checklist – another for the ‘assume nothing category’. Ask about windows, ventilation and natural light.

Boards for displaying groups’ thinking 

In spite of Geneva being the city of aid organisations and mega-exhibitions, it was surprisingly difficult to get hold of boards for group displays. In the event we begged (from the venue, who made some available), borrowed and improvised. If you can’t use the walls, there’s always the windows ….

  • On your checklist – go through your session design and determine the size and number of boards that you’ll need, how and when they’ll be used/ re-used. Ask the venue what they’ve got (they might be stowed away in a cupboard somewhere). If they haven’t got any or you need more, hire facilitation boards or borrow display/ exhibition boards from one of the organisations involved in the meeting.

Get creative

Use a washing line (or two) when you don’t have enough wall space to put up visual displays (such as flip chart posters) from groups.  The joy of a washing line is you can space things out – which works particularly well for a big group. We did this at a HelpAge International conference with large drawing created by graphic recorder Bill Crooks. We tied the rope to the (very sturdy) light fittings.

IMG_1209 copy
Spot the washing line
  • On your checklist – washing line and pegs.


We’d asked for photos of the room in a hotel in Kathmandu, so knew there were pillars in the main meeting room. This was a learning event for CARIAA , and it was important for people to see each other, see what’s happening at the front, and to move around. Pete and I spent time the day before working out the sight lines from different angles of the room, and moved the tables and chairs accordingly. The pillars were later used for displays and a creative rendition of the ‘ground rules’ prepared by participants.

  • On your checklist – if pictures of the room aren’t on the hotel website, ask someone to take some photos so you can plan in advance how to deal with pillars and other obstacles. Factor in time to work out the best possible set-up.

Static post-its and magic whiteboard flipcharts

For when you’ve got limited walls and boards. They’re expensive but are re-usable. Use whiteboard markers so the sheets can be wiped clean.

My dream scenario is the norm in the creative industries. Their’s is a culture of creativity, connection and design-thinking for real-world solutions.  Many institutions are still in a paradigm of telling, ‘talking at’ and downloading information. This lives on in the rigid seating and set-ups of many meeting rooms.

Care and attention

When we insist on, and give care and attention to the physical spaces in which we meet, we’re consciously creating the conditions for good thinking, listening and a culture of connection and collaboration.  Oh, and don’t forget the flowers.

Please do get in touch if you’d like to think about a meeting you have coming up and how we might help.

Up and talking!

This is our second blog about how we designed a Forum for 80 stakeholders involved in ocean observation across Europe to share thinking about how to develop a more integrated observing system.

The webinar that took place a week before the Forum itself set tone for the day.  It also meant that we could give plenty of space and time on the day for people to connect and do some good thinking together – and come up with concrete ideas for what should happen next.

For this to happen, people need to meet in a space where they can talk easily and move around. An auditorium with raked seating had been booked, but on our advice, the team found Area 42, an arts and meeting venue with large flexible spaces (and a plentiful supply of pinboards) that we were able to make our own.

Here’s our design and what happened on the day.

Designing for an ‘ecosystem’

Keeping in mind our ecosystem metaphor, the design of the Forum took people through five stages, physically moving from one stage another, in different parts of the venue:

  • Welcome! Up and talking – within 10 minutes of opening the Forum, people were up on their feet having mini-conversations (in response to prompt questions on the screen), starting to get to know each other and warm up for the day.
  • What brings us here – essential context for the discussions – three 12-Infographic chatminute presentations provided the global perspective on ocean observing, the need for an integrated system across Europe and how EOOS can respond to that need, leading into the critical questions for the Forum.  After this, there was a chance for people to share initial thinking – with reference to infographics on EOOS on the tables.
  • A walk around the 7 critical questions – everyone moved to a different area in the venue for a carousel poster session to familiarise with the 7 critical questions.  A host with each ‘critical question’ welcomed participants as they rotated round the posters, outlining and adding to the main issues in conversation with the visitors.
  • Focus in on the critical questions – participants chose which they wanted to focus on, and convened in small groups after lunch to share ideas and propose ways forward for EOOS.  Hosts facilitated the discussions, with the help of rapporteurs.  Key points were recorded onto large pre-prepared templates (and written up by the rapporteurs).


  • What are we thinking now? Funding is a core theme, and in the last part of the day a number of participants were invited to share their perspectives. Instead of the tables, the group returned to a large circle of chairs, with a moderated exchange in a ‘fishbowl’ at the centre. Closing reflections from a selection of stakeholders pulled together the emerging issues.

Tips and learning

You might be wondering where the facilitator was in all this?  In short, my role as the lead facilitator was up front as a guide to the day, each stage at a time, and keeping an eye on things from the side as the discussions got underway.  Plus of course the other things we facilitators do – from making changes in the moment through to moving the furniture.  Along with lots of hands-on support from the EOOS team and Pete, here are two of my main tips for being a solo lead facilitator for an event this size:

  • ‘Two heads are better than one’ – work with another facilitator in the design stage. Pete and I brought different but complementary perspectives and ideas that enabled us to put together a design that worked.
  • Define and devolve the roles – logistics, communications, hosting of small groups, ‘anchoring’ of large group sessions were all shared across the EOOS team and steering group.

