Saturday, October 29, 2016

Facilitation Training for Greenhorns

I was recently challenged to come up with a weekend training for greenhorn facilitators. (See my blog How Quickly Could I Train a Facilitator?) As this intrigued me, I set aside a portion of my recent train travels to puzzle out how best to go about it. Upon reflection this sorted into three flavors:

Option A: For folks who have no experience at all (or precious little) and are willing to devote a weekend to having this essential skill demystified in a hands-on intensive.

Option B: For people living in intentional communities who have been doing this at home (or perhaps at their Unitarian church or their food co-op) and want help getting better. They want me to come to their group, or damn close.

Option C: For people so geographically diffuse that only a webinar makes sense (think anglophones living abroad). All they need is a good internet connection, a comfortable seat, and dates that work.

While the practice exercises might diverge for these three sets of clientele, I figure the ground to cover and key points to make are largely the same. Here's my teaching outline for a two-day intensive (which might translate into webinar series of 4-6 sessions, two hours each).

1. Mind set 
As a facilitator you are all about "how"; and as disinterested as possible about "what." You want what's best for the group, not what's quickest or most favorable for the presenter. The facilitator needs to understand that they are modeling open-mindedness, not just preaching it. Among other things, this means doing the personal work of unpacking how you've been conditioned to be competitive—so that you can unlearn it.

2. Are you the right facilitator for a given meeting?
After the draft agenda has been set, screen yourself for:

o  Neutrality
Are you sufficiently unattached to the outcome of the items on the agenda?

o  Skill
There are two main challenges that facilitators face: complexity and volatility. A topic could have one, both, or neither. If there are topics on the agenda that are known to be difficult, do you have the skill needed to handle them?

o  Availability
In addition to being able to attend the meeting, do you have time to prepare? Do you have the psychic free attention to give the group the focus it needs from its facilitator? (If you have a sick daughter in the hospital this may not be a good time to facilitate the monthly meeting.)

o  Desire
Do you want to the job? Martyring yourself is neither good for the group nor good for you.

3. Facilitation is a bundle of skills
There are quite a few process roles in service to a good meeting. Here's a pretty good list:

Running the meeting
Agenda drafting *
Opening & closing
Working emotions
Doorkeeping *
Meeting evaluation
Note taking *
Scribing *
Time keeping

* I think these aspects are best done by someone other than the person running the meeting.

All of these can be broken down into sub-roles that can be divvied up among a team, or one person can attempt holding them all. We'll discuss the pros and cons of working in a team, as well as the pros and cons of operating solo. There's not a single best answer here, but you need to know what you're getting into.
4. Ground Rules
It's important to establish explicitly your authority to run the meeting and redirect inappropriate contributions. While this is mostly common sense, if you operate without establishing Ground Rules you can get in hot water whenever you attempt to interrupt someone who can't find the period at the end of their paragraph, or who starts coloring outside the lines.

5. Prep
You cannot hope to be a competent facilitator without developing a clear sense of how to prepare for the meeting. In particular, for each topic you'll need to know three major things:

a) Objectives
What do the presenters want out of the group's focus on this topic at this meeting?

b) Background
What agreements exist that bear on this topic, if any? Has there been any recent prior work done on this topic? You want to start in the right place, neither skipping steps nor re-plowing old ground.

c) Icebergs
Are there any known unresolved hot spots with respect to this topic? If so, who is in distress, and why?

6. Working content
While there is tremendous variety in the way that facilitators work and no one style that is most efficacious, there are some basic concepts and tools that I recommend that all facilitators learn:

—Contact statements
A short oral nugget that captures the essence of what the speaker just said.

Illuminating a connection between the last thing said and something said earlier—even at a different meeting—that ties comments together.

Finding a path that links seemingly incompatible positions.

Distilling themes and highlights from the conversation. This is the ability to distinguish signal from noise, and encapsulating it in a concise statement. Note that summaries are not restricted to areas of agreement; they can highlight points of dynamic tension.

