Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Marker in hand, I stand by my blank wall of paper, ready to grab the first creative insight from amongst the group. The participants, a group of 15 federal employees, have convened to experience a workshop in the art of innovation, known commonly today as “human-centered design.” The two facilitators, consultants from a large firm, have gotten about 30 minutes into their agenda, when things start to not go as planned.
“What are your key challenges?” asks one facilitator.
Several participants launch into a rant about all of the technology limitations they are facing. The facilitator scribbles each challenge on a sticky note, barely keeping up and frantically trying to keep the falling notes from becoming a pile of leaves below the flipchart.
“Let’s turn that into a challenge question,” says the facilitator shakily. “How might we…”
He barely finishes the sentence before one participant asks, “How is this supposed to help us? It takes years to implement technologies in our environment. There’s no point in even trying.”
The facilitator’s voice cracks; a look of fear comes over his face. The other facilitator steps in to try to explain the purpose of the exercise to a room of glazed faces.
One of the reasons I love playing the role of a scribe is to witness group dynamics without having to own the process. This is an example of one experience I witness over and over; facilitators trying to force feed processes to groups who need something else -- someone to hear them, to legitimize their concerns and in many cases, to heal.
Novice facilitators trained only in design thinking methods are often caught off guard when group behavior “gets real.” They will try to continue the agenda, getting more and more anxious and less responsive to the participants who often rebel. The worst thing a facilitator can do is shut down or start blaming participants.
In Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There, published in 2007, Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff remind us of fundamental facilitation competencies and techniques that many no longer learn. Before you put on your facilitator hat and put a group through a design thinking process, read this book and apply these insights. For tenured facilitators, this can serve as a reminder to not be consumed by common pitfalls.
11 million meetings occur in the United States every day. People report that more than half of time spent in meetings is wasted. Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There is a call to action to make every moment count during our meetings. This is an arguably more important goal today, when remote work has created fewer opportunities to meet and overall shorter time spans in which to accomplish our goals.
Control What You Can, Let Go of What You Can’t
Work with people the way they are, not as the way we wish them to be. Instead of trying to control how people act, turn attention to the structure of the meeting.
“Control the structure, and participants will take care of the rest.” In doing so, we let go of unrealistic demands on ourselves, such as worrying about participants’ attitudes, agendas, status, etc.
As “structuralist” facilitators, we work on creating spaces in which participants can manage their own behavior. We do this through manipulating the elements of:
division of labor,
focus on goals, and
“Complex times call for simpler practices.” This has never been more true.
Weisbord and Janoff encourage facilitators to do less, so that others will do more. Whenever possible, invite participants to organize their own information. When we do too much for participants, it deprives group members the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves.
When groups work online, it’s easy to get distracted and consumed by the technology in use. When a group member is struggling with a tool, this is an opportunity for other group members to practice supportive team behavior. Rather than intervening, facilitators should engage only to encourage group members to look for ways they can include the troubled member. This might look like assigning a scribe and/or someone to share their screen.
Weisbord and Janoff tell us to let go of all expectation that:
meetings be perfect,
goals be clear,
behavior have decorum,
anxiety turn to laughter,
enmity turn to support,
presentations be short,
questions be insightful,
answers be terse, and
“actions [be] as inevitable as night following day.”
“Should any of these not happen, it is not your fault,” they admonish. Tell yourself to “let remarks pass through me like wind through a tree.”
Stand there. Pause. Notice. Control your anxiety. Experiment with silence.
“Nothing in the affairs of men is worthy of great anxiety.” - Plato.
“Someone always has something to say. You can only learn it when you wait long enough. When facilitators break the silence, we deprive someone of the opportunity to make a valuable observation.”
Participants project onto facilitators their models for authority, such as parenthood, police or teachers. Become aware of the projections of others and those we place on ourselves.
The self-work of facilitation is recognizing that we control our own perceptions and feelings. Instead of seeing participants as the cause of our frustration, Weisbord and Janoff encourage us to recognize when we are actually frustrating and undermining ourselves.
Differentiation and Integration
Weisbord and Janoff introduce the principles of “differentiation,” or identifying differences, and “integration,” or harmonizing ideas. They note that unless participants validate their differences, integration cannot be achieved. This requires us, as facilitators, to get comfortable enough with conflict, so as to not interrupt its potential to drive opportunity.
Structures for differentiation involve working individually or in small groups with similar functionality or feelings. Structures for integration include working in mixed groups that cover the range of opinions or experiences present. We often use small groups to differentiate, then the large group (or “plenary”) to integrate (often called “harvesting”) the learnings from the whole.
A sample process might include:
breakouts in functional groups, each working with the same challenge or question, followed by
breakouts in cross-disciplinary groups to come up with solutions that all can agree to.
“You can only change a system in relation to the larger system of which it is a part.”
The more parts of the system you include, the faster the resolution and more likely that commitments will sustain. Differences become opportunities for creativity.
Weisbord and Janoff offer “The Four Rooms” model at the start of most meetings to normalize anxiety and confusion.
Invite the group to periodically notice where they are in the house. This emphasis on noticing makes it okay to experience confusion and beginning to see it as an opportunity to keep going.
The facilitator’s role is to heighten, not diminish, the awareness of differences and reduce any fear associated amongst group members with voicing these differences. We do this by inviting allyship.
For example, when someone points out a disagreement, the facilitator might ask, “Who else feels that way?” In seeking an ally for the dissenter, we legitimize concerns. We find empathy for the speaker within ourselves and invite the group to do the same.
