We know that participants — people who are active learners — learn more, retain more, and retain more accurately than passive attendees. They are also far more likely to make valuable connections with their peers during the event.
I was facilitating a one-day workshop for 24 college presidents. At the start, we agreed to follow six covenants, including the freedom to ask questions at any time, and a commitment to stay on schedule. Our program was tight and college presidents are not known for their brevity, and I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about the group’s ability to honor the latter covenant.
During our opening roundtable sharing, everybody heroically tried to stop when their time was up, but we were still running late when, at the end of one participant’s contribution, someone I’ll call Q said, “Can I ask a question?”
All eyes turned in my direction. Conflicted and flustered, I blurted out: “No.”
Everyone laughed. My self-contradiction was funny—in the same way that seeing someone slipping on a banana peel is funny.
Q then asked his question anyway, which was the right thing to do. Why? Because both the question and the answer that followed were brief, and then we were on our way again. It was a challenge, but with the participants’ help we stayed on schedule for the rest of the day.
This was an interesting learning experience for me for three reasons. I learned that:
A preoccupation with a long-term process goal (keeping a program on schedule) can lead me to try to block a short-term need (getting a question answered).
Participants who respect the covenants we’re using (Q saw a contradiction and rightly asked me what was appropriate for him to do) can be trusted to do the right thing.
I am far more capable of dealing with potentially embarrassing situations than I used to be. (The moment I realized that my aim to keep the event on track wasn’t threatened, the experience became funny to me too. In the past, I would have remained feeling uncomfortable for a while about “losing control”.)
I suspect it’s impossible to have a set of covenants that won’t occasionally clash—and I think that’s actually a good thing.
A Taoist might say that tension between opposites illuminates the underlying core. In this example, I was attempting to balance the success of the overall experience with the needs of the moment. There’s no “right” answer; after all, too many delaying questions could have significantly disrupted the workshop flow and reduced the value of our time together. Awareness of the potential contradictions helped me to focus on a key aspect of the day’s work.
Noticing and responding as best one can to such tensions is necessary and valuable in the moment of facilitation. And, as a bonus, sometimes the outcome is amusing too.
I guarantee you will learn many new great ideas about conference panels from this Blab of my Thursday chat with the wonderful Kristin Arnold. I’ve annotated it so you can jump to the good bits . (But it’s pretty much all good bits, so you may find yourself watching the whole thing. Scroll down the whole list; there are many advice gems, excellent stories and parables, folks show up at our homes, Kristin sings, etc.!) With many thanks to Kristin and our viewers (especially Kiki L’Italien who contributed mightily) I now offer you the AMA About Conference Panels annotated time-line.
[Before I turned on recording] We talked about: what panels are and aren’t; the jobs of a moderator; panel design issues; some panel formats; and our favorite panel size (Kristin and I agree on 3).
[0:00] Types of moderator questions.
[1:30] Using sli.do to crowdsource audience questions.
[2:40] Panel moderator toolboxes. One of Kristin’s favorite tools: The Newlywed Game. “What word pops into your mind when you think of [panel topic]?”
[4:30] Audience interaction, bringing audience members up to have a conversation; The Empty Chair.
[6:00] Preparing panelists for the panel.
[9:10] Other kinds of panel formats: Hot Seat, controversial topics.
[12:00] Continuum/human spectrograms/body voting and how to incorporate into panels.
[13:50] Panelist selection.
[14:40] Asking panelists for three messages.
[16:30] How the quality of a moderator affects the entire panel.
[17:30] More on choosing panelists.
[18:30] How to provoke memorable moments during panels; Kristin gives two examples involving “bacon” and “flaw-some“.
[20:30] Panelist homework. Memorable phrases: “The phrase that pays“; Sally Hogshead example.
[23:00] Panelists asking for help. Making them look good.
[24:10] Warming up the audience. The fishbowl sandwich: using pair-share as a fishbowl opener.
[25:30] Other ways to warm up an audience: pre-panel mingling, questions on the wall, striking room sets.
The Chinese government runs a massive online censorship program. Why mention this on an event design blog? Well, the most effective aspect of China’s online censorship regime illustrates what happens when you don’t incorporate covenants into your meetings.
“Imagine being near a steep cliff. During the day, when you can see clearly, you might walk right up to the edge to take in the view. But at night or during a thick fog, you’re probably going to steer well clear of the cliff’s edge to ensure that you don’t accidentally misjudge where you are and tumble to your death.
China’s vaguely-defined web content rules and inconsistent censorship enforcement work the same way as the fog near a cliff: since people can’t see exactly where the edge is, they’re more likely to stay far away from it, just in case. There’s no toeing the line, because nobody knows exactly where the line is. So instead of pushing the envelope, many people choose to censor themselves.” —The cleverest thing about China’s internet censorship, Tech In Asia
As I’ve explained elsewhere, good covenants publicly clarify the freedoms that attendees have at an event, like the freedoms to speak one’s mind, ask questions, and share feelings. When such freedoms are agreed to individually and as a group at the start of a meeting, ambiguity about meeting behavior dissipates. The cliff edge dividing acceptable from unacceptable behavior becomes much clearer, liberating participants from uncertainty about what is O.K. to say and do.
