The art of giving instructions: 7 practices for facilitators

I think one of the hardest things to do as a facilitator is master the art of giving instructions.  Even for facilitators, public speaking can be a stressful experience, and there is nothing worse than trying to give instructions to a group while your knees are shaking and your mouth is dry.  But for all facilitators, and and especially those of us who work with radically new ways of meeting, this is a whole art in itself.  Giving instructions poorly leads to confusion and chaos and can quickly erode the trust of a group.  Being too direct can shut people down and create a sterile meeting.  The art is finding the space between the two.

My own practice of giving instructions has been informed by years of standing in front of people.  From the time I was a young man, I spoke to groups as an activist, an actor, a musician and a teacher. That training, whether in the formal environment of a theatre or workplace or the informal environment of the street has helped me immeasurably to be be clear and present with a group.  It doesn’t stop my initial nervousness – in fact I have come to deeply trust the feeling I get in my stomach that some call “stage fright.”  My friend Barbara Bash once described it as “my creative energy arising” which is a much truer characterization.  My job in preparing to work with a group includes fostering this feeling and giving myself enough internal emotional space to hold it and put it to good use.  When I find myself too emotionally thin to hold the feeling, I notice that I tremble a little and begin experiencing it as fear.  When I am emotionally resilient, the feeling becomes what athletes call “putting on my game face.”  I feel ready, excited and focused.  That state of mind is where I aim to be at the beginning of an event.  So rule zero for this list is: Be Present.

Having said all that, when I am ready to step into the space I am hosting, I try to follow these rules for giving instructions:

1. Invite, don’t tell. Try to use language that invites people to participate in an activity.  I hear many facilitators say things like “what you’ll do first is get into small groups and then you’ll talk about the issue and then you’ll report back.  It will be great!”  Instead, frame the instructions as an invitation: “I invite you now to get into small groups and discuss these issues.  Once you have finished your conversations, choose someone to share your insights back with the full group.”   Inviting language is important.  No one likes to be told what they have to do, and even worse, no one likes to have their emotional experience pre-determined.

2. Speak the purpose clearly up front. Participants do not like being led by the nose through exercises that have no purpose.  In your meeting planning, every item on the agenda should have a stated purpose related to the need to meet.  If it doesn’t, then it becomes a waste of time.  Use icebreakers and presentations carefully.  Convene conversations around relevant and important questions.  And when you introduce exercises be clear about why we are doing them and what bearing it has on the work of the group.  People are much more comfortable knowing that we are going somewhere, even if they don’t exactly know where.

3. Describe as little as you have to to get the instructions across. I am guilty of breaking this rule all the time.  I talk too much and sometimes restate things too many times.  It comes from a desire to communicate clearly and make sure everyone “gets it.”  In the past, I’ve had feedback from people that indicated that repetition of instructions is tiresome and can become patronizing (“Yes!  We get it!  Let’s get on with it!”).  So be simple, be clear, use plain language and try to say it well the first time.

4. Shut up sooner than you think you have to. The art of shutting up is one I have been consciously practicing for many years now.  When I have given the instructions, my role is to get out of the way, cleanly, clearly and fast.  It drives me crazy when a facilitator trails off in instructions: “So off you go to your groups, remember to take notes, have a good conversation…don’t forget to listen to each other…uh…take notes, that’s important…”  All of us who facilitate can find where we do this.  These days I get done, build my final sentence to a bit of a crescendo and stop.  Dead. And then I walk away.  Make the break clear.  If you do it well, there will be a moment of deep silence and the group will blossom into buzz.  This goes for ending meetings too.  Once you have said you final thing, stop talking.  Don’t try to give any further instructions…no one will hear them anyway.  If you’ve never seen Harrison Owen or Anne Patillo work, you’ve never seen the art of shutting up practiced by true masters.

