Gosh, how could I have overlooked International Facilitation Week? (Dontcha know, there’s a minute, hour, day, week, month, or year for everything these days.) Luckily it’s not too late to share the latest crop of fine facilitation wisdom from the mysterious Shit FacilitatorsSay (profile: “I facilitate groups. But really, I’m just holding the space”; location: “A Circle of Chairs Near You.”)
Here are some recent favorites:
Been so busy weaving networks of collaborative intention that I almost missed #FacWeek
Want to improve the learning at your meetings? Make sure your meeting messages are received. That’s what I learned from You. No, not you — “You“!
“You“ is a delightful improv game I played at the Mindful Play, Playful Mind retreat in Mere Point, Maine. Players stand in a circle and the first player points to someone and says “You”. The pointed-to player does the same by pointing to someone else until the last person has pointed back to the 1st person, creating a pattern. The pattern is practiced a few times until everyone has it … and then another pattern is created, using names of a class of common objects such as junk food, or birds, or colors, etc. Once the players have got that pattern down … well, let’s run both patterns simultaneously! Then let’s start doing things like adding another pattern, changing places in the circle with the “next” player…
As the game gets more complicated, it becomes an exercise in concentration and dealing with potential chaos. You have to figure out how to deal with unexpected situations. An example? Two people point to you simultaneously with a pattern while you’re trying to pass a third pattern to someone else. It’s challenging — and a lot of fun!
Learning from a debrief
After you play a game at an improv workshop, it’s time for a debrief. So we held one in between adding further complexities to “You”. Then we worked on incorporating our incremental learning into the next round.
What did we learn?
We discovered that when we were playing with multiple patterns going round the circle, the game fell apart. This happened when we incorrectly believed we had passed on a pattern to the next person and mistakenly turned our attention back to the circle to deal with the next pattern passed to us. It’s easy to point to the pattern’s next recipient, then hear another pattern that you have to respond to and fail to make sure that the pattern you’re passing has been successfully received. This only has to happen once for a pattern to stop going round the circle.
We realized that when we got caught up in the excitement and high-attention needs of a complex game, we played too quickly to reliably pass on pattern messages to the next person in the sequence, leading to dropped patterns.
Switch the focus!
To play the game reliably we needed to switch our focus from frantically keeping up to making sure that our pattern message for the next person was received. We had to wait until our desired receiver was giving us their full attention. Then we could pass the pattern and check visually that they had received it. Then we’d turn our attention back to receiving patterns from others in the group.
The beauty of this focus switch was that if everyone did it, the game automatically slowed down as needed to successfully deal with complex or new situations. For example, if Mohamed & Juanita both wanted to send me a pattern while I was supposed to send one to Laurie, I would wait until Laurie was free to receive my pattern before turning my attention to Mohamed & Juanita. Mohamed & Juanita would see that I was occupied and wait until I had successfully sent Laurie my pattern, whereupon one of them would get my attention while the other waited until I was finally free.
If you didn’t carefully read the previous paragraph with full understanding, I forgive you. It’s much easier to experience how this focus switch works than to explain it.
The Lesson. You’ve gotta ask! Twice!
Ever had someone tell you something and you don’t understand what they said? Duh! Of course you have! When this happens, the obvious thing to do is to ask them to explain. Do we always do that? No! In Conferences That Work I tell the story of how an entire class of graduate students (including me) stopped understanding our math professor halfway through the semester, and none of us ever informed him we were lost. What a waste of everyone’s time!
When you teach it’s important to provide clear understandable information. When you facilitate or lead a group, it’s important to provide clear process instructions. But regardless of how “good” you are at this, there is no guarantee that your message has been received completely or correctly.
And so to our lesson:
To teach or facilitate effectively, check early and often that what we are saying has been received and understood. When we use the ask, tell, ask model of participative learning, the second ask — the follow-up check for reception and understanding — is the one that’s all too easy to omit.
In other words: Make sure your meeting messages are received!
When we improv players made sure that our pattern passes had been received, we were amazed at how complex a game of “You” we could successfully play. In the same way, faithfully using all three steps of the ask, tell, ask model allows us to check that our teaching and facilitation as been received and understood, allowing us to create complex and successful active learning at our meetings.
