After a school board informational meeting the other day, I chatted with the moderator, Steve John. We talked about several aspects of the meeting, including the difficulty of working with both sides of an issue.
It’s rare for groups larger than a few people to agree unanimously on an issue. Sometimes the group needs to make a choice between alternatives. Our school board meeting included discussion of an upcoming vote on whether to keep junior high students educated at our local school or have them “tuition out” to other schools. Strong opinions on both sides were evident during the meeting.
Sometimes there are win-win alternatives to win-lose situations, as I’ve described elsewhere. But sometimes there aren’t, and the group needs to make a choice that some members are going to be unhappy about.
Even though facilitators or moderators need to stay non-judgmental, in practice I sometimes agree more with certain points of view. Steve and I talked about how hard it can be to facilitate discussion on an issue when we have an opinion about it.
Learning from practicing facilitation
Though I find it difficult at times, one of the things I like about facilitation is that it challenges me to practice non-attachment to a perspective.
I probably don’t moderate contentious issues as often as Steve—who has decades of experience running public meetings—as my clients are mostly associations and non-profits. In my work, however, there are often underlying tensions between subgroups.
One common example is conferences where suppliers and practitioners attend the same sessions. Generalizing, suppliers (who also sometimes sponsor the meeting) are there to sell their products and services, while practitioners primarily want to learn from and connect with each other. This can cause friction between these two groups. Part of my pre-meeting work is to uncover, understand, and prepare for potential discord. This involves designing the meeting to respect the wants and needs of each group, and facilitating any sticky situations that surface.
Another example is when participants work for organizations of very different size or focus, have disparate ideas about the meeting’s goals, but have historically avoided discussing the resulting tensions with each other. My job, then, can be to open and facilitate uncomfortable but important conversations about the invisible elephant in the room.
Working with both sides and empathizing with all points of view is good practice for staying open to possibilities in my work and my life.
Image attribution: Photo [source] by and with the permission of David Holzapel.
Most weekdays, my wife and I join a fifteen-minute online meditation offered by teachers at the Insight Meditation Society. The other day, teacher Matthew Hepburn introduced a dharma practice of meditating, not on one’s breath or body sensations, but on another person. As Matthew talked, I realized that I experience good facilitation listening as a meditation.
In a typical in-person conference breakout session, participants divide into small groups to discuss one or more topics. Each group records members’ thoughts and ideas on one or more sheets of flipchart paper. At the end of the discussions, groups post their papers on a wall and everyone walks around reading the different ideas. Facilitators call this a gallery walk. Here’s a tip to improve breakout gallery walks.
Why use gallery walks?
In the past, it was common for small group work to be “reported out”: a representative from each group verbally shared their group’s work with everyone. If there are many groups this takes a while, and there’s typically a fair amount of repetition which makes it hard to maintain focus. In addition, if the groups are covering multiple topics, it’s likely that some or most of the reporting will not be of interest to attendees. In short, reporting out is tiring to take in and inefficient.
A big advantage of gallery walks is that participants can easily concentrate on the topics, thoughts, and ideas that interest them. If a flipchart page is of no interest, it can be ignored. Also, it’s simple to customize a gallery walk to meet specific wants and needs. For example, if there are experts on a specific topic, they can stand near their flipchart notes and answer questions or support discussion. In fact, gallery walks allow ongoing interaction around the captured ideas, something that isn’t possible during “reporting out” which is a broadcast-style activity.
And this leads to my tip…
My tip to improve breakout gallery walks
You can improve the effectiveness of a gallery walk by adding one small step before it starts. Ask everyone to pair up with someone they don’t know and walk the gallery together while discussing what they see. When you do this, each participant:
Gets introduced to and learns about someone new.
Gains new perspectives on the topics under discussion.
Continues to actively learn about the topics after the end of their small group.
In essence, pairing participants increases the reach and impact of the breakout session by extending connection and interaction into the concluding gallery walk.
As usual, lightly ask participants to pair share. I like to think of such requests as giving people permission to do something they might want to do but feel a little awkward asking for it. If folks want to go around with someone they know or have just met, or decide to walk as a trio or alone respect their choices.
Companies bombard me with offers to check out online meeting platforms. Sadly, I simply don’t have time to explore most of them. But every once in a while I hear about a platform that intrigues me enough to schedule a demo. Butter is an online meeting platform that is designed to support the facilitation of great interactive meetings. The demo impressed me enough to delve into the platform, and I liked what I found. So here’s my review of Butter, a meeting platform for facilitators to shine.
