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.
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.