Real Life Learning

Category: facilitation (page 2 of 2)

World Cafe – Real Conversations

This week I have been exploring using The World Cafe method with a number of different groups. I love The World Cafe website, it is a great source of good practice examples. There are photographs so you can see how different groups have organized their cafes. There is even a group in Russia who are using a real café for a regular exchange. The site has resources you can download. It is all maintained by volunteers and through donations:

 I have used the method with a variety of different groups and in different situations. The biggest cafe event was in Rome for a group of 150 senior executives. The cafe format fundamentally changes the environment of the average conference room from the formal seating useful for listening to expert speakers to a more democratic, informal setting which is much more useful for listening to each other. In the ideal world there would be the perfectly formed small circular tables and comfortable, easily movable chairs so a group of 5 people can easily talk to each other across the table.  The group size is important, if you have more than 5 then it is less easy for most groups to self facilitate, this tends to mean that more dominate people get more air time and the less extrovert participants will not get a chance to input.

 Having established a cafe type of environment the next task is to get people talking and listening to each other by the use of a carefully worded question. An interesting open question is enough to start the process of dialogue. In a cafe environment the focus is on the quality of the conversation and not about coming to a set outcome. It is a model of facilitation where the emphasis is on people talking openly with each other about a topic which is important to them. If the question is good enough then the conversation will flow.

 Rotating the groups is one of the great assets of the cafe style, and the rotation is organised to ensure that everyone gets a change of people to talk with so that they can explore the question from some different perspectives.

 What is great about hosting a cafe session is that you can watch the changes in people. At the beginning everyone is a little hesitate and uncomfortable with the changes in their usual environment. There is a degree of discomfort in having to actively create conference content instead of passively listening to an expert speaker This is all evident in the tense body language in the room and then something happens as the process starts. During the first rotation I will notice people smiling, listening intently and starting to become more animated. By the second rotation the groups are leaning forward, animated conversation begins and the volume in the room increases. It is a very satisfying process as I know that real conversations start in these groups which follow on after the cafe has closed.

 The World Cafe format is a fantastic format to encourage networking and practice sharing. Far too often events have time set aside for “networking” but it is essentially free time and for the more introverted participants this can be a very nerve racking time where they dread being trapped in a corner by a talkative salesperson, with no chance to escape.

 I hope that one of my conversations this week will result in our team of facilitators being asked to run a cafe in my home town of Leeds. One thing we need more of right now are ways to help people to connect, to share and to find ways out of the mess that some of these great experts have got us into. We need to turn to each other to find our solutions.

Learning in Ukraine

Last week I was in Ukraine running a leadership programme for software engineers. The programme I ran was based on a programme I had run for the company in the UK and so one of the challenges was adapting this programme for a younger, less experienced group of leaders and where English would be the second language. The common challenge would be that they were a group of intelligent engineers who were now taking on a leadership role and would be leading teams of talented intelligent engineers so it was important that the materials I used were not too basic or designed for simple instruction giving styles of management.

 As I wrote and rewrote the materials I realised how often we use idioms when explaining concepts in English. I also realised that my standard handouts were not always clearly written in the best grammar! It took me many hours to get each handout to an acceptable standard and even them my client in the UK was able to identify further improvements to the grammar and sentence structure so that we could ensure clarity of understanding!

 Working with the group was a wonderful experience, from the beginning the group were willing to get involved and to communicate with each other. They valued the participative nature of the workshop. It would seem that their previous experience of training was based on listening to a talk given by an expert so my approach, which is much more facilitative, was totally unexpected. It was the first time I have returned to my room at lunchtime to find participants excitedly showing other colleagues their work on the walls of the room.

 One of the challenges for me when facilitating the groups was that when they worked on activities they would naturally communicate with each other in Russian. This meant that I missed overhearing some of the discussions which they were having. It did make me aware how much we pick up through non verbal communication, I could usually assess if a group needed help before I asked them. I also wished I had learnt more Russian, my basic phrases were helpful in navigating the city but more words would have increased my ability to pick up concerns early on in the process.