In this review of Butter, I’ll share a big picture overview, what I think is Butter’s finest feature, an example of how to implement a meeting design in Butter, and my closing thoughts.
The usual caveats
Butter is less than a year old. Like just about every recently introduced online platform, its developers are continually updating it. (In fact, my demo focused on a brand new capability which I think is one of the best features of the product.) So by the time you check it out, some aspects of this review may be inaccurate or incomplete.
In addition, this is not an in-depth shakedown of the product. I haven’t had an opportunity to take Butter through its paces with a full crew of participants and co-facilitators. If you do so and have additional observations, please feel free to share them in the comments below.
Butter — the big picture
Butter is a meeting platform designed for planning and running online “workshops”. I’ve written about workshops that aren’t, and I’m happy to report that the Butter design team defines workshop as I do: a meeting that emphasizes the exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques and skills. In other words, workshops involve significant amounts of participation and active learning.
What I like about Butter is that it’s easy to use, has a short learning curve, and, most important, its design provides efficient and effective meeting facilitation. I’ve facilitated in-person meetings for decades and online meetings for the last ten years. And, as facilitators with experience in both environments know, there’s a significant workload difference between these two environments.
The challenges of facilitating online versus in-person
I can normally facilitate an in-person workshop with, say, fifty participants by myself. If there are tools I need — whiteboards, flip charts, a few slides, sticky notes, pens, room layouts, etc. — I can set them up in advance and bring them into play if and when needed. Because these tools are an integral part of the physical environment, introducing them during the session is a natural part of the facilitation process.
I can’t run an online workshop of the same size without additional help. Guiding participants through the session while paying attention to group energy and dynamics takes all my attention. I simply can’t do this well while simultaneously handling the event production. (For example, setting up breakouts, running polls, monitoring chat, noticing that a breakout group has only one member, reading participant energy from a host of tiny windows on multiple screens, etc.)
Butter makes facilitating online workshops easier. I explain why below.
A perfectly serviceable platform for most online meetings
It’s worth mentioning that, while Butter lacks some features available in competing tools, it’s a perfectly serviceable platform for vanilla online meetings with fewer than 200 participants. So it’s reasonable to consider adopting Butter for all kinds of online meetings with a specific group. This can ease the inevitable learning curve issues associated with introducing any new tool.
I think the best feature of Butter is its recently introduced Session Planner. The Session Planner provides an integrated run of show, called the agenda, which is more than a detailed production agenda. Many production teams use spreadsheet tools like Google Sheets or Excel to create production schedules, though high-end run of show software, like Shoflow, is also available. What’s cool about Butter’s Session Planner is that it integrates any desired combination of Butter’s tools into the run of show agenda, so they become available for use when needed.
The Session Planner allows you to prep your entire workshop beforehand, just like I do at in-person workshops where I set out my tools in advance. You build a Butter agenda with blocks, and each agenda block can be customized to your needs with the tools — whiteboard, breakouts, polls, Miro boards, Google documents, Youtube videos, and more — that you’ll need for that block.
What’s more, the same agenda, minus the production details, is also available to attendees, so they know what’s going on.
Integrating your chosen tools into the production schedule in this way makes it much more feasible to effectively facilitate an online workshop by yourself. (Butter’s paid versions allow you to add co-facilitators.)
How Butter spreads
Butter’s excellent orientation and Handbook provide detailed information on how to use the product.
You can create and preplan as many meeting rooms as you like. Paid Butter plans allow you to share your room designs with other users.
Let’s hold a meeting session in Adrian’s workshop room.
Each room has its own link (which you can customize) and share in various ways with attendees.
Once you’ve created a room, you can add a Waiting room, co-facilitators (paid plan), custom Tools to be used in this room, and the all-important Agenda.
Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.
Waiting for Butter
When participants join a meeting, they arrive in a waiting room, like the one above. There they can add their name and a profile image (photo or avatar) if they don’t have a Butter account. Attendees have the opportunity to download the Butter desktop app and can test their camera and microphone while waiting.
You can customize a waiting room can with an image, background color, and optional wait music that an attendee can mute. (Butter has some audio clips or you can upload your own). You can also choose whether attendees can enter a meeting session immediately or must “knock” for the meeting room owner to let them in.
In addition, you can choose to share the meeting agenda with attendees in the waiting room. And a Tips menu informs waiting attendees about how they can react to what’s going on in the meeting and Butter’s hand-raising system for queuing participant comments, questions, or ideas.
