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.