Facilitating Other People's Conversations

Ongoing challenges for every facilitator include:
  1. Choosing how much of themself they 'insert' into the discussion that they are facilitating; and 
  2. Being sufficiently self-aware to see when and how they are 'inserting' themself into the conversation. 
 Yes, these are related challenges, as you cannot do the first without having the second.

Some Insights

Most facilitation can benefit from me being nearly invisible. The key to this is asking questions. Good-old-open-questions. And not just any open questions, but questions that encourage people to examine what they think and why. And if there people are listening as well as sharing their own perspective, there is also the potential for them to see points of agreement, and points of disagreement, and points of ignorance.

When I start a session, I do not ask 'Why are you here?' because I want to hear one cohesive answer around the room; I often ask because I suspect people have different reasons for being here, and I want them to have an opportunity to tell me and the other people in the room what they want out of this.

Also, I can always put more of me into the next part of the discussion, but I can never take out what I have already put in. So I often tell myself, 'Hold back; hold back and see where the discussion is going.' And when I do, thinks almost invariable work out better than they would have with my opinion or intervention.

I have recently visited a number of small not-for-profit organisations working for a better life for people in their communities. I think that small not-for-profit community organisations are the backbone of our social contract on a local level. I sometimes tell people working in these organisations that this is what I think. When I tell them what I think, I am inserting myself into the conversation. I am sharing an opinion. This opinion is not necessarily relevant or helpful.

I think I do it to be encouraging - to let them know that people believe in them; that I believe in them. Could this be unhelpful? Yes it could. It could be unhelpful because when I judge them in this way, I am suggesting that my judgement is valid. I am inserting myself. Maybe I could substitute a question, like, 'What are you doing that is making a difference in this community?' or, more simply 'What is valuable about this work?' -- For a little less of me; and a bit more of them.

The title of this post is very intentional. Actually, it is where this post started. If I can have the humility to believe that this is 'the participants' conversation' (and not mine), there is a good chance they will achieve  what they came to achieve, and maybe a bit more.


Recommending the Changeology Blog

Screenshot from www.changeologyblog.wordpress.com

I haven't blogged for a while, so when I came across another active blog in this space, I thought I would give a shout out so you have something to chew on.

Les writes enthusiastically about the joy of facilitating, the need to let the process take on a life of its own, and the need to mix gravitas (the serious stuff) with hilaritas (the fun stuff). This is the secret to edu-tainment, the bane of 'real teachers', and the joyfully engaged mission of those of us who tend more towards 'court jester'.

Stop. Breathe. Insights about facilitating the genius of groups.



Learner-Centred Learning - Facilitating Self-paced Workshops

Training Materials (all rights reserved)
For many years I have been delivering two predominantly self-paced workshops.  They are a one-day Time Management & Microsoft Outlook workshop, and a two-day Intermediate Microsoft Project workshop.  They have been very well received.

The main benefits I see in running these as 'self-paced' are that people can work at their own speed; and as the facilitator, I can assist people individually or in pairs if they get stuck or have a specific question. Working at your own speed means if you are quick you can get out early, or talk through the application of the learning with the facilitator or other quick learners.  When working by yourself, it is easier to 'do over' any activities that did not make sense or did not come out right, without asking other people to wait, putting extra pressure on the learner.

In both of these workshops I work hard to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the approach, and I try to find a balance between self-paced and facilitator-led time.  I tend to ask for everyone's attention at intervals to explain complex and/or important topics that they are working through.

Some other things I do include:

