Help Make Connections and Meaning
One of the core principles for effective facilitation
Approximate reading time: five minutes; 864 words.
Listening to audio recording of post: six minutes and 24 seconds.
You deplane and immediately check your phone or the gate monitor. You want to know one thing: where do I go next?
Whether it be volunteers on a conference call, staff colleagues in a meeting, or learners participating in a workshop, they seek the same thing: connections. And in our multi-tasking, information-overloaded world, helping make connections is an increasingly vital part of effective facilitation.
The Facilitator As Connector
To enable better discussions and decisions, effective facilitation:
designs environments, agendas, and collateral materials that make it easier for individuals to freely contribute their perspectives;
listens for and seeks to make explicit or help surface relevant connections; and
helps participants determine what discussions might mean for them and their efforts.
For example, you might ask how a decision under deliberation could affect operations in another area, how the current discussion connects with previous ones, or how a conversation might relate or apply to individuals’ choices and work.
Effective facilitation also helps connect comments from individuals in a conversation. When facilitating, you presumably listen more deeply, broadly, and actively than those participating in the conversation. At any given moment you likely have a stronger sense of the links among disparate threads of conversation than many of the participants.
While you can share the connections you see, being facilitative means making it easier for others to do that work. To help group members make these connections—as well as identify the meaning of what has occurred—pose expansive, open-ended questions:
So where are we at from your perspective?
What might the idea(s) being considered mean for your efforts or what collectively needs to happen next?
How does what Tonya just shared relate to the points Andrew and Wanda made earlier?
What are you noticing right now? What might it mean for what we next address?
What, if anything, isn't connecting for you or making sense right now?
We've heard lots of different viewpoints. Any common threads among them? Any promising outlier perspectives?
Such questions create a reflective space for individuals and groups where they can make sense of what is transpiring.
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Effective facilitation also periodically slows the conversation and invites group members to assess the nature of their deliberations and how to enhance them:
In terms of the discussions and decisions, what’s working well that we should build upon?
Where are we falling short and what might we want to do differently?
How might we better apply the shared norms or agreements we established to guide our efforts?
Meaning Is Not Universal
Individuals filter what happens through their respective lenses, roles, and experiences in order to make sense of things ... to make meaning for themselves. Periodically surfacing these different meanings can help knit together a richer and more robust understanding among participants since everyone has their unique lenses that allows them to see things 20/20.
In doing so, you may want to specifically invite more introverted participants to share their sense of the conversation. Why? Their more contemplative nature often is quite conducive to distilling the dialogue. “I’d love to hear what our quieter participants in the conversation are noticing or sensing.”
Pausing for such “check-ins” can be especially valuable if clusters of participants share perspectives that may influence the meaning they may make; i.e. individuals from different departments, geographic locations, institutional sizes, et al. In this case, more extensive debriefing may be desirable. You can use a format like The Exchange to divide participants into these groups and let them make connections themselves before cross-pollinating their perspectives, and then reconnecting as a large group for further reflection and processing.
Making Connections for Learning
Workshop facilitators in particular need to help connect their content to the different contexts individuals may represent, as well as invite individuals to make meaning of the ideas and issues being discussed. Doing so explicitly helps individuals realize greater learning value. I often engage participants in exploring two questions:
Implications: So what? Why or how does this matter? In general? For you? For others?
Applications: Now what? What might you (or others) wish to do differently? How might you apply this information?
Content insufficiently connected to context(s) often temporarily raises learner awareness, but does not lead to meaningful or enduring change in mindset or behavior.
By listening deeply and helping weave individual comments into a coherent whole, as well as helping individuals make (and share) meaning from what is occurring and being discussed, facilitation can help achieve synergy, producing a group result that surpasses what individuals might have accomplished on their own.
We now operate in a world in which more people toggle among virtual, in-person, and hybrid environments. Organizations and facilitators likely need to increase their attention to how those environments affect the connections they seek to help occur and to adjust their meeting or workshop design and facilitation accordingly.
New Resource Coming Soon
Later this fall I will release a Train-the-Trainer kit for purchase containing a scalable, customizable activity to help surface individual lenses and diverse perspectives. The kit will include detailed instructions with suggested presenter/facilitator verbiage, the accompanying PowerPoint slides, and a learner worksheet.
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