Butter includes a comprehensive toolset that you can customize and add, as needed, to a room’s meeting agenda blocks. Each room has its own unique toolbox. A really important feature is that some of the tools — Google Drive: docs/slides/sheets, YouTube, Miro, and Whiteboard) — integrate core resources from other providers directly into Butter. For example, participants can work collaboratively on Miro boards during a session without having to run Miro in a separate app or browser window. Similarly, you can display and work on Google Drive files and watch Youtube videos in a seamless fashion.
Importantly, Butter provides breakouts quite similar to those available in Zoom, and with some features that Zoom lacks. You can prebuild two kinds: Rooms and Groups. Participants can move between Rooms, and initial participant assignments can be prechosen or random. With Groups you decide the number of participants you want in each Group, and Butter assigns people automatically when the breakout begins. Participants cannot move between Groups.
In addition, you can assign tasks for breakout groups. Butter shows these tasks in each breakout, and breakout members can mark them complete. This is a nice feature that obviates the need for the session facilitator messaging breakouts to tell them what to do.
What’s especially cool is that you can assign tools to breakout groups! Members can watch a video, or work collaboratively on a Google Doc or Miro board.
While breakouts are going on, a facilitator can monitor what’s happening in each breakout. You can observe a breakout without joining it, and see the tasks they’ve checked off. Participants can ask for help and you’ll be notified and can join their breakout. You can broadcast messages to all breakouts. And you can reassign participants to different breakouts, or reshuffle Groups to get a fresh set of people in each.
Butter breakouts provide a well-designed feature set and user interface that other meeting platforms would do well to adopt!
Polls, timers, and whiteboards
Basic polls are another tool. You can create multiple-choice or open-ended polls, which should be sufficient functionality for most situations. Upvoting is available for open-ended polls.
Buffer’s integrated countdown timers provide a welcome tool for keeping sessions on track or timing a break. You can prep them beforehand and start them with a click. Facilitators can stop the timer, and add an extra minute. Participants see a timer task description and can click a button when done. The facilitator can see how many have finished. I love this feature!
Tool use flexibility
You can preset just the tools you need for each agenda block, ready to use when the time comes. But should you need a different tool during a session you can add one on the fly.
The heart of a Butter session — the Agenda
To give a taste of the heart of Butter, here’s a hypothetical meeting design and how you might implement it in Butter.
Meeting design case
Twenty-one people are meeting for the first time as a group to work together on an issue: increasing governmental and non-profit support for the elderly population in their region. The group will meet regularly over the coming year. Some of the attendees know a few other people in the group. The first desired outcomes for the meeting are that:
Participants get to know each other better;
The group creates a coherent set of initial issues and topics to address at subsequent meetings, and;
The group identifies who is interested and willing to work on the selected issues and topics.
Oh, I nearly forgot, we have just one hour for our initial meeting. Obviously, that’s not enough time to completely address these outcomes, especially #1. But let’s see what we can do in the available time.
A possible design
To begin, after a brief welcome, we’ll use one of my key facilitation techniques: The Three Questions. (See my book Event Crowdsourcing for detailed instructions for designing and running this powerful process.) Because of the limited time, we’ll run The Three Questions in trio shares. This will start to satisfy the first desired outcome, while simultaneously uncovering issues and topics that the group wants to explore. Next, we’ll address #2 using a Miro board for participants to share the issues and topics they think are important and/or want to work on. Participants will also cluster what they share during this block, addressing outcome #2.
Finally, we’ll switch to a facilitated group discussion on what’s been suggested, and work on next steps for future meetings (outcome #3), followed by a short closing.
Here’s a potential Agenda for the one-hour session.
I built this Agenda quite quickly in Butter. It’s built of Blocks, each of which can be given a title, description, duration (with the option to show to participants or not), associated tools (see above), and private notes for the facilitator(s).
In the above example, I’ve added several tools to the relevant session blocks, Google slides to introduce The Three Questions, a Group breakout for trio sharing answers, and a Miro board for sharing, clustering, and reviewing topics.
When I begin this session, each Block’s tools are shown in a sidebar, with a Start button for each tool. A click activates the desired tool. Like this.
I haven’t seen an easier online platform for facilitative process tool integration than Butter.
Check out Butter’s extensive Agenda help to learn more about how it works.
Additional capabilities while spreading Butter
Butter includes a spotlight mode, which you can use to bring one or more participants “on stage”, as shown below.
…and the especially useful Raise Hand Queue. This is another feature that facilitators will love. Here’s how a participant raises their hand, with an idea, comment, or question.
