How to design events with stakeholders and members of the public

Chapter 15 from 'The Research Impact Handbook' by Mark Reed

The chances are that your pursuit of impact is likely to involve talking to more than one stakeholder at a time, and that these individuals may have quite differing perspectives. For many researchers, the prospect of having to negotiate and potentially mediate between conflicting parties is their worst nightmare. The good news is that even with the most challenging of groups, you can almost completely design conflict (and boredom) out of your meeting. There is no substitute for working with a professional facilitator to design and facilitate your workshop, but if you don’t have the budget or time to hire someone, these suggestions will go a long way towards helping you design an event that delivers what everyone wants and is efficient and enjoyable.

A conceptual model for designing your event

The GROW model comes from the coaching literature and offers a useful conceptual framework within which to think about planning events. It suggests that we need to start by considering the goals of the event, then consider how far the current situation is from 

the goals you want to achieve, before considering options to get you from where you are now to your goal, and deciding on actions. Although this may sound like common sense, the questions in Box 8 can be a powerful way of checking that your event is action- orientated and contributes towards the goals of your research.

Box 8: Structuring a process, event or group conversation with GROW

First, think about the goals you have set for working with stakeholders and likely users of your research:

  • What do you want to achieve together or change?

  • How will you know if you’ve been successful?

  • When do you want to have achieved your goal by?

Next, consider your current reality:

  • What stage are you at in your research?

  • What are you achieving at present in your research in relation to your goals?

  • What action have you taken so far to try and reach your goals? What were the effects of this action?

Next, consider your options:

  • What actions could you take to move forward? 

  • What strategies have worked before in similar circumstances?

  • If no barriers or limitations existed, what would you do?

  • Which step will give the best result?

  • Advantages/disadvantages of this step? 

  • Which option will you work on first?

Finally, consider what you will do now, at the end of this workshop or meeting with stakeholders:

  • What are you going to do?

  • When are you going to do it?

  • What help do you need?

  • Who will you involve?

  • What might prevent you from taking this step? 

  • How can you overcome this?

  • Is the venue fully accessible to everyone you’ve invited— consider both distance and other accessibility issues, such as whether it is accessible by wheelchair and public transport.

  • Have you booked your event at an appropriate time for your target audience? Weekdays will be better for some types of participant, while evenings or weekends may be better for others — you may have to devise two similar events to reach different audiences. Consider the time of year you’ve booked your event — might winter weather prevent some people from reaching you if you choose a remote location? Are there other key events happening the same day? Is it a particularly busy time of year for some of the professions you’re targeting (tax returns due or farmers in lambing season)?

  • Do you have all the equipment you’re likely to need to carry out your facilitation plan (see below for more information about how to develop an effective facilitation plan)? Even if it’s not part of your facilitation plan, it can be useful to travel with Post- it notes and sticky dots, in case you need to give everyone the opportunity to write down their thoughts on a particular issue, or if you need to rank or prioritise anything by getting people to stick dots next to ideas they prefer (more anonymous and easier to record than voting).

 

Developing an event (facilitation) plan

A facilitation plan is a bit like a detailed recipe for your workshop, which should be self-explanatory and easy to understand for everyone who is helping you facilitate (including you when you’re stressed!). Although this may be based around an agenda with timings that match the items on the participants’ agenda, it will need to be significantly expanded to provide more details to help you manage the day. In a good facilitation plan you should:

  • Assign a time-keeper from the team to keep an eye on timings and remind others in your facilitation team when it is time to move on. Provide detailed timings for each agenda item — if you need to do a number of activities to achieve a particular agenda item, list each of these activities and estimate timings. Consider removing timings (or keeping them to a minimum) on the participants’ agenda to avoid people noticing if you’re running late, so you can easily adapt the programme to catch up time without people worrying they’ll be going home late or missing lunch.

  • Assign members of your facilitation team to each activity in your facilitation plan. Where possible, include a lead and a support facilitator — the support facilitator can help record points, get extra materials when they run out and generally help keep everything running smoothly so that the lead facilitator can focus on the participants.

  • Set clear aims for your event, and then tailor your techniques to the aims and the interests/needs of participants. For details of techniques you may wish to choose from, keep reading.

  • Make time for introductions at the start of your event (unless the group size is too large for this) and create time at the end of the day after participants have left for your facilitation team to debrief.

  • To ensure your event leads to some practical outcomes, it is worth programming in an action planning session at the end of your event where you identify actions that have arisen as a result of your workshop, so you can assign deadlines and responsibilities and follow these up later.

  • It can be useful to start your event with ‘opening out and exploring’ techniques, followed by ‘analysing’ and then ‘closing down and deciding’ techniques to structure your dialogue as inclusively as possible towards a practical outcome (Box 9).

  • It is useful to include a ‘buffer’ session in your timings, such as a long lunch that can be cut short if necessary, or a session that could be cut out if time is running short. This will prevent people feeling rushed, and allow you to spend enough time on the important aspects of the workshop. I usually identify a session in the afternoon that could be shortened or completely removed without significantly compromising the workshop, in case I’m running short of time or need to create time for a new session in response to a problem.

