In this post, we are continuing through the During the Meeting portion of our framework with Doing the Work. Remote facilitation puts an even greater demand on our ability to facilitate useful conversations. Most facilitators we know (including ourselves) have a bag of tricks to which we can turn. In the agile community, this is often a literal box of post-its, tennis balls, legos, puzzles, and other assorted accoutrements! Well, as we allude to in our homage-to-REM blog title, the ability to lean on these props and tried-and-true techniques in the way we did previously is not possible in these days of social distancing. We are here to tell you that great meetings can happen without sticky notes or dot voting.
Today, we will talk about how to get the actual work done in a way that has people feeling (and being!) productive in your remote meetings by addressing both your stance and some practices you can employ. You’ll notice these are intertwined - to be effective, we can’t just have one or the other, good facilitation requires both. And we’ll present them in just this way, too - hand in hand, like peanut butter and chocolate (we’re looking at you Reese’s - $$$!!).
Ok, so you’re into the meeting, and you’ve designed the pause - now what? First, breathe. Yes really! You might even invite people to breathe along with you. When we are anxious, or doing something new, it’s going to feel weird. Pausing is always essential, and we think being intentional about it is even more important as we meet remotely. While it is difficult for some people to speak up during in-person meetings, meeting remotely can make this even more daunting. Pausing means silence, and for many people, silence is one of the most awkward things to endure. Our natural and unconscious response to the physiological state of being anxious is to make it stop, as fast as possible.
To counteract our natural response we need to be present to what’s happening. So your move is to simply notice that it is happening for you and wait, even just one more breath, before you do something. See if you can become aware of what is happening in your body during the silences. Are you uncomfortable, anxious, frustrated? Is your inner voice telling you to say something, anything, right now before your competence is called into question? Are you perhaps losing track of where you are in the meeting? Is your stomach in knots or your chest tight? All of these are indicators that you’ve been hijacked by your own inner parts, and you are no longer fully present. Noticing simply that is a beautiful first move. Chances are, your meeting participants are feeling this too, and they are looking to you for it to be okay, and guide them through it. That guidance looks like a solid and transparent process. The process doesn’t have to be complicated, it just needs to be known. In the case of silence, you can literally just tell people you are going to take a pause, and let them know why.
Once you have the “pause” button functioning, you’ll need to turn your attention to the frame you are meeting in. What we mean by ‘frame’ is the physical configuration of your meeting - which could be a whole room conversation, speaking in pairs, solo work, a group activity, and so on. How we are configured can either contribute to, or detract from, our effectiveness. As a facilitator, you always want to consider the desired outcomes and match them to an appropriate frame. If you have ever tried to watch a video recorded by a single camera that doesn’t move for 90 minutes (think recordings of civic town halls or C-SPAN), you know what we are getting at. Without change, boredom sets in. Frame fatigue is one of the biggest unseen gremlins in most meetings, and it is a high risk item for your meetings in the midst of our social distancing. The challenge we face right now in all-remote meetings is how do you change this frame?
Here are a few ideas to consider for changing up the frame to avoid frame fatigue in your remote meetings:
Take a short scheduled break every 30 minutes or so. Encourage people to get up and move. You may have seen us use the “touch 3 walls and shake 3 hands” move before. How about “touch 3 walls and send 3 emoji texts from your phone”? We are certain you will come up with more ideas on this. Consider that providing more structure to this is better than less.
Incorporate smaller discussions within the bigger meeting. If you are using a tool like Zoom, the capability for breakout groups may already be built in. If that’s not the case for you, don’t let this limit you. This could look something like - “We’re moving into a pair conversation for the next 15 minutes. You can use any mode you like - texting, phone, alternate collaboration tool. We’ll rejoin the big room in 15.”
Use the pause we referenced earlier as a formal frame change. This is a bit of a double whammy! Encourage people to take a few minutes in silence to capture thoughts on paper. You might even instruct them to turn away from their screen for 3 minutes as they write things down.
So finally, in today’s post we want to address two of the ever-present components of your stance as a facilitator, and why they matter even more right now. Stance, as we are using it here, is not something tangible. It is an inner state or approach to the way we do things. In facilitation, there are some key elements of this stance. You guessed it - we are talking about neutrality and curiosity. The biggest factor in the success or failure of our meetings comes down not to the activities we have planned, but to the way we show up as a facilitator.
One of the most powerful tools in your facilitator’s toolbelt is the ability to ask questions that expand and enrich dialogue. You’ll want to think about several kinds of questions, and where each fits into the work of your meeting. In this moment, do you want to expand the conversation, or move towards a decision? Your questions will guide the conversation in the direction required. (note: this does often require you to call on the facilitator backbone we all need to hold the process when the going gets tough).
Here are a few of the categories and example questions from each for you to try our in your upcoming meetings.
Exploratory Questions—Probe for basic knowledge
What do you think about ________?
What bothers/concerns/confuses you the most about _____________?
Relational Questions—Ask for comparisons of themes, ideas, or issues
Do you see a pattern here?
What was significant about ______?
Extension Questions—Expand the discussion
What do the rest of you think?
How do others feel?
Action Questions—Call for a conclusion or action
How will you do things differently as a result of this meeting?
What are our next steps?
In a recent bootcamp, the post-it note pictured above came from one of our students. It was a response to the question “what’s next for me?” at the community event on Thursday night. Obviously Kat’s message to hold off on the dot-voting as the go-to facilitation move really hit home in that class! Look, dot-voting can be useful, but only if you have facilitated some real work in the middle of your meeting. As you navigate the waters of remote meetings, the requirement for facilitating great dialogue is paramount. And, after you have made the remote conversation easy through your great facilitation, feel free to “dot-vote” if it’s still useful. You might do it visually with everyone holding up a hand, or using one of the great online whiteboard tools available to us.
Play with these ideas we’re offering, see what happens. Some of it will be great, some of it won’t. That’s the way it goes. Honestly, that is why we emphasize stance so heavily. Not everything is going to work out. But, if we can show up the way we want to, we can more readily dance in the moment of what is here. And we can learn from our mistakes to come back even better.
At this point in the series we are well into our meeting. Next week, we are going to talk about how to close your remote meetings in a way that will increase the forward momentum on the work you are doing. Have as good a weekend as is possible in these unpredictable times.