Help People Engage Differently
Use your session design and facilitation to help meeting and workshop participants try on new behaviors
Approximate reading time: six minutes
Many meeting attendees are creatures of habit.
How might facilitators help meeting, workshop, or conference participants break out of their typical patterns of engagement, challenge themselves by choice, and try on new behaviors?
You could raise this question during discussion of shared agreements or ground rules and see what ideas participants have. Icebreakers and priming activities are a natural option to consider.
Some groups or facilitators use assigned seating to help people create new connections. While I acknowledge the benefits, I’m less inclined to do so as some people have seating preferences tied to their vision or hearing needs.
Introducing the idea in communications about the event is a common approach, one often reinforced with an on-site invitation: “Try to break out of your habits and sit with new people at each session, meal, or social function.” A more assertive approach makes people switch tables at some point.
Whenever possible, I prefer to respect participants’ autonomy and give them some freedom of choice while also driving those choices towards behaviors that support an event’s outcomes. Let me suggest how you might do the same.
Step One: Identify desirable behaviors or new habits
Generate a list of desirable behaviors that might help accelerate learning, community, and better discussions and decisions. Experiencing a bit of déjà vu? Yes, this is similar to the DIY Primers approach. Good catch.
Here are some we used at a TEDxIndianapolis event that I helped produce.
Seek out people you perceive to be different from you and see what you can learn from them.
Do something that stretches you a bit in how you normally interact at a conference like this.
Help people apply what happens here by asking others something they learned that they are going to use in their personal or professional life.
Simply go with the flow of the day, gathering little ideas and insights as they happen organically.
Get a great conversation going with others by posing a provocative question.
Help the people seated near you to introduce themselves to each other.
Call or text a friend during a break with a great idea from the session.
Be the person who always initiates a conversation with others.
Express real appreciation when someone does/say something today that resonates with you deeply.
Be fully present, 100% focused on enjoying the here and now of this event and the people gathered for it.
Giveaway your takeaways. Use your social media channels to share ideas and questions you discover.
Help people push the limits of their thinking in the conversations you have.
Suspend judgment and entertain perspectives, ideas, and activities you normally might dismiss.
Instigate play, creativity, and fun with others attending.
Change your perspective by sitting with different people during every segment of the day.
Step Two: Invite participants to adopt a new habit or behavior
Once you generate your list, invite people to try on one or more suggestions or habits that they want to enact during your session. As with the DIY Primers, many possible ways or formats are options. I often use one of these four approaches:
1. I Believe This Is For You
For TEDxIndianapolis, we chose a covert approach and invited about 25 percent of the 500 attendees to try on new habits in a very simple (and fun) manner. Multiple copies of each behavioral invitation were individually printed on small cards.
A few volunteers were provided a stack of assorted cards/invitations. As people arrived and got settled, a volunteer would quietly approach, look random individuals directly in the eyes, hand them a card face down, and say “I believe this is for you."
The volunteer would then immediately disappear. This mysterious delivery added a bit of fun and intrigue to the invitation.
Not giving everyone an invite—or the same invite to everyone—further increased the mystery. It’s also a good reminder that not every activity in a session has to involve every participant, at least directly. We found many people shared their invitation cards with colleagues, thus extending the reach of the invite and potentially increasing the number of people trying on a new behavior.
2. Try One On For Size
Concerned about people feeling left out if they don’t get an invite? Instead of personal delivery, create a “self-serve” invite station where people can select one or more of the invitation cards to adopt as a personal goal for their participation.
In lieu of cards to select, I sometimes use this more creative and visually appealing approach:
Print comparable invitations individually on paper outlines of a t-shirt. You can also include reflection or application questions for later use.
Attach each paper shirt to a hanger.
Put all the hangers on a coat rack.
Post instructions that invite people to “Try One On for Size.”
People seem to enjoy browsing behaviors and chatting informally with others about their respective selections. The format also makes it natural to discuss how we often have to adapt or customize the fit of habits that others can wear “off the rack.”
For a few select meetings or workshops, I’ve made this a mandatory activity. Everyone had to select a new behavior to try on, but had freedom of choice for that commitment. In this case, I also provided a few blank t-shirts where participants could create their own choice if none of the options presented were of interest.
3. All For One: A Group Invitation
Facilitating an ongoing group like a committee, board, or staff team? Consider having participants collectively focus on enacting a different behavior periodically.
Example: a group might commit for one meeting to focus on “staying out of the weeds.” Another week they might commit to “stretching out thinking to be bolder or more innovative.”
If a group has adopted ground rules or shared agreements, I’ll often draw from that list for the suggested focus.
4. Ordering Ala Carte
Create a menu with a small number of new behavior options. Display on a slide or distribute one to each participant. Frame this activity as ordering ala carte. Be sure to include an “other” option so people can add their own.
Introduce the activity, its purpose, and the list/menu.
Invite individuals to reflect on the options and select one or more behaviors to “order.”
Have people talk about their choice with a partner or share with everyone at their table.
Two additional tips
Deciding to try on a new behavior or establish a new habit is good. Having a partner help support your commitment is better. Facilitators can add an accountability component to any format. Have people select a partner who agrees to (1) support their desire to try on a new behavior and (2) hold them accountable for doing so.
Surface and reinforce the learning
Regardless of the approach or format you use, include appropriate debrief time to help participants reflect on the new behavior(s) they tried and what they learned from their attempt. I sometimes close by sharing a few tips or quotes about willpower and habits. James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is a great resource and you can find many habit-related TED and TEDx talks online.
Learning and growth require challenge and support. Effective session design and facilitation help people break out of their typical habits at meetings or workshops and designs meaningful invitations that make it easier (and fun!) to do so.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2022. All rights reserved.
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