The importance of full group participation is often overlooked and undervalued, particularly by groups whose inordinate focus is on immediate results. Full participation means that everyone who has something relevant to express about a topic has an opportunity to do so. Facilitators enhance participation by applying group process techniques and by embodying core values, intentions, and behaviors that inspire, encourage and cultivate a participatory environment.
The Magician Competencies
- Help groups understand the value of full participation through stories, metaphors, and actions.
- Give clear and concise instructions for group activities and check for understanding.
- Clearly summarize key points during dynamic discussions.
- Demonstrate techniques that cultivate a participatory environment.
Help Groups Embrace the Value of Full Participation
Just as facilitation and its value is not universally understood by all groups, the value of full participation is not always recognized by group sponsors and participants. Here are some reasons why full participation is valuable to the long-term interests of groups.
- Increases support of decisions made. Many decisions made by groups require wide support for their successful implementation. When people contribute to a decision-making process, they’re more likely to support the decision made, which leads to more efficient and longer lasting solutions. While this can take more time in the near term, in the long-term, it is cost-effective for us to include all stakeholders in the process.
- Reduces possibility of barriers developing. When people withhold what they’re thinking or feeling, they’re more likely to stand in the way of implementing the group’s ideas down the road.
- Reduces possibility of falling into groupthink. When participants say what’s on their minds, it’s more likely that the group will maintain a broader perspective, respecting diverse ideas, questions, and potential responses.
- Draws on silent knowledge and wisdom. Often, those who are the quietest have the most wisdom to share, as they tend to be more observant and sometimes more objective as to what’s going on in a group. Facilitators seek contributions using a variety of modes and communication styles to surface this hidden wisdom.
- Supports healthy collaboration. Just as good democracy requires hearing many voices, group problem solving, learning, visioning, and decision-making, are more effective with full participation. This improves the ability of the group to address complex challenges that require its best resources, aligned together to solve problems as they emerge.
Give Clear and Concise Instructions for Group Activities
One very obvious but often overlooked opportunity to gain full participation is to offer your participants very clear instructions on how you want them to participate and encouraging opportunities for them to ask questions to clarify these instructions. Here are some simple tips.
- Make your instructions simple, concise, and unambiguous.
- Put instructions in writing on paper, flipchart, or projected on a screen.
- Ask participants if they have any questions prior to starting.
Clearly Summarize Key Points During Dynamic Discussions
There are two main reasons why summarizing key points during a discussion is an important contributor to gaining full participation.
- At any given moment during a group process, not everyone will be tracking with what’s going on. A quick interruption to summarize key points helps everyone gain shared understanding.
- Not everyone understands the same information in the same way. By offering your perception of what’s being expressed, others may find it easier to hear the salient parts of the conversation. This can help them to share additional ideas and perhaps enrich the overall conversation.
Demonstrate Techniques That Cultivate a Participatory Environment
- Suggest operating norms to improve participation. Implementing and enforcing operating norms will help improve participation. Examples include: shut down electronic devices, fully participate, show up on time and prepared, etc.
- Ask participants to self-assess their participation. Performing a self-critique on your level of participation increases your awareness of how it can improve. Use the full participation checklist found in the Tools Section.
- Ask for a round robin. When you feel participation is lacking, do a “round.” A round is where each person around the table has a turn to share their idea, input, or answer to a specific question. This request might sound something like this.
- Suggest silent brainstorming. When it appears people are reluctant to jump in and share ideas during a brainstorming session, ask everyone to write their thoughts on post-it notes and stick them on the wall. Next, ask authors to explain their notes to the group. A similar process, called “brainwriting,” asks participants to respond silently to a focus question on a sheet that is passed among group members. They silently add ideas and responses providing many potential contributions and potential solutions. These approaches give quiet folks a chance to be heard via a structured process.
- Meet in small groups. Small groups are typically less threatening than large groups. So when large group participation seems to be a challenge, suggest that the group break into groups of two to four for a set period of time, usually 5 to 10 minutes, to perform a task or to discuss an issue. Then the larger group reconvenes and the small groups report their results. The small group exercises tend to get everyone involved in a safer, more intimate format, warming them up for sharing in the large group.
- Share contrarian ideas or perspectives. Some people are reluctant to participate when they don’t agree with what appears to be a group consensus. You can make it safer for others to challenge this trend by courageously sharing a crazy or unconventional idea yourself. This can serve to enrich and expand the group’s perspectives and solutions.
- Conduct anonymous polling. Anonymous input in writing may improve participation and input around a sensitive subject. Use the process suggested in silent brainstorming above but without attaching names to the inputs and without seeking the authors of the comments.
- Intervene on dominant group members. There is a technique called “Wedging,” that couples reflective listening with acknowledgement to effectively redirect discussion from a dominant participant. This technique is described in the Day 1 Section.