  • Create an equipment list, making sure you have all the equipment you need for every activity (don’t assume the venue will have anything you can use to stick paper on walls).

  • Trial and test your methods. If you’ve not tried a particular facilitation technique/method before, it’s never a good idea to try things out for the first time with stakeholders — use it in a research meeting or in class with students first to check you know how it works properly and adapt it accordingly.

 

Engagement techniques

There are many techniques available to facilitate two-way engagement between researchers and stakeholders as part of the research process (Box 9). I typically start a workshop with opening up and exploratory techniques, before moving on to analysing and deciding techniques. However, you may want to have a separate workshop at the start of your research that is focused entirely on opening up and exploring to understand the research priorities of your stakeholders and adapt your research accordingly. Below I’ve listed some of the techniques I use most often in my own research. Having these in your mind can be incredibly useful if a technique isn’t working for some reason and you need a plan B.

Box 9: Types of engagement technique

  • Opening up and exploring dialogue and gathering information with stakeholders about issues linked to your research (goals in the GROW model – see page 169)

  • Analysing issues in greater depth with stakeholders, getting feedback on preliminary findings (reality and then options in the GROW model)

  • Closing down and deciding on options and actions based on research findings (will in the GROW model)

 

Opening up and exploratory techniques:

  • Brainstorming techniques can help rapidly identify initial ideas from a group. By getting participants to think quickly and express their ideas in short phrases, the technique encourages participants to suspend the normal criteria they would use to filter out ideas that may not appear immediately relevant or acceptable. As such, many of the ideas may not be useable, but there may be a number of new and creative ideas that would not have been expressed otherwise, which can be further developed later in an event.

  • In a metaplan, participants are given a fixed number of Post-it notes (usually between two and five depending on the size of the group, with fewer Post-its being given out in larger groups) and are asked to write one idea per Post-it. Participants then take their Post-its and place them on flip-chart paper on the wall, grouping identical, similar or linked ideas together. The facilitator then summarises each group, checks the participants are happy with the grouping (making changes where necessary) and circles and names each group. In the space of 10 minutes it is possible for everyone to have given their views and you have a summary of the key issues that can be used to structure other group activities.

  • Venn diagrams can be used for a similar purpose, helping participants identify key issues, and overlaps or connections between them.

  • There are a variety of ways to get participants to list ideas or information, for example, via responses to requests for information on social media platforms or online discussion boards, or in group work by creating ‘stations’ around the room where participants can list information or ideas on a particular topic. Stations may, for example, be based around themes that emerged from a brainstorm or metaplan (above). These groups may be facilitated or all participants may simply approach each station and contribute individually in their own time.

  • In the carousel technique, participants are assigned to groups (with the same number of groups as there are stations) and given a fixed time to contribute to one station before being rotated on to the next. If each group is given its own coloured pen, it is possible for participants to see which ideas were contributed by previous groups. When a group reaches a new station, they are given time to read the contributions of the previous group(s) or these are briefly summarised by the station’s facilitator. They can then query or build upon previous work, listing their own ideas beneath the ideas expressed by previous groups. As the activity continues, it becomes increasingly difficult for groups to add new points, so the time per station can be decreased. Finally, to reduce the time that might otherwise be taken for stations to ‘report back’ to the wider group, participants can be directed back to their original station to read what other groups have added to their points. Although not fully comprehensive, this gives everyone a good idea of what has been contributed to all stations. For those who want a fuller picture, the materials can be left on the walls to be viewed during subsequent breaks.

 

Analysing techniques that enable stakeholders to critically evaluate ideas with you include, for example:

  • Categorisation techniques where participants are asked to sort or group ideas into themes, based on pre-set criteria or based on similarity, for example, the grouping stage of a metaplan, or putting ideas on cards and asking participants to sort the cards into different piles on the basis of their categorisation

  • Mind-mapping techniques (also known as concept mapping, spray diagrams, and spider diagrams) can be a useful way to quickly capture and link ideas with stakeholders.

  • Problem tree analysis (also known as cause-effect mapping) is similar to mind-mapping but is a simpler tool (which is also more limited in the way it can be used). It may be useful in settings where the complexity of a mind-map may be considered intimidating for some participants, or where you purposely want to keep the analysis simple and brief. Rather than looking at how all issues are linked to one another, problem tree analysis uses the metaphor of a tree to help visualise links between the root causes and solutions to a problem. A simple picture of a tree is drawn on a large piece of paper, with the problem written on the tree trunk. Participants are then asked to draw roots, writing the root causes of the problem along each root. Some root causes may lead to other root causes, so an element of linking may be done between roots, but this should not get too complex. All these roots lead to the bottom of the tree trunk and at the top of the trunk, branches are drawn, along which potential solutions are written (again with the potential to link branches to other branches to show how one solution may be dependent upon another solution being first implemented). If you want, you can cut out circles of coloured paper to signify fruit, which can be used to represent anticipated impacts or outcomes of implementing solutions.

