Friday, 12 February 2010

the how of manchester

So how did Irna do in her first facilitation?

Really well.

Really well.

I’ve described the content of the session here – which I called the WHAT of Manchester.

But here, in the refreshing spirit of openly shared feedback, are my thoughts on the HOW of Manchester.

For those of you facilitating any of the forthcoming dialogues in Your Thoughts With Mine, (or anyone else who’s interested in facilitation), get a cup of tea and take your time to read through what’s quite a thorough dissection of the evening.

Others of you might want to simply scan through the series of HANDY HINTS which are as much for me and anyone else who’s interested in facilitating through dialogue, as they might be for Irna.

So – from the beginning…

Irna and I had two preparation phone calls; one long one, one short. We talked through the opening and in response to Irna’s request to focus particularly on the different ways to probe, looked at this dialogue as a chance for people to go a little deeper than normal.

A quick word about our first phone call: I was busy, Irna was busy but we both dedicated time and space to think things through thoroughly. And it worked. We considered possibilities, we listened carefully and we even co-created a couple of ideas. Even though we were in different cities, we had a meaningful, thoughtful conversation that got us to somewhere new.

It can be done.

After our phone call, Irna spoke to her two guests, she got know them a bit and by the time I saw her immediately before the event in Manchester, she looked and felt ready.

So – 5.30pm on February 11th at the Manchester Museum.

Irna welcomed people as they came in. Briefly, lightly but importantly. We found ourselves waiting for a few late-comers, so Irna gave it an extra 5 minutes before we started and three participants went to do their prayers. Irna let everyone else know that was happening; so they were relaxed.

Refreshments were available – just like it said they would be.

Refreshments. What an important and overlooked thing they can be. On this occasion, the tea spoons and cups had been laid out in perfect formation. A small signal that things had been thought about, prepared and considered. I still haven’t encountered a decent cup of coffee on our series of dialogues but in Manchester most people drank tea, said hello, enjoyed a piece of cake and found their place in the room.

And so we started.

Gently and perhaps a little nervously, HANDY HINT #1: Make your notes big enough and clear enough, Irna asked Tim the sound recordist if it was okay to have her phone on, so she could keep an eye on the time. (Lovely – everyone checked their phone was off.)

Within seconds of opening her session, she used a set of words that… seemed to change the temperature of the room slightly:

“I’ve got to be honest with you…” she said.

My pen hits the paper... HANDY HINT #2: Disclose early on. Others will surely follow.

Next, Irna was explicit about what kind of conversation she was interested in having.

Explicit and practical:

“Let’s take more time than we normally would.”

“Let’s listen more than we might do normally.”

“And let’s be more personal, more honest perhaps than we might usually be.”

Question: Did any of these things happen?

Answer: Yes. (Not always. But more than they would have done if Irna hadn’t mentioned them.)

HANDY HINT #4: Make sure that the things you want people to do are things that people can actually do.

It sounds obvious I know, but I was once asked by a facilitator to “bring some part of yourself to bear that you may not even know is present…” I’m all for being surprised and open-minded, but I spent the rest of that session worrying that I wasn’t doing something I should be; which didn’t really help much when it came to my presence.)

So – a good start. Gentle, relaxed and well prepared. Very Irna.

If anything was missed out in the Intro that might usefully have been there, it would be the notion of 'al-hewar' an exchange leading to a revelation; the idea that a dialogue is a co-creating conversation. So it's more than a conversation in which our own perspectives might change (this can happen on a walk, or watching a film or attending a lecture). A dialogue is a more creative act. It's a conversation where together we might make more than we could alone. A 2+2=5 conversation one could say.

Now... openings.

As a result of last night’s session in Manchester and Richard’s in Bradford a fortnight ago, I’ve now changed my mind about what I think about the opening 10 minutes as a facilitator. I’m now convinced you should learn it; or if you must, use notes, use just a few key words on a piece of paper; but not big long or even medium long sentences.

HANDY HINT #5: Use key words as prompts but not huge written sentences.

(I suppose the only exception to this is if it’s a quote you want to make sure you get totally accurate – in which case, don’t be embarrassed: read it, word for word.)

Most of us speak very naturally if we’re allowed to just speak. But it takes a lot of skill and experience to make the written word sound like it was created to be spoken. And at the beginning, we the participants want to know that you know your way around what you’re saying really, really well.

And so the dialogue began. Irna’s two guests spoke well and economically.

And then, they kept talking.

Everything they were saying in its own right was interesting, but cumulatively it began to go on a little long. (I am so familiar with this problem.)

So – here’s the question: how do you stop someone talking without being rude?

HANDY HINT #6: Let someone know that you want them to stop talking (without cutting in) by just gently signalling to them.

Raise your hand and keep it there… discretely of course, but not secretly. Make it obvious enough. You’ve told them you want to come in – and most people will let you; but only if they know you want to!

There are a few magic phrases in the land of facilitation and when I hear them spoken out loud I tingle with excitement. Once she’d heard form her guests, early on still, Irna said: “I’m just wondering…”

Wonder. What a great word to have in the mix.

It’s a sign of suspending or having an open mind.

