Wednesday, March 21, 2012

If the Form Fits, Wear It

Today is the final installment of a series of three blogs on the topic of meeting facilitation, covering:

Managing Open Discussions
Selecting Formats

• • •

While open discussion is the most common form of plenary engagement—and the one groups will default to if nothing else is suggested—it's by no means the only choice, nor is it often the best one. Here's why:

o Not everyone is equally quick to be ready to speak.

o Not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in the whole group (this may not be much of a factor in a group of six, but it can be a big deal in a group of 40).

o When group members are not well disciplined regarding the appropriate use of plenary time, a more structured format will help remind them of appropriate contributions, cutting down on diffusing and extraneous contributions.

o Meetings tend to be highly verbal, somewhat visual, and minimally kinesthetic. However, as human beings we're naturally a mix of all three and it generally enhances the energy and quality of the work if you can offer variety with these tendencies in mind.

o The objectives for a given topic can be a rich stew that shifts between focusing on energy (sense of cohesion and connection among members) and content (problem solving). Sometimes it's smart to shift the format to better serve the specific objective.

o Other things being equal, it's typically a good idea to change formats just to change the energy (sociologists refer to the Hawthorne Effect to describe the phenomenon where there's a temporary boost in attention and productivity simply because there's been a change—not because the new format is inherently better).

As a facilitation teacher, I don' think that mastering formats is the major challenge of he job. To be specific, I believe all of the following skills are more consequential in midwifing a good meeting:
—Can hear accurately what's being said.
—Able to shift perspectives easily to fully understand the lens through which speakers are seeing the topic at hand.
—Can identify themes in a discussion (sorting the wheat from the chaff).
—Can articulate bridges between disparate positions (based on what people have told you are their core interests).
—Know when it's time to start problem solving, and when you've heard enough that a workable solution has emerged.
—Is able to create and maintain an atmosphere of curiosity, authenticity, and compassion among the group.

For all of that though, I believe that every facilitator should develop familiarity and facility with a basic set of meeting formats. I think of it as part of the essential facilitator toolkit. While there are always more tools available—many of which are excellent in certain circumstances—you don't need more than a basic set in order to accomplish solid work.

In no particular order, here is an overview of the formats I think every facilitator should know (Hint: don't get hung up in the names):

A. Heart Circles
Sometimes referred to as Sharing Circles, this is a construct where the pace is slowed down, and people are invited to speak from their heart, one at a time, as they are moved. The emphasis here is on relationship and connection and typically does not involve problem solving at all. The point is to hear deeply, the better to understand each person's emotional experience. You typically ask people to speak only for themselves. You are not looking for dialog in this format; you are looking for emotional honesty.

Sometimes, in order to reinforce the idea of a more deliberate pace and deep listening, groups use a talking object, with the understanding that only the person in possession of the object may speak. It's often a good idea for the facilitator to retain the right to ask clarifying questions, or to remind participants to keep their comments directed to the focus question of the circle ("How do you feel about Dale's decision to leave the group?")

B. Small Group Breakouts
When you have a large group and it's awkward for people to feel comfortable speaking in front of everyone, it can be helpful to divide the group into small groups (3-6 people per group) with instructions for each group to discuss a topic that the whole needs to tackle. The concept here is that the conversation will flow more purposefully and inclusively if everyone is guaranteed a small amount of airtime to explore their views (and to practice expressing them) in a more accessible environment first.

C. Individual Writing
Some people are better able to express themselves in writing than orally. Others are able to express themselves differently in writing. For both of these reasons, it can can occasionally be a significant enhancement of a group's ability to get a purchase on a topic (especially a complex one that isn't yielding easily to straight forward discussion) if you pause and ask participants to get at it another way. This option can work especially well as "homework" between meetings, where the time devoted to it comes at individual discretion and not out of the limited budget available for plenaries.

D. Guided Visualizations
As another change of pace that temporarily stills the aural symphony (or cacophony, depending on how amicably and productively you're proceeding), it can be insightful to try to access each participant's intuitive relationship to the topic (in contrast with their rational or emotional intelligence). The facilitator can create a scenario relevant to the topic, where group members are asked to place themselves (typically with their eyes closed) and then simply observe what unfolds in their minds eye, as in a waking dream. They are asked expressly to not attempt to steer what happens; all they need do is observe it and report back to the group what happened in their "movie." In my experience this technique can lead to some surprising clarity in the event of a rational logjam.

