Facilitation in different languages – #IAFpodcast FS18


This week’s episode of the #IAFpodcast Facilitation Stories features a fascinating conversation on Working in Different Languages in facilitation – I am grateful to podcast co-hosts @PilarOrti and @HeleneJewell for the opportunity to join in, this time also with Simon Wilson CPF|M  of @WilsonSherriff.

Listen now, or see the show notes below first for what to expect – and do check out the previous episodes and subscribe for the next at Facilitation Stories – or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Pilar Orti writes in the FS18 show notes…

Helene Jewell, podcast co-host and freelance facilitator based in Bristol, Martin Gilbraith (CPF facilitator and trainer and consultant based in London – who also took part in Episode 7 on facilitation values), Simon Wilson has been running facilitation company for 20 years CPF working internationally and in the UK, based in the Peak District.

The podcast starts with some examples of working with people who speak different languages.

Simon shares a story about working with a UN agency 5 years ago doing a mix of facilitation and training over 20 sessions. Virtual sessions using Webex platform in English, French and Spanish and Simon co-facilitated all of these. He talks about his different levels of competence in these languages and the different dynamics and energy. He used Google Translate to help him and when he was speaking in English which was often not the native language for many participants he had to keep his language simple and avoid too many metaphors.

Helene talks about her time in Nepal as a VSO volunteer Speech and Language Therapist where she delivered lots of different training sessions. She explains that although she had learnt Nepali she initially lacked the confidence to use it initially and how she got through that. And the difficulties of there being “side talk” in another language in the room (Newari).

Martin talks about a Middle East regional gathering for a global NGO – 60 people over 3 days. Martin began his career as an international volunteer for ICA and learnt Arabic in Egypt so still enjoys joining in conversations when he can.  He explains why even though he could speak Arabic he had to hold his tongue so as not to exclude the non- Arabic speakers.

Working with interpreters

Simon talks about how developing a relationship with interpreters is a key part of facilitating and how he has a relatively relaxed attitude to losing nuances in translation. He describes how getting interpreters involved in the processes can be helpful and shares an example of a large event he facilitated in Istanbul with 7 different languages that involved interpreters and how it felt a but chaotic but ended up being very collaborative.

Martin talks about whether the interpretation is needed for the facilitator or the participants. He describes a conference in Switzerland which had several different languages that often had interpreters in booths and mediated by technology. The parts that he facilitated were much more participatory and encouraged people to work together at tables, even if they didn’t understand each other’s languages. He notes how this allows communication and connection at a human level even without any language in common.

Helene talks about her experience of being an interpreter with the ICRC for delegates during the conflict in Nepal. She talks about translating every single work (or not) and how as an interpreter it enabled her to concentrate on the spoken words and not get too emotional about the content. She also observed how much the delegates would begin to pick up for themselves even when they didn’t understand the language.

Martin comments that in training facilitation, working with interpreters who don’t understand facilitation is problematic and conversely working with interpreters who are facilitators can sometimes give their own explanations which can also be problematic.

Martin gives a shout out to Mikhael Rossus from Personal Image in Moscow, he is a facilitator and know the ICA’s ToP facilitation really well, and is really good at translating what is said and not giving his own interpretation.

Simon comments on interpretation in virtual and how he has had experienced where it often looks like the participants aren’t there as they are sat to the side of the interpreter who is visible on the screen. He also talks about text translation closed caption text in Googlish which is “almost communication”.

Martin talks about having ideas written in both languages and how you need to be careful in mis-translations when they are written down that they mean the same thing.

Helene talks about working in Devanagari script and how writing and training and facilitating was not something she could efficiently do, so she involved participants to help her.

Simon talks about co-facilitation and working with Jean from FormApart mainly in French and discovering new words in another language that might not be present in your own language. He has also brought the warmth he discovered from Anna in Peru to his English sessions – he has never net her but has developed a connection nonetheless.

Martin recalls working in Russia and how certain phrases don’t mean what you want them to mean if you are not careful – “I want to break you into small groups” can sound painful!

Simon talks about having good French but not having the facilitation words so bringing your language up to date is important.

Pilar herself has learnt all her professional language in English but has been working recently in Spanish (her native language) but doesn’t necessarily have the words.

Helene and Martin both gave examples of when words do not exist in different languages.

Pilar returns to Helene’s comments about working in groups where two languages were spoken and she only understood one (Nepali and Newari) and how she didn’t ever really resolve the difficulties they presented but somehow got around them.

Martin talks about being quite relaxed about not understanding side conversations and that if he misses something he encourages participants to draw his attention to it. And the fact that a lot can be understood without being able to speak the language. He shares an example of working with ICA in Bosnia and how although he didn’t know the language he was able to work out what was going on as he was familiar with the materials and approaches.

Simon recalls some early IAF conferences running facilitated development sessions with different language groups. and that checking with the group that everything is okay is often enough. But when the objective is developing a common understanding then different language groups can be a barrier and how it’s harder to push across language barriers but this is the role of the facilitator.

Martin reminds us that the role of the facilitator anyway is to know when to step in and push people across their comfort zone and when is better to help people stay in their comfort zone.

Helene comments on how even when people don’t share a common language they will usually find a way.

Martin talks about helping a group of different language speakers to come up with a mission statement in English but that for it to make sense in different language (25/30 different languages in this case) they closed the session with coming up with versions in their own languages.

