Thursday, December 23, 2010

Facilitate ... with best wishes

During this holiday season, I enjoy giving and receiving best wishes to and from all I meet. Whether we say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, the intent of good will is heartily meant and felt. During a recent walk with my two dogs in a snowy wintry wonderland, I found myself thinking about how best wishes apply in my facilitation work. I know that I go into each facilitation session with the intent of best wishes. I want to do my best work to help individuals and groups explore questions, seek understanding, listen to others, and reach meaningful decisions.

I firmly believe that most people I interact with also act within the intent of best wishes. Yes, there are exceptions! A few “humbugs” can be heard or seen within facilitated sessions. However, these Scrooge-like individuals often have a valid reason for their emotions, and through genuine conversation, they often exhibit more positive attitudes.

As I enjoy another deeply meaningful Christmas season, I plan to reinforce best wishes to all in my personal and professional lives.

As my son said in our family Christmas letter,

Merry whatever holiday you celebrate to all!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Facilitate ... with a pause

The concept of a PAUSE has popped serendipitously into my life over the past month. First, I realized that I have really taken a long pause from blogging! (That’s OK; I always promised myself I would blog when an idea inspired me! Obviously, I needed a time to pause.) Then, while researching creativity techniques for a workshop, I came across Pause for a Bit in Roger Van Oech’s Creative Whack Pack. ( Poet Doug King is cited as encouraging us to "Learn to pause . . . or nothing worthwhile will ever catch up to you." Van Oech says “Allow the Muse to whisper in your ear. How would your problem benefit if you paused in the next hour? Day? Week? Month? What might you gain or learn?”

Next, I was working with a Manager to design a one-day workshop for her staff team. She said to me that the team needed to pause from their busy schedules. During the workshop, one of the participants described herself as a “percolator”, meaning that she liked time to pause and think about topics and ideas; and let solutions bubble.

I decided that natural forces were sending me a message. I paused and pondered about the value of pauses in facilitation. I have always believed that it is very important for individuals in discussion groups to have “silent” time to think about a topic before they discuss it with others. I am now more actively talking with participants about the value of pauses, and asking them how they want to pause.

I am incorporating quiet moments, reflection time, mediation, gentle exercises, and solo walks in my workshops and meetings with the intent of pausing and thinking. In a recent workshop, one participant said to me, “I get nervous when I need to stop and think, and when no one is talking.” I encouraged her to practice pausing for a few minutes each day. Another participant led the group in a meditation activity.

My facilitation questions are, “How do you create the time and interest with participants to percolate ideas? How do you pause and help others to pause during group discussions?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Facilitate … with the 3Fs

Fun, Fervor, and Focus … When I started my blog about facilitation, I thought long and hard about why I was writing it, what it would be about, and what I would name it. My purpose in writing a blog about facilitation was firstly, to use it as a way to think about and then articulate what I believe in and act upon as a facilitator; and secondly, to share these ideas with others out in the world wide web to hopefully start a conversation about facilitation.

I asked myself: What are the main attributes that I want to bring to each of my facilitation events and what are the main results that I hope to help participants in an event achieve? My answer was:

Fun = joy and laughter
Fervor = passion and enthusiasm
Focus = intent, purpose, direction, and results

I believe that the most important F is “focus”. I filter each facilitation event and each activity and technique used within the event through these filter questions, “Why are we doing this? What do we hope to achieve? How does this help us achieve our desired results?” I invite the participants of the event to consider these questions with me. The focus of the event must be correctly identified and used for planning the event to achieve the best results. We can have much fun and be very excited; however, without focus, we may not accomplish what we seek.

When I think about “fervor”, I try to feel my emotions about the facilitation event. How enthusiastic am I? How passionate am I? What is my fervor towards the subject, participants, purpose? If I do not feel enthused and eager about facilitating the event, I then consider if I am the right person to provide the facilitation. I also invite participants to identify and share their fervor about the content and process of the event in order to ascertain if they wish to embark it.