  • SWOT analysis encourages people to think systematically about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as they pertain to the issues being researched.

  • For issues that have a strong temporal dimension or for project planning with stakeholders, timelines can be used to help structure discussion in relation to historical or planned/hoped for future events. There are various ways to do this, for example, flip-chart paper may be placed end-to-end along a wall with a horizontal line along the middle of the paper, marking ‘NOW’ and specific years and/or historic or known future events to help people orientate themselves along the timeline. Participants may then write comments or stick Post-it notes at various points in the past or future, vertically stacking ideas that occur at the same time.

Closing down and deciding techniques:

  • Prioritisation differs from ranking by enabling participants to express the strength of their feeling towards a particular option rather than simply saying “yes” or “no” (as in voting) or ranking an idea as better or worse than another idea. Prioritisation exercises also enable you to identify options that are considered to be particularly popular (or not) by participants, which you may then want to explore in greater detail. In prioritisation exercises, participants are given some form of counter that they can assign to different options (e.g. sticky dots or, if working outside, stones, but if you don’t have anything to hand, people can simply be asked to assign crosses with pens to options). Normally, participants would each be given a fixed number of counters (at a minimum this should be the same number as the number of options) — this prevents certain participants assigning more counters than other participants to the options they prefer, biasing the outcome. If using sticky dots, it is possible to get people to assign different coloured dots to express their preferences according to different criteria (e.g. use red dots to say how cost-effective they think an idea would be and green dots to express how easily they think the idea would work). It is then possible to see at a glance which ideas are preferred, and it is relatively quick and easy to total the number of counters assigned to all options, and if desired, create a ranked list.

  • Multi-Criteria Evaluation (also known as Multi-Criteria Analysis or Multi-Criteria Decision Modelling) is a decision-support tool for exploring issues and making decisions that involve multiple dimensions or criteria. It allows economic, social and environmental criteria, including competing priorities, to be systematically evaluated by groups of people. Both quantitative and qualitative data can be incorporated to understand the relative value placed on different dimensions of decision options. Broadly, the process involves context or problem definition, representation of evaluation criteria and management options, and evaluation. When applied in a participatory manner with stakeholders, this may involve any of a number of discrete stages, for example:

    • Establishing context and identifying participants: stakeholder mapping/analysis techniques may be used to systematically consider which stakeholders should be involved in the multi-criteria evaluation

    • Defining criteria: criteria are defined that capture stakeholders’ interests via facilitated discussion and literature

    • Defining the options that the group is choosing between o Scoring options against criteria: the likely performance of each option is scored against each criterion

    • Multi-criteria evaluation: algorithms are used to combine scores and ranks into a weighted value that describes the overall preference towards each option. This may be done either using free software or by hand, adding up scores assigned to each option, and then multiplying scores by agreed amounts for certain criteria (e.g. by 1.5 or 2 depending on whether they are considered to be slightly or much more important than other criteria) and recalculating the scores for each option

    • Discussing the results: this is a decision-support tool so outcomes may be deliberated with participants or amongst decision-makers to assess the degree of consensus, negotiate compromise and manage trade-offs. 

I’ve focused on prioritisation methods in this last section because alternatives like voting and ranking can be problematic in my experience. In most group settings, it can be difficult to ensure anonymity in voting, which may bias results, and there is little room to explore reasons for people’s voting preferences. Alternatively, ideas can be ranked. However, getting consensus amongst participants for a particular ranking can be challenging, although the discussions that this stimulates may be revealing. It is also not possible to differentiate between options that are particularly popular or unpopular — this may be important if only one or a few ideas are considered viable, as a ranking may imply that mid-ranked options are viable or somewhat preferred.

 

At the end of your event you will be left with a mountain of flip-chart paper and Post-it notes. It is always a good idea to photograph everything before you remove it from the walls, in case things get lost or damaged in transit back to your office. I often put sticky tape across flip-chart paper that people have stuck Post-it notes on, to avoid finding a pile of Post-it notes at the bottom of your bag, disconnected from the paper they had been linked to. Be careful to label your folded bits of flip-chart paper so you know which session in your workshop they came from, so it is easier to write up later. Deciphering handwriting and typing this all up yourself can be very time-consuming, so I usually try and get my virtual assistant to do this for me (see Chapter 11). It is important to try and get a report sent to participants as soon as possible after the workshop, even if you don’t have time to write much around the tables and photographs that capture the outcomes of the workshop. Make sure you send an accompanying note to anyone who has committed to an action at the end of your workshop. If you don’t do this, then there is a danger that people will feel like they have been at a ‘talking shop’ and it may become hard to re-engage with these people in future work.

You can also use this model to structure the overall process within which your event will sit (e.g. a series of meetings and events or activities), and it can be used to structure open discussion during events to ensure it is action orientated and not a talking shop.