What have these experiences taught us?

Helene talks about how when everyone has to work hard to understand or help others understand a language there can be a feeling of being all in it together. And about confidence and getting on with it.

Simon talks about how co-facilitation being a joy and how it reinforces and challenges his practice and that language barriers can usually be transcended. This is harder in the virtual world.

Martin talks about the fact that there are joys and struggles with working in different languages, but that language and culture are just two different dimensions of diversity. As a facilitator our job is to accommodate diversity as best as we can all the time.

Get in touch via email podcast@iaf-englandwales.org – Send us some text, or even an mp3 audio! Find out more about us over at the England & Wales page on https://www.iaf-world.org.

See also about me, how I work, who I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite also for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels, and now also online.

Promoting inclusion in online facilitation – free facilitation webinar recording & outputs

Thank you again to everyone who participated in yesterday’s free facilitation webinar, and especially to Judy Rees for inviting me to co-facilitate with her and to Bhavana Nissima for inspiring the topic – and to Bhavana for her gratifying feedback on the session, below.  Here below also you will find the session recording and other outputs.

We took a slightly different approach to my previous free facilitation webinars this time – not least in that this free, 90-minute, interactive online session offered an experience of virtual facilitation in Zoom rather than in Adobe Connect.

Our approach was largely inspired by a 3-day online European Regional Forum of Amnesty International, originally conceived as a 3-day hybrid event in Brussels, that Judy, Orla Cronin & I had just designed and prepared in three fast-moving weeks and facilitated together this past weekend. It involved over 100 delegates from around 25 member organisations across Europe, asynchronous collaboration over 10 days in Basecamp, and five Zoom sessions of around 2 hours each in which we also used Mentimeter, Googlesheets and Jamboards. That experience merits a post of its own – see Judy’s Online Events: Preparation That Drives Participation – suffice to say here that participant feedback included:

  • “The tech and facilitators were amazing, it felt super inclusive”
  • “Technology facilitated a more inclusive meeting than is usually possible in person.”
  • “Technology! Great to have breakout sessions with so many different people. It makes everything very inclusive.”
  • “Great facilitation. Great diversity and inclusion.”
  • “Best facilitation ever (thanks Martin, Orla, Judy), more equal interaction than at any other meeting, no flights (climate thanks us). Virtuality rules!”

“Promoting inclusion should be the business of all facilitators” write the IAF Social Inclusion Facilitators. But how does that work online? In these circumstances our groups are often more diverse than in-the-room gatherings. Power differentials abound, but they may be less apparent.

Online meetings are shaped by the technologies in use, which place constraints on how we can recognise diversity and promote inclusion:

  • With audio-only groups, non-native speakers of the call’s language are at an automatic disadvantage.
  • When we encourage the use of video to build personal connection, we reveal differences in skin colour, clothing and calling location.
  • With most conferencing systems, online breakout groups can’t easily be seen or overheard by the facilitator: what difference will that make?
  • Text chat perhaps gives away the least about who is making each comment – which brings its own challenges.

All of these technologies have advantages and disadvantages for facilitators seeking to promote inclusion.

In these environments, how might we challenge or learn from prejudice and intolerance as appropriate? As experienced online facilitators we have our own tried and tested tactics – but we know we still have lots to learn. This event brought together a wide range of perspectives to develop our practice.

The recording and other outputs follow, from Mentimeter & Jamboard in Slideshare and the Zoom chat in pdf. Thanks also to Noel Warnell for the sketchnote!

Promoting inclusion in online facilitation - sketchnote

See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

Facilitating change in complexity – the Oxfam Lebanon ‘One Country Strategy’ process

Beirut seafront 525x296“What would it take for multiple and diverse stakeholders to align behind a complex and demanding change process, in a complex and demanding environment?”  This was the question that intrigued me as I became engaged with the Oxfam Lebanon ‘One Country Strategy’ process.

It was in September 2014 that I was approached to help with the design and facilitation of a ‘One Country Strategy’ (OCS) process for Oxfam in Lebanon.

PSP case study thumbnailFran Beytrison had recently taken up the role of Oxfam GB Country Director for Lebanon, after moving from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva where she had participated in a strategic planning process that I had facilitated the previous year – see Transformational Strategy: from trepidation to ‘unlocked’.

A complex and demanding context

Oxfam is one of the world’s largest and best-known international NGOs, founded in 1942 in Oxford in the UK.  Today it comprises 17 national Oxfam Affiliates that are federated as Oxfam International and work in over 90 countries worldwide. It’s work includes emergency humanitarian relief, long-term development programmes and policy research and advocacy. It describes the scope of its work in terms of six key issues: active citizenship, gender justice, inequality and essential services, natural resources, saving lives and sustainable food.

Oxfam GB had launched a major emergency response to the Syria crisis in Lebanon in January 2013. Oxfam Novib and Oxfam Italia had been operating long term development programmes in Lebanon for some years before that. Oxfam GB’s Middle East regional Gender Justice programme was also located in Beirut, and Oxfam France and Oxfam Quebec were also involved in work in Lebanon.

By the autumn of 2014 it had become clear that an emergency humanitarian response could no longer be regarded as an adequate response to the ongoing and increasing effects of the Syria crisis in Lebanon. By then already over a million Syrian refugees were living among a pre-crisis population of around 4 million in Lebanon.  Also in 2014 Oxfam International had launched a major organisational change process to achieve a new ‘2020 Vision’. This required a single ‘One Country Strategy’ to bring together the work of all Oxfam Affiliates in each country, as a first step toward to eventual merger as, for example, Oxfam Lebanon.

