Basic Process Interventions

The basic duties of a facilitator are:

  • Make sure everyone is working on the same problem with the same approach
  • Make sure everyone participates
  • Protect participants from verbal abuse

We've already addressed how to make sure that all are working on the same problem: objectives, agenda, and problem statements all help get participants focused on a single problem. In the next section we will discuss interventions based on the group memory to help bring participants back to the agreed-upon focus.

Use Exercises and Simple Techniques to Increase Participation and Creative Flow
Pose a framing question to the group and record it in the group memory: some large and visible representation of what the group is doing (more on that in a moment) Ask for ideas and get them into group memory. Use the rules of brainstorming, or just go around and have each person offer an idea (round robin). If there are some people who are not participating, it might be because they are more contemplative than others: they are processing more information, considering more perspectives, or carrying implications to a higher order. To give them a chance to take part, allow a few minutes for all to right down ideas (silent brainstorming) before the round robin, or have people write their ideas on sticky notes and then post them or hand them in (slip writing).

Play Traffic Cop
Some people may not be participating because of process blocking: can't get a word in edgewise until the topic they wanted to contribute to is past. They will usually give you body language that they want to speak and it is your job to get them a break. Use hand signals, physical position, and verbal interruptions to prevent behaviors that limit participation, make participants feel threatened, or impede progress.

It Takes Two

Here's an idea for reducing disruptive behaviors -- and minimizing their impact during team meetings: Work with a co-facilitator.

One of you can focus on the participants while the other focuses on the content. When you are focusing on the participants, you can move close to somebody who is reading a newspaper or proofreading a report or carrying on a side conversation. You can intervene at appropriate times to call on some reluctant participant for his or her comment. You can take a problem participant aside to clarify some instructions or request more cooperation.

Here's another idea for reducing disruptive behaviors -- and minimizing their impact: Ask each participant to work with a buddy.

Divide the participants into pairs. Make each participant responsible for his or her partner's behavior. The partners coach each other to ensure appropriate behaviors.

Silence Buster

Have you ever asked a question during your a session only to be confronted with silence so deafening that you can hear a pin drop? Would you like to learn a way to change the atmosphere of your class from dead silence to total participation?

If there is no response to your question, simply say, "Turn to the person next to you and discuss this." You will magically transform your room from absolute quiet to lively discussion in 5 seconds or less. What's nice about this method is that there isn't any need for props or preparation. You can use it in any class, with any topic.

Evaluation Apprehension

Another reason participants might not contribute is that they are afraid their ideas will be ridiculed. Not only is this bad manners and a good way to lose the wisdom of some group members, it is also a big block to creativity. Place equal value on all ideas. Explain that there are no bad ideas. Some help open up creative flow, some help people explore how they feel about an issue, and some may turn out to be quite good, after a little modification. Some ideas seek to be self serving or disruptive, but can only be if you react to them or allow others to do so. Write down every idea in group memory. Try to design your agenda so that idea generation (divergent thinking) is separated in time and psychically from idea evaluation and decision making (convergent thinking).

Disruptive Behaviors
Non-participation can take many forms besides not talking: disruptive behaviors such as interrupting, negativity, physically or mentally leaving, or dominating the conversation are all forms of non-participation. When you get this, practice the meditation on compassion. Most people are not rotten, they just get carried away or scared or excited or tired. One colleague says that 95% of this behavior comes from people who feel they haven't been heard or listened to, 3% from people who haven't learned where to find their "off" button, and 2% from people who have a destructive life script. You may not understand what is going on in their life to cause disruptive behavior, but you can learn to accept that there is something .

It may even be something in your process: as servant of the group, you need to look at process changes or interventions that can meet this person's concerns, preserve their contribution, and allow the group to move forward. Here again, get tacit or explicit agreement from the group that this person's contributions are worth taking the time or making the changes! This is where you personally have to focus your own definition of facilitation a little more than the one I offered at the beginning: are you there to serve the immediate wants of the group, or longer-term, developmental needs? Either answer can be very right in some circumstances and very wrong in others.

In the extreme, participants will be concerned about being ridiculed - or worse - personally for their ideas. Be quick and positive in putting a stop to personal abuse: do not allow negative comments against a group member to go unchallenged. Group memory will help in lessening comments about people, too! (Aren't you getting anxious to get on to group memory?)

Group Memory

Keep a running group memory.
The human brain is essentially a massively parallel processor. But for a group to work together, the group brain needs to be a serial processor. The group memory is the consciousness thread that is used to keep the group focused on working on one thing, and working on it in a logical sequence. Group memory is the stuff you post on the walls or otherwise collect where everyone can see it. It is where you keep all comments, ideas, discussion, agreements, thoughts, votes, and decisions, so each person can see what we're talking about now.

Group memory is more than just wall paper to let people see that you've done something:

It lets you refer back to stuff that's been done. If the group needs to stop progress and go back, the facilitator can physically go to that part of the group memory and refocus the group on what they were doing.

It keeps people focused on providing input that can be captured and processed, not just conversing and generalizing. This is key to moving from meetings where nothing gets done to meetings that have beneficial work products. Seeing some things they say get written down and others get lost helps the participants keep focused on making progress, not chatter.

It lets you capture thoughts and ideas during divergent thinking, then go back to those ideas during convergent thinking. A productive group often goes through a creative phase, where ideas flow without judgment. This is divergent thinking - moving away from what is current conventional wisdom. But to make a decision, they need to then do convergent thinking: come together on the one or few ideas they are going to implement. Group memory is essential to the flow back and forth between these two modes.

When the group is not working on the problem it agreed to work on, you can show in the record where they agreed to work on this problem and where they went astray. Then check if they want to agree to stay on this path or return to the path they originally agreed to. Get them to be explicit about what the new path is, and write that in the group memory.

When someone keeps harping on an idea, you can point to where it has been captured and say, "We've got it in the group memory. Any other ideas we need to get?"

Participants can "attack" positions shown in the group memory without abusing the person who originally proposed it. They can say, "See that idea there? I think a problem with it is." instead of saying, "Jo, you're an idiot, that would never work."

When you decide to intervene on group behavior, you can indicate in the group memory the points where things happened that you are questioning.

When you're coming to consensus or voting on a motion, everyone can see exactly what they're agreeing or not agreeing to.