  • For the two-day program I set a target for the end of Day 1 early in the day, so that everyone is at least half-way through the content before they stop for the day.  Sometimes I have to be a bit flexible to accommodate different learners.  This is also something that can be done coming up to a long break like lunchtime.
  • Once people have started PC-based activities, only ask for their extended attention just before or just after a logical breaking point.  For example, I might go through 10 to 15 slides with the whole group just before lunchtime.
  • Let people have a long self-paced session when there are big tasks to do, so they have a sense of making progress.  Jumping frequently between self-paced and facilitator-led modes can be quite disconcerting.  
  • I try not to ask for the whole group's attention after they settle back into self-paced content after lunch.  This means I ask for their attention early in the day when they are more likely to be able to concentrate on what I am saying. Also, if people leave early as they finish, they do not miss out.
  • Rather than adding in extra tasks like filling out a progress checklist, I mainly keep an eye on the page numbers of all of the participants, so I can see how they are progressing relative to each other.
  • If someone is struggling, I give them more attention.  If relevant, I may also suggest that they skip some content.  For example, not many organisations use the financial tracking functions of MS Project, so many people can skip this content.  Similarly, if someone is struggling with using folders and contact groups in Microsoft Outlook, they are unlikely to be comfortable setting up rules.
  • Make sure that there is sufficient time and opportunity for people to participate in discussion as part of the facilitator-led portions of the workshop.
  • Put the list of topics or some other advance organiser onto the screen while people are working.

Gary Tennant of Teamwork Consulting in Melbourne has been a mentor to me in the discipline of instructional design.  He does self-paced, competency-based training in Dr Robert F Mager's Criterion Referenced Instruction.  In his sessions:
  • He makes sure that people are comfortable and ready by clearly explaining the approach.
  • He lets them know how they should be progressing and where they are relative to others in the class.
  • He ensures that they have adequately completed early content before introducing more advanced content.  
Another simple technique Gary uses is to have a flipchart next to his work area.  People who are ready to have one-on-one time with him, to ask a question or get assessed for a competency, can write their name up, resulting in a simple queue in order of readiness.  This not only assists people in progressing in an orderly way, it also puts them in charge of their learning, rather than making that Gary's sole responsibility.

If you are facilitating partially or fully self-paced training, think about how you can assist participants in being comfortable and give them ownership of their learning.


Icebreaker: Getting to Know Each Other

Every now and then I develop a tool for a client that could be useful for other people. In this case the client is running a short get-to-know-each-other and get-organised session for a workgroup that is usually separated geographically.

I offered to provide a short activity that could be used to get to know each other. Having pondered for a while I turned to a trainers' resource you should be familiar with called Google. Thanks to Kristin Bird who writes on Yahoo Voices, I was able to provide the activity below...

Go around the room taking it in turns finishing some sentences. Only introduce one sentence at a time. You might need to repeat the sentence for participants who are caught up in the activity. Pick 3-6 of the questions below (based on suitability), or write some of your own:

  1. “My name is …”
  2. “My organisation is in the business of …”
  3. “I’m here because …”
  4. “I think our clients could benefit from …”
  5.  “If I wasn’t here, I would be …”
  6. “When I feel nervous, I …”
  7. “The most important contribution I make at work is …”
  8. “In groups, I like it when the leader …”
  9. “If I was in charge today, I would make sure to …”
  10. “My favourite character from television or movies is …”
  11. “If there were no such thing as gravity, I would live in a …”
  12. “When my mobile phone rings at 11pm, I think …”

This exercise is adapted from Kristin's original post. She suggest some more and different questions, so for more ideas, read her post: Group Activities: Ice Breakers to Help People Get to Know Each Other.


The Grand Gesture Using NLP

Discarded Work Procedure (all rights reserved)
When I was writing the post 'Which Space is Right For You?', I recalled some neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques I was taught years ago while doing training in coaching with supervisors at BHP Steel at Port Kembla.

One technique that stuck in my mind is that you can imbue an object with meaning (that is, make it the symbol of something), and then do something to the object to symbolise action.

For example, if you want to communicate that we are going to be totally rewriting an out-of-date work procedure, bring a copy of the old procedure, wave it around while describing it, then throw it in a rubbish bin.  Although you could retrieve it from the bin, or even just reprint it, this gives a very clear message that the old procedure is gone.

Another example that I use when delegating tasks (no, not a facilitation example, but still a useful illustration) is to write some notes about the task on a piece of paper.  Not in my notebook with my ongoing personal notes, but on a piece of stray A4 paper.  When I feel that I have adequately introduced the task, I push the piece of paper across the desk to the other person.  If they 'accept it' by picking it up or simply touching it, the task has been 'handed over'.  If they glance at it but do not touch it, there is probably some reluctance to take on the task.  This means I need to do some more influencing, or maybe review whether to give the task to them at all.  I may even reach over and take the page back, and keep it or hold it for a while before offering it again.

