How to facilitate small group conversations

Lessons from the swamp

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV from Pexels

Much of what I’ve written about recently has revolved around large group facilitation. But what about small group facilitation — the kind that might take place in the context of Impact Sprint or a small workshop. Do the same principles apply?

I think what most folks worry about in small groups is that (1) the conversation will go all over the place, (2) that conflict will arise or (3) they won’t be able to make a decision even if action is needed urgently.

1. All over the shop

Let’s start with the meandering conversation that leads to no action.

In my experience, most people show up to work wanting to do a good job. They don’t beat around the bush for a laugh. More often than not, these kinds of conversations are the result of people being misaligned on purpose. If the group knows what they are trying to achieve, it’s much easier for them to point themselves in the correct direction.

Write a good invitation

Structuring a good invitation to the group in the form of a question is a helpful way of clarifying purpose ahead of time. Let’s imagine a local authority is experiencing an increase in elderly people falling at home and being admitted to hospital. Rather than inviting the group to discuss “the situation with hospital admissions”, a better invitation might be: “What do the council and the community need to start doing to keep people safe at home”.

The first of these invitations is vague. People could attend the session thinking it was about several topics. Is it about the performance data? Is it about cuts to the occupational therapy team? Is it a discussion about the hospital not being able to discharge people into the community quickly enough? The second invitation is crystal clear on purpose. Not only does this help people to point themselves in the correct direction, it also helps ensure the correct people show up for the conversation. I take crafting invitations really seriously and often draw inspiration from this article by Christiaan Verwijs.

Establish psychological safety

One thing that emerged from Google’s quest to build the perfect team was that the biggest predictor of a team’s success is psychological safety. According to Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmundson, psychological safety can be described as “a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up, and sharing concerns, questions, or ideas.” It’s the feeling that it’s safe enough to stick your neck out without fear of someone chopping your head off. There is tons of research into this area but for now, I’ll share a quick hack you can use to help establish it in small groups. It turns out that teams with high levels of psychological safety also take turns when talking. They share the airtime. No surprises there. Using facilitation techniques such as Liberating Structures that include everyone in shaping the future are a helpful way of ensuring this happens in practice. These structures are useful regardless of group size and shouldn’t be overlooked simply because you’re dealing with a small group.

Edit: The second I published this, I opened my inbox and found a great email from Mark Eddleston. He and Tim Shand have put together a brilliant tutorial on circle discussions. This is another fantastic and super practical way to distribute talk-time among groups. I encourage you to check it out here.

2. S#!t happens

But even with a clear purpose and appropriate facilitation structures, oftentimes, conversations are difficult, and confrontation can arise.

When this happens, several things could be going on. Rather than assuming the person causing the conflict is just being difficult, consider that almost certainly, they either stand to lose something (maybe they’ve publicly expressed a contradictory point of view to the one the group is forming) or they risk betraying a loyalty (perhaps their team will have to do more work if they agree to test an idea the group is working up). Alternatively, they might just passionately disagree with the conclusions the group is drawing.

Regardless of the underlying cause of the conflict, in small groups, it’s usually necessary to walk towards it. Few people enjoy having challenging conversations, and most avoid them. This approach reliably encourages minor frustrations to evolve into major challenges.

In his TED talk Adar Cohen shares some strategies he employs to lead challenging conversations in some pretty messy contexts (including during the Troubles in Northern Ireland). His learnings include how naming the tension of disagreement is an essential part of resolution; he uses language of moving towards the conflict, seeing it as an opportunity. He talks about the power of silence and how filling that silence can stifle open discussion and reduce confidence in the discussion. Adar also shares the importance of asking questions and how this kind of appreciative enquiry can tease out what participants really want to say and move things forward. There is some great learning here for those working for NGOs or in the public sector who are trying to tackle big societal challenges.

Chris Argyris’s ladder of inference is also a helpful approach that can be used in small groups to ensure conversations are productive and honest. Understanding the ladder of inference means developing an awareness of when you’re making assumptions and being able to distinguish this from the data — what’s actually been said. In order to make sense of conflict, it might be that you need to draw the conversation back down the ladder of inference to the actual data, or to name your own assumptions to help others understand where you’re coming from. I’ve written about this in very simple terms before, but this video offers a helpful description of how to use this approach in practice.

The role of humour

From the anecdotes Adar shares in his TED talk, you can’t help but notice the role that humour often plays in moving conflict towards resolution. Injecting humour has helped me to unstick more difficult conversations than any other tool. This isn’t about making jokes. It’s about drawing attention to the elephant in the room in a light-hearted and self-deprecating way.

To do this effectively, I’ve found that the group really needs to trust you. I think people can intuitively sense whether or not you are being authentic. If you are, trust tends to follow. But you also need to demonstrate you aren’t just there to tell people what to do. You are willing to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. Or as my pal Richard Torseth might say, you are willing to walk into the swamp with them. This makes a big difference too.

I think lots of people are unwilling to risk being humorous for fear they’ll end up with egg on their face. The truth is, if you worry about it too much, you will. I don’t think anyone can know what is and isn’t appropriate in every context. Sometimes you will get it wrong. But rarely is a light-hearted remark in a tense situation career-ending or irreversible. Over time you find your own voice in these situations. If you find that you’re too worried to inject a bit of humour into these situations I recommend taking a course in clowning (that’s not a joke). You’ll soon stop worrying about looking silly or getting things wrong.

3. When there’s no time to wait

In some cases, particularly when working with front line services, it’s not feasible to get into root causes of conflict then and there. It might be that there just isn’t the time and a decision needs to be made to provide immediate support for vulnerable people. I’ve found that two strategies, in particular, help get groups unstuck and moving forward.

Frame solutions as experiments

Although most people I work with are not intimately acquainted with the agile mindset, most can get on board with the idea of an experiment. Rather than expecting people to agree on something forever, ask them if they feel comfortable experimenting with the idea or change. Agree a timebox for the experiment and to come back and review the results at the end of thTat period. Without getting into the weeds of trying to explain the value of iterating or the idea of embracing failure, most people can get on board with testing something to see if it works.

Is it safe to try?

There is one caveat to this — it must be safe enough to try. This brings me on to the second strategy — ask people whether the idea feels safe enough to try. In public services, this is a question that almost universally provokes an honest answer. If the answer is yes, I’ve found that people who were previously reluctant to test something new, will at least commit to trying. If they find that it works in practice, this makes iterating on and scaling the idea a hell of a lot easier.

Share and share alike

This is a big topic that could have taken me in so many directions. I’m just scratching the surface here and I’m not trying to cover all the bases. But these are some of the approaches that have worked for me in the past. I’m learning and I’d love to hear from others about what has worked for them too. Share and share alike.

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Joseph Badman

Joseph Badman

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MD @WeAreBasis. I help public services solve messy problems one sprint at a time. Part-time wizard, meet-free meathead & self-management nerd 🎩🌍🤓.