To plan and implement such a complex and demanding change process successfully, in the context of complex and demanding work in a complex and demanding environment, it was felt essential to effectively engage with all 150 or so in-country staff and other key stakeholders through a robust and professionally facilitated process.

The aims and scope of work

The Terms of Reference agreed for my role in October described the aims of the process to develop a One Country Strategy for Oxfam in Lebanon as threefold:

  • to bring the three Oxfam affiliates operational in Lebanon and the Lebanon components of the Oxfam GB regional Gender Justice programmes together behind a single vision and shared operational plan, as a basis for moving to a country programme structure in line with the Oxfam 2020 Vision, while enabling other interested affiliates to engage as well
  • to clearly detail a gender-mainstreamed One Programme approach (humanitarian, development and policy) as a means of improving programme quality and building a more integrated response, fully leveraging existing expertise across all relevant affiliates
  • to position Oxfam as a leader in the increasingly consensual debate around a ‘Lebanese response’, as opposed to a ‘Syria response in Lebanon, through clear and evidence-based programmatic and policy shifts including strong sectoral leadership in key areas.

The process was therefore to guide both ‘technical visioning’ of Oxfam’s added value and role in Lebanon and organisational change to support implementation in the immediate and in the longer-term. It was to demonstrate a systematic, inclusive and participatory approach to strategic and operational planning and collaborative working, and so build shared commitment, confidence and trust for a new way forward together.

It was agreed to include also work with key actors within the country programme to develop skills for additional facilitation across various departments and sectors, particularly with a view to supporting the development of technical sectoral and departmental action plans in line with the broader Oxfam Country Strategy.

The contract allowed for up to 50 days’ work over six months from November to April, structured in four phases and including four trips to Lebanon. In the event my role required just 40 days’ work including three trips in November, December & January.

How the process unfolded

Phase 1 was conceived as a Preparation & Design phase. The aims were to develop a clear and agreed plan and budget for the process as a whole, and to develop shared clarity, confidence and commitment among staff and any other key stakeholders to the project and its 6-month timeframe.

A one-week trip in November allowed for a series of in-country consultation and process design meetings with large and small groups of staff of the various Oxfam affiliates in Lebanon, in Beirut and two field offices.

OCS Orientation day - outlineThe week included a one day OCS Orientation day for a cross-section of around 45 staff.  The World Cafe method was demonstrated and applied to share questions, concerns and possibilities for the OCS process. The ToP Focused Conversation method was demonstrated and applied to introduce my own role as facilitator of the OCS process. The ToP Consensus Workshop method was demonstrated and applied to inform the design and delivery of the OCS process by agreeing “What do we need to take into account to ensure the success of this OCS process?”.

The IDMC case study was used to outline the ToP Particpatory Strategic Planning process that would provide a framework for the OCS process as a whole. A project steering committee of 6-8 staff was established, to act as a soundboard and guide to the design process and oversee subsequent implementation.

Additional remote consultation was conducted with stakeholders based outside Lebanon. All the questions, concerns and aspirations raised during this first phase were documented and reviewed with the steering committee, and helped to informed the design and delivery of the remaining phases.

ToP Participatory Strategic PlanningPhase 2 was conceived as the Launch phase. The ‘rational’ aim was to develop a clear and agreed strategic framework as a basis for the single country strategy. This was to include an analysis of the changing strategic context; Practical Vision, Underlying Contradictions and Strategic Directions of the ToP Participatory Strategic Planning process; and a 3-month action plan for completion of the strategy.  The ‘experiential’ aim was again to develop shared clarity, confidence and commitment among staff and any other key stakeholders, this time to the emerging strategy and the plan for its completion.

By this stage the steering group had clarified the ‘Focus Question’ for the overall strategic planning process as: “What can we do over the next 5 years as one Oxfam in Lebanon working with others to address suffering and inequality in Lebanon?”

A 10-day trip in December allowed for the preparation and facilitation of a 4-day OCS Launch Week event, involving a series of sessions with different sub-groups.

OCS Launch week - outlineThe morning of Tuesday’s ‘Consultation Day’ involved key staff and external stakeholders invited for their knowledge and experience of Oxfam Lebanon’s changing strategic context.  The ToP ‘Wave’ exercise was used to chart and analyse trends, ‘on the horizon, emerging, peaking and dying’, to inform the subsequent strategic planning process.

The afternoon of the Consultation day involved around 150 staff of the various Oxfam affiliates in Lebanon plus key regional staff and local partners. The World Cafe method was used to enable this larger group (in 15 tables of 10, each including a team of 3 conversation hosts) to deliberate and to share responses to the three ‘focus questions’ that would guide the consensus building and strategy building for the remainder of the week:

  1. OCS Consultation day - world cafe table instructionsPractical Vision: “What would we like to see in place in 5 years’ time, as a result of the work of Oxfam in Lebanon?”  (indicators of external impact and internal effectiveness)
  2. Current reality: “What in our current reality is blocking us from realising our Vision?” (both internal & external to Oxfam Lebanon)  “What strengths do we have to address these obstacles?”
  3. Strategic Directions: “What practical projects or initiatives over the next 5 years could address these obstacles and help to realise our Vision?”

