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.