 

Process design

Before considering how to design a specific event, it is important to consider the context in which that event sits. There are two elements to this: the context in which your publics/stakeholders are operating; and your research context. If you have followed the second step in this book, based on the second principle (represent), you should know who is likely to be interested in your research, and what their interests are. You can then ask the following questions to help you design a process that helps you achieve impact from your research whilst meeting stakeholder needs:

  • What outcomes do you want from the event?

  • What are the outcomes that publics/stakeholders and likely users of your research want (based on your stakeholder analysis — see Chapter 14)?

  • Where are the areas of overlap and synergy between your goals and the goals that you think stakeholders are likely to bring to your process? Can you emphasise and focus primarily on these?

  • Are there any outcomes you want that stakeholders are likely to oppose, or that stakeholders want and you would not feel comfortable with or able to help deliver? Can you design additional meetings and workshops to negotiate goals with key stakeholders to avoid these clashing interests?

  • How does your planned event link to the wider research project, and your funder’s and organisation’s goals? Can you combine or link your event with another event to make your process more efficient?

  • How will you attract people to engage with your event?

  • How will you keep people engaged with your research after your event?

  • What steps will you need to put in place after your event to ensure you achieve your intended impacts?

Armed with the answers to these questions, you can now develop a process plan in which you organise a range of meetings, events or other activities around your event to ensure you achieve the impacts you want. Decide how many events of which type you need with 

which groups of stakeholders, and integrate this with your impact plan.

 

Event design

If you want an event to run smoothly, there are a large number of things you need to do beforehand. There are many important practicalities that are frequently overlooked by researchers when designing events. All it takes is for your venue to tell you that you’re not allowed to stick anything up on the walls (as has happened to me on a number of occasions) and suddenly your event plan is in tatters if all your activities involved people writing on posters on the wall. So pay attention to these practicalities to avoid last minute stress:

  • How many people do you expect to attend your event? Is your room sufficiently large to accommodate everyone, with extra room for people to move around to do group activities or contribute to material being developed on the walls of the room?

  • With larger groups, it can be useful to split into smaller groups for certain activities to ensure everyone has a chance to discuss issues in depth:

    • Do you need to book break-out rooms or will the room be large enough for small groups to be able to work separately around the room without disturbing each other?

    • Do you want small groups to be facilitated or self- facilitating? Getting groups to nominate a facilitator to help steer discussion and capture notes may be efficient, but if they are facilitating properly, it means that you’re unable to fully capture the views of that member of the group. Often, naturally more dominant group members may offer to facilitate and then abuse this position by not allowing others to talk or not fully capturing their points in the notes that are developed. This can lead to frustration amongst group members and biased outcomes. Therefore, although more costly and time-consuming, it may be worth assigning a facilitator to each group. Alternatively, to reduce costs, you can approach individuals you think might be effective facilitators in advance and ask them to arrive early to get guidance on good practice.

  • For research projects operating in controversial areas or where there is conflict between stakeholders, you may need to take care to ensure the venue is considered ‘neutral’ territory. For example, don’t accept a free room from a controversial organisation on one side of a conflict.

  • Consider how your choice of venue might influence power dynamics within the group you are inviting, for example, might hosting your event at the university intimidate some participants and increase discrepancies in power between those with more or less formal educational status? 

  • If you are planning to use facilitation techniques that involve putting flip-chart paper on walls, ensure that you have sought permission to do this, as some venues forbid you from sticking things on the walls. Even if you think a flip-chart stand will be sufficient, it is often useful to have the flexibility to be able to put things on the wall so participants can see a record of what has been discussed so far, and build on it in subsequent tasks.

  • Is the venue able to provide lunch to participants in a timely manner? Booking a sit-down lunch can lead to unexpected delays, extending your lunch break and taking up valuable workshop time. A buffet lunch may give you the option to reduce time for the lunch break and act as a useful buffer if you’re running behind schedule.

 

How to facilitate events with stakeholders and members of the public

Chapter 16 from 'The Research Impact Handbook' by Mark Reed

An experienced professional facilitator is worth their weight in gold. You could run the same event with the same participants, using different facilitators, and get significantly different outcomes. Many researchers think that because they can chair a meeting with other researchers, they can facilitate workshops with stakeholders. This is rarely the case. You will very often be working with very diverse groups with different perceptions of your research, different levels of education and potentially conflicting views. Trying to run a workshop with stakeholders in the same way you would chair a meeting with researchers will rarely get the best out of everyone. In the worst-case scenario, you may end up inflaming conflict and creating long-term difficulties for those you want to work with.

One of the first stakeholder workshops I was charged with designing went very badly when I got the facilitation wrong. It was the first workshop in a funded project that was meant to scope out the potential to conduct a wider research project. The first mistake I made was to ask for the facilitator’s day rate when I put the proposal together. When I called her up to engage her for the work, she explained that a one-day workshop involved at least three days of preparation and post-workshop work, so I couldn’t afford her. One of my colleagues came to the rescue, recommending an American colleague of his who regularly facilitated stakeholder workshops. For the price of a ticket to a conference, he was happy to facilitate the workshop.