My other two tips are for the small groups – hosts and templates

  • img_2069.jpgTopic hosts for the critical issues’ carousel and small groups gave context, focus and direction to these discussions. EOOS steering group willingly took on this role, with practical support from the team and facilitator.
  • Large (A0) printed poster templates for the poster carousel and small groups provided a)  summaries of key information and b) a means to capture key points.

Towards a cultural step change

There was a fantastic level of engagement throughout the day, continuing into the drinks reception afterwards.  This was the fruit of many months advocacy and communication by the EOOS team, visionary leadership and great team collaboration.

Without ocean observations we are living in the dark’ was stated at one of the group discussions, but ‘a cultural step change is needed to break the silos between multiple stakeholders’.  Several participants said how much they enjoyed the day, and the energy and sustained levels of attention throughout the day suggest that that cultural step change is well under way.

Do get in touch if you’re planning a large event and want some advice and/or facilitation!



Oceans observing – from silos to ecosystem

This is the first of two blogs about how we co-designed a space for 80 stakeholders involved in ocean observation across Europe to share thinking about how to develop a more integrated observing system. Here we share our design challenge and how a webinar kick-started the discussions.

Sea picture

Wondrous and beautiful, our oceans dominate Earth’s natural systems.  Like countless others I was captivated by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 series on BBC television.  I was enthralled, but also dismayed at the scale of the impacts of human behaviour on the oceans and the life within them. David shares a central message of the series as he wishes good luck to a tiny leather back turtle on its way to the sea.   “Everyone of us may think we live a long way from the oceans, but we don’t.  What we actually do here has direct effect on the oceans.  What the oceans do then reflects back on us.  It is one world and in the first time in the history of humanity … one species has the future in the palm of its hands”.

So when asked to facilitate a gathering of ocean observers in March, of course I jumped at the chance.

From silos to ecosystem

Everything we know about our vast and complex oceans is provided by ocean observations and marine research – end-to-end systems which supply essential data and analyses to a range of users to further our understanding about the oceans, and to meet society’s needs.

There’s a problem though. Current ocean observing systems in Europe exist in silos, with  observations carried out by a multitude of actors at national, regional and pan-European levels.  Measurements are taken for various purposes, over disrupted time scales, and to different standards.

Leading European providers of oceanographic and marine data recognise that a different approach is needed to meet 21st century economic, social and environmental needs. They’re envisioning a single and connected European Ocean Observing System (EOOS), that will allow all users and implementers of ocean observations to find the information and help they need.  Instead of silos, their envisaged framework is an ecosystem approach to the management of Europe’s marine resources as a fundamental requirement for sustainable Blue Growth.

With support building across the ocean observing community, the EOOS team wanted to bring together a cross-section of stakeholders in ocean observations across Europe.  The EOOS Forum 2018 would be a place for ocean science managers, researchers, policymakers and private companies to share ideas and perspectives on critical questions for the strategy, and to continue to build momentum for an integrated system.

Our design challenge

Here was our challenge – how to best engage the thinking, ideas and energy of 80 people, so that they’d learn about and contribute to shaping EOOS – and come up with coherent outputs to feed into the strategy and implementation plan.  And do this all in one day!

It was clear to us that a business-as-usual type of meeting wouldn’t work. A core principle for EOOS is to engage providers and users across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries – as an ecosystem. The Forum would need do the same. Taking the idea of an ecosystem, our design principle was to give maximum time to interaction between participants, right from the start.

‘Sneak preview’ – a lunch-time webinar

This started with a lunch-time webinar just over a week before the Forum. 29 people joined to hear three short, punchy presentations designed to share essential information about the need for EOOS and open up questions about funding and sustainability.

Many of those online contributed comments and questions via the text box on the platform, which was moderated by a senior member of the EOOS team. A link to the webinar on the EOOS website meant that those who missed it could listen before coming to the Forum. Here’s what it looked like to those online!

This was my first full online facilitation of a webinar using Adobe Connect. We had our own little ecosystem for the webinar – the platform itself, me as the main facilitator, Pete providing technical support, three excellent speakers, our EOOS colleagues as content moderators. Here are some top tips from this successful session for others thinking about doing the same:

  • Always have a technical support person to handle people not connecting, voice issues etc
  • Webinars take a lot of preparation, scripting the event itself, confirming roles and doing ‘dress rehearsals’
  • It’s essential to do a technical practice/ dress reheasal with each speaker
  • Split roles – tech support, online facilitator, note-taker, content moderators who pick up the quesions
  • Using the chat (text) box for questions and comments when there are a large number of people online is a great way to increase participation.

In the next blog you’ll hear about what we did and how we did it. What we can tell you is that there was an amazing energy all throughout the day, intense discussion, no end of networking – and concrete results to shape what happens next to make the vision of an integrated European ocean observing system a reality.