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.
What I learned from this collision of agreements
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).
I can trust participants who respect the covenants we’re using (Q saw a contradiction and rightly asked me what was appropriate for him to do) 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 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 of a collision of agreements is amusing too.
Perhaps you’re wondering: what’s the connection between facilitation, rapt attention, and love?
Why am I drawn to facilitation? I’ve often heard an uneasy inner voice that wonders if it’s about a desire or need for control and/or power. And yet I know through experience that when I am facilitating well, I have influence but no real control or power.
Then I read this:
“Freud said that psychoanalysis is a ‘cure through love,’ and I think that is essentially correct. The love is conveyed not so much in the content as in the form: the rapt attention of someone who cares enough to interrogate you. The love stows away in the conversation.” —Psychotherapist and writer Gary Greenberg, interviewed in “Who Are You Calling Crazy?”, The Sun, July 2016
Facilitation is not psychotherapy (though sometimes it may have similar results.) But they both have something in common when performed with skill: the gift of listening closely. And that gift of rapt attention is given out of love—not of the content but through the form.
Though I sometimes want to be in (illusory) control, I am drawn to facilitation out of love.
Why are you drawn (if, indeed, you are) to facilitation?
Ten minutes after I’d finished facilitating a large national association meeting hour-long fishbowl sandwich discussion on solutions for a persistent industry problem, the conference education director walked in. His jaw dropped. “The attendees are still here talking to each other! That never happens!” he exclaimed.
Well it happened this time. Many small groups had formed and people were chatting energetically. Business cards were being swapped. When I left to catch my flight home twenty minutes later, conversations were still going on all around the room.
How did I build and support this level of interaction and engagement?
I used a fishbowl sandwich. What’s that? Read on!
The components of a fishbowl sandwich
A fishbowl sandwich, like any good sandwich, has a filling surrounded by bread and spread (or accompaniment). The filling is the fishbowl technique, the surrounding bread is comprised of pair-shares at the start and end, and the accompaniment is the facilitative language that segues between the bread and the filling.
How I began the fishbowl sandwich
As people trickled into the room I asked them to pair up by sitting next to someone, preferably someone they didn’t know. I lightly repeated the request several times before the session started.
For the first piece of sandwich “bread” I asked everyone to think of something they had done, small or large, which was a (probably partial) solution to the challenges the industry faced. After about 30 seconds I asked one of each pair’s members to spend 30 seconds sharing what they had done with their partner. A final 30-second share from the second partner to the first wrapped up the opening pair-share.
As usual, it was hard to get everyone to turn back to the front of the room for the next bite of the sandwich!
At this point, everyone had switched, at least for a while from “listening” to “participation” brain mode—they were ready to engage.
Time for the fishbowl
I was sitting on a low stage with three empty chairs besides me, wearing a headset mike, with a couple of wireless stick mikes at hand, and took a minute to share the rules of fishbowl:
You can only talk if you’re sitting in one of these chairs.
If you have something to say, come and sit in an empty chair. You don’t have to wait for someone else to finish talking.
When you’ve finished what you have to say (for the moment, you can always return) vacate your chair.
If all chairs are full, when someone new walks up, the person who’s been talking longest should leave.
And we were off. For the next fifty minutes a constant stream of people came up and shared their ideas and experiences. Sometimes they shared with the audience; sometimes they spoke with each other while the audience listened. No one “hogged the mike”.
A woman wearing a large backpack shared a novel approach that could be implemented regionally. I ran a hand poll to see how many people had done something similar—only about 20% of the audience. I asked those who hadn’t how many would be willing to do the same. Most hands went up, and people looked thoughtful. An industry leader told the woman he wanted to interview her for the association’s national magazine.
After about 40 minutes I said that we had heard an incredible amount of good ideas and advice and it was clear that there was a tremendous amount of expertise and experience in the room. I asked if anyone wanted help with specific problems. Two brave souls came up and shared their individual frustrations. Sure enough, several folks came up and supplied helpful suggestions.
