Thursday, 28 January 2010

not me....

So – tonight was a first.

After training a group of people to deliver dialogue sessions on contemporary Muslim themes, finally today... someone else ran one instead of me. In Bradford. So I travelled up to support Richard. And have just arrived back home.

We agreed that my feedback to him should be shared with everyone else in the group. So I spent three hours from Leeds to London writing it. And it became a long email; but one that includes some of my thoughts on how dialogue skills can help you as a facilitator.

Most of you won't read this. But if you're someone who enjoys facilitating... you might:

Well done Richard. Irna... you're next... in Manchester.

So - it was Richard’s night in Bradford!

And he did really well. (Irna who’s facilitating the next session was there too tonight so she can testify that I’m not just being nice!) I felt very proud of you Richard and I hope you felt proud of yourself.

It was a session that grew naturally and became a fascinating evening for everyone there I think. Your natural qualities of humour, sincerity and curiosity were all present and you created a really good sense of TIME AND SPACE for us all to be in.

I’ve agreed with Richard and Irna that it would be in all of our interests to make our feedback public – it’ll help keep everyone connected and to share the learning we all get as we move through the series of dialogues in the coming weeks and months.

I’m putting down ALL of my main thoughts – mostly because this whole journey is as much about being a learning experience for everyone as it is delivering really good dialogues around the country and giving feedback to individuals.

And also because it’s our first one so we’ve learnt lots tonight. So you might want to get a cup of tea before you read it all, or save it for when you have more time.

So – what and how did Richard do?

Some of what I’m about to say might seem critical – and that’s because my job now is to remind you of the things you aren’t doing yet instinctively. But please remember (Richard and everyone else) I think you’re great, you’ve learnt so much in such a short time and this is a chance to give you positively challenging feedback on the basis of you doing it for real!

Also – this feels like a chance to bring back to the surface some of the learning we all did together last year.

So I won’t apologise for writing at length.


Before the event – Richard and I had good and healthy dialogue about his upcoming session. (And Irna and I have two phone calls booked in, one a week before her dialogue and another two days before.)

Richard prepared really well in terms of:

  1. His opening words and thoughts
  2. The territory he thought he might cover during the session.
  3. Talking to and getting to know his two guests before the dialogue started.

The chairs were set in a circle and initially Richard put the chairs in the middle but if felt wrong – so he changed it and put himself between his two guests as part of the wider circle, which worked really well.

Being able to observe this evening rather than run it, I was reminded of the importance of the ‘host’ part of the event. As people arrive – do say hello to them, it’s a quick but really important way of making them feel welcome and building a warm atmosphere. You don’t have to get into a big conversation with them but for those early arrivals you can say the actual dialogue will begin at 5.30pm and that they should help themselves to the refreshments on the table.

About 5 minutes before you start, it’s also useful to say to everyone that you’ll be starting in about 5 mins. It gives everyone a chance to go to the loo if they need to and is also a signal that they should bring their chats with each other to a close, or for the people who’ve arrived on their own (and aren’t chatting) that soon things will start.

So – we started on time... Brilliant. Starting and finishing on time is a great thing.

Zarah did the health and safety and mobile phone speech as she will everywhere – It helps people feel relaxed and shows them that someone is taking charge of the event’s parameters – it’s part of helping people to feel safe, not just physically (in terms of the fire drill announcement) but in terms of being part of an event that’s been considered and thought about.

(This is a rare thing in itself. I was at a business event this morning when the participants weren't really considered and thought about. The room was cold, the projector was noisy... dull things in themselves but cumulatively if you're a 'guest' these things make you feel neglected. Not good.)

And on to the event itself: Richard had a really strong opening. It was clear, concise and most importantly
his. It wasn’t the same as mine and it won’t be the same as anyone else’s – and that’s a good thing. Richard did some things though that I would recommend we all do: he didn’t go on too long, he used a language that felt like one he was familiar and comfortable with and he really took time to engage with us.

Richard used notes and maybe got lost in them a little bit – but held his nerve, took his time and got back on track. And no-one minded. (Remember your participants want it to go well – they’re you’re friends, not your enemy!)

Richard’s voice was clear and strong – which again is his style but even so I think you could be a little gentler with equal impact Richard. A subtle thing but it’s important not to broadcast but to invite at the beginning especially.

Something else happened early on which was interesting and useful – we had some late comers, three of whom were young children. Richard had just started his intro and chose not to acknowledge the latecomers explicitly. And I would suggest that you always should. It helps keep that thread between everyone in the room and allows you and (more importantly) everyone else to feel okay about us being a group, thinking together. It’s harder to say to a latecomer something like: "Would you mind turning your phone off?" if you’ve not said hello to them when they arrived.

You don’t have to catch them up on everything they’ve missed, but it’s a good thing to take time, (even if it’s only one person who’s late) to update them at least on the ‘how’ bit of the conversation, if not the 'what.'

