Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tips for New Facilitators: What If No One Answers My Question?

Q: What if no one answers my question? 

You're facilitating a group discussion, you throw out a zippy stimulating question and expectantly wait for an answer - but there's no reply, nothing, only an awkward waning silence and no one making eye contact with you. One facilitator I heard recently who was confronted with this, paused and said, "I hear tumbleweed..."

What do you do?
a) Say, "OK, never mind" and go on:
b) Start to babble incessantly to fill the void:
c) Pick on people by name to answer;
d) Wait.

Well, of course, any of the above (except perhaps "b") can be appropriate in some context. If it's not the right time for a question and there's no energy for it (like when you are 30 minutes late for lunch) then "a" works, and you can come back to your question after lunch. If you know the group and they are familiar with each other (whether they work together or have been together a few days) then answer "c" might work. In many situations answer "d" could work - a nice big pause and perhaps a rephrasing of your question.

But for new facilitators this on-the-spot decision making among these options can be terrifying.

I just had a young facilitator about to run a session earnestly ask me this question, and here was my advice (note that all of these things you can do in the design and preparation stage BEFORE you ask the question):

  1. Design away from it: Don't ask that question for a plenary response in the first place. Instead ask the question and ask people to discuss it at their tables or in a pair/trio first and then ask the pairs or table for their answer. It is easier to answer on behalf of others - it takes the risk out of it. Also, with the buzz in the room first, people get used to their own voices in the room instead of yours and re-appropriate the workshop space for themselves.
  2. Build in a moment to think: Tell people in advance that you will give them a minute to think first, and then will ask for a few responses. This helps people who are thinkers or "processors" in the room to refine their ideas and not shoot from the hip (which they feel comfortable doing). It might also get you more thoughtful and better quality responses.
  3. Recruit allies: Tell a few people in advance about your question and ask them if they can answer if there is total silence in the room. Have them hold back for a moment to see if anyone answers and then give them a meaningful look if not.
  4. Write it down: Put the question up on the screen or flip chart - sometimes people don't answer because they didn't quite catch the question,  its too complex or long to remember, or they were sneezing (or heaven forbid checking their email) when you asked it. 
  5. Quality check it: Make sure it is a great question BEFORE you ask it. Test it with someone else - is it clear? Easy to answer? Appropriate? The right question at the right time? 
Also, the better your question is, the more useful it might be to use some of the above options, as big pauses particularly occur when your question is one of those great, positively disruptive questions that might challenge the group's current paradigm and really provide food for thought. So be prepared  If you can do some of these things, you are much less likely to hear that tumbleweed after asking your question. 

Preaching to the Choir - Learning for Environmentalists

I work with many environment and development groups working together in meeting/conference settings which often match content experts as speakers for audiences of members from their own community (e.g. sustainability experts talking to other sustainability practitioners). Depending on the level of intervention, this reflection often gets labelled as "preaching to the choir".  I'm sure this is a familiar occurrence.  I just heard  an interesting quote about this phenomenon:

"I'm preaching to the choir, which is challenging, because they are busy singing and can't hear you."

This quote made me smile and I found it particularly thought provoking because we might think that our "choir" (sustainability colleagues) doesn't listen because they already know the content, but perhaps they are not listening because they are mega-multi-tasking trying to get the message out themselves (if you see how many people are on their email etc. during these events, it must be that :-)