And here’s how a facilitator chooses who speaks next.
Butter also includes public, private, and facilitator-only chat. Chat can be “popped out” to a separate window, which is handy if you want to read it on a second monitor. Nice!
Butter quality, onboarding, help, and more
I found Butter unusually easy and intuitive to learn. You can run it in a browser (preferably Chrome) or a desktop app. The user interface is simple and logical. I never found myself thinking “now how do I do that?” — a common experience with other online meeting platforms. I think most new users will have little problem getting up to speed.
Though I haven’t used Butter in a demanding environment, I encountered no errors or glitches while investigating its capabilities. The only limitation I found is that I can only access my root Google Drive folder; I can’t see its subfolders. Hopefully, Butter will remove this limitation in the future.
The Butter Handbook succinctly explains how to use the platform. It’s clearly written, available during a session, and includes excellent graphics, animated when appropriate.
When the platform needs a moment to implement what you’ve requested, a lighthearted message appears letting you what’s going on. The whole product has a “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” vibe.
Butter currently has three pricing plans: one free and two paid. The free plan, which I used for this review, includes up to 50 participants and one facilitator.
The Pro plan ($25/month or $300/year) ups the maximum number of participants to 100, allows up to 2 co-facilitators via shared rooms, and includes the capability to record sessions in the cloud.
Butter’s Legendairy(!) plan ($42/month or $500/year) ups the maximum number of participants to 200, and allows unlimited co-facilitators.
Cheska, my demo partner, told me that Butter is reviewing its pricing and may drop the maximum number of participants in the free plan to 20 in the future. I asked about one-off pricing and she told me the company was considering it.
In my experience, it’s common for new platforms like Butter to adjust their pricing models over time, so check here for current information.
Wrapping up this review of Butter
Butter’s tagline is “Virtual collaboration as smooth as butter“. While I have enjoyed thinking up butter-related phrases to use in this post, I’m not a big fan of the product name. (But I’m not a marketing expert either.)
I belong to a couple of small groups that have been meeting regularly for decades. The men’s group meets biweekly, while the consultants’ group meets monthly. I have been exploring and writing about facilitating change since the earliest days of this blog. So in 2021, I developed and facilitated for each group a process for working together to explore what we want to change, and then change our lives.
Each group spent several meetings working through this exercise.
What happened was valuable, so I’m sharing the process for you to use if it fits.
The process design outline
It’s important for the group’s members to receive instructions for the entire exercise well in advance of the first meeting, so they have time to think about their answers before we get together.
Exploring our past experiences of working on change in our lives
We begin with a short, three-question review of our past experiences working on change in our lives.
These questions give everyone the opportunity to review:
the life changes they made or attempted to make in the past;
the strategies they used; and
what they learned in the process.
This supplies baseline information to the individuals and the group for what follows.
The questions cover what:
we worked on.
was tried that did and didn’t work.
we learned from these experiences.
We each share short answers to these questions before continuing to the next stage of the process.
For the rest of the exercise, each group member gets as much time as they need.
Sharing what we would currently like to change in our lives
Next, we ask each person to share anything they would currentlylike to change in their life. This includes issues they may or may not be working on. Group members can ask for help to clarify what they want to change.
Exploring and discussing what we are currently working on to change our lives
Next, each person shares in detail which of the above issues they are currently working on, or want to work on, to change in their life. This can include describing their struggles and what they are learning, and also asking the group for advice and support.
Exploring long-term learning is important. So, after some time has elapsed, perhaps a few months, we run a post-exercise review of the outcomes for each person. This helps to uncover successes as well as difficulties that surfaced, and can also lead to additional appropriate group support and encouragement.
Here’s an example — what I shared and did
Things I’ve tried in the past to make changes in my life that didn’t work
Trying to think my way into making changes w/o taking my feelings/body state into account e.g. trying to lose weight by going on a diet.
Denial—doing nothing and hoping the change will happen.
What I’ve learned about successful ways to change my life
Anything that improves my awareness of feeling or body state can be a precursor to change: e.g. mindful eating or emotional eating.
Creating habits: e.g. brushing my teeth first thing in the morning; setting triggers (calendar reminders, timers for meditation or breaks).
The habit of daily exercise, regular yoga, which improves awareness of my body state.
Three issues I worked on
Tidying up and documenting my complicated life before I die.
Living more in gratitude; developing a daily practice.
