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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Each month we bring you a nonviolence training material or a workshop. These have recently been mainly on group work and they are being added to the Workshops section of the INNATE website.

Getting the most from the meeting and workshop experience; an overview

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‘Going through the motions’ is never enough and is unlikely to feel creative for either facilitator(s) or participants. But what can you do as a facilitator or organiser to make sure a workshop/discussion session/training is as positive an experience as possible for all concerned? This piece is in the nature of a checklist but even if you are an experienced facilitator and ‘do these things naturally’, an event can always be better run and better focused. Some of the issues here are a matter of style and if your style works then go for it – participants usually like a fluid style even if it is idiosyncratic (individual and different); these matters are not written in stone and comments below are intended to help rather than hinder creative processes.

Group needs
An awareness of group needs (task and maintenance) is essential for any facilitator This does not mean that you have to be actively concerned with seeing all such needs are met as you can ask individual members of the group to look after something (“Could you/someone please look after heat and ventilation today, turning on or off radiators and opening the windows or door if necessary so we retain a pleasant working environment?”). In any case, most of these are essentially ‘participant’ tasks and skills; if you are a participant, adopt a role that isn’t being done. If you are unsure about playing a particular role or how you’re doing it then check it out (explaining the role you’re playing or considering playing) to the chair/facilitator when and if you have the opportunity individually and out of session, so they know what you’re trying to do. There can also be a tendency to think that people are familiar with this area when many are probably not; taking it as a topic may be valuable for ongoing group dynamics, either in an ongoing or a transient group (in the case of a transient group, the main benefit is when they take it back to their regular meeting groups). You can always check out whether people are aware in this area.

Awareness of inclusion (bringing everyone into participation as fully as possible) and consensus (making decisions with the fullest possible agreement) are both necessary approaches. For the latter, see INNATE workshop material ‘Consensus for small groups’.

Advance planning is essential and includes detailed timing of where you need to be when in the meeting or workshop. When you are familiar with a particular format and theme you can sense much more easily how it is likely to go and therefore be much looser in your planning. But a plan has to be flexible (see spontaneity below) and every group experience is different. If it’s a complex workshop, or one you have not facilitated before, you may particularly want to consider working with a co-facilitator (which can be a good idea anyway) – but it depends if that’s possible.

An exercise which acknowledges where people are coming from (e.g. what they’re giving up to participate) can be useful in recognising people as individuals and their commitment to coming. It can also be useful in helping people make the transition to being with you rather than where they would otherwise be. This can be done quickly in a circle along with personal introductions (“please share your name, where you’re from, and what you’d be doing today if you weren’t here”). Obviously other introductory exercises, name games and so on can be used as appropriate.

Contract/ground rules
Even if it’s an informal group and everyone is relaxed, a group contract or ground rules can be wise, i.e. a set of rules for the workshop or group which everyone assents to (and which you can therefore refer to if someone goes against them or there are problems). There may be things you want (e.g. starting on time in morning and after breaks), and there may be things which participants want (e.g. getting away early on a particular day) which can form part of it. Many people are now familiar with ‘standard’ ground rules and you can if you wish present a ‘standard’ list (it’s faster) and ask people to add or subtract (the list can include such points as one person speaking at a time, speaking for yourself only, confidentiality, no question is barred or too stupid, no put downs). But always get active assent from people to the contract or rules and check for questions.

One thorny issue which might require explored in some contexts is what ‘confidentiality’ actually means in practice – e.g. does it mean not sharing anything from the workshop (which may be unfair or impossible) or “Chat ‘em house rules” – (a colloquial and jokey rendering of London’s ‘Chatham House Rules’), where broad themes can be shared and what was done but no quotes are given or attributed directly to anyone. The longer the workshop, the less experienced people are in group work, or the more sensitive the topic, the more time you may need to spend on ground rules.

Events as theatre
Viewing any event, even a meeting or a training workshop, as theatre is a useful approach (cf Broad Based Organising and Alinsky approach, see INNATE workshop material). This does not mean ‘grandstanding’ (showing off) but being aware of yourself and the performance you are giving and actively creating the event as opposed to allowing it to ‘happen’. And if ‘theatre’ is boring then there is something wrong; you may need to think in terms of build up, climax, and if necessary, aftermath, but above all how to engage the ‘audience’.

Variety and spontaneity
Variety is the spice of life and without it then anything can become a bit insipid or boring. Try to vary the pace, the format, and more serious/intellectual and less serious bits. Move from plenary to small groups or pairs and back again, if appropriate.

Most, but not all, participants are also probably going to like relevant spontaneity. This means doing more on an important issue which has emerged, or giving more time to an issue which has been planned but cannot be adequately dealt with in the allocated time. The downside is that this is likely to mean something else doesn’t get dealt with at all or so fully. But different groups are different and it is impossible always to know correctly how much time to allocate to something; a contingency is to deliberately build in ‘spare time’ to do just this kind of thing but that depends on the workshop being long enough to begin with. However in all cases explain what you’re thinking of doing, get reactions, and if necessary negotiate (this includes with any co-facilitators whose input may get squeezed).

Humour, music, poetry, drama and video viewing
What you can weave into the sessions is up to you, your knowledge and understanding of these forms of expression.

Humour is great if you can blend it in either from humour you have prepared or extempore jokes; however, be warned that it is possible for facilitators to use ‘put down’ humour or for some jokes to be considered as a put down where they are not intended as such. And some subjects don’t lend themselves to the use of humour without a high risk of offence.

