Wow that meeting was worthwhile!

You’ve probably noticed a lot of articles recently on ‘psychological safety’. It’s an in-topic, however it isn’t new.

Experienced facilitators have long known what it takes for people to voice their opinions, explore their concerns and doubts, be open to the different viewpoints of others. They need to feel safe – safe to speak and safe to think, safe to not follow the crowd, and safe to change their own perceptions.

Creating and holding that safe space is something that all effective facilitators do. Whether it is a meeting, a work session, a scrum event, or a development workshop, they create that space that is safe for every voice in the room. And that dramatically increases the potential to get results – honest exploration of the problems, solutions that everyone can buy into and genuine commitment to action or change. It dramatically increases the possibility that people will walk out saying “Wow, that meeting was worth my while.”

There are a number of building blocks to creating safety. Those building blocks are the tools, or as we say, the science of facilitation. The first step is to learn what they are and to start using them. Unfortunately that alone does not create the safety. Making them work requires developing a feel for how to best use the tools, what we call the art of facilitation. The art develops from a deeper appreciation for people, an understanding of human dynamics, a positive intent, your authenticity, and lots of courageous practise.

When the art and the science come together, then we have magic.

You may remember my blog about the facilitation that I did with two groups that had been physically fighting each other the week before. In 90 minutes they went from extremely wary “us and them” to “we can work together and here are our ideas that we generated collaboratively”. That was only possible because I was able to create the safety in the room. In that instance it took about 30 minutes to create sufficient safety. Once we had it, it enabled people to share their individual perspectives, and to listen to each other. And then they were able to constructively explore the issues, and to come up with some possible ways forward.

It was magical. Even I was blown away by what they achieved.

Generally in articles like this we try and share with you three or five informative key points on the topic. I will give you a couple of pointers in a moment, but here’s the challenge, the pointers are the science which we can try to explain, although we really need more than just a few lines to do justice to it, but certainly the part that we can’t do in an article like this, is to help you to find the art.

Developing the art takes time and practise, and it happens easiest when you have a coach or mentor.

Four key elements that the facilitator uses to develop safety in the room

Do a check in: 

There are many ways to do this. Essentially you are gently inviting and encouraging everyone to share their name (if they don’t already know each other) and some other piece of information. Something that isn’t about jobs, titles, hierarchy, such as “something great that happened to me this week” or “something I enjoy doing when I am not working”.

This check in enables everyone to start connecting as people, and on a level playing field.

Create an agreement as to how we will be with each other: 

This is sometimes called ground rules or a team agreement. Again there are many ways you can do it. A simple one is completing the statement “I feel more safe when ….” And “I feel less safe when …”

It is important that everyone’s needs have been considered, and that any dissention has been heard, so that you end up with a mutual agreement that everyone willingly buys into. It also includes permission to kindly hold each other to it.

This agreement creates a container that the facilitator needs to hold. It gives people the assurance that their safety needs will be met.

Share the Strategic Intent of the session and the Structure that will be followed: 

The intent is the purpose, and it’s strategic because there is a good reason to hold this session and it has been designed to achieve that.

The structure maybe the agenda. It is the format that will be followed and a high level timeframe.
This makes people comfortable that they aren’t going to be wasting their time and that they know what to expect – no scary surprises coming up.

Create space for all the voices: 

This is very important. You notice above that I’ve said “everyone” a few times. You will have experienced that there are always a few willing, eager voices in the room. However there are often others who are quieter and don’t speak up unless you create the circumstances that enable them to do so. This is very much an art.

A few things that help are – letting people think quietly, individually, before you ask them to share their thoughts, ideas, suggestions, concerns etc; allowing people to speak when they are ready and holding silence for them to get that opportunity; and doing some interactions on paper (words or pictures), or by body movement, instead of verbally.

To get the results that I spoke about earlier you need to have both the art and the science of facilitation – you need to develop mastery as a facilitator. 

You need to understand the subtle differences in how one uses the tools to get the big results, to make them your own, to learn to hold space even in difficult circumstances, to confidently guide teams to engage in honest, open conversations and to find your own persona as a facilitator.

That is why Regina Martins and I developed the Masterful Facilitator fundamentals programme. To give facilitators, who already have experience with some of the science, the opportunity to grow both their toolbox and their art, and to take their skills to a professional level.

In December we were working with a group early on the first day of the programme. Regina started to guide them to create a Learning Alliance for our time together – a type of team agreement , or “way of being with each other” agreement. When the agreement was almost complete one of the participants said “We’ve done this at work in our team. I don’t know why it isn’t working there though. People don’t do what they agreed to. We’ve tried introducing fines but these also aren’t working.”

This was such a wonderful moment. It was the opportunity for the group to unpack the finer, subtler details of how the participant’s team agreement had been derived – the intention behind it, who had contributed, how were the points of the agreement derived, who was upholding or reinforcing the agreement. And to see where the art (the authentic intention and the subtle hows), needed to be blended with the science (the tool). A big hint here “fining people for not following the agreement won’t work 😊.”

The group on that Masterful Facilitator fundamentals programme grew tremendously. In particular they were amazing at holding each other to the learning alliance, the agreement that they had developed. There was no big fuss. If someone did, or said, something contrary to the agreement someone else would quietly say something like “our agreement” and the ‘guilty party’ apologised immediately and everyone carried on. They held each other accountable throughout. In so doing they’ve already shifted their group culture.

One of the formal pieces of feedback we received after that programme was “I gained relevant knowledge that I can immediately apply at work and solve most of the problems I have been struggling with for quite some time.”

However the comment I loved was given in our closing appreciation circle. One of the ‘millennial generation’ participants said “I so appreciate that we were off our phones for two days – I appreciate that I didn’t want to be on my phone – that is unheard of for me.”

If you’d like to take your facilitation skills to a higher level so that everyone gets value out of each meeting, event or session you facilitate, and that you see real results in the form of actions and/or behavioural changes afterwards, take a look here.

(PS if you are in Johannesburg bookings must be made and paid for by 17 Feb.)


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