My post-exercise three-month review
I’m happy with the way I continue to work on the long-term project of tidying up my office, getting caught up on reading, and documenting my household and estate tasks. To help ensure that I work on it every day, I created a simple spreadsheet with columns for various short tasks that advanced my goals. Checking off time spent on one of these tasks each day shows me I’m making progress, and this feels good.
I created a buddy system with another group member who wanted to meditate more. We send each other an email when we’ve meditated. This has greatly improved the likelihood I’ll meditate every day.
After trying a simple daily gratitude practice, I decided to let it go for the time being until my daily meditation became a fully reliable habit. Sometimes, small steps are the best strategy!
Interested? OK! Here’s how to run this exercise.
First, explain the process and see if you get buy-in from the group about doing this work. It’s helpful to explain that each person can choose what personal change they want to work on. There are no “right” or “wrong”, or “small” or “large” personal change issues. Any issue that someone wants to work on is valuable to that person, and that’s all that counts.
I think it’s helpful for everyone present to participate, rather than some people being observers, but ultimately, that’s up to the group to decide.
Well before the first meeting, share the following, adapted to your needs, with group members.
Working together to change our lives – the first meeting
“We’ve decided to work together on what we are currently trying to change in our lives. As we will have about an hour for this work at each session, we’ll need two or more meetings for everyone to have their turn.
For the exercise to be fruitful, we will all need to do some preparatory work before the meetings.
Our eventual focus will be on what we are currently trying to change in our lives, and how we are going about it.
We’ll start with questions 1) and 2) below, which are about the past. Please come with short (maximum 2½ minutes total per person) answers to them. Please answer question 3) in 90 seconds or less. At subsequent meetings, we will spend much more time on questions 4) & 5).
Please come to the first meeting prepared to answer the following three questions:
==> 1) What have you tried to make changes in your life that didn’t work? What have you learned over the last 20 years?
==> 2) What have you learned about successful ways to change your life over the last 20 years?
Don’t include childhood/teen lessons learned, unless you really think they’re still relevant to today’s work.
Remember: a maximum of 2½ minutes for questions 1) and 2) combined!
==> 3) What would you currently like to change about how you live your life? (You might not be working on it. You can ask for advice if you want.)
Be as specific as possible in your answer to question 3). Your answer should take 90 seconds or less! (But we’ll provide more time if you want or need help clarifying your goals.)
Working together to change our lives – subsequent meetings
At subsequent meetings, we’ll each take turns to answer questions 4) and 5) below. You’ll have as much time as you need to answer these questions and partake in the subsequent discussion.
==> 4) What are you currently working on to change in your life?
==> 5) How are you going about making the changes you shared in your answer to question 4)? What are the struggles and what are you learning? What advice would you like?”
Running the meetings
At the first meeting, you’ll typically have time for everyone to share their answers to the first three questions. Keep track of the time, be flexible, but don’t let participants ramble. It’s very helpful for the facilitator to take brief notes on what people share. If there’s still time available, I suggest you/the facilitator models the process by sharing their answers to questions 4) and 5) and holding an appropriate discussion. Use subsequent meetings as needed for every group member in turn to answer and discuss these two final questions, and write notes on these discussions too.
The post-exercise review
When this exercise has been completed for everyone, I suggest the group schedule a follow-up review in a few months time. If your group starts with check-ins, it can be useful to regularly remind everyone about the review and ask if anything’s come up that someone would like to discuss before the review meeting.
Before the post-exercise review, let group members know that the facilitator will share their notes for each person in turn, and ask them to comment on what’s happened since.
At the start of the post-exercise review, explain that this is an opportunity to share information — discoveries, roadblocks, successes, etc. — without judgment. It’s also a time when group members can ask for ideas, advice, and support from each other.
Finally, you may decide to return to this exercise at a later date. After all, there’s mucho be said for working on change throughout our lives. The above process may be the same, but the answers the next time may be quite different!
Have you tried this exercise? How did it work for you? Did you change/improve it in some way? I’d love to hear your experience with it — please share in the comments below!
After our prime Thanksgiving dinner, I was sleepily washing a large turkey foil platter when I noticed its embossed central message: “Support the bottom.”
I’m going to blame the tryptophan in the turkey for causing me to muse, from a facilitation perspective, about the significance of this unexpected Prime Directive. I have no other excuse.
Support the bottom
It makes sense. We don’t want our heavy turkey to break through or slide off the tray as we’re bringing it to the feast. The manufacturer suggests we shouldn’t take for granted the strength of the thick aluminum foil holding our main course. We should be mindful that the bottom of our feast needs support.
Well, when working with a group of people, the “bottom” of the group also needs support.