The remaining three days involved a cross-section of around 45 staff, each of whom had hosted one of the three World Cafe conversations at the 15 tables of 10 on Tuesday.  Each day involved an extended and adapted ToP Consensus Workshop process. First in groups of six, pairs of table host teams reviewed and clustered the ideas that they had harvested from their World Cafe table conversations on the question for that day – Practical Vision, Current Reality or Strategic Directions. Second, each Oxfam affiliate, field office, department and programme team met separately to add any further ideas from their own distinct perspective that they felt may not yet have been adequately reflected in the ideas shared.  Third, the whole group of 45 worked together for most of the afternoon to weave all the ideas generated into clusters, and to name the emerging consensus.  Finally, at the end of the week, outline action plans were agreed by work team for communicating the outcomes to those not present, and engaging with them over the coming weeks and months in finalising the framework and planning for implementation.

Strategic deployment of breaks and energisers helped to just about sustain the group’s energy throughout the week – to deal with large volumes of complex data, and to build consensus on often contentious issues among a group that was itself in many ways reflective of the diversity of perspectives and interests at play in Oxfam’s humanitarian, development and advocacy work in Lebanon.

A brief review of Oxfam International’s global change goals just before the naming of Strategic Directions enabled the group to align their names with Oxfam’s global strategy without having been overly constrained by them in their own visioning or in their analysis and response to their own local and regional realities. The outcome was four Strategic Directions, each articulated by a number of distinct ‘strategic intents’, designed to collectively address the Underlying Contradictions to the Practical Vision:

  • Designing and implementing integrated & effective, rights-based humanitarian & development programmes
  • Working with others to achieve high quality programmes
  • Investing in staff
  • Influencing to create change from the local to the global.

Doubtless the steering committee or Fran alone might have developed a very similar framework without such an elaborate and inclusive engagement process, but of course the experiential aims of shared clarity, confidence and commitment  were central and critical to the OCS process. Feedback indicated that the group had indeed found the week long and tiring, and in some cases it was felt that key issues or perspectives had not been adequately addressed or not in proper proportion. Nevertheless it was clear that the visual and participatory approach had been appreciated, and the open and frank discussions, diversity in participation and perspectives, and the clarity and consensus achieved. Fionna Smyth, then Oxfam GB Regional Campaigns and Policy Manager for the Middle East, Eastern Europe and CIS, commented recently on LinkedIn:

“I was at this particular meeting and it really was a phenomenal experience. It developed a clear vision, and was inclusive of many diverse voices. I loved Martin’s approach.”

By the end of the week, it was high time to enjoy the staff Christmas party! Having documented each workshop on the day, in preparation for the next day’s workshop, it was then a simple matter to compile a first draft OCS strategic framework document for circulation and feedback between December and January.

Phase 3 was originally conceived to include the resolution of any key issues in finalising the strategy document for approval in April, and development of clear and agreed (and comprehensive) operational plans for implementation of the first year of the new strategy. The ‘experiential’ aim again was to promote shared clarity, confidence and commitment among staff and other key stakeholders to the emerging strategy, and also now to plans for its completion and implementation.

It was agreed with the steering group after the Launch Week, however, that to continue such a comprehensive approach with such broad engagement could be asking too much of the staff in the midst of the many other demands on their time and energy.  Moreover, on reflection, it was felt that some areas of programming and organisational change could benefit more than others of facilitation support to enable effective engagement and an appropriate and successful implementation planning process.

For these reasons it was agreed switch from a comprehensive to a targeted approach to facilitation support in the implementation planning. Instead of working again with a cross-section of the whole staff on planning the whole of the implementation together, I would work with key stakeholders in three particular programme areas to apply the new strategic framework to tailored planning implementation in those particular areas.  Also I would offer ToP Group Facilitation Methods training to a cadre of 30 staff and partners from across the work teams and affiliates. These two elements became the twin focus of a two-week trip to Beirut in January.

Phase 4 had been conceived to allow for a collective review of experience and learning from the project and first quarter implementation, and to agree clear 90-day workplans for the second quarter, with the experiential aim of consolidating pride in the strategy and support for the structural merger.  However we had already transitioned from a comprehensive and collective approach in phase 3, to an approach in which the (already somewhat restructured) work teams were able to integrate the agreed new strategic framework in their operational work planning and in their longer-term programme development work.  Much had changed meanwhile as well in the strategic context, not least in the the Syria crisis itself and in its unfolding impact in Lebanon.  For these various reasons a fourth trip was not felt necessary, and my own role in the OCS project was concluded.

As it turned out, I made another two trips to Beirut for another client in May and June of 2015, to design and facilitate a participatory strategic planning for the Safety & Security Committee for Lebanon of which Oxfam is a member.  It was a pleasure to be able to reconnect with some of the Oxfam team while I was there, and learn something of what had happened next in the OCS process.  That, however, is another story…

See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

EU-funded places available on ToP facilitation training next week!

Facilitative Leadership and Group Facilitation Methods for Social Cohesion and Gender Equality

Two places have become available at short notice on an EU-funded facilitation training to be held next week, December 9-14, in English & Spanish in Madrid, Spain.

The course is titled “Facilitative Leadership & Group Facilitation Methods for Social Inclusion and Gender Equality“, and is organised and delivered by ICA Spain with ICA:UK.

