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Faciliatingdiscussion

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  • My name is Christa King. I have a BA in Creative Writing and am currently about half-way through the SIRLS Master’s Program. I am also Assistant to the Department Head of Mathematics here at the UA. This semester, I am doing a practicum at the Martha Cooper Branch Library. Eventually, I would like to work in a small or rural public library in the southwest, so Martha Cooper is perfect for me. It is a small, very busy, very socially active branch in mid-town Tucson at the center of a number of refugee communities. I would estimate that 80% of the people who come into the library do not speak English as their first language, but rather, speak Swahili, Arabic, Farsi, Nepali, Kirundi, French, Spanish and so on.
  • In the absence of the Adult Services Librarian at Martha Cooper, I was recently asked to facilitate a three-group discussion about Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance. Even though I am a member of a book group myself and have coordinated and led business meetings and conferences, I was a little nervous, but I did my homework, prepared for it and it went very well. Afterward it occurred to me that it is not so hard to create lively and productive discussion when you’re talking about a book that everyone (or nearly everyone) has read. But what about when tempers are hot and people are being their very own challenging selves? How do you facilitate that kind of discussion? it might not be so easy or successful if the discussion had to deal with difficult issues like budgets or political support. Discussion facilitation will be an important tool to have in our repertoire as librarians, so I began to look for information about the process. I discovered that there is no specific SIRLS course that focuses on this skill. Kristen and I discussed it and began to do some research. To create this presentation, I’ve consulted with several colleagues who facilitate discussion as a major part of their professions, and have begun to investigate the literature. Librarians have a number of reasons to create discussion with others. You might need to create a constructive discussion around your budget or a new building or acquiring new materials. You might need to meet with people who object to the books you purchase. You may want to create a more lively or active Friends group, or find out what teens and ‘tweens would really like at the library. You may need to talk about changes in policy, may need to negotiate with upper administration, or want to create a student board. Are there other reasons that come to mind for you?
  • One of the most important parts of good discussion facilitation is the prep work. Like an iceberg, a lot of the success of the discussion exists beneath the surface. As a facilitator, is your task to remain (relatively) neutral and to draw participation from all members, not to use this as a soapbox to expound your own agenda. Try to avoid making judgments (“oh that’s a good idea!” or “no, I don’t think that will work.”) Start by listing the issues or subjects the discussion may involve and think about what you want to accomplish. Should the participants to understand a book in more depth? Are they making a stronger connection with each other? Are you working toward a compromise in a difficult negotiation? If you can describe the goal or purpose in one sentence, it will be pretty clear to you and the participants. For example: “ I would like to bring the Friends group together to discuss the needs of the library in depth, and explore more ways they can help.” Or “ We would like the teens to become more familiar with and accepting of each other and learn to work together.” Think about the stakeholders. List everyone you can possibly think of and then narrow the field to those who might be the best participants for the group. You can run discussions with more, but between 6-20 people is a good number. Once you have the list, are there difficult personalities involved? What is your plan to work with them? Who has been successful at working with them in the past? Consult that person.
  • Think about any cultural or communication differences? Might it be a good idea for people to explain what is considered impolite in their culture (meeting people’s eyes or not making direct eye contact, for example). Will you have a need for translators? If you work with multicultural groups on a regular basis, you might want to look at “Facilitating Multicultural Groups: A Practical Guide” by Christine Hogan. I have a few handouts with some tips for working with translators. They are designed by ACD for working with the deaf, but the pointers are applicable in many situations. Some people are very nervous in discussion situations. It helps everyone, but especially these more anxious participants, to come in with some idea about what will be happening. Try to provide an agenda or purpose statement prior to the discussion. It is also helpful to have people think about group guidelines prior to the event. Make some suggestions about group guidelines and explain that these will allow the discussion to move along more smoothly for all. If you are planning to do the Once Around exercise (I’ll tell you about that in a bit) ask the participants to bring an issue they’d like to address, a comment about the book, or a question they’d like to bring to the group on a 3 x 5 card.