During group work, it’s tempting to assume that things are going well when we’re hearing from many people. When there’s significant interaction between group members. When folks are coming up with new ideas and interesting approaches to explore.
So it’s easy to overlook some people. Without checking, you might not see them. After all, they’re not bringing attention to themselves. People who say little or nothing. People who are distracted or disengaged.
It’s important to suspend judgment of these folks. There have been many times when I’ve been understandably silent/disengaged/distracted during meetings, and I’m sure everyone else has too. Perhaps:
what’s going on is of no interest;
we’re completely lost and confused;
feeling unwell is wrecking our attention;
we’re seriously short on sleep; or
a personal crisis is all we can think about;
and you can probably think of plenty of additional unexceptional circumstances when someone may be currently incapable of doing useful work in a group. We might say they have hit rock bottom.
But then there are the border cases. Frequently, there are people who might just need a nudge. They are at a momentary personal bottom, and they could use some support. A reminder, a reason, an opportunity to engage or reengage.
So what do we do?
How can we support group members at a (hopefully, momentary) bottom?
The first step is noticing them. When working with a small group, the quiet folks are easy to spot. A good facilitator will gently check to see if they have something to say, and bring them into the work if they’re willing. With large groups noticing the quiet folks is hard, because, obviously, they’re not drawing attention. If you, as facilitator, are concentrating on the people who are contributing and interacting — an important piece of your job — it’s easy to overlook those who aren’t.
How can we avoid missing the quiet folks in large groups? By making time for you to notice them! Luckily, this is typically part of good meeting design — it’s not something that you need to awkwardly or artificially introduce. Good large group work includes short breakouts, where impromptu small groups meet, think, discuss, and share. While these activities are going on, it’s fairly easy for a facilitator to roam the room and pick up on disengaged attendees. (Unfortunately, this is much harder to do online, as I mentioned in last week’s post.)
The second step is to provide regular opportunities for the “bottom” folks to engage or reengage. Appropriate small group work, like pair or trio share, is an obvious way to do this. When working in small groups, check to see that participants who haven spoken for a while have anything they’d like to add. If you’re running a fishbowl or fishbowl sandwich, ask that people not share more than once until everyone’s had a chance to contribute. And be patient when asking people to share. Staying quiet while people are thinking about whether they want to speak and what they might want to say is a tangible form of respect. So remember to shut up and listen.
Instead, do your best to respectfully and appropriately engage as many people as you can. Yes, the “bottom” participants will generally need greater support. But focus your time and attention on maximizing the overall group energy, with as many people as possible actively on board.
You may not hear much of the resulting Thanksgiving. But you’ll know you did the best cooking you could.
I do not have a magnetic personality. I would never have been cast as the lead in the classic ad series “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen“. Yes, I’m a recovering academic, so I love to talk. But that doesn’t mean that people always hear me.
And that can occasionally be a problem when I’m facilitating group work.
Ultimately, as we’ll see, it’s a good problem to have. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.
But, obviously, people need to listen to me sometimes, so I can facilitate them doing their work. And, there are certain situations when they have a hard time listening to me.
If you facilitate group work, you probably know what I’m talking about. Effective group work includes periods when group members are working with each other, not you. And when they’re having these conversations, they are not listening to you. They are (well, hopefully) listening to each other.
Which means that getting their attention is difficult.
On this occasion, we used a setup I’ve never experienced before. Dan and the students were together in person, and they decided to display me on a front-of-room screen but also run a simultaneous Zoom meeting so I could see the students individually and talk with them one-on-one.
(Production pros will recognize this arrangement is susceptible to audio feedback problems, which did indeed hold up the class a bit. To minimize them, have participants use headsets when possible. Otherwise turn off individual computer speakers and all mikes except for the one in-person participant currently talking.)
I began the class with a quick pair share between students, giving each pair a couple of minutes to share with each other why they were taking the class.
At which point, I completely lost everyone’s attention.
The ignored facilitator
Two minutes went by, and I asked the students to stop sharing so we could move on to the main segment of the class, where I answered any questions they wanted to ask me.
Nothing happened. The students kept on talking. They were enjoying learning about each other and they didn’t want to stop.
I asked again. Several times. I increased my speaking volume, but it was as if I had been banished from the meeting. I was 1,600 miles away, the students weren’t listening to me, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Dan to the rescue!
Thankfully, Dan noticed that I was being ignored. He was in the room, and his students are used to listening to him. After a couple of announcements, the students’ conversational hubbub diminished, and I was back in contact with the class.
