The Role for Role Plays? (Spring 2017)

For the CRES Facilitation course, I have been assisting with setting-up, observing, and coaching role plays for the students. This is a curriculum element that was not part of the facilitation course when Nelli taught it, nor have I ever seen role plays used for teaching facilitation. Role plays for mediation, negotiation, and even one I created for my undergraduate collaboration course, sure, but not for facilitation. Overall, I think it has been a really good learning experience for students, and it is not a perfect teaching strategy.

The thing that role plays really have going for them is they are a way for students to try something potentially difficult in a safe environment. The irony here is that most students feel like facilitation is easy, and some are so cynical as to question why it is taught as a skill at all. However, at the end of the role play, every student I coached said to me something along these lines: “I had no idea facilitation was so hard.” Hearing this is actually a bit gratifying given facilitation often has to fight to be considered a skill, let alone a profession—anyone can run a meeting, right? So why invest in someone to do that. In this regard, role plays provide a great way for students to appreciate the work that is needed to do this well, and will undoubtedly give more attention to process design in the future.

Role plays are a safe environment because they are not real, this is also the downfall of this pedagogical approach. With such a small cohort, most of the role plays were 3-4 people with 1-2 facilitators with only 90 minutes to facilitate. And yet the role play scenarios were really designed to be multi-hour meetings (or even multiple meetings) with many more people involved. In such small and forced scenarios, the students aren’t able to practice many of the group process strategies (like even small to large group divergence-convergence). Additionally, many get caught up in the story of the role play. The role play that actually worked the best was the “Cohort Gathering,” which was a very realistic, limited preparation required, scenario of their own cohort planning a celebration. Especially in contrast to the final one, a complicated multi-stakeholder natural resources dispute, this one was simple and straight-forward, allowing the students (and coaches) to focus more on the actual process design and skills, rather than the story-line. It is easier said than done, but I think the key might be finding a happy middle ground where role plays are hard enough for students to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of the practice, but easy enough to actually get to practice.

The Value of a Good Chart Writer, Part II: PWS

Earlier this term, I wrote about the value of a good chart writer in regards to having Lauren’s assistance at the Church Women’s United retreat, now the tables have turned and I can speak to it from the chart writer’s perspective. Although I took a lead in case development and agenda design, I specifically requested to not take a lead with facilitation as I wanted the opportunity to both observe someone else’s style and to be in the assistant role, something I’ve done surprisingly little of given my jump into the deep end of facilitating and teaching solo.

Well chart writing is thus what I signed-up for, and chart writing is what I did! Over the course of seven hours, I chart wrote 35 sheets, which when transcribed equated to more than 10 pages single-space, size 11 font. I’m taking it as a mark of honor that I not only went through an entire pad of chart paper, but that I also wore out the four main colors from a brand new set of Mr Sketch markers. At one point in time, I was tracking no less than four different topics—adding notes and symbols to charts lining the walls, easel and even some on the floor. Honestly, being able to track and record a complex dialogue of 40+ people is in the top three facilitation experiences of my young career.

There are a number of reasons that chart writing is so important. First and foremost, it is a visual and physical way for people to know that they have been heard. This is why it is so important to use bits and pieces of people’s own language when recording their thoughts. To quickly reference back to ye olde brain science, seeing your own words up in writing helps to calm the sympathetic nervous system which cues our “fight and flight” responses, with that system calmed our parasympathetic nervous system can rise to the service and let us “rest and digest.” Whether helping a group to heal or to make decisions (or both), participants are much more likely to find common ground if they can tune into their parasympathetic nervous system. Of course, if you misunderstand their intention, they also see that lack of understanding in big, fat permanent marker too.

