Facilitating a workshop is one of those things that people assume is really easy. How hard can it be to just get a room full of people to talk right? Wrong. Group facilitation is hard, facilitating it well is even harder.
Applying workshop group facilitation best practices means being actively aware of the people in your group, their goals, their strengths and weaknesses and the tone of the room. This is a skill that can often only be learned with a lot of practice and you shouldn’t expect too much too soon. Nonetheless, some planning and practice in advance can make your workshops something that will have your attendees continue the discussion out the door.
Here are some simple pointers that you can use when facilitating your own workshops or to give to your facilitators if they are unsure of themselves.
Ask yourself, why is this a workshop and not a lecture?
A workshop is not just a small lecture, that’s the first thing to get out of the way. People go to lectures to get very specific information from someone with an interesting, cutting edge take on their field. People go to workshops to share experiences, analysis and ideas. Workshops are a far more collaborative experience that aim to crowdsource new insights on an issue. Workshops are also a much more social experience than lectures and may often be used by attendees as a networking experience. Its important that you use your group facilitation skills to make that happen
What if only a few people participate?
An issue which regularly arises in workshops is that there are some people who speak a lot and others who stay silent. In my opinion, the biggest issue here is that everyone is convinced that this is a problem. There are always those who are more extroverted or opinionated in a group and those less comfortable with public speaking.
A lot of people will pose questions to individual workshop participants to resolve this issue, but I think this is misled. Look around your group – does everyone look engaged and interested by the conversation? Then you don’t have a problem.
If on the other hand your workshop has devolved into essentially a personal conversation between two or three people, you need to take control of your workshop. Your role in group facilitation isn’t to make the maximum number of people talk, it’s to make sure your group covers a sufficient variety of topics and covers them in an interesting way.
Now split off into pairs…
I get it, it’s an obvious and easy way to make people talk to each other and it gives the workshop facilitator a break from talking for a few minutes. Splitting people into pairs in my experience is a recipe for awkward small talk far more often than it is a way to get people to network, let alone a way to make more introverted attendees engage better.
A far better option is to split people into groups of three or even four. By spreading the burden of conversation across a wider number of people, you reduce the risk of awkward silences and make it more likely that your mini groups will have better discussions.
Set each group a particular question or topic to discuss to keep them focused and keep strict time limits on how long they discuss in smaller groups. Given that your average workshop is at most two hours long, you don’t have 20 minutes to set aside for these smaller groups on just one subject.
Diffusing Tense Discussions
Some people approach workshops as if they were dinner parties – meaning politics and religion are to be avoided like the plague. Depending on your event and the topic of the workshop, this might be hard to do. Group facilitation means you have to be able to deal with conflict as well as with discussion.
You’re better off setting clear boundaries around civility and tolerance at the start of your event and making sure you are ready and willing to enforce those limits. Generally, calmly and firmly stating that the group is moving on to the next subject is enough to resolve the immediate problem. Make sure attendees know they can come to you afterwards if a discussion made them really uncomfortable.
When trying to diffuse a discussion, make sure to stay impersonal. Disagreements are often inevitable, insults are not. Make sure not to be sarcastic or overly hostile in your approach.
Improving your Workshop
So your workshop is done and dusted, how do you make sure you can improve it for next time? A feedback form is the obvious first step, but make sure you’re asking the right questions. People have a limited attention span for feedback forms so stay specific.
Try to ask which topics people enjoyed or didn’t and if they have any pointers for how the workshop might be improved. Where possible, catch up with your workshop attendees later to ask their opinions on how it went. People might be more likely to explain in person rather than writing a paragraph long comment on a form. If you have a friend or colleague with more experience facilitating workshops, try to invite them to your group to get their thoughts on how it went.
A good workshop facilitator is hard to find, but its worth the effort. Workshops are a great opportunity for event attendees to share experiences, ideas and network and are an essential part of any event programme.