Any good therapist ‘wonders’ out loud. It’s such a great open word, full of prospect and curiosity. And (said with the right intention) it signals to everyone a lack of judgement. It’s part of making the space ‘safe’ for people to say what they really think and feel. (And it nearly always draws a rich response.)

After 15 minutes or so, things moved on and more people began to take part in the session. And soon there were many voices. (The voices come, they always do, even if it takes a few minutes, during which time you just have to trust that it will happen) and Irna began to demonstrate some core dialogue skills beautifully:

Earlier on she had described (so delicately) a matchbox containing odds and ends that she used to keep under her bed. In itself it was an easy, personal way into the rather serious sounding theme of identity, but it did something else too. It told us as participants that it was okay to take time and consider the words we used.

She disclosed by saying things like “I’m feeling a little bit confused now…” and: “I’m torn between wanting to come to you and hear your thoughts, but first I really want to stay with you for a second and ask…”

There it was: disclosing and navigating in one breath: facilitative heaven. Or what they call in business a “toofer” (two for the price of one).

And then Irna started to do what she’s said she wanted to, instead of letting people chime in with a string of unrelated comments, she began to dig deeper.

She probed succinctly:

Participant: “So I suppose it’s about… fracture really. Is that what I mean? Yes, fracture…”

Irna: “Good thing, bad thing?”

And then again later in the dialogue:

PARTICIPANT: “And anyway, I suppose that’s just how it was so I accepted it.”

FACILITATOR: “Did it bother you?”

(A lovely example of a closed question designed to open up new territory.)

She checked lightly:

“So can I just make sure… are you saying that…”

She listened for the small things:

“Somewhere in there you used the word ‘duty’…”

And she navigated too, lots. At the outset she said:

“If anyone finds that there’s anything at all distracting them from listening or taking part fully, please, do say so. Will you?”

(I very much enjoyed Irna’s gentle twist at the end there - turning it into a question. Not a question that needs an answer; but a question that makes it much more likely that anyone who’s got a headache will get up and get themselves a glass of water rather than suffering in silence (not listening), or else is will help someone who can’t hear what someone else is saying to say so.)

And then later, an example of navigation that Irna and I discussed on the phone:

“We’re about half way through now" said Irna. "Is everyone happy with what we’re talking about or would anyone like to introduce anything else in now?”

As it happened, no-one wanted to change course - but they had the opportunity to. They were included in the decision to stick with what was fertile territory – and because they were included and not ‘done to,’ everyone was able to put aside their background concern that maybe we’d been on one subject for too long.

Question: had we been on one subject for too long?

Answer: No. Not at all. Everyone was happy to explore more, to dig deeper.

But Irna's concern had been that she didn't want just one thread of the theme to dominate the evening and her worry was that even if that's what people were were thinking, they might not admit it. So, by navigating, Irna reminded us that we were collectively responsible for where the dialogue was heading.

And we were happy.

So we carried on.

Not content with navigating well, Irna scattered dialogue skills across the whole evening, lightly and gracefully.

Were there any she didn’t use? Yes – pausing. It takes bottle to really pause. And a few times in Manchester, we could have done with it.

Just a bit of time to think together; silently; particularly after some of the more personal revelations. As the dialogue rolled on more and more freely, it felt like there were a few moments when Irna was simply pointing at the next speaker who was desperate to speak next, rather than giving us time and space to let things land.

(No regrets. Just lessons learnt for next time…)

HANDY HINT: #7 Obey your own rules. The big advantage of establishing early on, clearly and explicitly how you want the conversation to be, you can always refer back to it.

So for next time, here are just a few things - in the form of handy hints - that Irna didn’t do that she could have done:

In Listening mode, there were a few opportunities for Irna to simply repeat words back at someone, to lightly check or probe

HANDY HINT #8: If someone else says something interesting, say it again.

As an example, at one point a participant said:

PARTICIPANT: “You have to… I don’t know… adapt yourself…”

In a conversation about Identity this was an interesting or at least a useful phrase to pop up out of nowhere. And it could have been just noticed, drawn attention to gently and repeated:

FACILITATOR: “adapt yourself…”

Not a big deal, just a simple and very effective thing to do sometimes.

Sometimes in a dialogue when the stakes are high, the emotional temperature can get a bit steamy. And that can be a great thing.

So long as it still feels like a relatively ‘safe’ environment (and the ‘container’ of dialogue still feels robust), an emotionally charged exchange can be the moment a dialogue really shifts the atmosphere and genuinely affects how people are in the room. And as a facilitator, something we can do (and it's back to our old friend navigating) is just to acknowledge the steaminess or the change in temperature.

You can say, explicitly: "I have a strong sense that feelings are running high here."

You'll find disclosing helpful too here: "I've got to admit I'm finding this exciting, but I want to check that we're okay with how it's going..."

(And if you're worried that things are indeed in danger of getting too heated, you've created the perfect opportunity to remind people of some of the values of a dialogue: the respect, the open-mindedness, maybe simply the behaviour of allowing there to be a longer pause than usual before we speak.)

So - Irna, thank you. You allowed voices to be heard that might not otherwise have spoken. And that to me is a large part of what this whole project is about.

To everyone who took part. Thank you. I hope you felt heard.

At least tonight in Manchester.

Next up... Luton.

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