Two things went wrong at the very start. First, our American colleague decided to do a practice run of his conference talk to open the workshop. This might have worked if his talk had something to do with the topic of the workshop, but I could see people shifting uneasily in their seats, wondering if they were at the wrong event. The other thing that was wrong, was that there were three additional people in the room, who I hadn’t invited, and I made the mistake of not asking anything about them. Eventually, the workshop started, and people started wheeling out all the old arguments that they’d had for years. The facilitator then stood and watched, saying nothing, as people started raising their voices and being rude to each other. The break-time came and went, and the argument intensified, with the facilitator looking on with a thoughtful expression on his face. At that point I decided that, despite just being a PhD student with no experience of facilitation, I had to put a stop to this. So, I called time on the arguing and we went to the break. I asked the facilitator why he wasn’t facilitating, and he explained that he was American, and everyone was speaking in thick Yorkshire accents, and he couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying! So, after the break, we moved to a part of the workshop that involved writing things on Post-it notes and sticking them on the wall. However, there was a problem. The three people I hadn’t invited weren’t doing the exercise. I went and explained it to them, and still they didn’t do anything. By now, everyone else had completed the task, apart from these three, and all eyes were on me as I explained the task one last time and asked if they understood. They said that they understood. So, I asked why they weren’t doing it. To my shame, they explained that they were illiterate. I wanted to ground to swallow me up at that moment. I realised that I had humiliated them in front of the very people they wanted to influence in this debate, and I felt horrendous. I announced that we would take an early lunch-break, and asked my facilitator if he had any techniques we could use that didn’t involve speaking, reading or writing, to which, of course, the answer was “no”. Clearly, this wasn’t entirely the fault of the facilitator — I had set him up to fail. But it does illustrate how badly awry things can go when the facilitation goes wrong.

Facilitating dialogue with stakeholders and likely users of research

There are a number of reasons why hiring a professional facilitator (or getting a few facilitation skills of your own) can be particularly useful when engaging with stakeholders and likely users of your research during events, for example:

  • Efficiency: more can be discussed in less time 

  • Impartiality

  • Clarity

  • A helpful atmosphere

  • Appropriate techniques

  • More people have a say

  • No organisation or individualis in control or has the power of veto

  • The outcome is open and more likely to be considered fair by all those involved.

 

Professional facilitation can be expensive, ranging from around £700 to £3000 for a small event, and up to £8000 for a full-day event with over 100 participants. Prices vary according to the expertise/reputation of the facilitator and the amount of time necessary to prepare for the event. Unless their role is little more than that of a chairperson to help you steer your way through a simple agenda on time, you are likely to need a number of days of time discussing your aims and coming up with draft facilitation plans that use different techniques to reach these aims. If you want the facilitator to be responsible for writing up the outputs from your event, then this will cost more. It is therefore advisable to build facilitation costs into your research proposal from the outset.

In many projects, there are not sufficient funds to hire a professional facilitator, so we may end up in this role as researchers. When faced with facilitating an event, most of us are understandably nervous.

Some challenges will emerge from the group itself:

  • Dominating people with big egos can be hard to manage. You need to learn techniques for keeping these people in check without upsetting them, so that others have a chance to have their say, and feel able to express themselves freely.

  • Equally, quiet or unconfident people can be hard to manage. You need to find ways of enabling them to contribute to the group without putting people on the spot or intimidating them.

  • Diverse groups are particularly hard to manage. Groups may be diverse in many different ways, including a mix of quiet and dominant individuals, those with greater or lesser formal educational attainment, those with different levels of power and influence, varying levels of interest in the subject (who are more or less informed about it), and people in a group with very different fundamental values and beliefs.

In addition to this, most of us face a number of internal challenges to becoming an effective facilitator. First, we may lack confidence in ourselves. This may be borne of a lack of experience facilitating events with stakeholders, or it may be a deeper-held lack of confidence that we find emerges in all sorts of public situations where we feel others are judging our performance. Whatever the source of this lack of confidence, there are a number of things that can help reduce your nerves, for example:

  • Getting practice: although it may not be possible to practise working with stakeholders, there may be other contexts in which we can try out our facilitation tools and skills, for example, by adapting our teaching with students to incorporate tools and skills we know we’ll need to use with stakeholders

  • Building in buffer time to your facilitation plan (e.g. sessions you can drop or breaks you can shorten), so you’re not creating unrealistic expectations from your event, can help reduce nerves on the day

  • Having a facilitation team you can trust to come to your rescue if things seem to be going wrong

  • Getting to the venue early so you can sort out any practical issues in good time before participants arrive

  • Getting feedback from colleagues on your facilitation plan to make sure it is realistic

  • Meeting your facilitation team the day before or in good time before your event to go through the facilitation plan and make sure everyone knows what they are doing

  • Considering meeting separately, one-to-one, with any individual you know to be particularly problematic (e.g. argumentative, confrontational), rather than inviting them to the event

  • Having a plan B for high-risk activities you have not tried out before can also help reduce your nerves both before and during an event — if a technique isn’t working, you know you can change tack. There are also a number of practical tips you can use to keep control of dominating individuals and get the most out of more reticent members of the group (see below).