  • Good discussion needs time. There are several parts to the event: introduction, ground rules creation, icebreakers, once around, other discussion questions, conclusion/summary, wrap-up. Will you break into small groups and come back together? What else might take additional time? You will need at least an hour, more if the discussion is lively or contentious. Sometimes, if the participants are strangers, a smaller venue is better--it forces them to sit more closely together and get to know each other. If the subject is difficult, perhaps chairs around a table would work best, so each person feels safe and protected by a little more “real estate.” Definitely try to set the chairs in a circle or semi-circle. There is just something positive that happens when people look into each others’ faces. Many people are distracted by food, but if it is necessary to have food (breakfast or lunch meeting) be sure to avoid anything that is difficult or messy to eat or anything that is highly spicy. Make sure you have enough plates, flatware, cups, napkins, etc. Try to limit other distractions like noise, music, etc. Try to create a calm, quiet environment where the discussion is the star. Try to provide everyone with the things they need (like notepaper, pens, stickies, etc.) to limit the amount of milling about. Think ahead and try to prepare for and set up everything ahead of time.
  • Developing open-ended questions prepares you for your part in the discussion. Using them helps to establish rapport, gather information, and increase understanding. Open-ended questions do not lead people in a specific direction, but rather invite others to “tell their story” in their own words. It is helpful to arrive early to organize the room in the way that you feel will work, and to set everything up. If you can, give yourself a few moments to take a deep breath and prepare mentally for the discussion to come. That way you present a calm face rather than a harried one.
  • Welcome the participants as they come in. When all are seated, introduce yourself by giving your name, your position, degrees or studies, information about your interest in the subject, or what brought you here to facilitate this discussion. This allows the participants to know a bit about you and begin to become comfortable. You can let them know that discussions work best if they will each follow three principles: Be Present - You were included because of the talent and energy you bring. To share these with the group you need to show up physically and mentally. Be Prepared - Do the homework. Study the agenda. Read materials in advance. All this increases the productivity of the group. Be Purposeful - Treat the meeting like it matters. Participate. Help keep the discussion on topic. Stay focused. Explain that we can come to a deeper understanding of ideas, concepts and issues when we not only read about them, but hear others’ thoughts about them. Discussion is not about being right or being wrong, but about exploring issues, but this only happens if each participant feels safe to make comments and take risks. Agreed-upon ground rules help to smooth this path. Ask the participants to discuss the ground rules. What is necessary for a good, productive discussion? Are there other rules that might be helpful? Remind them that you can always go back and add a new ground rule if it becomes needed.
  • One of the most frequent recommendations about facilitating discussion is to provide the participants with a “common experience” to help them become more comfortable with each other. These exercises or icebreakers can take several forms like a kind of bingo game or group juggling, but the simplest is a question-based exercise and we’re going to do one now. Please pass around this chat pack and draw a card. Be thinking about your response as everyone draws. Then we’ll each briefly respond to the questions. If you draw a question that makes you uncomfortable, please feel free to draw another card. (5-10 minutes) One way to give each person a chance to participate is a technique called once around. For a book discussion, ask each member to bring one short passage to read and comment on. These comments can be written if that is less worrisome for a shy participant. Each person gets to read and make a comment around the circle before beginning the major part of the discussion. For an issue-related discussion, have each participant write what they consider to be the most important issue on a 3 x 5 card. The issues can be read by their originator, by someone else, but either way, the facilitator can keep track of the issues or categories of issues on an easel. This is a way to bring issues up immediately and to find out a bit about each person’s agenda. To get people more familiar with each other, it is a good idea to break into small groups of 3-5 people. Have the groups select a scribe & presenter to talk about their conclusions or decisions. Give them time to discuss (say 15 minutes). Keep a “parking lot” for issues or situations that can’t be resolved, need to be addressed later, or are not in the purview of this discussion. This works well for a contentious issue that just seems to have no solution, or for a person who disrupts the meeting with issues not appropriate to this event.
  • As the facilitator, it is your responsibility to step in and remind people of the ground rules when discriminatory or inflammatory remarks are made. This allows all participants to feel safe. You don’t want to loudly jump on someone. Express in a quiet and neutral voice that you all agreed to follow the ground rules and the participant(s) is being disrespectful or mud-slinging. If an uncomfortable situation arises that might not be addressed in the ground rules, ask the participants as a group if they feel a new ground rule needs to be added. When someone takes over the discussion, just quietly step in, make eye contact with that person and say something like “Bob, thank you for sharing your information/beliefs/issues/experiences. What do the rest of you feel about this question/issue? You can even transfer the discussion to someone who has been obviously waiting for a chance to step in…”Julie, I can see that you have a comment to make,” or you can say “thank you for sharing your experience, does anyone else have a different experience they would like to share?” In the case of a shy participant, explain that the best discussions draw input from all, and say to everyone that we would all really appreciate receiving his or her input, but do not pressure the person repeatedly. You might suggest that they tell another person what they’d like to say and have that person explain it if that is more comfortable. If you make sure all feel safe, they may be able to speak up later if they are unable to now. You need to “own the room” in order to provide safety and opportunity for all to be heard and to share.
