Gosh, what a long time it's been since my last post. I've been busy over here developing Mindapples(check out our lovely new website, as funded by UnLtd and Nominet Trust), and also doing various writing pieces which will hopefully see the light of day soon. Meanwhile, I've also been doing more facilitation and speaking work lately, and it's been a while since I posted anything about that side of my and Sociability's work. I've done a fair bit of work with the amazing The People Speak over the years, and I recently spoke to my good friend Saul Albert there about facilitation as part of their research project into the subject. Here's what I said in response to his questions:
Saul: What is the first issue on your mind when you have to facilitate a highly diverse group?
Andy: People are often very suspicious of the facilitation process. They have their own agendas, and want to know immediately that the process will accommodate them. People come into the room with clear ideas about what they want to achieve, they want to see whether the day will give them that opportunity. So I'm mainly trying to read the room, get a sense of where people are at emotionally and intellectually, how happy they look about being there, and how vocal they will be if they feel the event isn't meeting their needs. Figuring out why everybody is there is the first job of any facilitator, and speaker for that matter, and it's an easy one to miss.
Saul: How did you deal with this?
I usually begin by stating my agenda very clearly, what I'm there to do and what I want to get out it myself, personally. Making it personal to me is very important: I am just one person and what I want is just one of many voices, so if I claim to be an authority or representative of the establishment, I deny people the space to claim the event for themselves.
After that, I'm really open about asking each person/group what their agendas are. I don't necessarily expect answers, but by creating a space where people feel able to say that the process isn't meeting their needs, people feel that they can articulate their critique immediately, that there's a space where they can be critical if they need to be. This means they don't sit there waiting for things to come up that they can bend into a critique. They say their piece, then they kind of forget about it and get on with the discussion. As long as people know they can influence the agenda if they need to, and they trust me to be true to that commitment, then they can relax and engage.
This might sounds strange, but there's also an important element of amateurishness involved. If I'm too slick then people feel they can't shape the structure, they become afraid of "getting it wrong". By stepping out front and being human, even making a few little, light-hearted mistakes, I give people the confidence to step forward and contribute. It's very important to step into the role of leader, and hold uncertainty.
Saul: Who do you know who does this that you admire? And what other techniques / technologies do you know of?
Johnny Moore does a lot of work in this field and I like his style. He's very explicit about what the process will be, what will happen and how it will work, so people can understand whether it will meet their needs, get over that question and then get on with it. He's quite rigorous about getting clarity on structure, which is an important thing for me to remember to do too.
Theres also the unconference approach where there's no plan, and if you're not getting much out of it, it's your fault! But you don't really learn very much in this situation, and I think people often end up having the same conversations they'd be having anyway - it's nobody's job to bring any fresh content to the party.
Saul: At your events, is facilitation all your responsibility? Who else shares that responsibility?
In one particular example where I felt this worked well, I had an 'assistant'. She was actually my client for the event, a part of the development team of the organisation, so like me, she was interested in everything working well. I gave her the task of taking notes to make sure that everything was recorded, which she did brilliantly. She sat with a laptop and wrote up notes on a projector for everyone to see. The audience could see whether their points were making it into the notes, and I would also keep an eye on them and when I saw something important that hadn't been noted, I'd bring people's attention to it and make sure it was included.
The interaction between what's happening and how it's documented is really important, because it's how people become part of the official chronicle: they need to feel that history is including them.
Saul and the team at The People Speak are evolving the art of facilitation all the time, and I really enjoy working with them because for my money they're the only people who really know how to let a crowd run an event for itself. If you'd like them, or Sociability, to run one of your events, drop me a line at andy[at]sociability.org.uk.