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.
It was only towards the end where we got onto thinking about the sort of tools that are useful to have in the facilitator’s toolkit and when and how these might be useful. Too often the tool is the first thing we like to think about, however, tools are only as effective as the skills (and the attitude) of the craftsman and a good craftsman wouldn’t pick up a spanner when she needs a paint brush.
Small groups read through a few examples and came up with some of their favourite activities from the discussion handouts. These were:
A tool which, allows individuals to write or draw their comments and suggestions when inspiration takes them on a designated wall or paper. What is written can then be used to generate group discussion.
This idea came from a project designed to work with teenage girls in Nigeria, which saw a suite of activities held around water sources. Since walking to the well or pump and collecting water is an activity which takes up much of a girls day and where girls are able to walk peacefully with a friend and discuss their lives in private this is a space and activity where girls feel safe and have the time and space to discuss new things. The project set up mats for the girls to sit on near the water source itself and discussion sessions, drama events and role model meet and greats were run. http://www.girleffect.org/media?id=3213
3-Future Visioning. ‘A perfect day’
This again comes from the Girl Effect toolkit (http://www.girleffect.org/media?id=2986) and enables the facilitator to understand the lives of the participants and what matters to them. Participants are asked to use their imaginations, close their eyes, and let the facilitator guide them through the task of envisaging their perfect day, a day where they are happy and everything goes right – it can be anywhere they can imagine (encourage to think of a different place to encourage context shift)
What would happen at each point in the day?
What would the city/place look like?
What would a perfect day be like when they first woke up
How would they feel?
What would they be doing?
Who would they be with?
I think we all liked the positive spin and the use of creative imagination, which this tool encourages.
4-Transect community walks
This is a tool used a lot in rural participatory project interested in the use of land and the environment of the participants. The idea is to describe farm characteristics and changes by touring someone’s environment. This can be a piece of farming land or the local streets. Management issues such as variations in cropping patterns, issues with drainage, cracks in the pavement can be documented in detail along with the participants observations and comments. At the end of the exercise the findings are relayed back to the participants and discussed or diagramed. The process of walking and talking again is thought to be useful in jogging thoughts as well as developing an appreciation for the environment in which participants live.
We were nearly finished but we needed to ask one more thing of our flagging brains. Lena and I needed to know how this day packed with exercises and thinking had been for trainees. We took themes from the hopes and fears from the first exercise of the day and posted these on the wall. Then everyone took sticky dots and together ranked how the workshop had addressed these from incredibly happy to outright upset (depicted by smiley or not so smiley faces down the x axis). Everyone seemed to be walking away with something they thought they could use in their everyday work and some were inspired to do things in new ways. The ranking exercise gave us mostly smiles as did people’s faces as we waved goodbye and started clearing up the pens, sticky notes, dots and other paraphernalia, all things participatory facilitators know and love but would rather not have to clear up!