For full details, please download the course information and practicalities (pdf), and for enquiries and bookings please email catalina@iac-es.org or info@iac-es.org.

The course starts Monday 9th at 17.00 and finishes Saturday 14th, at 13.30. ICA Spain will be glad to cover the 750 Euros course fee. Participants are asked to cover their own accommodation, meals and travel (round trip). If interested they could discuss these expenses.

The course is designed for people responsible for facilitating multicultural and interdisciplinary groups more effectively within educational, social, political, cultural sectors; for team leaders and managers dealing with social inclusion and gender equality policy making; and for youth and community workers and social development agents responsible for implementing social cohesion and gender equality policies.

Comments from the evaluations of last year’s course include:

…. a solid and intelligent combination of professional competence and personal drive and engagement. Great attention to detail was evident from the logistical organization to the high quality of delivery.” (Participant from Switzerland).

Excellent course, excellent facilitation, truly an opportunity to learn valuable skills. Highly recommend it.” (Participant from Spain).

It was an excellent course both on providing knowledge and skills on the topic.” (Participant from Greece).

What stood out especially was the trainers’ attention to each particpants’ professional development and the strong participatory elements.” (Participant from Germany).

The approach was very successful because we had moments of theory, demonstration and practice of the new methodologies. We had the opportunity to participate in some cultural and study visits which make us connect with the contents of the course and know more about the host country.” (Participant from Portugal).

My first 416 days as a freelance facilitator

National Freelancers DayToday is National Freelancers Day here in the UK, and so a good day I think to reflect on my own first year and a bit as a freelancer.  I did think that twice before, but on my anniversary on October 1st I was too busy with client work, and during International Facilitation Week (October 21-27) I was too busy with International Facilitation Week.  At 7am this morning I was working with Orla Cronin to facilitate an online workshop for worldwide contributors to a collaborative writing process taking place in South Africa this week, ‘Exploring the Real Work of Social Change‘, but apart from that I am happy to be having a relatively quiet week. So here goes. I have even updated my profile photo to mark the occasion – a new look for a new year.

London Mayor Boris Johnson is quoted as saying in support for National Freelancers Day that “taking the plunge as a freelancer is an immense decision that in many ways can appear daunting but it’s also a choice that’s brave, ambitious, fulfilling and rewarding“. My own decision initially was to work freelance to earn an income and keep my options open for a while, while deciding what to do next after stepping down as Chief Executive of ICA:UK after 16 years. I thought of it more as a sabbatical at first than as a new career, and after delivering facilitation, training and consulting services to ICA:UK clients all those years it did not seem particularly brave or ambitious. The immense part had been deciding to step down from my previous role. It was indeed rewarding and fulfilling, however, and soon enough I had decided that this was how I wanted to continue to work.

In that sense the process has been a little like the way my career as a whole began and then continued. I took a ‘year out’ after my undergraduate degree to volunteer with ICA in India in 1986, and 27 years later I am still with ICA and serving as volunteer President of ICA International. Working freelance is enabling me to do that now, and whatever other paid or unpaid work I want to take on, with maximum flexibility and minimum administration and overheads.  What’s not to like?

In my first year as a freelancer I have had the opportunity to deliver facilitation and facilitation training contracts in Dublin, Geneva, Moscow, Ramallah, Zurich and online, as well as around the UK and even within walking distance from my home base in London. The groups I have worked with have ranged from local community-based organisations to UN-mandated international agencies, and from global corporations to small consultancies and social enterprise start-ups (see also who I work with and how I work). This diversity is a major attraction for me – always stimulating, mostly challenging and never dull.

Having worked for years as well with public sector clients in the UK, these have been notable for me by their absence this past year. Notwithstanding David Cameron’s enthusiasm for freelancers (and entrepreneurs) ‘as the engine of our economy and economic revival’, it has certainly been a good year not to be reliant on UK clients, and especially not on UK public sector clients. Many years of international involvement and Board service with my professional association the International Association of Facilitators has been very helpful there, as well as long-standing relationships with ICA colleagues worldwide. I have Brussels, Geneva and New York to look forward to in December & January, and a number of mostly European prospects in the pipeline for after that, so I am happy to say an over-reliance on UK work does not seem to be a problem as yet. I would welcome more gigs that I can walk to as well though!

On deciding to establish myself in business as a freelancer I also joined PCG: the Freelancers Association (the people behind National Freelancers Day), and have found this invaluable.  I have experience of non-profit management and governance, including registering and preparing SORP-compliant accounts for a UK charitable company, but it has been a relief to be able to learn quickly and easily the particularities of company and tax law etc. as they apply to me now as a freelancer – and to discover just how less onerous it is to establish and run a private company with one shareholder, one Director and one employee.  For someone whose stock in trade is participatory decision making, it’s nothing short of revolutionary for me that I get to decide everything by myself, without consultation, and within much lesser constraints than I am used to.  I am proud to say that Martin Gilbraith Associates Ltd is now well and truly in business, and even has its new cloud-based Crunch accounting system up to date (quote ‘mg15641m’ if you join too, and we both get free vouchers).

Throughout this past year I have particularly enjoyed and appreciated the extra time I have been able to find for professional development, reflection, reading and writing.  I am pleased to have accumulated over 40 posts and 6,000 site views on this blog, and to have read many books (and many more than each of the previous years) and attended numerous events with IAF, at the RSA and elsewhere. I still aspire to make more connection between the professional development, reflection and reading and the writing, but happy for that to be a goal.