5. People are more capable to be in confusion than you think they are. We want to help, and make sure that everyone understands what’s happening before we get to work.  But clinging to this sentiment can result in stringing out instructions endlessly until we are sure everyone can get it.  What I often do is give the instructions, ask for a show of hands for who is clear (rather than asking for question if people need clarity) and invite those who didn’t raise their hands to take their lead from those who did.  Fear and confusion can be present in many meetings and this can often come out as a need for clarity in instructions.  Often this is a canard and the real conversation needs to be about the fear and confusion within the group.  Let people be a little confused and they will discover that they can get the clarity they need from each other, and they can get to work on the real sources of fear and confusion in the group.  My improviser friends Viv McWaters and Johnnie Moore are never afraid to leave people confused, because they know that creative potential lurks there.  Enough instruction to get to work…that is the goal.

6. If you get lost, start again but go slower. My friend Tenneson Woolf is a master of this.  When he gets lost in giving instructions he pauses and checks in with himself and then starts again.  And he goes slower the second time.  This is a great practice.  You don’t have to be perfect.  If you get lost and muddled because nervousness or fear or confusion is present in your own mind, model clarity for the group.  Stop, take a breath and start over.  Slow down for your benefit and for the group’s benefit. You are always allowed to begin again, and you can often do so with humour.  I am always relieved when I remember that it’s not my job to perfect the first time through.

7. In general it is better to get into process than to talk about it.  Except with skydiving. My colleague Tim Merry is my model for this one. Facilitators love our tools.  I want to tell you how Open Space works, how the power of self-organization leverages diversity to produce fantastic emergent results that help us find our way in the complexity of a living system.  But your participants don’t care.  Imagine a play where all of the symbols and metaphors were explained.  Imagine hearing a Bruckner choral piece where the conductor spent 20 minutes discussing beforehand Bruckner’s theory that the bass line represented the creative force of God, from which all harmonics are sprung and created, mirroring the work of the Holy Spirit in liturgical….Jeez!  Sing it already!  Many times people will bombard you with hypothetical questions (“So, what happens if only three people come to our group?”)  Such questions are a death knell for getting to work because by definition, there is no end to them and I guarantee that if you take one or two you will drift down the path of explaining how great your process is and why it’s going to work.  Simply invite people to discover the answers for themselves and see rule 4. The only exception to this rule is skydiving and other TRULY dangerous activities.

So give these practices a try, and add some more below and see where that takes you.

27. January 2011 by Chris Corrigan
Categories: Facilitation | 17 comments

Comments (17)

  1. Great list Chris. I appreciate how you often take the time to stop and reflect back to us our practice. It is easy to forget that these practices aren’t obvious and that they really do enhance our skill as facilitators, the effectiveness of our processes, and the experience of participants.

    My add is related to your #5: focus on embracing maximum choice and maximum freedom in the instructions. For example: rather than saying, “I invite you to break up into groups of four.” try, “I invite you to break up into groups of no more than 4.” Subtle, but the effect on groups is immediately evident.

  2. Brilliant Wendy! Thanks. That the kind if nuanced feedback that helps. Facilitation aikido. Maximum choice when the group can blend well with their own energy.

  3. Hi Chris,
    I landed here because of a tweet by Augusto Cuginotti. I also had the fortune to see Tenneson in action, which was a great experience.

    But first off, thank you for your post! Incredibly relevant for me at this time of my experience. I am a practicing facilitator, which means that I am “on the stage” for the kind of work I do, so this post is really precious.
    I resonate with #4 and #5 the most because as I was reading them, I could see that they are my common pitfalls. All of them relevant.
    On being present: so true, and foundation for all the rest.
    I also try to picture the ideal listener and try and picture his experience of listening to my instructions. I believe from some feedback that probably I have been even at times too patronizing when giving instructions, not noticing that they were already clar enough.

    Cheers,
    Marco

  4. Hey Chris
    This really is an undeveloped area for facilitators and one where we can often get into trouble! You have articulated this well. I am in the interesting position of having been the subject of a friend’s PhD on the language of facilitation. She is a linguist and it’s quite weird to have one’s every syllable, tone, and gesture analysed. We’ll write something about this but it was interesting to me to learn about turn taking and echoing (between the facilitator and participants), the importance of repetition (and as you point out not over doing it), how we all have a ‘home’ position for our hands and feet which subtly indicate to people we are finished talking. Tone of voice also indicate we are finishing – and can confuse participants if we start up again. There’s also something about going second (responding to the group) and the workshop pulse – as determined by the facilitator – which should be different to the workplace pulse. All fascinating stuff and proves we are all always learning this craft of ours.
    Cheers, Viv

  5. Such a great post Chris – I love it. As a trainer with Green Steps here in Melbourne, the art of giving instruction is something we practice all the time. 3 and 4 resonated in particular.