Fun!! Joy, laughter, playfulness, humour! I observe over and over again, how people come alive, are more attentive, participate with more enthusiasm, and I think, learn more when they are smiling and laughing; at least part of the time. As a facilitator, I think about and encourage the participants to plan to have fun and be playful during the facilitated event. I blogged about Facilitate with Fun! on October 10, 2009 and invite you to read my thoughts and ideas.

Another way to think about the 3Fs is to use the words: purpose (focus), passion (fervor), and play (fun).

My blog conversation questions are: What do you think about my 3Fs? What are the focal points that you use when you plan and conduct a facilitation event? Write a comment and join my conversation about facilitation!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Facilitate … with trust and belief in the abilities of others!

I watched in awe, appreciation, delight, and humility as participants facilitated sessions at the three-day ACE Communities Leaders’ Retreat this week. 30 leaders from across Alberta gathered on the sunny shores of Sylvan Lake to explore community development and engagement, community leadership, community networking, and personal growth. Our purpose … learn together to make our communities more Active, Creative, and Engaged.

My co-facilitator extraordinaire, Karen Driedger ( and I envisioned the Retreat as an emergent design event with participants designing and facilitating and contributing. We started the Retreat with a facilitated session using an Affinity Clustering method to answer the focus question of: Based on the outcomes of the Retreat and what you want to learn and share, what topics do you want to discuss? Once the participants had named and clustered their ideas into thematic topics, Karen and I suggested times for each topic and obtained the participants’ approval for them. Then, we asked participants if they wished to facilitate the topics. WOW!!! Did they ever step forward!!!

Seven sessions were co-designed and co-facilitated by 14 volunteer participants. With minimal suggestions and coaching from Karen and I and our highly talented colleagues, Brenda Herchmer, Carolyn Mead, and Rose Carmichael with the ACE Communities initiative (, the participants demonstrated outstanding facilitation skills. Here is the range and depth of their sessions with only one evening to prepare.

We discussed Community Engagement in a World Café; we investigated Funding with a Problem Tree technique using real tree branches. We role-played as an elected politician, a government administrator, and a community citizen to use multiple perspectives to examine Operating within a Political System.

We imagined we were communities isolated on ice floes and worked together to move across the freezing water (room) to explore Sustainability in Our Communities. We delved into questions about Community Leadership with a Cracker Barrel activity. We acted like teenagers at a community meeting and played cooperative games to better understand ways to Engage Youth. We accepted invitations to a Planning Session to work through a case study approach and apply it to the planning framework using community development.

I learned SO MUCH from observing and participating in sessions facilitated by these community leaders. Believing and trusting in the skills, knowledge, and passions of participants when we facilitate enables us to gain a richer and fuller understanding of facilitation and new ways to do what we have been doing. I have definitely increased my Toolkit of facilitation techniques and discussion activities. I can’t wait to help a group understand partnerships by pretending to be isolated on ice floes! I will incorporate more role-play into my facilitated activities. And I will definitely continue to trust and believe in the wisdom and talents of participants in groups I facilitate.

To everyone at the Retreat, thank you. I appreciate those who took a chance and volunteered to expand their skills as facilitators. Equally important to recognize are those who had the skills and experience as a facilitator and graciously refrained from volunteering to let others try. And again of equal importance, I have great appreciation to those who decided that their best learning and contribution was by being participants in the discussions. And lastly, my profound appreciation to my ACE Team colleagues at the Retreat who exemplified sharing and caring as they helped the participants.

My conversation blog question is: As a facilitator and participant, how do you show trust and belief in the abilities of other people in discussion groups and conversations?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Facilitate … with attention to time and truth!