Please get in touch if you’d like to include a webinar as part of your next event, or if you’d like a bespoke training on online facilitation. 

Dialogue for impact – preparing the ground

In our last blog we shared some of the creative challenges in co-designing CARIAA’s research program annual learning review (ALR), which is taking place in Nepal on 3-6 May. The Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) aims to build the resilience of poor people to climate change by supporting a network of four consortia to conduct high caliber research and policy engagement in four ‘hotspots’ in Africa and Asia.

Collaboration and conversation

Collaboration and learning together is the life blood of CARIAA and so dialogue and conversation is at the core of this year’s ALR. In this blog we share what we’ve been doing to prepare the ground for the conversations to come, experiences that will enrich our next Oxford FacilitationAnywhere training workshop in June.

‘Conversation’ is right there in the purpose of the ALR, which is about understanding how the research emerging out of CARIAA can bring the SDGs ‘into conversation’ with national planning processes. Hearing some of the research finding so far has been exciting and moving – we have a vivid sense of the huge potential to really impact the lives of the people who are most vulnerable to climate change.

Dialogue is all about tuning into this sense of potential and bringing different perspectives together for what William Isaacs calls a ‘living experience of inquiry within and between people, but without actually knowing what will emerge. In practical terms, what will this look like?  How do we shape up an agenda and create processes to literally ‘bring into conversation’ the needs of researchers, who want to hear more from each other about the science, and the other element of CARIAA’s purpose –  to influence policy.

Shaping the agenda

We’ve been working on two levels. Firstly, the event design or ‘indicative agenda’, which has involved designing sessions that we hope will enable different kinds of conversations.   For instance:

  • A 45-minute Davos-style moderated panel with five contributors to start the event with a high-level perspective on the ‘demand’ for CARIAA findings, and to set the direction of travel for the week
  • Thematic sessions, focused on SDGs, as we described in the last blog, comprising 4-minute introductory speed talks that will be followed by three rounds of knowledge-cafe style discussions around presenter’s posters .  These will provide an opportunity for a deeper dive into the science.  The idea is to then move to conversations at tables to share what’s emerging and to start thinking about policy implications; and finally a short wrap-up with key insights.
  • There’ll be three more sessions to reflect more generally on what people are learning about ‘collaborative synthesis’ – the term used by CARIAA to describe how different researchers within and between consortia learn about and blend their investigations and findings.

We also need to make sure that there’s space for people to make sense of what they’re hearing, and at a meta level to pull together or ‘synthesise’ the emergent insights.   So, there’s also a ‘pause for thought’ session for people to mix and mingle, look at posters, talk (or do nothing!). Field visits in Kathmandu on the third day are also an opportunity to reflect and connect with colleagues.

The other level has been to start the dialogue and engagement ahead of time. We had high hopes for the four online pre-meeting sessions on each of the themes.  We wanted to give researchers and RiU colleagues a chance to start reflecting on the implications of the research for policy. In the event, time constraints meant that the sessions were more modest but no less valuable, offering critical support and feedback to presenters on how best to use their 4 minutes. And of course, having heard all the presentations within the themes, those at the online meetings will inevitably have begun to think more about connections and relationships.

And that’s just what we’ve been involved with! The majority of the approximately 80 participants are also preparing their contributions to all the other activity streams in the ALR, with colleagues in Kathmandu and Ottawa grinding through the detail. We’re looking forward to meeting them all and engaging with their work, which we’ll describe in a later blog.

Letting go

We’ve been planning and designing, listening and shaping an agenda for the conversations. With just over a week to go, we’re now letting go and looking forward to seeing what happens. True dialogue is all about being open to the unexpected, listening in such a way as to hear unanticipated possibilities. Not knowing is part of the excitement.

We’re up a mountain for a few days, back with more soon.

Dance and the rhythm of groups

Hard times require furious dancing’ writes Alice Walker.  We danced the night away with friends and strangers at a ceilidh, with the wonderful Kismet, who played, called the moves and guided us through the evening.

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.

Photo: Licensetoceilidh.co.uk








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.

Seven openings

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:

  1. 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.

  1.  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.

  1. 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.
Getting to know you

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.

  1. Appreciative check-in’s

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.  

  1.  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.

  1.  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.

  1.  Spectrogram lines

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.

Join us at the next Facilitation Anywhere workshop in Oxford on 22 – 24 November to find out more about openings and more besides!

Wise decisions

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.

Here are a few thoughts – we’ll be exploring these and more in the Facilitation Anywhere course in November:

  • 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.

Conferences reimagined

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.

2010.04.10.ppt and interrogation

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.

Good questions

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
  • Accommodate risk
  • 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

Ending and transition

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?

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image credit development art.com

In our first 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?
  • Facts Feelings Findings and Futures is one of many wonderful activities based on the active reviewing cycle developed by Roger Greenaway  
  • 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.Zone-of-Control15% 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! 


tying a white threadCreating 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!)  


spidergram evaluationThese 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.11338568315_c035379c49_z

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.