In the meantime, I enjoyed so much the opportunity to use my Arabic again on my recent trips to Palestine that I have joined an Arabic conversation meet-up group in London. That experience has also got me wondering more about the reality and prospects for participation and facilitative leadership in the Arab world generally, almost 20 years on from my own six years with ICA Egypt and my masters research on civil society and democtratisation, and with the revolutions of the so called ‘Arab Spring’ continuing to unfold.

Thank you for following, and please feel free to share your own reflections and comments as well.

See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

Evidencing facilitation competencies: planning with people with learning difficulties

I had thought that I might share this ‘from the archive’ piece during International Facilitation Week recently, as a way of promoting and celebrating IAF’s Certified Professional Facilitator accreditation programme in conjunction with that. As it turned out, Facilitation Week prompted such an avalanche of activity around the world and online that I had a hard time keeping up as official @FacWeek tweeter, so here it is now.  The piece was prepared as part of my own initial assessment for Certified Professional Facilitator accreditation in 2008, in the format required to summarize a workshop I had designed and facilitated in order “to illustrate your application of the Facilitator Core Competencies in your work”. It drew on an extended case study that I had prepared previously for ICA:UK, ToP facilitation with a group of people with learning difficulties.

ToP facilitation with a group of people with learning difficulties

Connect in the North: Big Meeting, August 2007 in Leeds

1. What workshop are you summarizing? Nb:Core facilitator competencies illustrated are indicated in square brackets [A-F]

Connect in the North: Big Meeting (August 2007). For the organisation to listen to people with learning difficulties and update its business plan – to improve services and opportunities for people with learning difficulties.

2. Is there anything specific about the background leading up to the workshop that we need to understand? If necessary, provide a brief paragraph describing the background leading to the event.

[E3, F2] ICA:UK is concerned with the human factor in world development – creating a humane and sustainable future for all, through partnership and participation. We work nationally and internationally to enable individuals, organisations and communities to work together to bring about positive change.

Connect in the North (CITN) brings together people with learning difficulties and not-for-profit organisations to improve services and opportunities for people with learning difficulties.  CITN Director Cathy Wintersgill had attended a number of ICA:UK’s public Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation training courses since 2003, and had used elements of the approach in her work within CITN and with client organisations as well.

After attending our ToP Participatory Strategic Planning (PSP) course in May 2007, Cathy expressed an interest in contracting me to apply elements of this method to CITN’s “Big Meeting”, an annual event for the organisation to listen to the views of people with learning difficulties and update its business plan.

She had not before attempted to facilitate a full ToP Consensus Workshop with a group of people with learning difficulties, however, and was concerned that some of those attending the Big Meeting might find the clustering of ideas and naming of clusters difficult and boring, and so disengage.  Although I did not have prior experience of facilitating groups of people with learning difficulties, my experience generally has been that the methodology is sufficiently robust but flexible to be applied successfully with virtually any group.  So, to help to assess what sort of approach would be appropriate, I offered to do some research to explore the experience of other facilitators who have facilitated such groups, using both ToP methods and other approaches.

3. What were the workshop objectives?  Please provide a concise paragraph describing the workshop purpose (objectives, or deliverables.).

[A1, A2] In my proposal to Cathy I articulated the aims of the day as follows:

  • to develop a shared big-picture understanding of the longer-term direction of the organisation, grounded in CITN’s values, and it’s practical implications
  • to generate some clear ideas for future projects or activities that might attract external funding or otherwise generate additional income
  • to involve key stakeholders, and particularly people with learning difficulties themselves, in such a way that they feel a sense of ownership of the organisation and empowerment to shape it’s future

For the purposes of the meeting itself I expressed these as:

Why are we here? – aims of today

  • To build a big picture together of our future direction
  • To have new ideas for future activities and income
  • For everyone to get involved and feel that they own it

4. What was the Agenda for the workshop?  Please provide, in list format, the workshop Agenda.

[A3, B2] The process was designed on the basis of four sessions of around 45-60 minutes, each allowing about a half as long again for activities as I might typically plan for.  The outline of the day I presented like this:

What we will do – today’s schedule

  • Opening and introductions
  • Context: what will affect our future – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats
  • Break
  • Workshop: projects and activities for the future
  • Lunch
  • continued…
  • Break
  • Reflect and close

5. How many participants did the workshop include?

[F2] 20 people attended the CITN Big Meeting in August, prior to their AGM which was to follow some weeks later. This included all 5 staff, most of the 9 Board members and some other members as well – both individual members and representatives of organisational members.  The majority were people with learning difficulties, including some of the staff and most of the members and Board members.

6. What were your responsibilities as Facilitator of the event?  (from B)

[E3] Contractor to the client and sole facilitator.The process design was informed by prior research with facilitators experienced in working with people with learning difficulties, by means of GRP-FACL and three other email forums

7. How long was the workshop?  (In hours or days, from B above)

A single short-full day facilitated event (10am-3pm)

8. Description of the Workshop   Please describe the workshop, highlighting the following:

  • Your preparation for the event
  • Session design considerations/approach
  • Facilitation techniques used
  • Tools, equipment, visual aids, etc. used
  • Results achieved
  • Difficulties encountered and their solutions/lessons learned
  • How the Foundational Facilitator Competencies were exhibited throughout the event

[C4, E1, E3] Soon after Cathy’s initial enquiry in May 2007, I emailed a brief query to four online facilitation discussion groups, and within 10 days had received 22 responses totalling 17 pages and a wealth of experience and insight.  The four groups were ICA:UK’s own ToP Associates network, the global ICA ToP trainers network, the IAF Group Facilitation discussion group and the UK Community Participation Network.  My request was for respondents to share any experience of facilitating groups with people with learning difficulties that might point to any potential issues, and to share any hints & tips for success.

