How many trainers does it take to change a lightbulb?

Actually the question I’m pondering should be “how many minutes do we need to switch on the lightbulb in the minds of those we train?”. Jo wrestled with this question recently as she wrestled with delivering a short workshop. I spent Saturday afternoon delivering another very short workshop for Greenpeace Network Co-ordinators. The topic was dealing with “difficult behaviour” and increasing engagement in meetings though Jo’s 60 minutes makes my 75 minutes seem positively luxurious.

Some (wiser?) facilitators might have politely declined the request. Others might have taken the time to explain the folly of such time limits. A younger me would have set off at breakneck speed to cover as much ground as possible. Nowadays, for me and my Rhizome colleagues, it’s about catalytic interventions. Cumbersome phrase, but one that came up at our first meeting of the expanded Rhizome coop and has reasserted itself many times since. Can we catalyse meaningful change through our work? Big ask in 75 minutes. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Saturday’s workshop will lead to sustained change in knowledge, skills and, of course, the attitude of those attending. But it was possible to get the lightbulbs at least flickering if not shining by keeping it simple and going for a little depth over covering breadth. And of course by keeping it as experiential as possible. You can learn a lot from a little doing.

At Greenpeace’s request we spent the last few minutes gleaning top tips from the group to give their peers who were attending other workshops something to work with. The tips also help give me a useful insight into what had been learnt. They reassure me that it was a useful 75 minutes. Of course there’s more to be done, including dialoguing with the client on how to reinforce this work, but its a start:


click on the image for a clearer view


click on the image for a clearer view

I was also roped in as a scribe for a workshop on “catching and keeping” people in local action groups. One thing that came across strongly in both sessions was that people don’t evaluate their meetings. Newcomers have no opportunity to say how the meeting worked (or didn’t!) for them. Neither do others who struggled with the meeting for whatever reason and may well have been labelled as a “difficult” person because of their struggle.

Ironically the 75 minute time restraint meant I opted not to formally evaluate my session. Perhaps a bad call (and bad example?). I’m relying on the evaluation of the day as a whole, plus my intuition and observation, and these top tips to guide me in future sessions. Is that enough?



Building the capacity builders

On 11th February, we facilitated a couple of sessions at a facilitators’ skill-share. 35 capacity builders from 10 or so of the UK’s campaigning organisations came together to build their skills. The Rhizome contribution was to facilitate a session on ‘facilitating learning’ and co-facilitate one on dealing with ‘difficult’ behaviour in meetings and workshops.

This was the first event of its kind for a little known group called the NGO Forum. It’s a meeting of capacity building staff from a wide range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from Friends of the Earth through to Campaign Against the Arms Trade taking in CPRE and WDM along the way. The Forum’s been around for 4 or 5 years now and in one guise or another we’ve been involved. We sneak into meetings once in a while to see if we can be of use.

The ‘facilitating learning’ session went down well. It was a very short taster of a longer ‘training for trainers’ workshop. For us the key message is that people need to be involved in their own learning. As facilitators we need to bite the bullet and accept that it takes more time, but participation gets better results. Yes, it adds unpredictability to a training session – once you open up the learning to the group you can never quite tell what direction it will take, except to say that it will go in the direction of whatever the group want to learn at that moment. We don’t see this as a bad thing.

Dealing with difficult behaviour is also about participation. Commonly it is barriers to participation that spark off difficult behaviour. We facilitators can be as guilty as anyone of stereotyping people as ‘difficult’. We write them off and try to either ignore them or marginalise them so they cause as little disruption as possible. This doesn’t work for at least two reasons. Firstly these problems rarely go away because we sweep them under the carpet. It might seem to work at first, but they’ll come back sooner or later, probably magnified. Secondly, if we take the time to think about what’s going on then we’ll often see that the problem lies with us, or with the group as a whole.

This session focused on analysing group dynamics in order to understand what the barriers to participation might be and only then trying to find a solution. When you step back and understand that the group, or our facilitation of it, has limited someone’s participation in the group in some way, the ‘difficult’ person can be seen in a new light.  A common example is that our ‘difficult’ person simply hasn’t been listened to, and is feeling undervalued and alienated. No wonder they kick off in some way. Once we understand that we’re failing to meet the needs of the person in question, leading them to behave in a way we see as difficult, we can take action.  Take a breath. Look around. Understand the situation and then use an appropriate facilitation technique. It’s often as simple as a bit of active listening