  • At the conclusion, give each participant an opportunity to express briefly what they feel was accomplished, what they learned, or what they were surprised by. For particularly chatty groups, ask them to limit themselves to one sentence, or even to one word. Give a summary or overview, review the parking lot and determine what, if anything, should be done with these items, assign any tasks that have been agreed on, schedule the next meeting. Ask if there is any other business to be taken care of and then thank the participants for their time, their energy and their attention. Ending on time is an excellent way to show your respect for others.

Faciliatingdiscussion Faciliatingdiscussion Presentation Transcript

  • Let’s Talk! Concepts and Practices for Facilitating Good Discussion
  • Why Talk?
    • Reason for this presentation
    • Why learn about discussion?
      • Create lively book groups
      • Resolve community issues
      • Discover customer needs
      • Create an open environment for employees
      • Talk to teens and ‘tweens
      • Hold productive meetings
      • Fight for your budget
      • Develop active Friends Group or Board
      • Others?
  • Think About It
    • Preparation
      • Role of Facilitator
        • Remaining neutral
      • What are the issues?
      • What is your purpose? What do you want to accomplish?
        • Say it in one sentence.
      • Who are the stakeholders?
        • What are the personalities?
  • Think About it (continued)
      • Cultural/communication differences?
        • Different languages?
      • Shy or reluctant participants?
      • Provide an agenda/purpose statement
      • Guideline purpose and suggestions
      • Other “homework”
  • Organize
    • Arrange for enough time
    • Find the best time. Doodle ? Survey Monkey ? Call? Email?
    • Where will you meet?
      • Small vs large, neutral ground?
    • Circle or semi-circle? Table or open?
    • What will you need?
      • Food? Drinks? Plates, napkins, etc.?
      • Paper, pens, markers, easels, 3 x 5 cards
      • Notes
      • What else?
  • Organize (continued)
    • Prepare a few open-ended questions before the discussion, such as:
      • Would you tell me more about ___?
      • Could you help me understand ___?
      • What are the positive things and the less positive things about ___?
      • What do you think you will lose if you give up ___?
      • What have you tried before?
      • What do you want to do next?
    • Arrive early!
  • Face to Face
    • Create a welcoming environment, “Thank you for coming!”
    • Introduce yourself, explain your role and the purpose of discussion, 3 P’s, handle any housekeeping such as Agenda, Breaks, restrooms, etc.
    • Work out ground rules and post them
      • Be respectful, Listen well, One person talks at a time, No mudslinging or offensive remarks, No ridicule, Keep confidentiality. Learn to tolerate silences while people think. Stick to the time limits.
      • Others?
  • Face to Face
    • Connecting through a common experience/icebreakers
    • “ Once Around”
    • Small groups
    • When to use the parking lot?
  • Challenging Situations
    • Mudslinging or inflammatory remarks
    • Unexpected situations
    • What about the guy who takes over?
    • The shy or anxious participant.
  • Wrap it Up
    • Give 15 minute warning
    • Give 5 minute warning
    • Once more around the block
    • Conclude, Review the parking lot, summarize open items, schedule next meeting, assign tasks
    • Any other business?
    • “ Thank you so much for coming!”
    • End on time!
  • Resources
    • Connecting Libraries with Local Culture workshop, 4/12/2008, Unity Consulting.
    • Friedman, Karen, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgbc-uCSRaw
    • Gottschalk, K. J., Cornell, University, Facilitating Discussion: A Brief Guide , www.las.illinois.edu/faculty/services/academy/resources/discussion
    • McGraw, R., UA Mathematics, personal communication, 11/12/2009
    • National Health Care for the Homeless Council, www.nhchc.org/Curriculum/module4/
    • Severson, C., Retirement Life Matters, personal communication, 11/4/2009
    • The Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheets, http://ohioline.osu.edu/lc-fact/0002.html .
    • Williams, J.Q., AIMS English, personal communication, 11/3/2009