Facilitating a workshop can be compared to being a conductor of an orchestral concert. While the primary duties of the conductor are to create the right tempo, ensuring timely entries by various members of the ensemble, the ultimate objective is to create a magical enmeshing of the instruments to come together as one. Similarly a facilitator’s job is to create a safe container for learning through a dialogue-based discussion, leveraging and building on the ideas of the participants, being sensitive to the unstated context in the classroom and harnessing the thoughts and questions from the diverse behavioural and learning style of participants to ensure that learning occurs in a time-bound manner. In an age where attention spans are dwindling rapidly, driven by digital and work-related distractions, with content just a click away, this task seems herculean.
Examining this from the Johari Window Model as below, effective learning can occur when the Open Area or Arena (Q1) of the entire cohort expands. This can occur in three ways, (a) reducing the facade or the hidden area (Q3) within the group through mutual self-disclosure which can only happen when there is perceived safety in the room (b) Reducing the blind area (Q2) of each other by way of feedback – and this would happen when there is openness towards others to receive and accept feedback (c) Reducing the unknown (Q4) which can occur through a startling self or group insight which will occur when the group is engaged in powerful dialogue. To put it simply, a good facilitator will consciously work towards providing and creating that safe yet challenging environment which will lead to the expansion of the Arena.
Here are some powerful yet subtle, simple techniques, based on Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion from his book 'Influence - The Psychology of Persuasion' which can lead to expanding the Arena. These techniques when integrated with Knowles Adult Learning Theory, are good tools to create great classroom dynamics. While the focus of this article is for facilitators who conduct workshops, these techniques are equally effective for facilitating meetings with peers and teams.
Principle of Liking, stated simply means, people like people who like them. Going slightly further, why do we like people? Either we find them similar as when considering a CV of someone from your alma mater. This would more often than not weigh more favourably for an interview than someone else, all other things being equal, or we like people who offer genuine praise to us. From a facilitation perspective, similarity would mean how quickly you can uncover similarities with participants, either by way of work experience, industry, location, culture or having being in similar situations as the participants. Offering genuine praise such as acknowledging and appreciating a point made by someone, continuously building on the perspectives offered by participants throughout the session and referring to their contributions allows not only opportunity to create a link or a common bridge throughout the session but validates the most primal need of recognition. Remembering and using the names of your participants is a yet another way in which we constantly build on the participants self-worth.
Principle of Reciprocity means that we all pay in the currency we receive. If someone does you a favour or goes out of his way to help you, you would more often than not tend to reciprocate the same way. So give what you want to receive. Therefore role modelling your behaviours becomes a critical aspect of building classroom dynamics. Are you role modelling self-disclosure and vulnerability or do you come across as someone on a high pedestal? Are you listening patiently to what is being said or rushing to pass a comment? Do you use a collaborative approach or do you tend to use a prescriptive approach? Are you demonstrating impartiality and fairness to all the participants by giving equal air time? How are you building on empathy? Role modelling also comes to play in terms of punctuality, and following guidelines for use of phones, etc. How do you role model inclusiveness and your ability to call out on detrimental behaviour? Your ability to engage in dialogue if tough questions are asked and all the above elements are being observed at a subconscious level by your workshop participants and they will pick their cues based on your behaviour to either build or diminish the unstated norms of the group. These will either lead or erode the psychological safety of the group for sharing and creating a relaxed optimum environment conducive to learning.
Principle of Authority means that people defer to those who are perceived as experts. Expertise can be in the form of titles, dressing, organizational designations and subject matter expertise. Think of how we tend to instinctively defer to a policeman or a professor or a doctor. While you might have expertise in a certain area, this might not be evident or known to your participants – therefore a good facilitator should subtly build credibility by demonstrating competence in the subject of discussion. Weaving in a few anecdotes about similar work, situations or projects will work well to establish your authority, provided it does not come across as blowing your own trumpet. A point to be cautious about is to quell the impulse to rush in and give an opinion about the topic under discussion, which can often be quite tempting. A fallout of this could be an aggressive participant challenging you, to test your authority. A good facilitator will use the Socratic technique of asking the right questions which will enable the questioner in getting the right answer or insight, which will result in reducing the unknown or the blind spot.
Principle of Social Proof means that people tend to be more influenced by others who are perceived as similar. Using peer power wherever available is a good way to drive your point. For example, a testimonial about a service provider from a perceived similar peer group is a powerful way to solicit business. It’s a good practice in a workshop to give examples of similar industries or similar audience hierarchy where similar concepts have been used in a simple, effective way to make learning more effective. In a classroom, participants who exhibit a buy-in with the concepts under discussion can also be pulled in to co-create clarity for a difficult participant.
Effective facilitation is a vast area – a mix of science and art with multiple facets to examine. Used in conjunction with the pillars of robust content and effective instructional design of the workshop structure, the above techniques, while not exhaustive, help create a vibrant learning environment.