    Something that I recommend to my colleagues is that before delivring training they should actuallu practice giving instructions. They might be clear in your head, but often come out differently when spoken. Saying them aloud to yourself is a good way to ‘test’ your instructions. Practicing with a set of filters like those you provide above is even better!

    cheers

  6. Hey Chris,
    Great to tap into this wonderful list. Thank you! I’d love to add mention of inner work during prep. I know you do this, and bet most of us do, but I think it’s super important and needs to be mentioned — even if just as an aside. Before giving instructions, usually in both the design phase and in prep the day or hours before, I “run” all aspects of the design on the inner. First grounding, centering, intending to serve, and opening, and then connecting to what I understand is the highest purpose. Then I visualize the activity or whole design, sensing the energy of it so I can anchor it in my body. Sometimes I ask for an image. Often I make important minor adjustments.
    oxKate

  7. Love your list, Chris! It really honors the naturally self-organizing creative intelligence of the participants :-) To “Yes And” it, here’s a list I had put together of 15 Foundations for Facilitating Creativity: http://bit.ly/fXzKAw

  8. Like that list too Michelle. Thanks.

  9. Appreciate this post Chris and the additional comments from others.

    For me I’d add a spirit or sense of humour supports the connection too. ;)

    Linda

  10. I’d echo others’ comments on the quality of this list. Thanks.

    I’d like to make explicit what I think’s implicit in the list, which is to use the group as your guide. Their body language tells us how we’re doing long before they get to the “We get it! Move on!” stage. Is there a danger that we’re focused so much on our “performance”, or running through our internal checklist that we forget we’re in a relationship with others? Maybe sometimes we’re not lost – we’re bang on our script, but for whatever reason we’ve lost the group and if we’re not observant…. It’s there in rule zero: be present

    You say: “In the past, I’ve had feedback from people that indicated that repetition of instructions is tiresome and can become patronizing (“Yes! We get it! Let’s get on with it!”).” I like to be cautious when I hear those voices. There can be a tyranny of the quick-thinking if we don’t check out whether everyone really has got it before moving on. But I agree with your sentiment: “So be simple, be clear, use plain language and try to say it well the first time”.

  11. Thanks for these tips, I will be putting them into practice!

    Do you have any advice for giving instructions when your participants do not have English as their first language? I’ve run into trouble in overseas classes where the participants either didn’t realize they had misunderstood, or were too shy to ask questions about the instructions.

  12. Shirt os using a translator I think you just have to slow down and model and demonstrate as much as you can.

  13. Thanks Chris for such sage advice. I am a trainer for our school district in FL, and having just been on the receiving end of a coaching session, it was nice to find such practical advice. I also liked reading the comments, and I would agree with Mark … preparation of instructions is very important. I also like to print them out – either in the .ppt or on a poster for display so participants can refer back to them as needed.

    Thanks for the information and advice. Will be applying all!

  14. Ok, I’ll admit it. This post is one I revisit frequently in my Evernote notes. Today, in opening space, I reckon I nailed #1 and #4 for the first time ever.

  15. Marvelous Chris…shared with the same richness, authentcity, and delicious simplicty flirting with complexity that you are inviting facilitators to consider.

    For folks interested in some ideas on faciliating guideliness when working iwth stories I am sharing a link:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/9656614/Nine-Ground-Rules-for-Working-With-StoriesTerrenceGargiulo

    Thanks for the conversation – warmrly,
    Terrence Gargiulo
    WEB: makingstories.net
    BLOG: makingstories-storymatters.blogspot.com/
    TWITTER: twitter.com/​makingstories
    PHONE: 415-948-8087

  16. Mahalo (thank you in Hawaiian) for posting these tips. I can surely implement many of them!

    May

  17. So happy to see number 5 on the list. While some people are more comfortable with confusion than others, it is a useful opportunity for people in working together and learning — of reaching clarity without a crutch. Yes, it can take longer — but the results are more persistent and helpful.

    Thanks for constantly sharing so many great insights.