The rest of the class went well. I closed with another pair share for students to share their takeaways with each other. However, before this one started I made sure to ask Dan to bring it to a close!
Hear me! Getting a group’s attention
Even when I’m present in the room, the same scenario often happens! Yes, there are people who can usually get the attention of an energetically conversing crowd. But I often find it hard. Knowing this, I’ll sometimes find someone in the group who has this gift, and ask them to get the group’s attention for me when needed. Alternatively, you can pick a leader who’s known to the group, like Dan was, for this role.
There are many methods that teachers and trainers use to get attention. To learn more about them, see Chapter 22 of my book, The Power of Participation.
Although the difficulty of getting a group’s attention is a problem that facilitators face regularly, in the big picture it’s a good thing.
Why? Because, when a competent facilitator has trouble getting attention, it means that participants are actively working with each other. Have you ever left a meeting session full of excitement and ideas for future work, perhaps having made important new connections in the process? (Or have you hung around afterwards, continuing conversations?) When this happens, the facilitator has done their job well.
So if you’re facilitating, and sometimes find it difficult to bring group members reluctantly back from engagement, don’t fret. Remember that your pain is their gain.
Image attribution: “2010 IACA Conference – evening reception at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum” by Corvair Owner is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. and modified with additional graphics.
“Just finished a 90-min workshop that was like pulling teeth from start to finish. Visibly distracted, clearly checking emails, no engagement or dialogue during debrief. I’m exhausted! I know it’s no reflection on me, but I can’t help wondering if this is at all “telling” of the way the session was marketed to participants beforehand and/or whether it’s a sign these are not my ideal client. Am I naive or acting a martyr for asking these questions? I’d love to get a convo going around how we manage our own expectations and energy when our sessions fall flat. Thoughts? Yours truly. Shannon Hughes“
A helpful comment
Among many great comments, Edward Liu‘s stood out.
“Lot of good suggestions so far. The only thing I can add is from one of the best work trainings I ever did, where the first thing the instructor asked was, “who’s here because they want to be and who’s here because they were told to be?” The majority were “told to be,” which she acknowledged and said, “I was told to be here, too, here’s what I suggest to make our experience a little better for the 2 days we all have to be here” and then outlined her expectations and some basic ground rules. I can’t even remember what they were, because I was so struck by an instructor acknowledging that maybe we didn’t really want to be in the class.
She was good enough that we all wanted to be there after an hour or two, and also happened to teach a bunch of management techniques that I can now frame in applied improv terms. But I’d say her very first question was itself an improv technique: Listen to your partner, recognize what they want, and then do your best to give it to them. More often than not, trying to do that means they’ll reciprocate. In this case, your partner is the whole class and you can use the question to intuit what it is they actually want vs what you were hired to do, and then improv your way to ensuring you both get to group mind about the session as a whole as soon as you can.” [Emphasis added.]
Lots of good stuff! Here’s my take.
How to work with folks who don’t want to be here
1. Ask the key question that Edward shared:
At the start of your workshop, conference, or session, ask who chose to be here and who was told they had to be.
2. If there are people who don’t want to be here, then immediately sympathize with them! If possible and appropriate, gently find out why they had to attend.
3. Next, explore what you might be able to do to optimally meet attendees’ wants and needs:
Perhaps you can modify your workshop or session appropriately. In some cases, the Powers That Be may prescribe the entire curriculum, and there’s little or nothing you can do. But in most cases, you’ll have some latitude to adjust what happens while you’re together. If so, first use pair share to get participants thinking about what they’d ideally like to happen. Then run Post It! to hear what they’ve come up with and create a revised plan that takes the expressed wants and needs into effect.
This work is well worth doing, if only to let attendees know that you’re thinking about their wants and needs right from the start. But you can almost always improve your time together by simply asking Edward’s opening question and responding sensitively to the answers you receive.
A closing story
I once taught Computer Science for a decade at a small liberal arts college. Every year, I’d teach an introductory class. One year, the class felt very different. Students were more disengaged than usual. The whole classroom environment seemed different. It took me a few weeks before I was bold enough to share my experience with the students. When I did so, I learned that a third of the class was there to fulfill a degree requirement I didn’t know about, imposed by a new joint degree program with another institution. At every class I’d taught previously, all the students had chosen my class voluntarily. I was getting a crash course in teaching students who didn’t want to be here.
I wish I’d thought to ask my students at the first class why they were there. Perhaps I could have made the class a bit better for those who had no choice.