Time is important yet truth is more important than time! I’m not sure of the source of this statement or if it is one that I created many years ago. Regardless of the source, I have adhered to it over the years, particularly when participants of a group discussion appear to place more emphasis on rushing to a decision than on taking the time to make the right decision for their group. I was reminded of the importance of “time and truth” while facilitating a group last week.

Members of this group contracted me to help them develop three year goals and actions. During discussions with the group’s representatives about the purpose and outcomes of the one-day session, they acknowledged that some members may still have questions about their mandate statements even though the group had talked about the mandate many times before. Therefore, we planned and designed a session for three-year goals and also prepared for the possible need to discuss the group’s purpose and role.

During the session, it quickly became obvious that members wanted to talk about and understand the mandate statements. I stated what I was seeing and hearing; that is, members were saying “I like the first statement but don’t like the second one”, “I think we need to revise the statement”, and “What does this mean?”, etc. In my facilitator role, I stated what I heard, advised that I interpreted these statements as an indication of the need to devote significant time to talk about the mandate, and told them what I saw as the impact on the session design. I advised that we would likely not have time to develop three-year goals. The group members quickly and strongly stated that they needed to take as much time as necessary to achieve their “truths”, that to understand, revise, and accept the mandate statements. We then proceeded with a lively and meaningful discussion about the statements for the remainder of the day.

The group members understood that “truth is more important that time”. They knew that they had to fully know their mandate before they could plan goals and actions. While they had devoted a weekend day to participate in the session, they stated that they feel very satisfied and the time was worthwhile. In fact, they booked a second session to now develop the three-year goals.

My conversation blog question is: How do you pay attention to, and effectively balance time and truth as a participant and a facilitator of a group discussion?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Facilitate … fierce conversations!

… robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager, unbridled…

These are the words used to describe a fierce conversation by Susan Scott in her book “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time” (A Berkley Book, Penguin Group, New York, New York). A client recently introduced me to the book and as I read it, I found it resonated with my personal and professional beliefs about conversations. Fierce conversations are not battles, arguments, or ugly confrontations. They are a way of seeking and working and talking … about the ways that we in our personal lives and in our community and organizations can be the best that we can be. Fierce conversations are a way of making every conversation count.

Susan Scott explains seven principles of fierce conversations of which some are:
· Acknowledge the “real” or true topic or issue that needs to be discussed. Then talk about it!
· Be “in the moment.” Scott states that we need to “speak and listen as if this is the most important conversation you will ever have with this person.”
· “Tackle your toughest challenge today.”
· Value silence in conversations.

Examples from the book show how a fierce conversation can transform a relationship, a work place, a leader …

Before Fierce: Focus on activities
After Fierce: Focus on results

Before Fierce: Beating around the bush, skirting the issues
After Fierce: naming and addressing the issues truthfully and directly

Before Fierce: an “us versus them”, “me versus you” culture
After Fierce: high levels of alignment, collaboration and partnership

I think I am using fierce conversations in my facilitation work. When I facilitate, I try to help participants fully explain their ideas about a topic, identify and explore the facts, listen to others’ opinions, state what they think about the opinion, and mutually work towards a solution. I help them identify and directly talk about the “elephants in the room” (undiscussable issues); respectfully and directly share what they believe and think; and build upon each other’s ideas for better decisions. Recently, I facilitated a staff team session in which a supervisor and team member finally dealt with an ongoing frustration. They openly talked about the different ways they organize special events, the conflicts they experience because of their different styles, and then developed ways to work successfully together.

I will use Susan Scott’s book to deepen my ability to participate in and facilitate conversations that are meaningful, powerful, insightful, passionate … fierce.

My conversation questions are: How do you help participants in groups hold fierce conversations? What are examples of fierce conversations you have been involved in?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Facilitate … by focussing on participants!