Over the course of the process, I saw both of these responses take place. First, I had multiple people come up to me during the breaks and tell me not only how impressive it was to watch me speed writing, but more that they didn’t realize how important what they had to say was until they saw it written before everyone else. This was especially true for two different contingencies around the narrative of “having to do it”: seeing that narrative written so explicitly provided opportunity for the sense of trauma to be recognized, while also opening the door to question if this is the type of organizational culture and spirit that they want to now perpetuate. I also saw someone who got more flustered with her words on the paper. In capturing one of the thoughts she voiced to the group, I jotted down: “we need to not be afraid of asking tough questions.” Which received wide agreement among the group. This frustrated her and she eventually sent me up a hand-written note that said: “Not being willing to ask certain questions and give the space to really look at these.” I’m ashamed to say that I still don’t know what the difference was for her, my only guess is that her emphasis was on the second part of the comment. Regardless of my ignorance, as soon as I wrote this exact sentence on the observations sheet, her entire presence shifted to one of openness and engagement with the process—she, at last, felt heard.

         

Finally, the second major value of chart writing is the creation of a group memory that outlasts the individual event. As previously mentioned, when transcribed my charts became over 10 pages of notes which formed the backbone of a report we created memorializing the event. Even with 40+ people in the space, there was at least a dozen others who really should have been there. Being able to provide a detailed and organized report with the voices of the participants provided the school with a way to help “bring along” those who were not present in body, as well as a launching pad to move forward generated ideas.

PWS Agenda Design, Part II: ORID by Accident (Spring 2017, week 5)

During our late night planning session, we set out our meeting objectives first like any professional facilitator, but we didn’t intentionally apply any particular overarching strategy aside from  to come forward (outside of a combination of circle and non-circle work), yet to both our surprises we ended up doing a process that mapped quite well to the ORID process. ORID is an acronym for a facilitation framework that comes from The Art of Focused Conversations by R. Brian Stanfield; it stands for: Objective, Reflective, Interpretative, and Decisional. It also happens to be one of the topics that Lysbeth teaches, but that I had never learned before as Nellie does not teach it, at least not in her introductory course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Objective is all about facts and what is observable data, some authors reference this as the “WHAT” part of a facilitation. This is valuable because we all observe, interpret, and remember data differently (thank you ladder of inference!), and thus we can’t assume that we are all working from the same page of facts. For the Pasadena facilitation, based on our case development interviews, we knew that we needed to spend the most time constructively looking at the facts since different understandings and interpretations was at the heart of their disagreements.

Without it intentionally being the objective section, we created two activities to bring out “the facts” in a constructive, safe space. First, we asked “What one question do you most need answered in order to move forward?” Clumping these into theme gave specific direction for our time, highlighted what people were stuck on despite leader’s efforts, and gave us something to evaluate our time at the end and create next steps (by asking which questions still need more information or discussion to be satisfactorily answered). (By the way, this activity comes straight from Sam Kaner, so thank you San Francisco!). The second way we brought in an objective lens was to have the participants create nearly 60’ long timeline on the walls in the room. With the use of sticky notes, people were able to add key events, which provided perspective and a launching pad to have conversations around what happened when and why. Using the timeline also provided us with the ability to split up the day in past, present, and future: looking at where they’ve been, where they are, and how they want to move forward.

             

The Reflective section of ORID then provides space for the reactions, hurt, heart, feelings, and overall emotional responses associated with “the facts,” and is considered the “GUT” or “HEART” part for some facilitators. We moved into this space with a two-part “powerful moment” or “blank paper photograph” activity. For the first part of the activity participants were asked to get into pairs with someone of a different perspective than themselves (teachers with board members, etc). Each pair was given a blank sheet of paper and asked to remember a powerful moment that crystallized the impacts on you or others about how the events at the school have unfolded; if someone had snapped a photo right then, describe to your partner what that photo would look like and what that moment means to you. This was done as an active listening exercise, listeners were asked to not interrupt or ask questions until after the storyteller was done, and were told they might be invited to reflect or paraphrase what they heard in the larger group. This second part, which brought everyone together, did invite people to share how they themselves or another was affected in the situation. Intended to build empathy and give space for tough emotions, there certainly were a fair number of tears shed during this section.

We then moved into the Interpretive, “SO WHAT,” section which invites participants to make sense of both the facts and their emotional reactions. Our interpretative section was a back-and-forth between pairs and the full circle, asking simple questions around “what are the lessons we can learn from today?” To say the least, there were a lot of lessons learned as evidenced by the nearly 10 charts I wrote on lessons learned. Finally, we spent the last little bit of the day in the Decisional, or “NOW WHAT” space helping the group to brainstorm and decide on next steps after this meeting. We did a fine job of helping them to articulate areas of action, but there is no doubt that everyone was tired at this point and that we probably could have developed more fleshed out action plans if we all had the luxury of coming back together a few days or a week later, but alas we had a plane to catch just a couple hours later.

PWS Agenda Design, Part I: Thinking Buddies in Action (Spring 2017, week 5)

With nearly 30 interviews under our belt and a two-hour leadership conflict coaching session, Lysbeth and I launched into agenda planning on Friday night before our big community healing conversation on Saturday. Now neither of us are the type of to do the bulk of our planning the night before, but given less than three weeks time to do case development and that day being the first day we had been on campus and met anyone in person, we didn’t have a ton of other choices. We ended up planning until nearly 2 a.m.—my hotel room where we were working probably looked the oddest slumber party of all time with charts, slicky notes, sticky notes, and various print outs from case development stuck all over the room.

Our planning time together proved to be a really enjoyable collaboration. Coming off of Sam Kaner’s workshop and the use of thinking buddies, we very much made good thinking buddies for each other as we both took turns playing out different approaches and working through various activity ideas. I was amazed with how much Lysbeth let me take the lead in the agenda creation itself. The three main activities we did all came from me: initial question activity to both guide our time and evaluate our progress; an around-the-room historical timeline made up of sticky notes; and a pair story-sharing activity called “blank paper photograph.”

Of course, Lysbeth’s true art form is the incredible work she is able to do in open dialogue and circle time, so we integrated this throughout the agenda, especially in the middle and end when we knew that the groan zone would be happening and that to move into a convergent space we would need for everyone to hear each other. We also integrated activities because we wanted to “mix things up” for this group who culturally can overly rely on circle work and blatant consensus-building. Both of these approaches, while really valuable, can if over-used or used in a mixed cultural group be to the detriment of different learning styles, silencing of voices during prolonged conflict, and can be marginalizing to parents, board members, and administrative staff who are perhaps not as bought into the Waldorf way of processing information as the Waldorf-trained teachers (which I had heard from some individuals during case development. (Although, after the event, we actually heard from some of those most acculturated teachers that it was nice to have such an interactive agenda that brought people’s voices out in different ways).

Since I’m writing this after the facilitation, I can say that not only did this mixing up of different strategies work well for the participants, but the mixing up of our very different approaches worked well for us too. I might not have gotten to see her “do her thing” (consensus building through dialogue circles, such as befits her Quaker background), but I did get to see how “my thing” (small group, activity-based work) could be expanded and integrated into other practices. It was also just so much fun to have such a willing collaborator and thinking buddy, it makes me very much miss Carrie Bennett (Learning Through Differences, LLC) and it makes me want to find a business partner should I ever launch a private practice.

Exploring Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration with My Idols (Spring 2017, week 5)

Dreams really do come true! This week I had the incredible opportunity to fly to San Francisco for a training with my facilitation idols Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of the firm Community at Work. Sam is the author of my facilitation bible, which literally sits on my table at all times, The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making. I have used this book to design virtually every facilitation I have ever done and have taught from it for undergraduate and graduate classes across multiple departments. Nelli was my first real facilitation instructor, having been brought up by former CRES Director Tim Hicks back in spring 2014. To say the least, this was probably the most influential 20 hours of my education. Thus spending four days in the company of these two, and a dozen engaging, high-level change agents from across the country (albeit mainly the Bay area), was an experience I never thought I’d get to have.

This training, “Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration: Strategies, Design Principles, and Best Practices,” covered a lot of ground. Although the first day included a lot of material I am already familiar with (the Groan Zone, participation formats, active listening, and asking questions), the next three days were dedicated to looking at multi-stakeholder collaboration in ways I’ve either never thought of before or have never been able to adequately articulate.

At the crux of the training was a graphical language to understand the design and evolution of collaborative efforts. Various colored dots, arrows, and brackets symbolize the different working dynamics of these groups and can be ordered to be representative, if not perfectly descriptive, of most any multi-stakeholder effort. Like designing a single facilitated event, this language has helped me to appreciate the design nature of long-term efforts. I will be really interested to see how I can apply this language and approach to some of the collaborative efforts I am a part of, especially the newly launched Aquatic Hub. I worry that this language will not align with their interests and habits of design thinking. Sam and Nelli’s clients come to them because they are seeking this level of work, my clients come to me because they don’t know how to run a single meeting. In terms of the “Architecture of Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration,” this is a very low bar (level 2 to be precise) for expectations and also a relatively weak foundation for long-term, high impact efforts.

One of my final big take-aways from this training is the value of a “thinking buddy.” Throughout the training we would be paired up with thinking buddies, whose job it was to purely help us do our best thinking. I have long adopted Sam’s definition of a facilitator being someone who helps a group of people to do their best thinking, but I have not applied that concept to a single individual with such intention. During one of the activities, I was paired up with someone who I really enjoyed working with, we just clicked. When Sam went to change our thinking buddies for the second part of that activity, I protested and asked to stay with my current partner. He called me out and said that, while not uncommon, this suggests deeper issues of distrust in others and in terms of collaboration can be harmful because it leads essentially to cliques that don’t support the multi-stakeholder nature of this work. He was right, my next thinking partner did a great job of helping me think. This was an especially eye-opening partnership given how different our cultural backgrounds were (Silicon Valley ivy league vs. Willamette Valley goat farmer), which helped me to remember that all people, when given the chance, can connect and support one another no matter (and maybe even because of) differences.

Teaching Facilitation: Brain Science to Legitimize? (Spring 2017, week 3)

For the second term now, I’ve been asked to give two guest lectures on facilitation for the PPPM 494 Leadership & Change course, which now serves as the undergraduate capstone course for the PPPM department. During this first class I present a Facilitation 101 workshop, which includes some underlying constructs of group process and facilitation that can guide good meeting design, as well as introducing the use of agenda design. I frame the workshop by re-defining the goal of facilitation as strengthening the culture and skills of a group to do their best thinking. Framed as a thinking and decision-making exercise, I then provide a series of design tools for facilitation including: the big rocks theory to design objectives, Kaner’s diamond of decision making and divergent-convergent thinking, types of participation and meetings, the curve of participation, the satisfaction triangle, and the importance of closure.

In addition, using the triune brain model, I talk about the importance of getting people into the best brain space for engaging and making decisions, the neocortex, and the importance of helping people to get out of the reptilian brain where they are limited to fight, flight, freeze, and fawn forms of participation. To demonstrate the value of thinking about brain space, I tell the story of facilitating a strategic planning session two days after Trump’s November 2016 election. It was a very liberal group and the strategic planning effort was already bringing forward many difficult conversations and decision-making points for the future of their organization. Recognizing that people were consumed by fear and frustration over the recent election, I integrated an exercise designed to release those fears and re-set the parasympathetic nervous system. I tell the story because it really, really worked and led to an incredibly brave, productive planning session with 20+ participants, which naturally impresses students.

The triune brain model

However, based on both their questions during the class and the feedback cards collected at the end, I’m beginning to think that connecting facilitation to brain science might be a bit problematic. I don’t feel this way because I don’t think that the connection is not true, nor that the insights gleaned from an awareness of neurology and psychology are not valuable. Instead, I worry that without the prospect of hard science backing up this art form, then facilitation will not be seen as legitimate. This is an issue that plagues the social sciences and human services fields: without scientific proof, how can we demonstrate value? We know qualitatively and anecdotally that facilitation (or mediation or therapy or…) works because we can experience it as having a positive effect on a situation or an individual, but there is little to prove these effects since longitudinal and control studies are rarely, if ever, done. I’m a huge proponent of science, which is why I’m interested in the role of brain science in my work, however, I do worry that if people new to this work only recognize its value as connected to what is a very young understanding of the brain, then they both won’t appreciate the more subtle art of the work and could negate its value if/when our understanding of the brain shifts. I will most likely continue to use brain science to teach facilitation, but it is an interesting question to ponder, especially when thinking about the not infrequent facilitation skeptics and cynics: do we need science to legitimize our work?

Learning “New” Things: Weaving & Funnel (Spring 2017, Week 2)

This week I assisted Lysbeth with teaching her all-day Friday facilitation course for the CRES Cohort 12 students. At this point I have done a lot of facilitation training, however, you can always learn “new” things, or at least slightly different approaches or names for things. Two concepts that I had never heard of before, but recognize that I frequently put into practice with my own facilitations are weaving and the funnel, both of which come from a Quaker tradition.

Weaving is a very subtle form of moving a divergent group of ideas towards a single concept in an effort to build consensus. Difficult to describe, with weaving the facilitator names the threads of a conversation and periodically helps to reframe them under common interests or values, or bring them together as decision points. With good listening and reframing skills, most threads within a given topic will be able to be woven together. There are times, however, when some threads will not naturally “weave” together, such as the orange/red and green threads in this diagram. In these situations, it is up to the facilitator to decide how much acknowledgment is given to these potentially tangential, but also potentially invaluable threads. Sometimes the energy behind these inputs will organically dissipate as the individual either recognizes that they are tangential or moves past them as they recognize their own deeper interests reflected in the weave, in which not giving them extensive attention or maybe even not verbally naming can be okay, as is the case with some of the red and orange threads here. However, this tactic can also backfire if someone does not feel heard, which can have particularly toxic consequences in a consensus-building space. And sometimes, as is the case with the green thread, it is important to work with the idea in parallel to the larger weave and recognize a separate decision about the idea that can be worked with or implemented separately going forward. From a training perspective, this is a really tricky technique to teach and indeed the students in their feedback sheets for the day felt that they did not understand or were able to identify when Lysbeth was demonstrating weaving, which seemed to really frustrate the students and make them doubt this concept. I think that this type of nuanced strategy would be better taught as a general theoretical concept and less of a specific technique, especially given how these students have been taught mediation with very precise and easily identifiable strategies.

The second concept was the funnel. The funnel is a way of creating a consensus-based agenda that breaks down what would otherwise be a potentially overwhelming big decision into smaller component parts. In the example shown on this flip chart, a group is trying to decide on hosting a large event for the first time. Rather than try to get consensus right-off-the-bat on all elements of such an event, the facilitator has broken it down into design, location, budget, and timing with a period for open discussion at the beginning to help ground people in the overall concept and establish some common interests to build decisions from. After a discussion for each component, the decision and the level of agreement is clarified by the facilitator. At the end of the session, the facilitator can then run through each component and quickly re-cap what decisions have been made and where additional discussion is needed, making next steps and the next meeting’s agenda self-evident. For both of these techniques, I feel that I use variations of them in my work, whether in how I help a group move along or in how I design my agenda. However, I’ve never put specific names to these approaches, instead seeing them as off-shoots of interest-based re-framing, creation of group memory, and divergent-convergent design. In a microcosm this is one reason why teaching and practicing facilitation can be so tricky: there is no common, or at least not canonized approaches that allow for a shared language across facilitators or between facilitators and their clients. What one person calls a snowfield, the next calls an idea wall, and the next just calls using sticky notes for list generation. However, as long as we are open to new ideas and curious about each other’s approaches, we can continue to learn and understand the nuanced differences and fertile common ground with which we all approach this work.