Support the bottom — a Thanksgiving reminder

support the bottom
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.

Making assumptions

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?

Noticing

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.)

Engage/reengage

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.

Don’t expect to engage everyone

Finally, bear in mind that, no matter how brilliant a facilitator you are, your meeting will not be perfect for everyone. Hey, if it’s the best meeting ever for just one person present, I think that’s great! Because you can’t please everyone — and you shouldn’t even try to.

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.

 

 

Why I love conference facilitation and design

Here’s an example of why I love conference facilitation and design. After setting up a Personal Introspective this morning (25 minutes) I turned over what happens to the small groups. Watch the listening and involvement of every person as I weave my phone through the circles of chairs.

Read the rest of this entry »

Scenes from a Participate! Workshop and Solution Room

40-seconds of highlights from the Participate! workshop and Solution Room I recently facilitated for the New York State Bar Association.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is training associations how to create powerful and effective participant-driven and participation-rich conferences. I love facilitating the learning that occurs. The training equips the organization with the tools needed to transform its events. Do you want to significantly improve your meetings? Then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

 

Listening to the UPS guy

After dinner last night I heard a familiar sound — the growl of the UPS box truck driving up our 600′ rural driveway. I knew it was our regular driver, the guy who’s been delivering for years, because if he sees I’m in my home office he’ll stop and do a tight three-point turn outside the entrance, rather than driving past to reverse by the garage.

I heard the van door slide back and went to the door to meet the guy I’ll call Roger. Roger is tall and lanky, has a sweet smile and disposition, and is open to talk if the time is right. Over the years he’s met me hundreds of times in that doorway. Mostly, he smiles and hand over the delivery, I thank him and wish him a good night, and he jumps into his truck, finishes reversing and drives away. Once in a while, when the roads are bad, we talk about his day: how he’s handled the challenges of delivering along my rural town’s sixty miles of dirt roads plus the surrounding area.

For some reason I hadn’t seen Roger for a few weeks; the other drivers had been making deliveries. So I said, “Hey, you’re back!” as he strolled towards me, package in hand.

“Well, I’ve been off a lot; my mother just passed away,” he replied.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. I stood and looked at him.

“Well” he said…

…and he started to tell his story.

Roger talked about his mom. He stood facing sideways from me, with an occasional glance in my direction prompted by my occasional responses to what he was saying. Once in a while he’d swivel to face me, sharing something that was especially important. Then he went back to telling me about his frequent journeys down south to see her since she’d fallen and broke multiple bones in June, how his family had done their best to cope, and her eventual decline and death.

He told me about dealing with “picking up the pieces” now she was gone. About the last time he saw her in the hospital, when she was “all scrunched up” and seemed out of it, until he bent down and hugged her and told her “I love you mom” and she opened one eye and said “I love you too” “as clear as anything” and then closed her eye and “was out of it again”. He told me much more than I’ll share here.

Roger talked for over ten minutes, by far the longest conversation we’ve ever had. Now and again he edged away during our time together. But he couldn’t quite get himself to stop what he wanted or needed to say.

And that was fine with me. I was in no hurry, and he wanted to talk.

At the end I wished him well and he turned, got into his van, and motored off down my driveway.

It felt good to listen.

How can we better support event professionals?

support event professionals How can we better support event professionals? was the topic of a fascinating August 5 #eventprofs chat† (archive), moderated by the “Queen of EIR“, Jenise Fryatt. The chat was noteworthy for its energy around two initiatives that emerged during our hour together:

  • An online resource for answering event industry questions
  • An online resource for matching volunteer mentors and mentees

Responding to the energy, I registered the domain www.eventprofsanswers.com during the chat and set up a skeleton website. As you can read in the archive, many chat participants were enthusiastic about this action, and asked how they could help move these initiatives forward.

Since the chat, I’ve had offline discussions about developing the website. Most correspondents have been positive, though a minority has expressed some reservations.

So, how can we better support event professionals?

Here are some of my conclusions and questions arising from the discussion so far:

  • I think it’s important to have the widest possible initial discussion before proceeding further. We need to find out what other #eventprofs think, and hear from professional association members and the associations themselves.
  • I’m not aware of significant attempts to use online technologies to address the two initiatives, other than the ad hoc use of Tweeted questions using the #eventprofs and allied hashtags. Perhaps there are existing resources we’re not aware of?
  • There seems to be evidence that some event professionals, especially perhaps those who entered the industry through non-conventional paths (like me), would appreciate a central online location for posting questions and finding appropriate mentors (either online or face to face). How easy has it been for you to get your events-related questions answered? What has your experience been with the availability of and satisfaction with existing industry mentoring programs?
  • I have already received a number of individual and association chapter offers of support (thank you everyone!) If you would like these initiatives to be implemented in some fashion, what are you willing to contribute to making this happen?
  • Do you have suggestions for additional online initiatives that would address event professionals’ needs?
  • I want to make it clear that I am personally completely open to the process and the organizational structure used to implement these initiatives. Perhaps an online resource would be run by a group of volunteers, perhaps it could become part of an existing professional association’s online presence and services, perhaps it would remain an independent presence that is formally supported by an association’s staff. What do you think?

Lots of questions! I, and I believe the professional events community, would like to know your responses. Either comment below or write me privately if you prefer. I look forward to everyone’s input!

†The #eventprofs chat is held on Twitter each week on Tuesdays 9 – 10 p.m. EST and Thursdays 12 – 1 p.m. EST.

Image attribution: flickr user thtstudios