[A2, B1, C2] I used the ToP Consensus Workshop method to discern six key insights from the responses received.  I shall describe how I designed and facilitated the event relative to these six insights.

i. collaborate with members of the group (and others with experience of working with them) to design & facilitate a process that will work for them

[A1, A2, C4, D2, F3] Cathy & I agreed early on that I would meet with a small group before the event to hear their perspectives directly on what we should aim to achieve on the day and what sort of approach might be most effective, and also to help to build the group’s commitment and sense of ownership of the approach to be taken.  I met with five of the Board members (4 of whom had learning difficulties) and the 3 full-time staff.  I listened to their answers to my questions and answered some questions of theirs as well. This enabled me to confirm my understanding of their aims for the day, and we agreed broadly how it should be structured and the approach to be used to achieve their desired outcomes, and our respective  roles and responsibilities.

[A2, A3] Based on what I had learned from this design meeting of the organisational context and the client groups’ needs, I was able to revise my original process proposal to comprehensively document our consensus on the way forward as the basis of the contract between us.

ii. adapt/slow the pace

[B2] Well before the design meeting it was a clear parameter that the Big Meeting would be a ‘short full day’, ie: around 10am-3pm, including morning & afternoon breaks and lunch.  Therefore  it was clear from the outset that nothing close to a full 4-workshop PSP process would be possible.

[A3, B2, C1, C4, D1, D2, D3, E2] Instead, I proposed that we focus the day around a single ToP Consensus Workshop to help to meet all three aims, with the fairly general and straight-forward focus question “What projects or activities would you like to see over the next five years?”  To ground this workshop in CITN’s values and in the practical implications of the charity’s current circumstances, Cathy agreed to give a 5-minute power-point presentation on the organisation’s mission, values and recent & current activities; and we followed this with a ‘carousel’-style participatory SWOT analysis – strengths (“what are we good at?”), weaknesses (“what are we not so good at?”), opportunities (“what might help us?”) and threats (“what might be a problem for us?”).  To break the ice and warm people up to participating fully, we began with introductions, sharing hopes & fears for the day, and an energiser – working as a team to ‘play’ happy birthday to one of the group, as a ‘human orchestra’ (humming, clapping etc. or making any noise without singing or using words).  We closed the day with a reflection using a set of “transport cards”, with participants choosing to stand under one of 8 images representing modes of transport and describing how the day for them had been like a journey by coach, bicycle, skateboard, spaceship etc.

[C1, D1] Keeping sessions short and using a variety of activities and ways of ways of working within them seemed to be enough to keep everyone engaged throughout the day.  I invited people to feel free to get up and move around, or leave and come back, if they wanted to, and to a limited extent they did.  To try to ensure that everyone was understanding and being understood adequately I regularly reflected back what I was hearing and asked others to do so as well, and when a question of content or clarity was raised I generally sought one or two responses from the group to satisfy it rather than try to answer it myself.  The warm up exercise was well received, and generated much laughter, if not much of a tune!

iii. adapt & vary the size & composition of small groups (eg: use “learning partners”)

[B2, C2] About three quarters of the time overall was spent working in small groups and individually, rather than in plenary – probably more than I would typically plan for a group of such a size.  There was a great diversity of communication styles in the group, so I think this was important to allow everyone the time and space they needed to contribute safely and comfortably.

[B2] The group were seated at four tables of about five each throughout the day, facing a 5m ‘sticky wall’ for the visual presentations and workshop.  This made for quite intimate and supportive small group working.  Initially I invited participants to choose their own tables, in order that they seat themselves with others that they would be comfortable working with, although with the proviso that at each table there should be at least one person who would record the group’s ideas on paper.  This turned out to be no problem at all as most were keen to participate in recording.  At the beginning of the workshop session I invited 3 at each table to each move to different tables, to vary the groups, but again I left it up to them to choose who would move and where to. This seemed to work well, and I was glad that I had not tried to be more prescriptive about who should work with whom.

iv. use (& allow use of) words, symbols, images, colours etc. with care & creativity to hold meaning

[C1, C4] In asking people to record I made it clear that they were welcome to do so using words, images, symbols, colours or in any other way that they found helpful.   I made a particular effort myself to use images and symbols alongside words on everything that I presented during the event, and I included plenty of photographs of both the group and their work alongside the textual documentation in the report of the event.  I experimented for the first time with providing the tables with multi-coloured half-sheets for recording their ideas on during the workshop, and reserved white half-sheets for the cluster titles (I am in the habit of using white half-sheets for the brainstorm ideas and a single colour to differentiate titles).  I provided the tables with markers of a variety of colours as well, with the additional fun of a different fruit scent to each colour!

