On a cold day in the first weeks of 2015 research scientists, community medical advisors, artists and teachers all came together at Sattya’s workshop space for one of the first workshops linked to the Sacred Water project. All were interested in learning how to design and facilitate participatory workshops, a skill (or set of skills) that done well can look so easy as to go unnoticed but are valuable in ensuring participatory sessions achieve what they set out to be. The workshop was designed to introduce both a little bit of theory and some practical tools to help us in our work to bring together groups of people, draw on their knowledge and arrive a new thinking and understandings and with new found skills.
We kicked off by scribbling our hopes and fears for the workshop onto sticky notes and sharing these as a group. Everyone came to learn more, some came with different ideas of what they wanted to do and the contexts they wanted to use their facilitation skills within. This ranged from running arts workshops, to focus groups as part of research to health education. We were an eclectic bunch.
And why did such a range of people show up on this chilly morning? Answers from those in the room were:
• To develop confidence in standing in front of groups
• To think of new ways to teach
• To translate scientific research results into practice (rather than in a lecture format) in a more effective way.
The fears were more practical in nature, to do with our temperature, concentration spans, level of English and access to hot beverages all things that a facilitator can think through in advance or address early on. Luckily there was electricity and hot tea was on hand.
The first main session delved a little into the term ‘participatory’, where it has come from and some of the values heralded to underpin participatory approaches. The word participatory is used so often nowadays that in many cases it has become divorced from the political roots, which drove its rise into our vocabulary. It is often used by people working in international development, education, communication and community based arts. The ethos of this training was to depart from the top down lecture style of interaction between an expert and a subject to something more equal which recognizes that everyone in the room has their own knowledge and experiences to share and agendas motivating them. Lena and I were facilitators for the day, aiming to draw on the diverse experiences and ideas already in the room and for everyone to have a part in the content discussed.
In a quick ‘pair buzz’ exercise (where people speak with a partner on a topic for two minutes to get thoughts flowing) we got thinking about what words come to our minds when we think of running a participatory workshop? These were:
Focused on goals
Use of visual methods
Enabling people from different backgrounds
To have an open mind
We went on to interrogate the idea of facilitation. We thought through some of the styles of facilitation, some more visible than others on a spectrum from the parent, to the role model, to the chameleon. Things got fun when we moved into an exercise designed to think through what good facilitation look like. How did we do this? By thinking up the worst kind of facilitator and their characteristics (sometimes its easier recall bad experiences than good ones). Our list was extensive:
The Worst Kind of Facilitator is…
Speaks too much
Doesn’t listen to other’s ideas
Sense of superiority
Know it all
Goes off topic
Discriminatory within participants
Unaware of their own behavior
Don’t know about their participant’s and their experiences and interests
Don’t provide food
Badly organized, has no structure
Bad at time management
They lie about what they know
Turning these around we came up with our list of qualities for a good facilitator (one helpful participant suggested that we just stick not or don’t at the beginning of each term or phrase).
Participants both devised their own ground rules, got to know one another by drawing one another’s personal history timelines and also got immersed in a rich picture exercise to depict all the things that are flowing in and out of a workshop and influencing the direction it could take. The participatory environment cannot be considered a vacuum. Outside issues could have a strong influence on the process from the amount of sleep participants managed to have the night before to whether or not they are caught up with a personal outside of the workshop space or if they have enough sugar in their blood. Some of these things are within a facilitator’s control and some aren’t, some are easy to gauge and others less so.
We focused in on group dynamics as something a facilitator might be able to handle. We did this through a problem tree exercise (where a group explores the root causes of a problem and the possible actions, solutions). One participant facilitated and the others played various roles and personality types. People picked their roles from the proverbial hat and ended up with: the observer, the quiet person, the dominant person, the person that needs support, the facilitator. The teams picked their own problems to generate problem trees from and came up with one about bandhs (strikes) in Nepal and another about religious intolerance.