 

With practice, there are a number of interpersonal and practical skills that can help you become an effective facilitator. Many of the practical skills are quick and easy to learn, and can make a considerable difference to your practice. However, many of the interpersonal skills are harder to gain. Although some would argue that many of these characteristics are innate and therefore not possible to develop, it may be possible to make efforts to cultivate these characteristics as part of your role as facilitator, though this will take significant time and practice.

It is worth mentioning that interpersonal communication skills are often very culturally specific (though some non-verbal communication transcends cultural differences), so, if you have people from different countries attending, it might be good to know the cultural nuances of those cultures before you go into the room. For example, one of my PhD students, Steven Vella, told me how he once had to jump onto a table and whistle to get the attention of angry stakeholders during a workshop in Malta, threatening to throw everyone out unless they became quiet and asking a member of the project team to apologise for calling them “ignorant locals”. This was appropriate in that particular setting, but might have been inappropriate in a UK town hall.

Such interpersonal characteristics of an effective facilitator include, for example, being:

  • Perceived as impartial, open to multiple perspectives and approachable

  • Capable of building rapport with the group and maintaining positive group dynamics

  • Able to handle dominating or offensive individuals

  • Able to encourage participants to question assumptions and re-evaluate entrenched positions

  • Able to get the most out of reticent individuals

  • Humble and open to feed back

Practical facilitation skills include, for example:

  • Active listening and understanding. This may includen on- verbal feedback such as eye contact, nodding, smiling, focused attention and valuing silence 

  • Verbal feedback such as sounds, short phrases, clarifying details, encouraging/probing (asking for more information) and using open (not closed) questions

  • Giving people time to clarify their thoughts

  • Summarising, to confirm that you are interpreting them correctly

  • Letting people know their opinions are valued, but without implying that you agree or disagree with them

  • Helping people go beyond facts to meanings

  • Helping people to ‘own’ their problems, take responsibility for them and think of solutions

  • Reframing points where necessary to help people move from a negative stance to discuss a positive way forward. This involves acknowledging what has been said, and then saying this in a different way that is less confrontational or negative, followed by an open question that seeks to get at the heart of the problem

  • Involving others in the group in solving the problem

  • Giving momentum and energy

  • Ensuring everyone has an opportunity for input without feeling intimidated

  • Making an impartial record of the discussion

  • Writing clearly, managing paper (ideally with the help of an assistant so you can focus on group dynamics)

 

Ultimately, to be able to manage power dynamics in a group, facilitators need to have a deep source of their own power. It takes confidence to deal with powerful individuals who are being disrespectful to others in the group. But I’m not just talking about confidence here. It is that thing that you notice in some people, which you can’t really put into words; a quiet presence that demands your attention. We have all been in situations where someone walks into the room and you realise that the atmosphere has changed; the conversation might die down and you notice that everyone is waiting for that one person to speak. It is this quiet power that enables the best facilitators to get the most out of the most challenging groups. I would argue that this sort of ‘presence’ isn’t something you are born with, but is something that can be cultivated with commitment and practice.

In Box 10 you’ll find a series of questions I’ve adapted over the years, which are designed to help you understand how powerful you are as an individual in any given context. The answers you give will differ depending on the context in which you ask the questions, so think specifically of a context in which you would like to have more ‘presence’, so that you can achieve greater impact, and answer these questions specifically in relation to that context. For example, you might ask how powerful you are in the context of your research team or a group of stakeholders (such as healthcare professionals or conservationists) that you need to be able to work with intensively to achieve impact. The first types of power (hierarchical and social) are fairly hard to do anything about, though promotion might come along once in a while. When doing research in Africa, I found that my race and gender were barriers to working with stakeholders in certain contexts. Simply being aware of the power or powerlessness you are likely to feel in certain contexts may help you avoid trying to facilitate in those situations. However, you can work on your personal and transpersonal power. It takes time and commitment to change these ways of being into habits and eventually into characteristics, but it is possible. When I was Director of the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability, I knew that I wasn’t the most powerful person in the organisation. It was a PhD student. Since I had joined the organisation, I noticed that whenever she had an idea, people followed, and things happened. Despite being at the bottom of the hierarchy, what she had that I lacked was bucketloads of personal and transpersonal power. Her life’s goal was to make the world a better place and she had enthusiasm and positivity that was infectious and an altruistic vision that inspired hope. Ana ended up working with me as a Post- Doctoral Research Assistant and together we launched the training programme that this book is based on.