I have just finished three weeks of facilitating highly rewarding and highly challenging sessions. I have been privileged to work with caring and passionate individuals – from a staff team of four people to 40 members of a provincial organization to a gathering of community citizens to a Board and Staff retreat. Some of the sessions were with people I had worked with for six years; in other sessions, we were meeting each other for the first time. The purpose varied from session to session – developing a three-year strategic plan, strengthening organizational unity, celebrating the strengths and assessing the needs of a community, affirming the direction of the organization, and openly discussing board and staff relationships. One session was three hours; another was three days. For some, I could pre-plan; for another, I had to design “on the spot” throughout the event.

This amount and complexity of facilitation activities is not unique for me; in fact, it is the norm! However, at times during the past three weeks, I was anxious at the variety and intensity of the facilitation. I felt the familiar “butterflies in the stomach” as I wondered if I could design and deliver the methods that would help these groups hold meaningful discussions and make productive and beneficial decisions. Oh, and have fun!

Then I focussed on what was important – the participants. I reminded myself that the session is about them; not me. At the start of each day of the facilitation sessions, I visualized the participants – where they were coming from; what they were leaving to attend the session, what they wanted to achieve, and how they might feel about their upcoming experience. During the sessions, I observed the participants – what their body language said and how they interacted. I listened to the participants – what were they talking about? How engaged did they seem? And most importantly, I asked the participants about the design, the flow, the approach, the timing, and the intent of my facilitation activities. In the evenings of the three day retreat with the provincial organization, as I sat in my room and designed the next day, I once again focussed on the participants. What had they told me about the day? What did I notice and hear that gave me clues to the next day’s activities?

During this intense period of facilitation work, I reminded myself of what I need to do to be an effective facilitator. I need to remove the “I” from my mind and think of “We”, that is, the participants and me as a team. While I always want to have some butterflies to keep me from complacency, I know that focussing on the participants will always help me to keep my attention on what is important when I facilitate. I needed to remind myself of that. As always, I calmed myself by focussing on the participants.

My blog conversation question: How do you focus on the participants?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Facilitate ... with Olympic medals!

I am definitely in Olympic withdrawal! Not only because of the amazing performances and grace of our Canadian athletes and the truly fantastic job that the City of Vancouver and Vanoc did but because the Olympics provided exceptional fun and focus for facilitation.
For the past three weeks, I have used the Olympic medals as symbols of success in organizations, communities, and individuals. I bought Hershey chocolate candies wrapped in gold, silver, and bronze shiny paper. At various sessions, workshops, and meetings, I spread the candies on the table and told participants that they were gold, silver, and bronze medals. I asked participants to select a candy and describe the success it represented in their community, group, initiative or organization. What fun and focus! People related extremely well because most of us are closely tied to the Olympics. The success focus came through quickly and profoundly. Participants would laugh and then seriously think about successes. We had many gold medals yet also silver and bronze as participants explained what efforts they still wanted to do to enhance a success.
From community building workshops to sport advisory groups to provincial planning retreats to team development sessions, I enjoyed this Olympic analogy with wonderful Albertans and Canadians. Go Canada Go into the future! We all have our gold, silver, and bronze medals of success!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Facilitate ... with Ground Rules

“Don't 'yuck' someone else's 'yum'!” Now, that’s a great Ground Rule! Using Ground Rules in facilitated discussions is something I have “turned on and off” over the years. I used them … didn’t use them … and now am back to using them.

Ground Rules are the behaviours that people in a group consciously and intentionally agree to use to enable them to work effectively together. Ground rules often cover meeting etiquette, discussion and decision-making processes, and ways that the team members interact with each other. They can range from procedures such as “turn off your cell phone” to ways of discussing such as “actively listen to each other” to values such as “treat each other with courtesy”.

Why do we use Ground Rules? All groups work to some set of procedural and behaviourial rules, spoken or unspoken. Think of times when you assumed or expected people in a meeting to behave in a certain way – only to find that they didn’t!

  • One person may think that interrupting another person when she has an important and relevant point is OK; others find the interruption rude.

