Enhance your facilitation effectiveness

Avoid holding a pen

I received a number of comments about my article Why I don’t hold a pen: the perils of pen holding.  In the original article, I explored what I believe to be a crucial issue –facilitators are likely to be more effective if they do not carry a pen.

Some people felt I was being strangely brave while others expressed disbelief and bewilderment: how can you run a group session if you don’t use a pen?

As a result of these comments, I have had further thoughtsharpie-flip-chart-blues on what I believe to be an essential approach.

Before you continue reading – I hope – let’s be absolutely clear: I do not write anything, all recorded discussion is written by the participants and by the participants alone.

Organisational culture

Let’s take a step back and start with organisational culture.  The organisation, or organisations, that you work for – what is the prevailing culture?  Is it a culture in which information and knowledge are openly released, judgment and expertise freely shared, feedback encouraged?

Or, are these matters largely suppressed?

You will have experienced this suppression in most meetings.  The majority of meetings are chaired by the boss.  The boss frequently hogs the flipchart, holds a pen and dominates the airwaves.  The unspoken objective is control rather than release.  The end result: acquiescence triumphs over participation.

The facilitator who uses a pen, is likely to introduce these major blockages to group communication – perpetuating the elements of negative culture and hierarchical domination.

Consequently, the risk of a facilitated session run by a person who writes up contributions is that it will be no better than a normal meeting.

“What motivates you?”

Let me tell you of an experience of mine which helped me develop my approach to facilitation.

I was running a series of training courses for the managers of an IT company.

I gained the impression that one group of managers was disengaged at work and ineffective in their roles – they were certainly unresponsive in the training sessions.  In an attempt to stimulate their brains and generate discussion, I asked what motivated them.

There I was, gripping the flip and poised with pen.

“Getting a car,” was the first response.  I wrote ‘car’ on the flip chart.  “Yes,” said the second, “a posh car.”  I inserted ‘posh’.

“A BMW….”

“..or a Jag.”  (Laughter.)

They were getting silly.  It was too much for me.  I was frustrated that I could not fit ‘posh car’ into any motivational theory that I knew.  It was time to take control and explain what motivation really meant and how it applied to them.

“Right.  What you are really saying is ‘money’.  Because you can’t get an expensive car unless you have the money.”  So I wrote ‘money’ on the flip chart.

I think their contributions dried up a bit after that.

Lessons learned

Looking back, I feel ashamed of my behaviour.  But, as I moved from training into facilitation, this experience taught me four vital and related concepts in my approach.

First, you have to work within the culture of the organisation.  If you hold a pen, you are more likely to judge contributions, edit them, push the conversation the way you think it should be going.  Start where they areHBS team 2 at.  Remember: the participants are the experts, not you.

Second, avoid control and interference.  If you, as a facilitator, ask a question, you have to accept all the individual answers in their original form, not change the words nor interfere with the content.

Third, if I do not hold a pen, ownership remains firmly with the participants.  They then own every contribution and they own the output.

Fourth, it is a characteristic of many interventions by consultants, trainers and facilitators that they parachute in and then gallop off into the distance leaving the client unsupported and in a state of chaos.

This is less likely to happen if the client owns the contributions and the output – output to which all have contributed and to which all are committed.

Next week I will post a follow up: how I  generate  and manage contributions.  There – something to look forward to.

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