I recall a story from couple of decades ago at the Baillieu Library at Melbourne University during a change project involving digitising records. Andrea Phillips described the sense of exhilaration that came from burning some of the old wooden filing cabinets.  This may be a bit extreme for your purposes, but stomping on a work procedure can certainly wake your participants up.

Think about objects with meaning in your facilitation space, and how you might bring them alive.


Product Review: My (New, Replacement) Kensington Wireless Presenter

Kensington Wireless Presenter in Use (all rights reserved)
I noticed that my earlier post extolling the virtues of the Kensington Wireless Presenter has been overtaken by more recent events.  Nearly 12 months ago my trusty pointer disappeared.  I am pretty sure I left it lying around, and without a forwarding address it did not turn up again.  I replaced it post haste at my local Officeworks.

The replacement is an updated version of my former device. I have gone for a shiny, larger model which includes a slot for a micro SD card and a green laser.

This device cost a little more, but (if it is possible) is more comfortable than the one it replaced.  Again, I have a tool that is sufficiently hefty to be comfortable, without sacrificing usability and portability.  For more details on my shape preference, you might read the earlier post.

I had a micro SD card lying around giving me 4Gb of space.  The big benefit of the memory is that when borrowing a laptop or PC, I do not need two USB slots (one for a USB stick and the other for the dongle on the wireless presenter.)  I have found USB to be flakey at times, but so far I have not had a PC or laptop reject either the wireless presenter or the memory.  Not only has the memory been useful for PowerPoint files, as there is so much space, I have also been able to put video files on it when I have needed them in sessions.

Kensington Wireless Presenter, Case & USB Dongle
(all rights reserved)
The green laser is apparently a lot brighter than a red laser. Apparently they can be seen on an LCD display, which are becoming more common.  I hardly use it, but love that the colour is bright and unusual.

For those of you who are concerned, I have put my phone number on a sticky label in the case, in order to assist it in finding its way home in future.


The Art of 'Resolving' (Landing the Session Safely)

Golden Gate Fly By - MS Flight Simulator 4.0 Mac OS 9 (CC License by Nicholas Volodimer)

As a young business consultant (known as a 'green bean' at Andersen Consulting at that time), Neil Perry, one of my early mentors, introduced a few of us to Microsoft Flight Simulator.  It was not quite as fun as I expected, having only played computer games designed to provide instant gratification.  My experience was that it is a lot easier to get a plane off the ground without incident than it is to land. This can happen to facilitators too.

It can be exciting turning over lots of rocks and seeing what scuttles out, but what do you do next?  You need to be able to resolve the session.  'Resolving' can take many forms, more than can be covered in detail here.

Common practices finishing a session include:

  • Agreeing to 'a position' that will influence future actions.
  • Dividing up jobs using an action plan.
  • Agreeing to disagree on some details, while agreeing to the way forward on others.
  • Agreeing to meet again at some future time to keep working. 

Not all of these are going to result in people's outstanding concerns being resolved.

As there are so many alternative end points, it is good to start the session by saying what you will or hope to achieve.  You should also be vigilant for additional potential outcomes, and aware of the risk that the agreed outcome may not be achieved.

Things don't just go awry as you are landing.  They can also go out of kilter in-flight.  What seems like a useful diversion from the original topic may result in wasted time or even limit your ability to achieve your agreed outcome.  This may be because too much time has been lost; or people's attention may have become indivertibly distracted from the main agenda.  In these cases, consider some time out to break people's focus off, and give you a chance to figure out what to do next.  You may find yourself re-visiting the agreed outcome, and maybe settling for something less or different to that originally agreed.

Back to the flying metaphor, we also need to remember that no-one on this plane lives at the airport. They all need to go somewhere else after this flight, and if the flight is too traumatic, they may not get there.  Try to regulate people's trauma level.  If they seem phased by their experience of the session, talk to them afterwards, and listen to any concerns they have.  You wont always be responsible for resolving them, but you should still be respectful of them.

As they say in the airline industry, whatever situation you find yourself in, DON'T PANIC.


Tilted Towards Completion

I love this video of Gever Tulley talking about something called 'Tinkering School'.  It is not a new TED Talk, but it is a great one.