When attendees feel safe to share and empowered to ask questions and express what they think and how they feel, what happens at a conference can be amazing. I’ve been using explicit covenants for fifteen years, and in my experience, effective learning, meaningful connection, engagement, and resulting community all noticeably increase.
If you omit group covenants at your meetings, you default to an environment where most participants will self-censor their behavior to some degree. Given that it takes about five minutes to explain and obtain covenant commitment, it’s crazy to miss out on one of the simplest and most effective things you can do to improve your meeting.
Indaba is not a clearly defined format. The term has been appropriated and adapted (example) and I’ve been unable to find detailed descriptions of the original South African process. I suspect the form used at the Paris Talks does not define indaba, and may distort or omit significant features. Here are the key ingredients from the Paris talks:
Negotiators used Indaba as a logjam-breaking technique after traditional negotiating process ground to a halt.
Participants with decision-making authority worked in small groups that included members from countries with seemingly incompatible goals.
Small group members shared verbally and face-to-face their “red lines”. These were specific “hard limits” issues they were not willing to compromise on.
Participants who shared hard limits were concomitantly responsible for proposing solutions to other group members. This prevented the meeting from being merely a presentation of position statements.
The Durban climate change conference implemented a more open process where diplomats representing the main countries formed a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and talked directly to each other. John Vidal reported: “By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes.”
The third and fourth covenants listed above distinguish indaba from other forms of group consensus and negotiation process: explicit sharing of what is not acceptable, coupled with commitment to propose and explore solutions for supposedly intractable differences.
Similar consensus processes
A couple of more recent formats are reinventions of Indaba principles.
One is concordance, developed by Will Schutz (here’s an introduction). Robert McNeilsummarizes as follows: “Everyone who has a stake is in. Anyone can veto. If you veto you have to explain why (openly and honestly). We explore the vetoes openly and do the work necessary for all to agree.”
Another is the “two circles” couples work technique for finding common ground popularized by John M. Gottman & Nan Silver in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, in which you draw two circles, one inside the other, using the inner circle to list aspects you can’t give in on and the outer circle for aspects you can compromise over.
[Know any others? Add them in the comments below!]
The overlooked importance of good group process
It’s remarkable that such an elementary consensus process proved to be key to creating a meeting agreement that will likely profoundly shape the future of our planet.
In addition, it’s incredible that such a powerful process is virtually unknown to most meeting designers, negotiators, and facilitators!
In conclusion, the outcome-changing application of indaba at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change demonstrates, there is an urgent need for all of us to become familiar with and use good group process when we meet to learn, connect, engage, and decide. The world will be a better place when we do.
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
Remember kindergarten? O.K., I barely do either. But when I go into my local elementary school to read to the kids, I see ground rules like these posted on the classroom walls. The teachers create them for the younger classes, and I’m told that the Junior High comes up with their own (probably with some judicious teacher input). So it seems that explicit ground rules are useful in the pre-adult classroom.
Moving to the adult world, professional facilitators who work for more than a few hours with a group or team will usually have the members establish their own ground rules. Why? There are two reasons. First, because group-developed ground rules handle the specific needs of the group. And second, the process of development creates buy-in for the chosen rules.
However, traditional conferences don’t have explicit ground rules!
So perhaps you’re thinking: We’re adults, we know how to behave! or What’s the point, we’re only together for a few days!
Here’s why the right explicit ground rules will improve your conference.
The right ground rules fundamentally change the environment of a conference. The six ground rules used at Conferences That Work are not about nitpicking issues like turning off cell phones & pagers in sessions (good luck!) Instead they create an intimate and safe conference environment, by sending participants these powerful messages:
“While you are here, you have the right and opportunity to be heard.” “Your individual needs and desires are important here.” “You will help to determine what happens at this conference.” “What happens here will be kept confidential. You can feel safe here.” “At this conference, you can create, together with others, opportunities to learn and to share.”
Introducing and having attendees commit to the right ground rules at the start of the event sets the stage for a collaborative, participative conference, because the rules give people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other.
And when attendees feel safe to share and empowered to ask questions and express what they think and how they feel, what happens at a conference can be amazing.
As a result, setting good ground rules at the start of a conference may be the single most transformative change you can make to improve your event!
Two tips on adding ground rules to your conference design Before you rush to add ground rules to your conferences, bear in mind two points:
Think twice before adding ground rules that embody participant empowerment to a traditional event that consists mainly of pre-scheduled presentation-style sessions. Your ground rules and your design are likely to be seen as conflicting!
Do you use explicit ground rules in your events? What has your experience been? Want to know more about using ground rules at conferences? Ask away in the comments below! (If you can’t wait, <shameless plug> you could also buy my books, which describe in detail both the ground rules used at Conferences That Work, and how to successfully introduce them to attendees.)