E. Reflective Silence
Similar to the previous suggestion, if you find yourself on a merry-go-round, where the contributions are tending toward the circular and not advancing, sometimes it's beneficial to simply stop the music and ask everyone to reflect on all that's been said and see what bubbles up. I can recall a powerful example of this from my early days of working with cooperative groups (more than two decades ago) where I asked everyone to pause for two minutes, to see if stepping back allowed anyone to access a reflection on the topic that had not yet been voiced. Sure enough it did, and the blockage resolved!

F. Go Rounds
This is a classic technique that ensures air time for the quiet while simultaneously limiting air time for the vocal. In its most common version, everyone is giving a protected chance to speak, such that no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has spoken once.

There is a noteworthy variation on this called Inspiraling where the group continues with the Go Round as many times as needed for all members to feel complete. While the amount of summarizing and reflecting by the facilitator between rounds can vary, the core concept is that the group will use what's said in previous rounds as a springboard for forward movement in successive rounds. This technique can lead to a high level of buy-in while at the same time making an effort to equalize participation. That said, it may take longer than some approaches, and its efficacy will relate directly to how well the group can remain open and fluid in the face of differing viewpoints.

G. Brainstorms
This is an expansive technique, where everyone is encouraged to offer whatever occurs to them on the question at hand. ("What factors should we take into account when thinking about replacing the roof on the common house?") The key to a thorough and productive brainstorm is that the focus question is well crafted and that you assiduously steer clear of evaluative comments (assessment will come later). You want an up-tempo, creative—even playful—atmosphere where all ideas are captured. While you want suggestions to be on topic (it's OK to ask clarifying questions if you don't understand someone's contribution), it's important that participants feel free and unjudged.

One of the benefits of this technique is that it can significantly lighten the mood and is unparalleled for quickly gathering ideas. While not all of the seeds will sprout or land on fertile soil, it's often well worth it that some do.

H. Card Storms
This is an interactive sorting technique where all the ideas in play (perhaps generated by a brainstorm) are written in shorthand on slips of paper and then clumped by like items by the participants. While this can probably be accomplished by having the group direct the facilitator on which items go best together, it's typically quicker and more kinesthetic if the facilitator simply gets out of the way and asks the group to do this on their own.

It's amazing how fast groups can do this without any involvement from the facilitator whatsoever. Once the group is finished (five minutes is often sufficient), the facilitator can step back in and review with the group its freestyle efforts, both to name each clump and to determine whether things have been sorted in a way that works for everyone. The outcome is an ordering from which the group can decide how to proceed—in what order to tackle subsets, whether different subsets should be handled by the plenary or a committee, whether research needs to happen before the subset can be discussed, etc.

I. Spectrums
This technique is another example of how physical movement can be incorporated into information gathering. Instead of asking people to talk out their opinions, they're asked to walk
out their views. Once the group has identified tension between two positions on a topic, it can be illuminating in both a quick and nuanced way to ask people to place themselves—without words—on a line where one edge of the room represents total support for one of the positions and the opposite side of the room represents total support for the other. It can be highly instructive seeing the pattern. Do you have a dumbbell shape with almost everyone at one end or the other? Is it imbalanced such that there's a dominant pull? Are most folks clumped in the middle, indicating ambivalence?

While care is needed in setting up the right ends of the spectrum, this technique can be potent and at the same time provide much-needed movement— a terrific antidote for meeting butt.
• • •
While I think mastery of the above set of basic formats is sufficient to have great meetings, the possibilities are nearly endless, with new ones being concocted all the time. Here is a suggestive handful of some of the more popular ones, all of which can be explored online (in cases where FIC offers a title on that technique through Community Bookshelf, I have provided a hyperlink):

Appreciative Inquiry
Open Space
Restorative Circles
World Cafes
SWOT Analysis

In thinking about how to use these various tools properly, the prime directive is which will best serve the objective and the dynamics you are expecting to field in the attempt. Do not let your fondness for a technique determine which you select (the phenomenon where everything starts looking like a nail once you fall in love with your hammer). The test of a good meeting is not the facilitator's virtuosity with the instruments; it's how sweet the music.

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