—Floating proposals
While it's important that the group own its work, it's fine for the facilitator to suggest solutions if the group is struggling to find the way forward. The key here is that the facilitator should never fight for their proposal; if there is resistance, back out gracefully.

7.  Format choices
There is almost an infinite variety of ways that groups can examine an issue, with more being crafted all the time. Fortunately, you only need to master a handful to be a competent facilitator. In this training we'll go over the following 10, explaining the advantages and weaknesses of each.

Open discussion
Card storm
Go rounds
Heart circles
Small group breakouts
Guided visualization
Individual writing
Spectra & other kinesthetic options

8. Plenary worthy
One of the ways that groups squander gobs of time is by not working at the right level. The most common version of this is asking the plenary to consider details that are too minor to be handled in a meeting of the whole. A good facilitator will know when to pull the plug, turning fine-tuning over to a manager or committee.

Note: Most groups have not ever made a conscious decision about what should be handled in plenary and what shouldn't, leaving it up to the facilitator to feel their way through this on a case-by-case basis. That's highly inefficient.

9. Working with emotions
As human beings, we bring our emotions with us wherever we go, and that includes meetings. Sometimes there is powerful information and energy contained in feelings and it can be a huge asset to the group when facilitators know how to work constructively with emotions. I will teach the principles for how to do this. (Again, this is an area that impacts all groups, yet few have had any agreements in place about how they want to handle emotions or make clear what authority facilitators have to work with them.)

10. Working with intuition 
Expanding on the previous point, there is often wisdom and inspiration in the group that does not come in a rational package. What latitude are facilitators given to explore that when it arises? If you are given permission, how do you do it?

11. Understanding the difference between Discussion phase and Proposal phase when working issues
One of the ways that groups lose traction when working issues is by not being clear about how to sequence their consideration. In particular, it is important that the Discussion phase (during which the group determines what a good response needs to take into account) be completed before Proposal Generating begins (during which the group tries to come up with the action or agreement that best balances what got identified in the Discussion phase).

In many groups these two steps are combined into one free-for-all jumble, at the cost of great confusion. Discussion phase can be expansive and passionate; Proposal phase should be contractive and reflective. The two don't mix well at all and it can be a tremendous benefit to the group if the facilitator can help the group track where it's at, and what kinds of responses are wanted at any given moment.

12. The value of changing pace
Most people have a preferred pace that they like to work at. Facilitators are the same way. I'll explore the advantages of being aware of one's pace, and the value of being able to develop a range of pace. It's valuable being able to either speed things up or slow them down, and we'll discuss how to use pace wisely.

13. Working hairballs
There will be times for every facilitator when you encounter a complex topic with many facets. Where to start? How to proceed without losing one's way? These can be baffling questions. I'll explain how to break down complex topics into digestible chunks, aggregating a solution bite by bite.

14. Up & out
Finally, I'll teach the importance of seeing the glass half-full (as opposed to half-empty) and why it's powerful to end meetings on a positive note. Left to our own propensities, most people will dwell on what did not get accomplished rather than what did. We want participants leaving the room with clarity about all that was accomplished, and why it was worthwhile to participate.

• • •
Sound interesting? I will shortly work up pricing and proposed dates for Greenhorn Facilitation Training. If you think this might be your cup of tea (or have any questions), send me an email (, telling me which of the three options interest you:

—Option A: For folks who have no experience at all (or precious little) and are willing to devote a weekend to having this essential skill demystified in a hands-on intensive. Please also tell me where you live and how far you're willing to travel to attend.

—Option B: For people living in intentional communities who have been doing this at home (or perhaps at their Unitarian church or their food co-op) and want help getting better. Please tell me where you live and the name of your group.

—Option C: For people so geographically diffuse that only a webinar makes sense (think shut-ins or anglophones living abroad). If you can, please give me an idea of when you could participate in a two-hour webinar that was offered once a week for 4-6 weeks.

If you let me know of your interest, I'll be sure to get you information about where, when, and how much.

Together, we can make a difference.

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