In the event the group recorded its work largely in words, and only a few images and symbols were used – in fact participants seemed to relish the challenge of demonstrating their writing skills. How far my own modest graphic facilitation skills were appreciated was not clear, but the multi-coloured half-sheets were a great success in making it easy for people to refer to ideas on the sticky wall without having read or describe them each time (“the blue card, bottom-left, goes with the top-centre cluster with the red & green cards”).

v. allow & encourage people to relate ideas, and form & name clusters, in whatever ways are meaningful to them

[C1, C3, C4, D2, F2, F3] I made explicit during the workshop that there was no right or wrong way to cluster ideas or name the clusters, but that we were looking for clusters and names that would be meaningful to the group and which would help them to make the best of the ideas they had come up with and put them into practice after the meeting.  In fact many of the group took to the clustering with such enthusiasm that the plenary became quite noisy and chaotic at times – such that on several occasions I reminded people to speak one at a time, asked specifically to hear from someone who had not spoken for a while, and called for silence to allow everyone to think for a moment.

[C3, D3, E2] The naming of the clusters was accomplished quite easily, and much more quickly than I had anticipated – every activity up until that point had taken at least as long as I had planned for, such that I was becoming quite concerned as to whether we would be able to complete the workshop and close the day before people started leaving in their pre-booked taxis.  In fact the names were proposed and agreed much more quickly that most groups I have worked with, and it became clear to me that this group really was perfectly satisfied with quick, simple and intuitive names – in contrast to many groups which can want to get the names just right, and so find it very difficult and time-consuming to agree (Sam Kaner’s ‘Groan Zone’ of participatory decision making).  Conflict was not an issue.  Far from running over time, in the end we were able to enjoy a relaxed closing reflection and finish early with 10 minutes to spare.

[C4, E2, F3] As usual, the original ideas, the clusters and the cluster names all clearly meant more to the participants than they did to me – which I take as a good sign in any workshop!  However, I felt in no way that I would have wanted to cluster or name any differently myself, had I been involved as a participant rather than as impartial facilitator.

vi. show respect for people & their diversity of abilities & styles

[B1, C2, C3] It was indeed a diverse group, in terms of age, gender and culture as well as in terms of physical and learning abilities.  I hope that I did show respect for this group and its diversities, as I would any group.  However my experience was that I did nothing particularly different with this group in order to do so, and that nothing particularly different was required.  In fact the various styles and behaviours of this group may have been sometimes more overt and less subtle than those of most groups that I work with, but they were not really so very different.  The group itself was certainly no less respectful than most, on the contrary perhaps more so.  One participant with physical impairments needed several minutes to communicate any verbal contributions with the help of a support worker yet, even when the group was quite boisterous, all voices fell silent and everybody waited patiently whenever he had something to contribute.


[A3, B1, F2] It is for the group themselves to judge the success or otherwise of their meeting, and of course the real test will be the extent to which it has made a difference to them and CITN in the future.  Certainly the group expressed their satisfaction with the process as it unfolded – at the design meeting, during the day and in the closing reflection. In fact, the event ended with quite a sense of excitement and anticipation.  Cathy wrote shortly afterwards, from her point of view:

“Thank you so much for the brilliant job you did on Friday. The day was better even than I had hoped. The level and quality of participation was very high, everyone enjoyed it and we now have a clear sense of a shared direction.  The report looks absolutely excellent – thanks for putting it together so quickly.”

[E1, E3, F1] For myself, both the initial research and the facilitation experience have been a refreshing opportunity to test my assumptions, reflect on my practice, and stretch my skills in a context that has been new to me.  I found it both reassuring and gratifying that the process was received as well as it was, not least because of how little I felt I needed to tailor the ToP methodology and my own facilitation style on account of participants’ learning difficulties.

I was pleased to take the opportunity to write up my experience of both the workshop and the research, including extracts of the email responses I had received in respondents own words.  I published this as a case study on the ICA:UK website, and made it available via the four email groups that I had consulted, including all those who had responded.

[A1] I am also delighted that the process has helped me to develop my relationship with Cathy and Connect in the North, such that two further staff have since enrolled on ICA:UK’s ToP facilitation courses, and Cathy has joined a project team with ICA:UK and others to conduct a participatory evaluation for another client of a programme involving young people with learning difficulties in politics in Wales.

Celebrating diversity and facilitation in Europe

IAF Europe January 2013 newsletterThe latest newsletter of IAF Europe is a great read as usual – click on the cover image (right) to download it or view it online.

I particularly enjoyed Pamela Lupton-Bowers’ reflections on last October’s IAF Europe Conference in Geneva, Facilitating Across Cultures: Unleashing the Power of Diversity. It reminded me of the many rich insights at the conference into the role and impact of facilitation in international humanitarian work, not least from our keynote speakers from the World Economic Forum, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs. This is as diverse and complex a context as a facilitator is likely to meet! There’s also a great piece from Fran O’Hara on her use of graphic facilitation in conjunction with the World Cafe method at our closing plenary, and well-deserved acknowledgement and thanks to all who made the conference happen.

Gillian Martin Mehers, Kathy Jourdain and Simon Burall also contribute this issue, on ‘tinkering, making and mashing’, ‘Hosting Self’ and ‘Supporting public engagement’ respectively. And of course there is news of IAF, not least from Pamela as she retires as IAF Europe Director and from Martin Farrell as he succeeds her.

Well done and thank you to editor Rosemary Cairns, the IAF Europe team and to all involved, for helping to make Europe such a stimulating place to be a facilitator!