Sharing our experience of others directly with them can be incredibly powerful. Let me tell you a story…
Not long ago, I was working at a multi-day workshop with a 6-person group that included someone I’ll call D. D self-described themself as mentally ill, bipolar, and with psychological issues. They spoke slowly, and described themself as not emotionally available, and often confused about what they said.
D also shared that they:
Felt isolated and wanted to get better at connecting with people;
Believed that other people couldn’t easily understand them and didn’t like them; and
Had a hard time deciding whether to attend the workshop.
“I read once that the first time they put an escapologist in a tank of water, he or she will have one of two reactions, and which one determines the course of their life.
The first sort of escapologist is an ordinary person who has come to the trade organically, by whatever curious sequence of opportunity and happenstance—and that sort will panic. There is very little that is more appallingly unnatural or frightening than being lowered, bound, into a confined space containing an atmosphere you cannot breathe. … Some people just never go back in the tank. … Some get right back in and they master their fear and they go on to be as good as their skill allows. These last are most compelling to watch.
I’ve been facilitating The Solution Room, a popular plenary session, for 9 years. It’s a 90 – 120 minute session that engages and connects attendees, and provides peer-supported advice and support for a current professional challenge chosen by each participant. Participants routinely evaluate the session as a highly helpful and valuable experience.
Over the years I have made numerous small improvements to The Solution Room. Here’s the process I use, developed intuitively over time, illustrated with a recent tweak.
Obviously, if you’re going to improve what you do you need to practice. Each time I run The Solution Room is an opportunity to implement any new ideas gleaned from the previous time I ran it. Even if I don’t have any changes to make, practice typically makes my delivery and the consequent session a little better.
During The Solution Room, each participant has a turn facilitating exploration and support of another participant at their table. While preparing everyone for this phase, I verbally share a set of directions on how to do this. Here they are:
Read the challenge that is in front of you out loud.
Start asking questions of the person whose challenge it is to clarify the issue. If necessary, encourage everyone at the table to join in to ask clarifying questions and give advice and support.
Take notes of the ensuing discussion on the paper in front of you.
While running recent Solution Rooms I noticed that table facilitators had no problem implementing #1 and #2, but #3, the note taking, was sometimes skipped during the intense discussion that followed each challenge presentation.
Now I’ve noticed something that could be improved, it’s time to respond. “Respond” means think about what I might be able to do to make my process better.
Typically, for me, this involves musing over a period of time on what I noticed. (I typically run five or six Solution Rooms a year, so there’s no big time pressure to implement a change.) I’ve found this works best when I don’t immediately fixate on the first idea I get. Coming up with three or more options seems to lead to the best outcomes.
I considered rephrasing my instructions, emphasizing the importance of the note taking in some way beforehand or during the “rounds” of peer consulting. Finally I had the idea of creating a laminated card with the instructions on each table, and asking table members to pass the card around to each consultation facilitator in turn.
The next step then is to implement my potential improvement. For The Solution Room, I need to create the instruction cards and modify my instructions to participants so they remember to pass the card to the next facilitator.
At the next opportunity, I test my change, by implementing it and noticing what happens.
Continual improvement needs an action loop. We go back to practicing, noticing…
Conclusion: Improve your facilitation practice!
I hope this continual improvement practice I’ve shared helps you improve the quality and effectiveness of your facilitation. Do you have your own approach to improving what you do? Share your ideas in the comments below!
When I close peer conferences with a Group Spective, there’s always a moment that is hard for me. It occurs during the Plus/Delta, when people are sharing what they’d like to change in the event they’ve just experienced. Participants offer many suggestions, perspectives, and ideas that make the organization’s future activities and events better, and their sharing frequently helps me improve my own work.
And then someone, let’s call them John, comes up to the microphone and says something like this:
Imagine a group of people who need to make a decision about something. As the size of the group increases, the chance that everyone will be happy with what is decided falls exponentially. Unless there’s unanimous agreement, the group will use — either explicitly or tacitly — some kind of rule that determines whether a specific decision is acceptable. Groups often use tacit rules when the consequences of the decision are minor [“Harry, you feel strongly we should do this but Kerrie & I don’t care either way, so let’s go with your approach”] or when “consensus” is only a pretense [“Well, I think we should do this. Any objections? OK, it’s decided.”]
So, you may wonder, if a group wants consensus, where consensus is defined by an explicit decision rule, then what decision rule should be used?
Danger, Will Robinson!
The moment we start trying to define consensus with a rule that tells us whether we have got it or not, we diverge from the core reason to seek consensus.
The value of consensus is in the process of seeking it — not a “yes, we have consensus!” outcome as defined by a decision rule.
There is no magic formula that will create the maximum likelihood that consensus, however we define it, will be obtained.
The best we can strive for is what Hans, Annemarie & Jennifer Bleiker, who have trained over 30,000 public-sector professionals over the last 40 years, call Informed Consent, which they define as follows:
Informed Consent is the grudging willingness of opponents to (grudgingly) “go along” with a course of action that they — actually — are opposed to.
The concept of consensus becomes dangerous when we use process that forces a fake “consensus” outcome on a group. An example of this is what is sometimes called 2-4-8 consensus, as quoted here:
2, 4, 8 consensus is an excellent tool for prioritising in large groups. This exercise will take time, but will help a group reach a decision that everyone can live with! It’s usually best to impose tight time limits at every stage of this discussion!
Draw up a list of proposals in the whole group.
Form pairs. Each pair discusses the list of possible proposals and is asked to agree their top 3 priorities (it could be any number, but for this example we’ll use 3).
Each pair then comes together with another, to form a group of 4. The 2 pairs compare their lists of top 3 priorities and, after discussion, agree on a joint top 3.
Each group of 4 comes together with another to form a group of 8. Again, each group takes its 2 lists of priorities and reduces it to one list of 3.
Repeat until the whole group has come back together and has a shared list of just 3 priorities.
There is nothing wrong with using a decision process like this to pick top priorities in a group. But picking a group’s top priorities is not the same as reaching consensus.
You can’t please everyone Seeking consensus, however you define it, is difficult for large groups. Techniques like Roman voting can help us determine how close we are to informed consent, and can pinpoint who cannot go along with a proposed decision and why. The journey towards informed consent is what we should concentrate on if we are to reach a “consensus” that everyone can live with.