“If you don’t fall dead and don’t shoot back, you will have a quick truce, followed by a peace treaty.”
In very heated disagreements, invite subgroups to form and have each group listen to the other. Use a “go around” anytime there is a feeling of being stuck. Weisbord and Janoff point out that most of the time, a group will move on when they hear all views, and in many cases, someone will offer an “integrating” both-and statement.
When a meeting is going off topic, state the obvious.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on this. Is there more to say, or can we move on?”
“Interesting. Can you share how you got there? How does this tie into [PURPOSE]?”
Bring the conversation back to the goals. Consult the group on where to go next. When no one knows and the meeting is truly going nowhere, ask each person what they want to do. It is always in our power to end meetings that are not productive.
Get the Whole System in the Room
The “right” people are those with the expertise, authority and information to act. This does not mean that the entire 5,000 person organization needs to attend, just a core group and relevant individuals who “ARE-IN” a position to act on behalf of the system.
ARE-IN stands for:
Authority to act
Resources - contacts, time or money
Expertise on the issues
Information about the topic
Need to be involved, because they are affected by the outcome
“The more far-reaching the objective, the more need for a set of diverse players,” note Weisbord and Janoff.
Many are familiar with the classic metaphor of the blind men and the elephant, covered briefly in our blog on listening to others. The lesson of the story is that each man was partly right but all were in the wrong. Nothing can be solved in isolation from the system. And a system cannot be changed without exploring its relationship to the outside world (technology, money, customers, trends, etc.).
The whole system can be explored with visual tools such as:
Flow charts/process maps
The Grove’s Strategic Visioning toolkit is a model process for helping a group achieve common ground and create action. Click here to purchase the templates for use in your PowerPoints and online whiteboards.
Seek Common Ground, Not Compromise
In common ground, agreement is not the goal; understanding is. In compromise, someone wins and someone loses. In common ground, participants speak long enough to understand clearly where they agree and where they do not. In doing so, “disagreement becomes a reality to live with, not a problem to solve.”
“People spend 80 percent of their time on 20 percent of the issues they cannot solve.”
With common ground as the goal, people are more likely to act rapidly on areas that everyone wants. Weisbord and Janoff offer a few group structures that support seeking common ground. One of these is to have small groups create a flipchart of items they think all would agree to. Each small group reads their list aloud to the room. Other groups cross off any duplicates. The result is a deduped list of areas of agreement and usually surprised faces when participants see how much agreement they really do have.
Match Time to Agenda
Time is the most precious commodity we have. Weisbord and Janoff suggest asking participants to help manage their own time. For example, when doing introductions, let groups know how much time they have. “In the next 10 minutes, we need to hear from everyone.” For long plenary discussions, they suggest asking a volunteer to signal the group every 10 minutes.
PRO TIP: Use the Principle of the Drinking Horn to encourage groups to share time.
Start on time with those who show up. For groups with notorious late arrivals, offer a “raggedy start,” a term coined by Ron Lippett, the founder of group dynamics. Have anyone present talk about what they are learning, sort information from previous sessions and generate questions to cover during the meeting. Rachel Smith, thought leader on facilitating online, calls this a “do now,” an activity participants do on arrival to create focus and value towards the meeting goals.
Shorter time frames work only when:
the agenda has a narrow focus;
many others have spent time working on the issues already; and when
the objective is not controversial.
When you facilitate online, plan to double or even triple the time you have. Check out this article published in Harvard Business Publishing, co-written with our partners at Lizard Brain and The Ringel Group for tips on structuring time in online classrooms. The techniques apply to meetings as well.
Know Your Role and Make Sure Participants Know it Too
Know your role and don’t accept a situation where you know you can’t be successful. In any one meeting, you might find yourself responsible for:
Process only - observe and comment
Process and meeting management - manage the meeting but not the outcomes
Process and content - provide expertise and advice
Process, content and meeting management - responsible for process, content and outcomes; you may have formal authority, as well
Make your role explicit to the group and avoid surprising a group by making a switch halfway through. At the very least, let participants know when you change hats.
For example, if you are a manager who is also facilitating a project meeting, you might say, “I notice that we are having trouble understanding the goals of this project. I’m going to speak as the manager rather than the facilitator. I’d like to offer my perspective on the requirements and direction.”
When the meeting starts, agree with participants that your role is to:
Manage time and tasks
Make room for all views
Keep the goal in sight
Participants are responsible for:
Offering information and meaning
Managing their own behavior
Agreeing on common ground
Determining actions and next steps
Create Healthy Working Conditions
Choose spaces where participants may easily hear, see, interact and move around. Spaces that open to the outdoors enable participants to take breaks outside. When the ceilings are too high, it creates echoes and may make it difficult to hear. Microphones may be needed in larger spaces.
Translating this to a virtual environment, you need to assess:
Available technology (hardware and software)
Limitations of technology
Virtual readiness of the group (a.k.a. tech savvy)
Virtual presentation materials - slides
Virtual collaboration spaces - Mural, Miro, Google docs, etc.
You may like to check out our blog “Dancing with Mural (and Google Docs)” for more on choosing tools for online meetings that are right for your participants.
In person, arrange seating that is conducive to the conversation you want to have:
Circle = easier to interact
Tables can be more hindrance than help
Chairs with wheels make it easier for participants to reorganize.
Avoid theatre seating and auditoriums at all costs.
For more on setting up virtual spaces for success, check out this blog series from our partners at Lizard Brain:
Whether we’re facilitating online or in person, Weisbord and Janoff’s wisdom helps us manage ourselves so we can be our best for those we serve.
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