PWS Agenda Design, Part I: Thinking Buddies in Action

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.

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Learning “New” Things: Weaving & Funnel

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.