My favourite quote is:  "Robyn and I acting as collaborators keep the landscape of the projects tilted towards completion."  This is a great perspective on the role of the facilitator - not to get to a particular predetermined outcome, but to keep the participants headed in roughly a positive and useful direction.

Another quote that tickles my fancy is, "decoration of the unfinished projects is a kind of conceptual incubation".  Purposeful doodling, or maybe doodling with beneficial side-effects?


Leaning 'Til You're Dizzy

The Book (image c/o wired.com)
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook gives advice to women in government and industry - she says they need to 'lean in' to demonstrate their abilities. Sheryl has come in for some criticism about asking women in management to act like clones of men in management. However, I love this idea. I don't know whether it will break the glass ceiling, but I do know it is hard to get a job done when you are leaning back. And it is hard to reflect when you are leaning forward.

I propose two complementary and critical states: Leaning in to get the work done. And leaning out to think, really think.

I am leaning in now - as I type I am leaning forwards. I also do this when I am totally engaged in a meeting - I lean forwards and pay close attention to what people say, and I project my voice into the mix.

I also want to promote leaning out. I just leant out to think about how I could phrase this idea. I lean out to get some space between me and what I've just written, so I can better see whether it makes sense. I think that in meetings by leaning out every now and then we can get a helicopter view of what is going on. This might help to think more strategically, and should assist in avoiding groupthink.

So what has this got to do with facilitation?

I suggest that I need to 'lean out' some more when I am writing new stuff - to consider how to phrase things; to visualise how people are going to respond; and to give an opportunity for new ideas to appear.

And I need to keep 'leaning in' when I need to get things done - whether it is planning a session; cold calling a potential client; digging through my files for an activity I've used once before; or writing up outcomes from a previous session.

While facilitating, leaning in can show you are engaged; and leaning out can help you to figure out what you are going to do next. Consider leaning in, and out, a little more decisively - you might find it makes a world of difference.


Are You Aware of the Negative Space?

Sketcher on Castle Hill (all rights reserved, Geoff Higgins)
I seem to be coming across a lot of references to 'negative space' at the moment.  Guy Kawasaki's book Enchantment includes a quote at the start of a chapter with the innocuous title 'How to Launch'.  The quote is from Pablo Picasso and says:
There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.
Alexa Meade (TED talk 'Your body is my canvas' here) was on her way to Washington having completed a degree in political science. Instead she started painting shadows, and then went on to paint people.
I loved that I could hide within this shadow my own painted version, and it would be almost invisible until the light changed, and all of a sudden my shadow would be brought to the light.
And in my budding enjoyment of iphoneography, I have found myself using camera angles and contrast while editing to create silhouettes in nature.  Another form of negative space in photos is the empty space you might leave in front of something that is facing in a particular direction, alluding to where the thing is moving or looking.  Leanna Lofte has written a great blog post about this at imore - How to make your iPhone photographs more powerful with negative space.

Negative space is important for facilitators!  Before you read on, please stop and have a think about what this could mean to you.  And below my silhouette, you can read some of my ideas.

Grass Trees & Gum Trees at The Saddle, Mt Archer (Geoff Higgins, all rights reserved) 
For facilitators, negative space can mean:

  • The time people spend talking with each other 'off topic'.  This may be during small group exercises and in breaks.  This can be a rich mine for anecdotes and recent events you can use as examples or to anchor key points.
  • The  diversions that crop up and take the group on another trajectory, useful, interesting and perplexing as these may be.
  • Economists have a concept of 'opportinity cost'.  Perhaps the things people could be doing instead of coming to the session is negative space. 
  • When things get chaotic and I am tolerant of multiple conversations, the negative space may be the content of those over conversations.
  • The time you get to spend getting ready for the next topic while people are completing a small group activity.
  • When I get close to, but intentionally avoid, talking about something I want someone in the group to raise, I am using negative space - a void that could draw that person or someone else out. 
  • And my most obvious use of negative space is the long, drawn out, uncomfortable for me and sometimes for others, pregnant in the final trimester, even in the final weeks or days, pause.  Hoping that someone will step in and respond to my question or make a comment.

I hope that you can see that negative space is not 'bad space', it is just different space.  And it may help you see the space you need to be occupying.