By J Wilberg
There are things I’ve done to facilitate group discussions that, in retrospect, make me roll my eyes and yearn for witness protection. Even more astonishing than the cockamamie things I asked people to do is the fact that 99.9% of the time, people would do them!
- The head of UMOS agreed to write a ‘pressing community need’ on a balloon and tack it to the wall to be popped later by the expert facilitator as we established need priorities.
- Waukesha County’s budget director along with his key staff wrote their ‘most important outcomes’ on paper airplanes and sailed them at me and my co-facilitator in a flurry which had us scrambling around the floor trying to pick them up and read them. (We planned pre-flight but not post-flight.)
- A police chief used crayons to draw his favorite summertime memory as a boy which had him on his bike in the hills overlooking his town and then label the picture “Lucky.” (This was actually one that worked pretty well – helping a new Youth Collaborative harken back to the golden days of freedom and playfullness of their youth. Unfortunately, they then went on to plan more structured activities for kids. Oh well.)
- Emergency shelter directors constructed their ‘visions’ of how the Shelter Task Force should operate using (what else?) Tinkertoys. (Didn’t work – they all looked like spaceships.)
In addition to this kind of stuff, I went through a period of taking little jars of Play-Doh to every meeting. I probably have more Play-Doh in my office right this second that Milwaukee’s biggest day care — because, you know or maybe you don’t, that you really can’t use Play-Doh twice. Has to be new.
Anyway, participants in a planning meeting will generally do whatever the facilitator asks them to do if the facilitator conveys a genuine commitment to the process and a real enthusiasm for the results. If the facilitator equivocates, then people will hang back. I witnessed someone at a large gathering not so long ago open the meeting by promising a great icebreaker and then, surprisingly, losing his nerve at the last minute. If you’re going to do something different, you have to plunge in like you believe it.
Now I pretty much stick with the simple and striking. Like this ball. This is possibly the most enticing ball on the planet. So I use it to do introductions or I’ll just have it sitting on the table available for people to pick up and fiddle with. People like it that I thought to bring some toys; most people will get into it. It helps them play while being serious. Takes the edge off. Gives them something to laugh about. Makes the room warmer and happier.
Sometimes, though, people gather to plan or discuss or strategize and they are just too up tight to pick up that ball. The ball will sit there the entire session. Like it was made of crystal. Everyone is afraid of the ball, ignores it, looks at their hands. When that happens, witness protection is looking better and better.