The mood in the room was electric.  Conversation rippled through, hit the walls at angles and bounced back to my eardrums.  A real hubbub.  Being a reflector learner, I sat there at my table group in my own world, absorbing, processing, pondering.  Suddenly, a pair of hands, clapping silently, entered my field of vision.  With a jolt I looked up and into the facilitator’s eyes.  She smiled knowingly, nodded and gestured for me to clap.  So I did. 

Then someone else did.  And another person.  And another.  Within 30 seconds, all the discussion had ebbed away, and a whole room of people were clapping each other, and smiling.  “Well done everybody.  It’s break time.  See you in 15 minutes.”  Wonderful, simple, respectful, safe, elegant facilitation.

It doesn’t matter very much what tools you use as a facilitator, the absolute pinnacle is to do it elegantly.  I’d consider my style to be an abrasive, challenging facilitator at times; in other words I will prise contributions out of people by pricking their conscience or letting them sweat for a few seconds to find the answer themselves.  I like my participants to work hard to align learnings to higher order thinking.  But that approach can only be used intermittently, and only when you have built significant rapport and trust already.  You can certainly push your participants elegantly.

The key is to not be fighting participants early in the workshop.  Do a good opening frame, covering the why and the benefit, and give everyone the chance to be heard.  Yesterday I ran a workshop where we discuss day-to-day people management situations and how leaders can artfully deal with them.  The elegance was my frame was very short – “Today we’ll solve your daily people problems, together” – followed by getting everyone up to four flipchart stations.  One said “Expectations”, one “Challenges” (of people management), one “Benefits” (same topic) and the final one “In My Team” (this was asking the participants to share a unique aspect of their team, without a value judgement attached).  The participants had about 90 seconds at each station before rotating to the next, with this repeated until they were at their final station, the one they started at. Here they circled what they thought was most important for the day.

The next bit of elegance I employed was to say “What you’ve circled will guide what we focus on today”.  No other facilitator-led debrief of the flipcharts, the participants had already seen what was on everyone else’s minds.  Letting everyone get these anxieties off their chest, and seeing what they all have in common, got them in the learning zone.  Two sentences only from me, pre-planned restraint. 

Perhaps the most elegant, and simple, facilitation discipline I have seen, learnt from and now do, is to shake every participant’s hand as they walk into the training room.  I smile, look them in the eye and let them know when we’ll be starting and where the good coffee is.  It gets me focused too… they are the people who’ll be helping me all day.

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