When trio share works better than pair share

trio share pair share One of the best and simplest ways to build active learning and connection into any meeting is to regularly use pair share. (See Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation, or Chapter 27 of Event Crowdsourcing for full details.) I’ve recently noticed that in some circumstances, trio share — pair share but with three participants — works better.

Advantages of pair share

Pair share has a lot going for it. It’s the most efficient way to ensure that every participant periodically switches into active learning, which, as explained in The Power of Participation, provides:

Pair share duration is minimal. I commonly allow each partner a minute to share their response. Including instructions, a typical pair share might take around three minutes. Getting every participant to actively think and respond to a question or issue in this time pays rich dividends.

Comparing trio share with pair share

A trio share obviously takes longer than a pair share, given the same sharing time per participant. The example above would require at least an extra minute. I say “‘at least” because it generally takes longer (at least at in-person meetings) to create trios than pairs.

In addition, the conversational directness and intensity may be less in a trio share, since each participant is talking to two people instead of one.

On the other hand, each participant is connecting with two other people, rather than one.

None of these differences is a deal breaker. In the past, I have tended to use pair share, simply because my time with participants is limited and pair shares are quicker.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, however, I’ve noticed something new.

When trio share works better than pair share

Ultimately, you can’t force adult attendee participation. Nevertheless, at in-person meetings it’s rare to have people sit out pair sharing. The reason, of course, is unspoken social pressure. Anyone choosing not to participate is obvious to the people around them.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced meetings online, I began to see more people avoiding session pair shares. I’d allocate pairs into Zoom breakout rooms, and, quite often, one or two people didn’t join their allocated room but stayed in the Zoom lobby.

As the host, I’d gently check in with those remaining behind. Sometimes they hadn’t accepted the breakout room assignment and would do so. But more often than not, it turned out they were absent (it’s hard to tell when their camera’s off).

Their unfortunate partners who went into the breakout room had no one to talk to!

At in-person meetings, this is easy to handle. I ask anyone without a partner to raise their hand, and then pair up isolated people.

Online, this takes too much time, and those without a partner suffer.

Using trio share instead of pair share online

So I’ve started using trio share for online meetings. There are two reasons.

First, trio share reduces the impact on “orphaned” participants. If one person in a trio doesn’t join, the remaining pair can still reap the benefits of pair share.

And second, trio share gently increases social pressure for attendees to participate. Bowing out of pair share affects one other person. Avoiding a trio share affects two.

To conclude

Whatever you do, some people will opt out of small group work. Their reasons are — their reasons. We need to accept that. Switching to trio share for online work is a small tweak that seems to improve participation. And creating a meeting environment where small group work is more likely to occur is always worthwhile.

What’s your experience of using pair share and/or trio share at in-person and online meetings? Please share in the comments!

Who goes first — protocols for online meetings

who goes first Last week I shared protocols for “who goes next?” at meetings. This week it’s time to cover a closely related topic: who goes first?

When everyone shares at a meeting, someone has to start! There are two scenarios to consider: facilitating a discussion for a single group, and providing directions for choosing who goes first when simultaneous small group discussions are needed or desired.

Face-to-face and online meetings have different signaling options, which I described in detail last week. So for this post, I’ll chronicle “who goes first” options for single and multiple group scenarios.

Options for choosing who goes first with a single group

• Ask for a volunteer

Probably the most common protocol for determining who goes first is to ask “who wants to start?” and provide a signaling method: e.g., raise your hand, or use an online signaling option.

This is generally a perfectly acceptable method, though, as you’ll see the next two options may be preferable under some circumstances.

• Facilitator/leader goes first

Sometimes a topic under discussion is tough to talk about. I’ve been in many meetings where the first contribution avoided addressing what was asked, or was meagre or superficial. This gives later sharers a license to follow suit. For example, a question about how a person is feeling about an issue may be answered by what they are thinking about it.

When a meeting facilitator or leader starts the sharing and models the kind of response that’s wanted, it’s much more likely that others will respond in a similar way.

• A plant goes first

No, not that underwatered yet surprisingly intelligent potted hibiscus that’s sitting next to the speakerphone. Or Groot. Rather, the facilitator asks a reliable participant, perhaps warned beforehand, to provide a great response to the posed question/issue/challenge.

Ways for small groups to independently determine who goes first

When you’re facilitating multiple small group sharing, either in person or online, you need to provide each group with guidance on how to choose who goes first. In person, you can provide this guidance once everyone is in their small group. Online, typically, you will need to supply “who goes first” instructions before people are whisked into their virtual breakout rooms.

A word about pair share

One of the best ways to improve any meeting session is to regularly include pair share (where paired participants each take time in turn to share their thoughts with their partner). Online, rather than splitting everyone into pairs, I recommend you create groups of four. Instruct each group to form two pairs, perhaps using one of the methods described below. Have one pair run pair share while the other pair listens, and then switch. This makes it more likely that each pair will actually follow instructions, and gives the group of four people a taste of three perspectives rather than one.

Methods for small groups to choose who goes first

You can use a couple of strategies: either leave it up to the groups to decide, or provide a method for them.

[Some of the following ideas were sparked by this post (check it out for even more ideas!) by Ted DesMaisons]

Letting each group decide who goes first is always an option, but it can also be fun to have groups compare or discover something about each other. Here are some simple ideas; feel free to add your own, especially if you can identify something that relates to the topic groups or pairs are going to discuss:

  • First name closest to start of alphabet
  • Longest first name
  • Tallest
  • Nearest to birthday
  • Earliest up in the morning
  • Lowest street address number
  • Closest to a point in the room
  • Longest hair
  • Most pockets
  • Lives nearest to water
  • Most recently worked in the garden
  • Last purchased something
  • Most colorful clothing

Feeling whimsical? For a pair share, pick neutral substitutes for partners A and B. For example: “One of you is cup, one of you is saucer.” “One of you is coffee, the other tea.” “One of you is sun, one is moon.” There are plenty of other pairs you can use (rock and roll, knife and fork, bread and butter) but avoid those that could have a negative connotation (e.g., life and death, right and wrong). And if you’re running multiple pair shares in a session, have Partner B start first sometimes, and change partners and who-goes-first strategies as well.