 

Once you’ve considered the points in Box 10, it can be useful to share your scores with someone you know well. Discuss which categories you score highest in (e.g. mostly 4 and 5 scores). Where you have low power, can you use higher power from a different area to help you in your interactions with others? Where could you increase your power? Would the person you’re discussing this with have scored you differently? If so, why?

Box 10: Identify your levels of power

The following points are designed to help you identify the different types of power you possess in any given context. You can use this in a general sense (thinking about the main social group you belong to or interact with most), but it is most useful to think about how powerful you are in a specific context, for example, as a facilitator leading a workshop with people who are interested in your research. Imagine yourself in this situation, and rate how powerful you feel on a scale of 1–5 in relation to each of the following personal characteristics. You may do this in relation to how powerful you feel and/or how powerful you think the other people in this situation think you are (you will need to choose which of these you think most affects your ability to achieve impact).

Hierarchical power:

  • Seniority in formal hierarchy

  • Expertise

  • Access to decision-makers

Social power:

  • Race or ethnicity

  • Age

  • Gender

  • Class or wealth

  • Education level

  • Strength and breadth of your social networks

  • Title (e.g. Mrs, Dr or Prof)

Personal power:

  • Self-awareness

  • Self-confidence and assertiveness (not over-confidence)

  • Charisma and strength of character

  • Ability to empathise with others

  • Life experience and ability to survive adversity

  • Ability to communicate and influence others

  • Reputation for integrity and honesty

  • Creativity

  • Honest estimation of your own worth and abilities, being aware of your limitations and weaknesses, whilst focusing on your strengths and abilities

  • Being someone who believes in, trusts and builds up others, rather than criticising and gossiping

Transpersonal power:

  • Connection to the other; to something larger, more significant and lasting

  • Commitment to a positive and clear set of values and beliefs

  • Being prepared to challenge the status quo rather than compromise your values

  • Ability to overcome or forgive past hurts

  • Freedom from fear

  • Service to an altruistic vision or cause

 

Anticipating conflict

Dealing with difficult individuals and situations can be challenging if you’ve not got a lot of experience as a facilitator. Despite being a professional facilitator myself with experience of facilitating over 50 workshops with stakeholders, I wouldn’t consider myself to be particularly experienced. If I’ve got a workshop that is likely to involve conflict or particularly high stakes, I will always try and pay for a more seasoned facilitator. But sometimes conflict erupts when we least expect it.

If you’ve already got to the point where people are having angry outbursts and verbally abusing each other, the chances are it’s too late to avoid conflict — you’re already in it. But if you can spot the early warnings signs, it may be possible to avert conflict. In my experience, most conflicts with stakeholders arise from power imbalances within the group, so simply identifying particularly high- or low-power individuals will alert you to the fact that some form of conflict may be likely.

Here are a few of the signs you can look for to identify people who are (or are perceived by the group or themselves to be) particularly powerful or powerless:

  • In some cultures and organisations, the way people dress denotes hierarchical power e.g. managers in universities often wear suits. Check whether those in your group wearing suits are displaying other signs of high power that could be challenging to manage.

  • Who does everyone give eye contact to when they speak, and who never gets eye contact? You’ve probably had that feeling of being invisible when you’re in a meeting where everyone else is more powerful than you (the person taking notes in academic meetings gets this feeling on a regular basis). Equally, you probably know how awkward it can feel when people in a group only give eye contact to you, as though there’s no one else in the room. If there is someone in the room that the group perceives to be particularly important, you’ll notice that at some point during each person’s speech (usually at the beginning and the end), they will give that individual eye contact, effectively seeking their approval and hoping to win influence with them.

  • Is there someone in the group who regularly speaks over others and cuts others off? Is there someone in the group who rarely gets to the end of what they’re saying, and is there someone else who is always heard out? These are other signs of power and powerlessness that you might spot.

  • Do you notice that one person’s ideas are rarely picked up by the group, perhaps leading to awkward silence or a change of topic? Do you notice that these same ideas may be suggested later on by someone else and be welcomed and discussed actively?

  • Who naturally chooses to sit at the head of the table or near the front, and who avoids sitting at the head of the table and chooses to sit at the back?

  • Who has a queue of people waiting to speak to them during the break?

  • Do some people display particularly confidentor nervous/deferential body language?

  • Does one person dominate the discussion, offering their opinion on every discussion point?

  • Are some people confident enough to give many people in the group eye contact and do others avoid giving people eye contact or only give you eye contact as the facilitator?

  • Do some people feel so important that they can check their laptop and phone constantly rather than engaging in discussion with the group?

