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’ve been facilitating The Solution Room, a popular plenary session, for 8 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!
Getting your attendees to do something new at your event can be hard. For example, Seth Godin illustrates the problem:
“Want to go visit a nudist colony?”
“I don’t know, what’s it like?”
“You know, a lot of people not wearing clothes.”
“Show me some pictures, then I’ll know.”
Well, actually, you won’t. You won’t know what it’s like merely by looking at a picture of a bunch of naked people. The only way you’ll know what it’s like is if you get seen by a bunch of naked people. The only way to have the experience is to have the experience. Not by looking at the experience. By having it. —Seth Godin, Experiences and your fear of engagement
Now you’re probably not taking your attendees to a nudist colony for the first time — nudist associations, I did say probably. But introducing a new event format where an attendee has to do something different, like interact with other attendees or play a game, will usually evoke uncomfortable feelings for some or many attendees, ranging from mild unease to outright fear.
So how can we encourage attendees to take the risk to try something new?
By having them do something new together. A caveat — allow attendees to opt out
Whatever we are asking attendees to do, it’s important to always provide an option for individuals to opt out. How to do this depends on the circumstances. For example, running an activity as a concurrent breakout or an add-on to the main program implies that participation is optional. But if the activity is a plenary session, then you should always give an opt-out provision after introducing the activity and before participation starts.
(This doesn’t mean that attendees necessarily get to pick and choose how they will be involved with the activity. For example, when I run The Solution Room I make it clear that those present who choose to attend can do so only as participants and not as observers. If they choose not to participate, I ask them to skip the session.)
Strong scientific research performed over fifty years ago has shown that groups are more likely to accept taking risks than the members individually (e.g. see diffusion of responsibility and level of risk taking in groups for supporting research). Seasoned facilitators know this. Working with groups we can routinely get members to do things collectively that they might baulk at as individuals.
Simply asking a group to do something perceived as risky is not all that’s required, however. Supplying or obtaining agreements on how the group members will work together helps create a safe(r) working environment for risk-taking. In addition, if the group members are mostly strangers to each other, it can be helpful to provide appropriate and meaningful activities for them to get to know each other before moving into new kinds of work. Finally, begin with low-level risk activities and then moving to those perceived as more risky. This will help a group obtain experiences that they would have resisted had I asked them to participate right away.
The power of group process Change is hard. However, the potential of group process to successfully introduce people to beneficial experiences that might be judged beforehand as scary or risky allows us to create powerful new experiences for attendees at our events. Furthermore, new experiences that incorporate valuable learning and build new personal connections are one of the most powerful ways to make meetings relevant and memorable.
That’s why I love to design and facilitate group work at conferences. I’ll probably never get to facilitate the kind of exposure in Seth Godin’s example (and that’s fine by me). But group work has the power to engage and transform attendee learning and connection in ways that conventional broadcast sessions cannot match. It should be top-of-mind for every event professional who wants to hold engaging and successful meetings.
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. The game is typically used to improve storytelling skills, using the listener’s requests as feedback for determining when more detail will spice up the story and when it’s time to continue with the plot.
It struck me that Color/Advance could be used 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 that Color/Advance can be given as a tool to session participants to give them control over what is covered during a session, as follows.
After you’ve used Post It! to create an impromptu outline of the topics to be included, explain that at any point anyone can say “Color!” meaning that they want more detail of what is being 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 plan to experiment with this approach over the next few months, and will report back in the comments or another blog post on how well this works. If you have thoughts about this technique or have used it in this way, please let us know in the comments!
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.