June 6, 2023
On becoming a better facilitator
Hello, I hope this finds you well. Thank you for reading the Coaching Letter! You are amazing. I’m writing this on a day when the smoke in the air in Connecticut from the fires in Canada has been particularly bad, and my eyes are stinging. I’m just going to finish this letter, and then I’m going to go close my eyes in a nice cool, dark room. Thank you for all the responses to all the things that have happened recently—it’s been a whirlwind. Notably, we’ve been ramping up our support for Building Thinking Classrooms, and hundreds of people have signed up for one of our workshops, or to be on the mailing list. It’s been very exciting and a bit overwhelming. For more information on all that work, check out our PEL/BTC website.
I’ve been thinking about facilitation lately, as I’ve had several experiences that have helped me really up my game. So this Coaching Letter is about what I’ve learned, with due thanks to Andrew Volkert and my colleague Rydell for helping me learn it. And thanks also to Peter Liljedahl—more about him below. But first, a little sidebar about feedback…
We tend to think of feedback as falling somewhere on a negative—positive continuum, meaning that if it is negative, the person/people giving feedback didn’t like what you did or judged it poorly or had lot of things to say about how to improve; and positive feedback means that they like what you did, they gave you high ratings, and they don’t have suggestions about how to improve.
My friend Andrew helped me reframe this. He talks about useful feedback; rather than attaching labels “good/positive” or “bad/negative” to feedback, ask “What can I learn from this?” In other words, even if people think you blew the roof off the place, if you don’t learn anything from the feedback it’s no use to you. And conversely, if people give you feedback that makes you better, then it’s useful feedback. According to Andrew, if it’s not useful, it’s boring. This has been extremely helpful. It has changed the way that I elicit feedback, and it has made me read feedback differently, and it has made me feel differently about the feedback. So here is what I have learned from feedback I’ve received recently about facilitation.
Rydell and I led a session at the Carnegie Summit in San Diego in April. We wanted to address how to create the conditions for equity-focused educators to make use of improvement science to improve experiences and outcomes for students. (If you want to know more, you should watch the video on this website of us talking about the big ideas behind our session—actually, there’s nothing to see, so you can listen to it while you’re doing the dishes or walking the dog.) One of those big ideas is about dismantling the normal power structures that make it more challenging for marginalized students and their families to participate in the routines of improvement science, so there was no way that we were going to stand up in front of people and talk to them from a PowerPoint. You know, there’s a reason it’s called a PowerPoint: it’s a tool that someone in authority uses to transmit their version of reality. It’s not a tool for communication or conversation or shared meaning-making—it’s not even very good at the transmission of information part. (Edward Tufte wrote a particularly scathing takedown of PowerPoint; I know from the stats I get from Substack that not many people click on any given link in any given Coaching Letter—you really should click on this one, though.)
So, rather than run a traditional conference session, we decided we were going to structure a series of conversations on these topics: belonging, power & rationality, bright spots, and faith in people to have the right conversation. And Rydell led us off. If you’ve seen Rydell in this kind of setting, you know that he is a force. Big voice, big personality, funny, hard-hitting, deft, surefooted, welcoming… He manages to be really slick and professional and really authentic and human, all at once. In a room of 150 people. I can’t think of anyone who can do it better. So I was really interested in what the evaluations were going to say, given that I didn’t say as much, and I was not as funny, or clever, or charming… And indeed, people did remark on the facilitation. They loved Rydell’s opening monologue. But they also remarked on the connection between us, how we worked in sync, how we built on what each other said. Honestly, I was impressed that the participants were paying attention that closely. And it afforded us, me and Rydell, the opportunity to talk later about co-facilitation in such a fluid setting: that we didn’t know exactly what each other was going to say, but we knew what we were not going to say; that we didn’t have to think about the other’s ego; that we were paying close attention to what the other said, so that we weren’t so much taking turns to speak as having a dialogue; that we had absolute faith in the participants, and in each other, to have a conversation that mattered. Made me think differently about what it means to partner with a co-facilitator.
I wrote in the last Coaching Letter, #181, about our work with Peter Liljedahl, including what I learned about facilitation:
I was very taken by what Peter said about keeping students engaged—although I think everything he said about students is true about people in general. If you want people to stay engaged, then you have to keep them in the present. But there are things we do that remind people of the future, which causes them to disengage. For example, we give them multiple questions at once, give them an agenda, put up a timer on the screen, post a specific learning intention, and tell them they need to present their thinking at the end of the work period. So I’ve stopped doing these things with groups, and following instead Peter’s protocol of NOT doing any of these things: not telling people how much time they’ve got left, not listing an agenda, and having participants make inferences about others’ work rather than presenting their own. Game-changer.
Also, I’ve been using a lot of the format of Building Thinking Classrooms: putting people into random groups, having them stand in front of non-permanent vertical surfaces, and so on. It definitely changes the energy in the room, and it increases the amount of interaction across teams, by a lot. It makes the whole room more fluid.
So Monday in Derby, one of our BTC workshops, was the latest opportunity to further refine these techniques. Some of them represent significant changes to normal practice, and tough habits to break. Leaders of adult learning are conditioned to repeat the directions, give people countdowns, start with ice-breakers, and so on. Kerry and I facilitate our coaching workshops with hardly any slides, but for most of my life leading workshops, I thought of slides as essential, and I put a lot of effort into them. In fact, I would say that it would not have occurred to me to not have a well-constructed slide deck; that to not have one connoted lack of preparation, even laziness. The four or five decks that I use most often and that represent a lot of work and a lot of thought—I even have those ones saved on my phone. I know, right? Sounds compulsive.
At the same time, the benefits of doing things differently have made it easy to give up old practices. And, thanks to help from Andrew, I have better data on how others perceive yesterday’s facilitation. A question on the workshop evaluation asked about what facilitation practices participants were planning to replicate, and their aggregated responses made it clear that they were paying very close attention to the facilitator moves—much more than I would have expected, although I don’t know why I was surprised, as I would have been paying close attention too.
I remember a few years ago we thought about running workshops for facilitators, but we never got around to it. Now I’m glad we didn’t—I have learned so much in just the last couple months about what good facilitation can looks like, how to be more flexible and adaptive, how to let go of old assumptions about what good means, and how to glean better feedback.
I’m really grateful to the colleagues and friends, near and far, who are willing to have these conversations with me and to help me get better. I am very grateful to the people in our workshops who are so generous with their feedback—there is no positive and negative feedback, only gradations of useful. Also, huge thanks to my other colleagues who have helped bring these workshops real in a very short time period: the wonderful Amber and Bridget. If you have any feedback on this or any other Coaching Letter, please don’t hesitate to share—there is no positive and negative feedback, only gradations of useful. And if there is anything I can help you with, let me know. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, 2023