  • One person may think that consensus is full agreement by everyone; another person may think it means everyone minus one or two individuals.

  • One person may feel comfortable when someone else directly challenges their opinion in a meeting; others would “curl up and die”.

  • Some people may automatically text message during meetings; others expect everyone to leave cell phones and smart phones at the door.

Taking time to clarify expectations and make them explicit in Ground Rules helps the group members to be “on the same page”; to understand how and why discussions will be held; to create an atmosphere that encourages open, respectful communication and participation; and to hold themselves and each other accountable.

Over ten years ago, I stopped using the term “Ground Rules” because the word “rules” seemed too heavy and authoritative for me! I changed to using terms such as “discussion principles, discussion do’s and don’ts, discussion guidelines”. These worked fairly well; however, did not seem to cover the full spectrum or convey the importance of group behaviours. Then, several years ago, I was introduced to the Ground Rules of “The Skilled Facilitator” by Roger Schwarz & Associates ( This facilitation approach uses nine Ground Rules which are based on five core assumptions and values. Together, the Ground Rules, assumptions and values speak to the importance of truly listening to each other, sharing all relevant information; acknowledging and being curious about how other people see things … and many other aspects of working together effectively as a group. From learning the Skilled Facilitator approach, I rediscovered the value and importance of Ground Rules and now use them again.

Ground Rules are comprehensive and profound yet also fun! Look at the Ground Rules on the poster above which I found in the blue avocado e-newsletter. As the newsletter states “Who can resist a "Ground Rules" sign for a meeting at a youth organization that includes the phrase: “Don't 'yuck' someone else's 'yum'?”

When facilitating a group, I now either introduce the group members to “The Skilled Facilitator” Ground Rules and ask their willingness to apply them to their discussion OR I help them develop their Ground Rules. I encourage them to think about logistical procedures (e.g. Start and end on time), values (e.g. What’s important in how we work together?), and discussion and decision-making techniques (e.g. We use collaborative techniques.)

My Conversation Blog Questions are: What Ground Rules do you like to use with groups and why? And what does “Don't 'yuck' someone else's 'yum'?” mean to you?!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Facilitate ... for and with resolution!

Happy New Year! As many of us start 2010 with the long-standing tradition of making (and hopefully keeping) New Year resolutions, I reflected on the meaning of the word and how I could apply to facilitation. The Webster’s New World Dictionary and Encarta Dictionary include the following definitions of resolution which I think are very apropos to the art and science of facilitation:

· The process of resolving something such as a problem or dispute
· A firm decision to do something
· Determination: firmness of mind or purpose
· The part of a literary work such as a narrative, play, novel, etc. in which the plot is explained or made clear
· The musical progression from a dissonant to a consonant chord or note

Facilitation is very much about people working as a group to resolve a problem and to make strong decisions. Each individual in the group hopefully reaches firmness of mind to support the group’s decision. In this New Year, I resolve to continue to use effective and appropriate facilitation skills to enable groups to talk about their topic of interest, to reach firm and purposeful decisions, and to enhance their ways of working effectively together.

I really like the definitions of resolution as the part of a literacy work in which the plot is explained or made clear and as a musical progression from a dissonant to consonant chord or note. I love the moment in a book in which the story becomes clear. I also love the change in sound when musicians in a band move from warming up to their first song. When applying these definitions to facilitation, I often find that there is a time in a facilitated discussion when the group members suddenly have a breakthrough, a common understanding of an issue such as a book plot becoming clear or a different way of combining information and opinions into a new “musical” sound. These moments of resolution in a group discussion lead to greater collaboration and meaningful decisions.

In 2010, I resolve to use my skills as a facilitator to help groups to achieve and create coordinated, clear, and beautiful-sounding discussions.

My blog conversation questions are: Did you make New Year’s resolutions this year? Why or why not? What experiences have you had with a group achieving a strong resolution? How might you resolve to better contribute to group discussions and decisions?