If you are leading a workshop or session and have any suspicion that some attendees may not want to be there, ask them! Your experience and theirs may be all the better for it!
But there are times during the event when I’m not working. While the sessions I helped participants create are taking place. During breaks when I’m not busy preparing for what’s to come. And during socials.
Why? Because, though I may have facilitated and, hopefully, strengthened the learning, connection, and community of participants present, I’m not a member of the community.
In the breaks and socials I see participants in earnest conversations, making connections, fulfilling their wants and needs in real time. But I’m hardly ever a player in the field or issues that have brought them together. (Usually, as far as the subject matter of the meeting is concerned, I’m the most ignorant person present.) So I don’t have anyone to talk to at the content level. I’m physically present, but I don’t share the commonality that brought the group together. It’s about participants’ connection and community, not mine.
I may have made what’s happening better through design and facilitation, but it’s not about me.
Every once in a while, participants might notice me and thank me for what I did. It doesn’t happen very often—and that’s OK. My job is to make the event the best possible experience for everyone. My reward is seeing the effects of my design and facilitation on participants. If I were doing this work for fame or glory, I would have quit it long ago.
If you’re at a meeting break or social and see a guy wandering around who you dimly remember was up on stage or at the front of the room getting you to do stuff?
It’s probably me.
No lonely breaks online
Paradoxically, when I facilitate online meetings there’s no “invisible man” lonely time. Whenever we aren’t online, we’re all alone at our separate computers. We can do whatever we please. We were never physically together, so we don’t miss a physical connection when we leave.
If I had to choose…
The loneliness of the long distance facilitator is accentuated at in-person events by the abrupt switches between working intimately with a group and ones outsider status when the work stops.
At online events, we are all somewhat lonely because no one else is physically present. Our experiences of the other people are imperfect instantiations: moving images that sometimes talk and (perhaps?) listen.
It wouldn’t be a no-brainer choice, but if I had to choose between facilitating only in-person or online meetings, I’d choose the former. The intimacy of being physically together with others is worth the loneliness when we’re apart.
Unfortunately, traditional conferences are poor places for this kind of learning to occur, since they’re filled with broadcast-style lectures, during which no interpersonal interaction takes place.
At well-designed meetings, however, participants have plenty of opportunities to engage with peers about topics that are personally important. The key learning modality at such meetings is peer learning.
Peer learning allows anyone to be a teacher and/or a student, with these roles switching from moment to moment. Potentially, everyone has something to contribute and learn. Peer conferences first uncover the content and issues people want to discuss. They then facilitate appropriate peer learning around topics of interest. My books and this blog provide plenty of information on how to do this.
Of course, in order for peer learning to occur, participants need to share what they know.
And this is where trust and safety issues impact learning.
“It is important to stress that we are all connected through a complicated net of trust. It is not as if there is a group of people, the non-experts, who have to trust the experts and the experts do not have to trust anyone. Everyone needs to trust others since human knowledge is a joint effort…It is well known that low levels of trust in a society leads to corruption and conflict, but it is easy to forget the very central role that trust plays for knowledge. And knowledge, of course, is essential to the democratic society.” —Åsa Wikforss, Why do we resist knowledge?
Why people may not share their knowledge
Knowledge management author Stan Garfield shares sixteen reasons why people don’t share their knowledge. Here’s a key one:
“They don’t trust others. They are worried that sharing their knowledge will allow other people to be rewarded without giving credit or something in return, or result in the misuse of that knowledge.” —Stan Garfield, 16 reasons why people don’t share their knowledge
So, when trust is absent, knowledge fails to flow. But when knowledge flow is stemmed, opportunities for trust are reduced. This is a positive feedback loop that guarantees low trust and knowledge sharing.
This breakdown of trust can happen anywhere. Between individuals, in organizations, and at a societal level. And it is easy for it to happen at meetings.
Designing for trust, safety, and learning
In general, the more meeting attendees trust each other, the safer they feel. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to share their knowledge.
So when I design and facilitate meetings, one of my most important goals is to provide a maximally safe environment for sharing. This maximizes the potential for consequential learning.
That’s why I:
introduce group agreements upfront, one of which has participants keep what individuals share confidential;
create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes (or where mistakes are impossible);
provide ample opportunities for group discussions, rather than lectures, around appropriate content; and
give people the right to not participate at any time.
The last condition is important. An attendee’s level of trust and feeling of safety may vary from moment to moment during a meeting. Giving attendees the freedom (and responsibility) to decide not to participate and/or share at any time allows them to determine and control what is personally safe to do.