Any single one of these signs may not mean anything, but if there are a few of these signs pointing to particular individuals, you might start to watch those individuals for signs of conflict, and adapt your facilitation plan to avoid power disparities becoming any more obvious. You have to be careful not to mistake personal traits for signs of power imbalances or conflict (e.g. someone who is naturally shy or prone to colourful outbursts). In some cases, it is possible to resolve this through effective facilitation, for example, politely asking more dominant people to give others space to contribute, or using a device like ‘round robin’ to give every person in the group a chance to give their opinion (or pass to the next person if they do not feel confident doing this). Usually, the simplest solution if you’re not an experienced facilitator is to move into small groups or move away entirely from open group discussion and use a structured elicitation technique, like metaplan, where everyone has the same opportunity to contribute.

Here are a few of the signs to watch out for that might suggest conflict is imminent:

  • Are you noticing people closing their body language (e.g. crossing their legs and arms, dropping eye contact etc.)?

  • Are people becoming cold, distant, with drawn (e.g.moving back from the table, giving one word answers etc.)?

  • People often dress up insults as jokes to make it socially acceptable for them to attack someone else and to make it hard for others to criticise them for their comment (“I was only joking”). Look to see who is smiling at the joke — and more importantly who is not smiling. If the person the joke is aimed at is colouring up, the chances are they took the joke as an insult. You might be too late to do anything about it first time round, but you need to watch the situation like a hawk and politely stamp on any future ‘jokes’ if you want to maintain a positive group dynamic.

  • Are people becoming increasingly argumentative, disagreeing and/or blaming each other?

  • Are people moralising or intellectualising each other?

 

But for the really early warning signs of conflict, you need to look inside yourself and empathise with the group you’re working with. If you can really get in touch with the way that the group is feeling, and become sensitive enough to your own feelings, you will start to detect the earliest glimmer of conflict and be able to watch out for other signs and act promptly. If there’s someone in the room who is feeling really uncomfortable, nervous or angry in the group, the chances are they may project those feelings onto you, or that you may detect their feelings through empathy — and you’ll start feeling uncomfortable, nervous or angry yourself. Are you experiencing irrational, unaccountable feelings, urges or thoughts, or acting uncharacteristically out of role? It is likely that this is how someone in the group is feeling. The stronger they feel this, and the more people who feel like this, the more likely you are to pick up on it and experience those feelings yourself. In this way, you can pick up on likely conflict well before there are any visible signs, so you can manage the situation and bring back a more positive dynamic into the group before conflict erupts.

Useful techniques for avoiding conflict

Finally, here are some useful tips you can use to avoid conflict and get the most out of facilitating events with stakeholders:

  • Set some ground rules: agree them at the outset, and refer back if needed (people are not to talk over one another, everyone’s views should be equally respected, no use of offensive language etc.). It may be useful to write these down and place them on the wall for everyone to see. It is typically easy to agree such rules as a group at the outset. They can be particularly useful if someone becomes obstructive or abusive later in the event. If you are unable to keep them in check, you can remind them about the ground rules that the whole group agreed to at the start. Given that they were part of the group that agreed these rules, it is socially quite difficult for them to ignore them, and if they do continue to ignore these rules, you have a clear basis upon which to ask them to leave.

  • Any Other Business (or ‘parkingspace’): if you have someone who finds it hard to be concise and in particular if contributions are off-topic, it is possible to create a ‘parking space’ where you can write these ideas up and park them to discuss later. This technique only works if the group has jointly agreed to the aims of the event at the outset, and if you have the flexibility to create a 15–20 minute session at the end to deal with the points that are parked. By parking less relevant ideas for later, you can keep the discussion focused and on time. Experience suggests that by the end of the event, it will have become clear to all participants that the points that were parked were not relevant and hence the person who suggested them tends to opt to ignore them at this point. Where points are deemed worth covering, you have created time to deal with them, which prevents these points eating into the rest of your time. Also, because it is done at the end of the meeting, participants are usually keen to finish the event and have an incentive to be more concise at that point.

  • Open space: if you discover that your aims do not match the aims of some of your participants, this can be difficult to deal with if you want to keep everyone in the room with you and satisfied with the outcomes. A simple technique is to use some of the buffer time you built into your facilitation plan (e.g. a session you can drop or a break you can curtail) to create an ‘open space’ discussion. Using this approach, the additional topics that participants want to cover are collected (and grouped if there are many points). Participants then have the option to sign up to topics of particular interest to them over the next break (at this point it might become apparent that some of the topics were just the interest of one vocal proponent, as others don’t sign up for that group), and then you facilitate small group discussions, recording points and feeding them back to the wider group. If you don’t have enough facilitators to do this, you may ask the person who proposed each topic to facilitate their group.

  • Empathise with and mirror your group: get a sense of how the group is feeling (e.g. bored, tired or angry) and adapt your approach to their needs. Empathy is about putting yourself in other people’s shoes, so you need to connect with their feeling, identifying with it in some way, such as by voicing it or mimicking it via body language (or both). Then you can start to counter feelings that are likely to negatively affect group dynamics, gradually changing your body language, tone of voice and language to become increasingly open, up-beat and interested. Although this can take significant effort, you will be surprised at how many start to mirror you and begin feeling and acting in more positive ways.