Music can provide either a break or an illustration of a point. Build up your reference list from your own music library of what is suitable for what (e.g. introductions, breaks, illustrating aspects of green issues/war/violence/men and women and violence/social change/political issues etc.); you can then find something fast even when under pressure. You may be surprised at what in your music collection can be used. Of course if you can sing and play an instrument then so much the better.

Poetry can also communicate very effectively in a workshop setting but don’t use your own poetry unless you’ve tried it out with others first or you’re very sure of yourself . ‘Poetry’ can include humorous doggerel which no one is going to see as ‘serious’ but can make a point.
Drama presentations can be an excellent way to set up a discussion or analysis. It can be done very simply, e.g. getting a couple of participants (or indeed, people you bring in) to enact a scene. This can be done reading a script but obviously the more preparation the people involved have had time to do, the better; if it is more than a one-day workshop you could get a couple of volunteers to read through a script before enacting it the next day.

Participatory drama is excellent if you can use it but beware resistance (see ‘Making a drama of a crisis’ – INNATE workshop section - on dealing with resistance and unwillingness to use drama).

Viewing a video/DVD is something which can provide a useful dose of reality as well as a change of pace. But choose carefully what you will show so it continues as a workshop/interactive session rather than a video viewing.

‘Games’ are differentiated from ‘drama’ here because games may or may not be particularly learning-oriented as opposed to being a tool (a ‘light and lively’ in US jargon) to invigorate people. Some people shun games because they are too unserious but a) they may be just the thing to prevent participants from falling asleep and be a means to reinvigorate them, and/or b) they can mark the transition from one part of the programme to another, and c) there is much learning to be had from certain games including ones of ‘hard choices’ and inclusion/exclusion.
That said, it is easier to use games with younger aged groups and people who do not take themselves too seriously (!); it may be more challenging to try to use games with older, ‘more serious’ groups but it can be done, if chosen carefully. If you are a visiting facilitator it can also be useful to have agreed the forms of activity with the organisers beforehand (“I would like to use drama and games as part of the day…” and explain the kind of games you’re thinking of using) and asked them to communicate and consult with participants - in the nature of things, an organiser may agree to all sorts of things for a workshop but if participants don’t know about it then prior discussion and agreement can be worthless.

There are a variety of selections of games readily available.

Presenting notes
The PowerPoint presentation is the current favourite but is often overdone or unnecessary. If you are going to use it, make sure you give the slides ‘shrunk’ to a number on a page as handout notes. PowerPoint used as simply words which you read out is deadly boring – preferably use it for visuals and some headings or particularly apt points or quotes. And, if you are not familiar with how it works, become familiar before inflicting your presentation on others (there is nothing as painful as watching someone struggling with technology which others could use with their eyes closed).

You can’t beat the photocopied or printed handout because participants can take it home. But, as with PowerPoint, reading straight through a handout is a recipe for curing insomnia. One approach is to give people handouts in advance so they can read them but realistically not everyone will do so, or it may only be a glance. In the session, you can allow people a few minutes to read through a handout before picking up points from it, or go through it slowly enough to allow people to read enough of it as you go.

Using an overhead projector is fine though not as professional looking as using PowerPoint; if used simply for headings and areas being covered in the session it can be every bit as effective though people need to make their own notes if you are not providing them.

Breaks and ending times
Try and keep to previously agreed break times unless you renegotiate, as in “We need another 25 minutes to finish this off, is it all right if we keep going and push the lunch break back by 25 minutes? You will still have three-quarters of an hour.” But get assent. Likewise start times after breaks should be adhered to where possible – hanging around for half an hour because someone has nipped out in their lunch break is not very fair on those who are back in time.

Ending times also need to be considered carefully and whether a) you want to end before anyone has to depart, or b) it doesn’t matter if people have to drift off before you have completed the work, you can still do the necessary with those left. While a) may make for the feeling that you’re ending on a high note, and b) may feel like a few battling through to the bitter end, the decision may be determined by simple pragmatics (Can people stay until the proposed end time? How much time do you need?) and whether you need everyone there to deal with the topic.

Evaluation and closing
There are many different kinds of evaluation so it’s a bit boring to always do it the same way (use your imagination). Pointless questions in evaluation forms are common and are just that, pointless; what do you really need to know? Then make sure that your chosen method will give you an answer. You can do it as a spectrum exercise; participants’ comments are invited and people indicate whether they agree or disagree by where they place themselves (if you are concentrating on facilitating this you may want to have someone on hand to make notes on people’s responses). One possibility is a combination of written comments and evaluations in a circle, the latter allows a ‘group feeling’ to emerge and can be a natural culmination of the work. A group of twenty can do an evaluation in a circle in ten minutes if everyone speaks for under thirty seconds; so you can ask for literally one or two sentences, e.g. something I enjoyed today and something I felt could have been better. And if you go to the trouble of doing an evaluation, then do use it for any future work with the group or your own future planning or you’ve wasted everyone’s time and energy in doing it.

Acknowledging everyone’s work and contribution to the workshop/meeting, even where issues or difficulties still remain, shows respect for the effort that participants have put into it. This can be done verbally or in the form of a very short game (e.g. pat on back in circle all turned one direction, or ‘Filipino one clap’ where on the count of 3 everyone does a single clap together).

Facilitating a group when it is prepared thoroughly and done well can be a great feeling, of being competent and trusted, of both learning in the process and facilitating learning. But if a facilitator is not learning more about both their craft and their subject then there is a danger of it becoming too routine which may not be good for either the facilitator or participants and it may be time to change. There are always new ways to do things and more to learn for all of us. Aiming to be ‘Getting the most from the meeting and workshop experience’ is primarily for the benefit of participants but it is also for the facilitator or facilitators.

Copyright INNATE 2016