And another thing... Make sure you sit opposite the door, so if people come in the room late, you’re the first to see them. (I’ve only just realised I do this!)

In the body of the dialogue this evening...
Richard did great LISTENING, CHECKING and NAVIGATING which I would say are probably the essential dialogue skills for facilitating. What happened as a result was that we stayed together on the journey of the dialogue – no mean feat with 20 or so people. Richard thanked everyone for their input every time someone said anything, which was great (keep it light though).

There was some PAUSING too which worked well; just natural periods of no more than 10 seconds or so when we all fell quiet together which was really enjoyable.

He also did some very good summarising (in the form of questions) after someone had spoken which is a nice way of CHECKING, so long as you’ve guessed right in terms of what someone’s said. Explicit CHECKING, little and often is a good thing: for example, saying things like:

“And you’re a Mum are you?”

You feel that? Or you
and your husband feel that?”

“So you’re looking at things through a different lens now you’ve given up teaching?”

These small things give you licence to ‘interrupt’ if you like, and keep the feel of a dialogue rather than a succession of extended points of view, which is interesting but not as rare and co-creative as two people whose rhythm is composed of shorter periods of talking and not talking.

If I were to say two things to you Richard (and I did briefly afterwards) we could have done with more PROBING and DISCLOSING.

In terms of PROBING: occasionally Richard, you could have come up with a few short questions to dig a bit deeper but quickly.

For example:

PARTICIPANT: “I hate the term service providers!”

FACILITATOR: What makes you say that?


PARTICIPANT: “Adverts on sexual health should be banned!”



PARTICIPANT: “Ede should be celebrated at every school?”

FACILITATOR: Why isn’t it?

And then on DISCLOSING... It was great that people opened up and began to speak more personally as the session went on. I think you could have encouraged that to happen earlier by doing two things: first you could have asked people to speak as personally as possible in your opening. And secondly, I think you could have been more personal yourself. One of the qualities of a dialogue is that it’s a more open, honest and personal type of conversation than we might be used to in a public setting. It’s a gentle thing of course. But don’t be afraid to ask people to be personal. It’s about creating an atmosphere of trust. It’s not easy. It takes courage, sensitivity and of course experience to assess how personal or not you can be. But it’s one of the trademarks of our dialogue series... and we should be proud of it.

Another useful thing we can do is ask stupid questions – not silly questions, but questions that we (or our participants perhaps) are often too afraid to ask. Things like:

“What does YMAG actually stand for?”

“How long has R.E. been on the syllabus?”

“Sorry I’ve forgotten your name... Remind me!”

These are all the types of questions that get hidden under the veil of politeness and in a dialogue, they’re important. They stop us wasting time guessing or worrying when we could be listening.

Which brings me onto one more thing for you Richard but for all of us: you did a great job of LISTENING TO... tonight Richard. You picked up small pieces of information and then included them in your summaries before moving things on. But you missed a few chances to LISTEN FOR...

For example, a couple of times there was clearly some emotion in people’s voices: passion about their point of view, nervousness about speaking, confusion about what they were thinking... And all of these things are good and allowed, but if you explicitly and gently acknowledge these then you tell us all it’s okay to express ourselves, and that’s another rare thing in a conversation. So pick up the feeling and tone (the how) as well as the actual things people are saying (the what). It really opens up a conversation into a dialogue because it tells us you are hearing not just our meaning but some of our intention and feelings too. And as we know, feelings are sometimes difficult or embarrassing or exposing to express, so when someone trluy ‘hears’ us... It’s a profound thing.

So... phrases like these can be really useful:

“It sounds like you really care about this....”

“I can tell I think that this is something that’s close to your heart...”

“You’re really cross about his aren’t you!?”

Humour or at least a smile can be a great thing when it comes to acknowledging emotion.

Towards the end of the session...
Richard NAVIGATED beautifully and said something like: “We have just 10 mins or so to go, so now’s the chance to say something you’re really burning to say...” Excellent. It gave those people who hadn’t spoken yet a chance to speak now or not at all. (And they did.)

And then... Richard finished on time, winning friends and giving Zarah a perfect cue to invite people to come and have their thoughts, opinions and ideas filmed outside and for others to enjoy talking informally with refreshments and also (very importantly) those who had to dash off to put their kids to bed or make their wife’s supper were able to do to so. So they’re last thoughts weren’t: “I hate things that don’t finish on time!” but rather they felt their time was valued and respected. A healthy experience all round.

So – I think that’s enough for now.

Richard, there are a couple of things I’ll follow up with you by phone in the next couple of days.

But for tonight... WELL DONE. It was a great start to our second series.

Now – Irna....


  1. I agree with Generic Viagra Online. Really nice blog.
    Well done Richard, and good luck Ima,
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  2. Richard was excellent and I'm lloking forward to the next dialogue now. The event had Rehana and I buzzing with energy on most of the train journey home!