Facilitating for full participation can be tricky. Usually we’re using techniques that break large groups down to allow quieter voices and less confident people be heard. It’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that to achieve full participation in large groups we avoid full group sessions. Smaller group sizes lend themselves to creating safer spaces for people to be heard. The more emotional or difficult the conversation, the smaller the small group size.
In other words, there’s an assumption that the more vocal people can fend for themselves in whatever format of meeting we design and we should focus our energy as facilitators on those who might struggle to get heard.
Not everyone is happy with this assumption, so it came as no surprise to be challenged, last week whilst facilitating 2 away days for about 150 Friends of the Earth staff. My co-facilitator, Juliette from Mango CIC, and I heard quite strongly from a number of participants wanting more plenary sessions. The feeling seemed to be that there were important issues to be aired, and that everyone needed to hear them and hear just how strong the concerns were.
This was the clearest I’ve ever heard the argument against small groups articulated. Small groups were an obstacle to these folk participating. Their levels of frustration at not feeling heard in a meeting dominated by small group sessions were rendering the whole process ineffective for them.
There is also a school of thought out there that says the less confident speaker has a duty to address their lack if confidence, especially in the workplace where they’re paid to speak up. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this argument recently. It’s an interesting one. Do we facilitators approach it from the wrong angle – creating spaces in which people can feel able to speak rather than supporting them to speak in any space? I’d welcome your views. And yes, there may well be facilitators out there doing just that, in which case get in touch so we can share your experience through the blog.
So what’s going on here? There is the argument that resistance to small groups is an inevitable response from a group of people used to dominating an agenda and slowly having that ability to dominate removed by small group facilitation techniques. Undoubtedly, for some people, that’s going to be true. No-one likes change.
There’s also the issue of trust. How does a participant know that every issue will be heard in the right depth and taken seriously enough if they’re not there to ensure it happens?
For me the joy of small groups is the way ideas seem to travel as if by diffusion. Somehow, with the help of a few well crafted feedback sessions, everything does seem to get heard and, in general, ideas and people converge and common ground emerges. It’s a process I trust. Experience shows it works.
For a short while we were caught in the crossfire. We were getting an equal amount of feedback thanking us for creating a small group based agenda. After a productive chat with the Friends of the Earth staff forum project group, who were overseeing the away days process, we defaulted to Open Space. We didn’t give our ‘challengers’ the plenary discussion session they wanted, but we did give them an opportunity to set the agenda, invite all those interested in doing so to join them in conversation, and a chance to feedback from their session to the full group. It worked a treat – the group engaged in productive conversation and then took part in an incredibly self-disciplined feedback session.
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When I try to get large groups to break down into small ones the only resistance I get is from the SWP types in the room. But I can see that ‘small group’ work can be away of hiding difficult questions/facipulating an outcome.
I’ve been at a recent meeting where we split into small groups but – crucially – had no say in what topics were under discussion, and so were only allowed to talk about (frankly irrelevant) topics. Open Space can/does get around this, and sounds like it was a good choice.
Re: the FOE meeting, surely not all of FOE’s 150 staff in attendance have “public speaking confidently” in their job description?! Seems like the plenary-fans were being a little disingenuous (not charitable of me to infer that, I know).
Finally- it’s difficult for facilitators (of big meetings/where they don’t know the people attending/won’t meet them again) to create conditions for under-confident people to speak to big groups. Tacitly, I think of it as an ‘escalator’ – once people are able to speak confidently to 3 others, it’s less daunting next time to speak infront of 9, 27 etc etc. But that work – of building up confidence (and giving appropriate feedback etc) is surely for the individuals local group(s) to help make happen. Faciltators can only design so much goodness into a ‘one-off’ meeting….
Thanks for your comment. I agree that small groups can be abused or at least be wasted opportunities. I too have been to meetings where I thought the discussions being offered were not the ones that people wanted or needed to have.
For me, facilitators need to make sure that the group know that it’s their meeting and if the topics or the process aren’t working they can change them. Sticking to a process, or to discussion topics, that aren’t working for the group is a waste of everyone’s time! One of the reasons for advocating small groups is that plenary processes frequently don’t work for a large part of any group.
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