All week I have been working with a mixed Private Sector/ Not-for-Profit group (the latter from one conservation organization) in a joint learning exercise about partnerships between these two different sectors. It was structured in an interesting way, the first two days were internal to the conservation organization, with headquarters staff joined with their regional and national office counterparts. The third day invited a wide range of interesting and interested multi-nationals, and the final day featured a more intimate meeting between those private sector partners with a more formalised relationship with the NGO, and the relationship managers from both organizations.

This was a marathon meeting for some, and almost more so because of the highly interactive nature of it – no sitting and vegging out during hours of plenary presentations. At the same time, this intense interactivity in a workshop – working in pairs, individual reflection with Job Aids, trio Peer Consult walks, Learning Cafes, Graffiti Boards, Carousel discussions – all has accelerating affects on the group development process. And if you succeed and get far enough in developing trust, open communication and comfort around authenticity in the group, what that often means is that at one point in the agenda, the group kicks out one of the exercises. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

That happened in our meeting, and while my counterpart (who had picked that session to facilitate) was a little distressed by this, I saw it as a strong indicator of success.

How can it be successful if a group decides to not play along with an exercise, but instead tells you that this is not the right question or activity, and proposes another one? That sounds scary from a facilitator’s point of view, and this might sound counter-intuitive: if you are a good facilitator you need to be ready for that.

When a group kicks out a session, it can be a sign that the group, the network or team that you are building, is making its own decisions. It knows where it needs to go, and is comfortable enough with the relationship they are building together, and with the facilitator, to articulate that (in the nicest possible way as we experienced). The group exerts its independence and drives the conversation in another direction. Potentially this new direction involves the Elephant-in-the-Room question – that might have been perceived to be uncomfortable or unsafe early on in the relationship building process – and for which resolution is critical to overall long-term success.

For the facilitator, the right reaction, like in good improv theatre, is to say “Yes!” and go with it. Seeing a decline in dependence on the facilitator at the end of a workshop is always a good thing, and can even be built into the agenda, as the group will continue on its own afterwards, and manage its own processes. So it is an excellent thing if this independence can occur and be practiced in the safe, face-to-face environment of the workshop.

So if a group throws out your exercise, think about it, it might be a sign of a job well done!

2 replies
  1. Stuart Reid
    Stuart Reid says:

    Yes! I love it when that happens.

    Something similar happened to me today, when a participant suggested a much more interesting exercise than anything that I had in mind. And because they suggested it in the moment, it was much more likely to meet their needs than my pre-planned idea. And it worked really well.

    "Yes! and…" is just the thing.


  2. ValerieL
    ValerieL says:

    I experienced a variation of this recently when I facilitated a day-long offsite for a group of people who report to the same unit but are matrixed out to other organizations. The main client, with whom I had co-designed the session, was trying to bring the group together to elicit their ideas on revamping an important practice that had lost its impact but still was needed to fill an important gap for the organization. The design we had worked out incorporated a fair amount of structure to elicit comment/discussion. At one point, when we had planned to go one way, I threw out my own exercise because the group had seized upon one aspect of a strawman proposal that clearly intrigued them. The client and I decided to let it roll, when we saw their level of engagement. His overall goal was to obtain their input on the strawman and a clear sense from the group on the direction the revamp should take. He was pleased because they did arrive at that destination, even thought they took a detour that wasn't on "my" map.
    This is something I continue to learn as a designer/facilitator of group work: the importance of keeping the overall goal in mind, and of tuning into the group and asking "are they heading in the right direction and having conversations that build healthy relationships along the way?" Where I used to feel as though my design had failed if something else happened, now I realize the value of letting go and following the energy of the group. It's kind of like letting go of structuring and moving toward a gentler shaping of the work, to allow creativity and maybe hidden issues to emerge. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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