 At the end of each day I made sure that we reviewed the tools we had used during the day. This was an interesting experience as it gave me some insight into the tools that they felt they could apply, and not just what I thought I had “taught”. Using visual imagery was a tool which they felt that they could use to influence their teams and I was impressed about how they were able to use visual images to express a vision for team meetings.

 There was a real sense of sadness when we finished the training and a marked reluctance to leave the room; this was a contrast to some sessions in the UK where there is a speedy walk to the door as soon as you have completed the workshop closing statement!

 Lots of my friends and contacts have been very curious about the experience of actually working in Ukraine. I was based in the east of the country and I had very little knowledge of the country before going out there and had never worked or visited further East than Prague. I realised how many stereotypes I had absorbed without realising it and how I expected the people and the place to be very different to the UK. In fact what I observed on this limited visit was a lot of similarity and some differences.

 The emerging nature of the nation grappling with its infrastructural investment was clearly evident; the roads are in a bad condition in the city. The walking experience was much better than in some more “developed” cities. The walk back to my hotel was along a major duel carriageway, something I would avoid in the UK but it was really pleasant due to the wide nature of the pavement which was tree lined on both sides. The park was full of life and was a hub of activity with all different generations represented. Again the amount of trees was beyond my expectations; somehow I expected a more Soviet style grey uniform.


Another useful insight came one evening over dinner. I was talking with two of my Ukrainian colleagues about the need for courage in the business world. I often use the tale of “The Emperors New Clothes” to illustrate this point. My colleagues had not heard of the tale of the Emperor but when I explained it some more they knew it as “The King’s Clothes” and their story involved a rather stupid western King, I realised that our story involves a rather stupid Eastern Emperor, and this realisation that it was the same but different was a good insight into our joint understanding.

The Power of Learning in On Line Communities.

 In a traditional training situation there is a knowledge exchange between the participants and the trainer. It is often expected that the trainer will give their expert input and this will be discussed by the participants. This approach can create a spoon feeding type of dependency from the learners who expect the trainer to have the answers. It also puts the trainer in a dangerous position of being an expert in subjects which they may not have sufficiently researched. I have seen a number of trainers use the same old material which they reshape into the different topics they are training. A typical example is the “fact” about the proportion of communication that is due to body language, tone and words. This is a distorted modern myth based on some context specific research done in the 1960s and yet in the past year I have seen it used by 5 different trainers without referencing the research but just giving out the information as a fact.

 I think we need to be more honest about the extent of our knowledge in the training and learning field. We are not usually in-depth subject specialists; our skills are about taking some concepts and making them meaningful so that individuals can apply the learning into their work. We are experts in the process of getting groups to communicate with each other and in facilitating problem solving activities. We cannot keep up to date with everything we need to so this is where the on line communities can help us and help our groups.

I was facilitating a group who wanted to look at how to reduce the number of complaints they were getting from their customers. We had a half day session and then a follow up session three weeks later. One of the questions they ask was about how to handle calls where English wasn’t the first language of the caller. The suggestions I had on this topic felt insufficient and so I used the time between the two sessions to pose this question on the Linked In Answers Forum.

The answers I got were fascinating. I shared my findings with the group who were amazed that people from Canada, America, Brazil and Netherlands had listened to their concern and given feedback. For a group of workers in a city council this made them feel really important and valued. We reviewed the answers provided, along with my input and the group were able to identify some possible options to take their service forward.

The second way of using the communities is to ask the group to generate a question they might ask about the topic we are focusing on. This activity can not only highlight their knowledge needs but can also highlights interesting issues about how to ask a good question! I then set participants the challenge of finding a suitable forum to place their question and to come to the next session with an analysis of their results. By doing this the group are developing some life long learning skills about the value of on line communities. It is also a way of assessing the advice given.

Another approach I used was with a group of law lecturers.  We were exploring some employment law questions on a forum and designed an activity for students which would require them to analyse the advice given and compare this with the advice they might give based on their understanding of employment law.

 The forums I like to use are the CIPD, Linked In, TrainingZone and Training Journal.


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