Finishing the fishbowl sandwich
It was time for the final pair-share slice of bread. To conclude, I asked each pair member to share with their partner their single best takeaway from the session. Once again, a buzz of conversation arose, and after a couple of minutes I announced that the session was over.
At the workshop, run by the talented Patrick Short and Alan Montague, I was reintroduced to an improv game called Color/Advance. It’s a simple game for two players, a storyteller and a listener.
At any time while the storyteller tells a story, the listener can give either of two commands: “Color” or “Advance”. Color instructs the storyteller to describe whatever she is talking about in more detail, while Advance tells her to continue with the story. Improvisors typically use the game is to improve storytelling skills, using the listener’s requests as feedback to determine when more detail will spice up the story and when it’s time to continue with the plot.
It struck me that one could use Color/Advance in a different way, as a group process tool in a conference session or workshop. Often, when I lead a meeting, I have limited information on what the participants want to get out of it. With up to about fifty participants I normally use the Post It! technique to uncover the wants and needs of the group and then tailor the session to fit as well as possible, covering a judiciously selected set of the topics mentioned.
This approach works very well, but there’s no standard way for attendees to indicate during the session that they would like more or less information to be shared on the current topic. While it’s not unusual for people to occasionally ask for more detail, few will spontaneously volunteer that they’ve heard quite enough about a topic and they’d like to move on to the next one.
So I propose to offer Color/Advance as a tool to session participants to give them control over what is covered during a session, as follows.
How to use Color/Advance
After you’ve used Post It! to create an impromptu outline of the topics to include, explain that at any point anyone can say “Color!” meaning that they want more detail of what was said. Or, they can say “Advance!” which means “I’ve heard enough about this, please move on to the next topic.” Also explain that people can respectfully (and succinctly) disagree, so that the wishes of one person are not imposed on the entire group.
I love discovering how to harness human process in new ways. Body voting makes preferences and opinions public. A fishbowl allows a group to have a useful discussion. And, thanks to my experience at the AIN 2015 World Conference, we have a new tool Color/Advance for conference session or workshop participants to fine tune the information shared to match their wants and needs.
If you have thoughts about or used this technique, please let us know in the comments!
When facilitating, I often use sticky notes as a flexible tool that allows movement from individual work => small group work => a visual summary for an entire group. 3M has just released a useful free tool for iDevices running IOS 8, Post-It Plus, that organizes and documents the results of such activities, which otherwise tend to end up as untidy rolled-up sheets of flip-chart paper or hard-to-categorize digital photographs.
I ran a quick test of the app on a year-old flip-chart sheet with stick notes scattered hither and yon. Post-It Plus quickly identified all the notes (it superimposes a checkmark on each one it recognizes.) If a note is missed you can tap on it to expand it, adjust the edges, tap Done and the note will be added to the collection. Once you’ve captured all the notes, you can create a Board that holds them.
But that’s just the start. Each Board can contain multiple Groups. Tap and hold a note to move it to a new Group. When you’ve categorized notes as desired, you can name your Boards and Groups appropriately and share them via iMessage, email, Twitter, and Facebook, or save them to your photo library, or export them to pdf, PowerPoint, Excel, or as an image. If you link the app to your paid Evernote account, you can use Evernote’s OCR capability to make all your notes searchable. Integration with other apps, like Dropbox, are also possible, though I didn’t explore this.
Before digital photography, sticky note process was essentially an in-the-moment facilitation tool. Today, even though it’s simple to capture images of a group’s wall work, manipulating the ideas shown afterwards is tedious and rarely done (well, to be honest, I never have taken the time to do so.)
Post-It Plus makes further categorizing and analysis of notes post-session just about as simple as possible. The sharing and export functions make it easy to communicate uncovered themes to others. I look forward to using this app to extract more value from the rich information exposed by group sticky note process. Post-It Plus is a tool with great potential—and you can’t beat the price!
Want to try out Post-It Plus? Download the free app here.
Silence during a meeting is often seen as something awkward and uncomfortable, something to be avoided. We may feel embarrassed and think “somebody say something!” Yet silence is often an essential tool for effective sessions at meetings, allowing participants to think before speaking, to notice feelings, and to rest and recharge. Facilitators need to be comfortable with silence, as it usually signals something important.