As a facilitator, you need a way to break into the group. Being the outsider, it is often  that you are at a disadvantage. Entering a system that already existed before you even arrived can be challenging, daunting, and a bit intimidating. Even more so, bringing together a group of strangers in order to facilitate dialogue between parties can be challenging – each individual in the room brings with them their own idiosyncratic tendencies.

Any any good facilitator worth their salt will realise they become a part of this system that they are working with, even for a short time. As a part of their system, it is their role to lead the group through to a conclusion of some sort. Problem solving, brainstorming, teaching or workshopping, planning… all of these things requires the facilitator to connect with, and become a part of, the system that they are guiding.

One of the extremely useful tools that I use in nearly every facilitation that I run is a technique called a ‘check-in’. It’s a relatively simple tool to use, and used in the right way can be extraordinarily powerful in breaking into a group, tearing down walls, and providing an initial space for those in the group to be comfortable, safe, and open.

Closed to be open

In order to properly manage a check-in, we need to place a few rules on the group. Those constraints help us to build an initial safe container in order to be able to allow everyone to share what is going on for them.

Most of the time, the rules can be pretty simple:

  • No interruptions to anything anyone wants to share. For a safe container to work, participants have to be free to say what is going on for them, free from fear and without judgement or interruption.
  • No order to the sharing of who goes next. Most of the time we get so worried about what we are going to say when we are next, that we don’t hear what the person before us has said.
  • No responding to other participants check-ins. Focus on what is going on for you, not for others.

As you can see, the application of a little bit of closed-system structure with a few basic rules will enable everyone to get a fair go.

Agreements make it good

Following these basic rules, there are also a few agreements that the group need to come to in order for the check-in to become as successful as it can be. While these are not rules, it is helpful to get everyone to consensus in order to help draw out the most from every check-in:

  • Silence is golden. Sometimes a long pause might be created in someone’s contribution, or the gaps between contributions of participants is long while everyone gathers their thoughts. These are all okay, and in fact can help the room to settle as everyone thinks through what they want to say, as well as what they heard.
  • Everyone participates. The only way to bring a group together is to make sure everyone is having their contribution, including the facilitator… remember that we are a part of the system! And, of course, no one gets to go twice.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, as agreements will often change depending on the group, the location, and various other factors. Other common agreements could be things like having phones off and put away, and such agreements can be extended throughout the day, not only during the check-in.

It’s in the set-up

From experience, I have found that a number of things will really help in the creation of a comfortable environment that not only helps in the check-in, but also helps to facilitate constructive dialogue for the rest of the session.

Form a circle

This isn’t about gathering around a campfire, or singing songs. Having a closed circle of people who are sharing what is going on for them is representational of the safe environment that we are looking to promote. Subconsciously, this will help us break through a few barriers, after an initial awkwardness. A ring of chairs, one for every person (no more and no less) will enable everyone to be comfortable, see everyone else as they participate, and become the physical representation of the safe space.

No barriers

Traditional meeting rooms are bad places for meetings. There are always a number of physical barriers in place; desks, chairs, papers, phones, computers, and so forth. These often act as representational shields that we hide behind, and can even create a more meaningful barrier of ‘us versus them’ for people sitting on opposite sides of a table. In conjunction with the circle, removing all barriers and creating a warm environment in an open room is always the best way to run a check-in.

Pose an open question

To kick off any check-in and frame our facilitation, we want to make sure we are getting everyone thinking in a similar direction. Open questions, that are resonant with the particular group, will always work best. Examples might include “What are you thinking about X?” or “Talk about what you are feeling regarding Y…”. Making sure that any opening and framing question is targeted specifically at the group’s propensities will make it inclusive, and will get the best engagement.

Other things in your set-up that follow through from any agreements, such as no phones and no interruptions, will also help frame the session.

Seize the day

The power of the check-in comes into it’s own as a frame for the rest of your session. While we might be planning on facilitating a day getting everyone talking through a particular topic, the check-in might reveal underlying or latent issues that must be dealt with first before we can move forward constructively. This is the facilitator’s ‘ticket to ride’; an opportunity to dive into some meaty issues early on in the session which will provide focus where it’s needed.

In such cases, flexibility is key. A problem that I have experienced in many sessions is that they are so jam-packed with content that there is no real opportunity to get underneath what might actually be going on. Sure, there might be games played, and the day might be highly engaging. Going and seeing a movie can be as well… but it’s a very one-sided form of communication.

A good check-in will enable the day to be framed in such a way that energises the discussion, and surfaces the right things that need to be worked through. These things aren’t always what the session might have been originally about, however if the group is surfacing them in the right space, and in the right ways, they are important and connected. Follow them through, gently steering the dialogue to places that are constructive and allow enabled contributions from everyone.

Finally, don’t forget to check out at the end of the day 😊

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