Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Opening Gauntlet

I just completed a 9-day teaching piece in Albuquerque, and during the afterbirth (the debrief of the nine-day delivery) the teaching team admitted that we hadn't done that well with the Openings and Closings each day—they had gotten the attention of a neglected stepchild, and it showed. While there weren't any disasters, there were some harried beginnings and way too many moments of confusion.

While Openings and Closings are not as crucial as the main segments of a mtg, these bookends are nonetheless important elements in orchestrating the energy of a session, and it's well worth learning to do them with grace, efficiency, and alignment. Let's take them one at a time. Today I'll tackle Openings.

First of all, you need to understand that Openings are really a bundle of responsibilities, rather than a single thing. (Not knowing this, it's easy to see how Openings can can go awry: the task is assigned lightly to a volunteer, that person may not be holding all the pieces, and a ball [or two] is dropped. Then, instead of that crisp beginning you had imagined, you have a clunky start, information doesn't flow smoothly, and people feel confused instead of unified. Not good.)

Here's an overview of the typical components of an Opening:

Call to attention
Depending on the habits of the group with respect to timeliness, and the layout of the space, it can take time to get everyone into awareness that the mtg is about to start and this needs to be factored into the equation—who will herd the cats, how will they accomplish that, and how much time should be allocated for its accomplishment. Note: in some cases this step can easily take several minutes.

I like using a pair of Tibetan brass temple bells for this purpose. The sound tends to carry pretty well and is not as obtrusive as the Town Crier approach where someone shouts "Please take your seats, the mtg is about to start." Unfortunately, in groups inured to resisting subtlety, you may need a gong or a dinner bell to penetrate the fog. (I haven't yet used a cattle prod, but I'll admit there have been times when I was tempted.)

Gathering the energy
Now that you have them quiet and in the right place, it's time for an activity that brings the energy of the group into alignment, and provides a clear marker that you have entered mtg space—a place where you expect people to behave differently than in the unstructured social space they just left. (NOTE: If you have not done so before, you may need to discuss with your group exactly what mtg behavior is.)

This activity can be many things: a song, a dance, a movement exercise, a reading, a prayer, a moment of silence… use your imagination! With rare exceptions, you don't want this to go very long. Usually less than five minutes. Often, with care, you can select an activity that will bring the group's awareness and energy into a state that will complement the work you are expecting the group to do once the Opening is concluded. Kind of like priming the pump.
If at all possible, you want the Opening to weave seamlessly into the main purpose of the session. Selecting the right activity and carrying it out with the appropriate energetic invitation is an art form.

Generally this is about one of three things:
1. Logistics (we will break for lunch late today, so snack accordingly; there's a purple Taurus in the parking lot with its lights on; has anyone seen my green pen?);

2. Reminders of expectations (please fill out your evaluation forms before leaving today; keep in mind all we've learned about the new economic paradigm when listening to this evening's presentation); or

3. Opportunities (there will be a conference on health and wellness in town two weeks from now—details are posted on the bulletin board; I'm willing to give back rubs to anyone on break; I'm inviting everyone over for drinks after class tonight).

Sometimes there will be no announcements, but don't be surprised when there are. Some groups prefer that all announcement be funneled through a single speaker, so that you'll have an idea ahead about how much time to allot and can count on their being presented clearly and concisely. Some create a designated space on the wall and ask that announcements be posted there instead of being offered aloud.

Review of agenda
It often helps groups get grounded if you spend a minute briefly outlining the schedule for the day—even if it's already posted on the wall or they have a handout with that information. Obviously this is important if there are changes to what has previously been announced. If for some reason you expect resistance or controversy about the proposed agenda, you should allow appropriate time to handle that without feeling rushed.

If there are multiple sessions (in the 9-day training I just completed there were 13 sessions), it should be possible to overview the agenda in about 30 seconds, excepting the first time (when it should be reviewed much more carefully) or whenever there are substantive changes. Hint: It generally helps a group relax if the agenda for the day is clearly posted within everyone's sight.

Hand-off to the main facilitator
If the main facilitator for the mtg is also handling the Opening, this is no more than an announcement to the group that you are about to tackle the first item on agenda. If the person facilitating the Opening is different than the main facilitator (or whoever has been identified as the person running the first item scheduled), then there needs to be an explicit hand off, so that the group can follow the bouncing ball.

• • •
While there's some flexibility about the order in which these five things happen (you might easily reverse Announcements and Review of Agenda, for example), you should always be thinking about the energetic flow and how to sequence things such that the entry into the main agenda is on-tempo and focused. (By "on-tempo" I mean two things: a) in a timely way; and b) with an energy appropriate to the work about to happen—while you often want the group to be up-tempo going into an agenda item, that is not alway the case. If the first item on the agenda is heart circle to grieve the loss of a long-time member, you don't want to have everyone sing Zippety Do Dah as the Opening activity.)

The way I see it, it works best if a single person (or team) is holding the responsibility for seeing that all of the components of a good Opening are covered. This does not mean they have to be the one up front doing everything (though that's a possibility); it means they:
o Make sure the room is set up in an appropriate way (this may involve chair arrangement, lighting, props, audio-visual support, etc.);
o Know who is doing each piece;
o Establish a sequence for how the pieces will happen;
o Coordinate the pieces so that they fit together energetically; and
o Take responsibility for adjusting what happens with any aspect of the Opening in the face of emerging needs or requests (this could be something they sense, or a response to a specific problem or request)—the key is that everyone knows the Opening facilitator is the one who makes the call in the moment.

No comments: