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.

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.

The Value of a Good Chart Writer: CWU Retreat (Spring 2017, week 1)

Mar_8_(1) IMG_20170408_110145This past weekend I facilitated a three-hour retreat for the Church Women United (CWU), which is an inter-faith group of women who represent numerous churches in the Eugene/Springfield area. The group has been facing issues of leadership burn-out and difficulty with membership recruitment, especially engaging younger women of faith. To help them with these issues, I designed a retreat that would encourage the members to openly confront these issues that they had been avoiding. Specifically, we developed four objectives for the retreat: 1. Revitalize energy within the group, 2. Explore individual member’s motivations for involvement, 3. Identify current strengths & challenges of CWU activities, and 4. Develop strategies for membership & leadership capacity.

Although I am now used to facilitating solo, this time I was able to bring in one of the current CRES students in the facilitation course, Lauren Asher, who already has a strong background in facilitation. It was wonderful to have the assistance throughout the day. While we all want a chart writer that is an extension of our brain, that only comes with lots of working together. Nevertheless, she had a good sense of what to record and knew chart writing best practices to ensure it was easily readable (especially important for a group with an average age of 70). Having these charts to transcribe and bring back to the group, and having them created without losing my flow of facilitation, was super valuable. However, where she really shown was in her willingness to jump in and assist with small group facilitation. As always happens when dividing a large group into small groups, some of them will naturally “get” the assignment talking about the cues and writing them down as instructed, while others, well, they don’t follow instructions as well. Lauren jumped into one of that latter groups to help draw out their thoughts, and perhaps even more importantly, write them down on the flip-chart worksheets that would become part of the organization’s action plan for the year.

Mar_8(22) carla buckner, anne o'brien, lauren (l to r)IMG_20170408_110705

Lauren working with a small group to develop ways to improve their organization.

One of the hardest and most important elements I have discovered with facilitation is ensuring the creation of group memory.  You can facilitate the most transformative, participatory experience, but if there is no record of it then the likelihood of anything coming from it is pretty limited (which is why facilitation can have a bad reputation as wasted money with many parties). As a solo facilitator this is especially difficult as in-the-moment chart writing can really get in the way of doing my best, most active listening, re-framing, and caring that is needed for high-level participation, but at the end of the day it is those charts that will make or break the long-term success of the work. Having Lauren as a competent, pro-active assistant really helped me to ensure that no ideas were missed that day and that the organization had everything it needed to move forward after that day.