Are there other ways to decide who goes first?

I hope these ideas will prove helpful. I bet there are more I haven’t thought of. If you have additions and improvements, please share them in the comments!

An excellent life story exercise for groups

In 2005, I joined a men’s group. Eight of us get together for two hours every fortnight. One man chooses a topic and leads the meeting. A couple of months ago, Brent offered the following life story exercise via a preparatory email sent in advance:

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Facilitating change: The power of sharing our experience

sharing our experience

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.

D was clearly feeling fragile. Group work can be confrontational at times. So I privately hoped that the other group members would be supportive.

What happened?

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How to design for powerful connection and learning at large meetings

connection and learning at large meetings

How can we design for powerful connection and learning at large meetings?

Although you’d never guess it from reading meeting industry trade journals, most meetings are small meetings, and this is a good thing if you want effective and relevant connection and learning to take place.

Large meetings stroke owners’ and leaders’ egos, and can supply impressive spectacle. They are appropriate places to launch campaigns and mass announcements, and can be very profitable. But they are poor vehicles for creating the useful participant learning, connection, and outcomes that well-designed small conferences can deliver.

So if you are (un)fortunate enough to be the owner or designer of a large meeting, what can you do to maximize participant value?

You need to satisfy four core requirements for optimum learning and connection:

  1. Provide sessions focused on content that participants care about.
  2. Design for small sessions and/or have participants work together in small groups.
  3. Use interactive formats.
  4. Include closing sessions that consolidate learning, build community, and explore the group’s future.

Let’s take a look at each of these requirements in more detail.

Content that participants care about

Traditional large conferences use the “kitchen sink” {aka “spray and pray”} approach of stuffing sessions on every potentially interesting topic into the program. Slightly more sophisticated conferences attempt to determine in advance the topics that attendees say they want.

Unfortunately, years of research by yours truly has shown that when conference sessions are chosen in advance, the majority of them are not what attendees want and need {here’s an example}. It’s like John Wanamaker describing advertising: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

There’s no way to know in advance which sessions you’ve prescheduled will meet participants’ wants and needs.

To be sure of scheduling sessions about content that participants actually care about, you’ll need to uncover and satisfy their actual wants and needs at the event. Luckily, doing this isn’t rocket science — I’ve been crowdsourcing programs in many different ways for 30 years.

Want to learn more? My 2009 book Conferences That Work describes one way to create an entirely crowdsourced multi-day conference. Here’s another way to do it for a one-day conference. If you have only a few hours Open Space is useful (though, in my opinion, overrated). Finally, check out my latest book Event Crowdsourcing which covers everything I’ve learned about crowdsourcing programs at meetings.

Small sessions and/or small group work

One of the reasons why small conferences with a well-defined niche audience work well is that participants don’t have to waste time meeting people with whom they have little in common. Large meetings attempt to create the same environment by scheduling multiple conference tracks and concurrent breakout sessions. Often, however, the resulting sessions are still too large for people to easily make useful connections and/or learn from each other.

Unless you use interactive formats (see below), not much useful learning can happen in an hour with a hundred attendees.

One simple approach to reduce the size of large sessions is to run them simultaneously in several rooms. Or you can repeat them at different times. Distribute interested participants between multiple sessions, either by preallocation (for simultaneous sessions) or personal choice. I use this approach to run The Three Questions as an opening plenary at large conferences.

Small sessions, with thirty or fewer participants, should be the goal. Such sizes invite less formal formats where it’s easier for participants to ask questions, influence what is covered and discussed, and contribute their expertise and experience to the learning environment.

Finally, large sessions can work effectively if they have a significant small group work component. For example, some of the session formats I design and facilitate — for example, The Solution Room, RSQP, and The Personal Introspective — scale to work with any number of participants because most of the important work is done in small groups.

Remember, small is beautiful!

Interactive formats

Designing genuinely useful sessions for large groups is challenging work and typically requires incorporating small group work as described above. However, I have had great success facilitating highly interactive discussions of “hot topics” with hundreds of people. By interactive, I don’t mean that five people monopolize the entire discussion. Typically about forty people are “up on stage” at some point, most of whom had no inkling beforehand they had something useful to contribute.

I call the format I’ve developed the Fishbowl Sandwich, and you’ll find full details on how to design and prepare such a session in Event Crowdsourcing.

Closing sessions

Most meetings squander the experiences they create. How? By failing to provide structured time to consolidate and reflect on individual and group learning and explore consequent future change. You can improve all meetings by including closing sessions that:

  • Help participants consolidate what they’ve learned during the conference and determine the next steps; and
  • Provide an opportunity for participants to reflect on the event, build community, and uncover new opportunities for future activities together.

Luckily, formats that satisfy these important needs — The Personal Introspective and Group Spective — can be run for meetings of any size.

Include them!

Final thoughts

Designing for connection and learning at large meetings by incorporating sessions like the ones I’ve outlined above? Bear in mind that interactive sessions typically require more time than traditional lecture-style presentations. Active learning is messy and risky, and creating an effective and safe learning environment takes more time than simply listening to or viewing speaker content.

About to schedule crowdsourcing, interactive formats, and closing sessions? Investigate the amount of time they’ll need, so you don’t sabotage them by cramming them into a timeslot that can’t do them justice. The links above are good resources. Investigate them, apply their principles, and make your large conferences better!