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How to juggle content and processes, without getting overwhelmed

How to juggle content and processes, without getting overwhelmed

As a facilitator, your attention is dragged in at least three different directions – towards the content, the process and the people.

It’s your responsibility to look after all these dimensions. But, for a whole range of reasons, there are times when your participants are no longer on-board.

No matter how clever the process or how well managed the content, it can all slip away in an instant:

– Participants complain that the discussion topic isn’t relevant
– Suddenly there’s no energy in the room
– The client is panicking that the group won’t reach a consensus

And so your session goes by wasted, failing to deliver full value.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could look after all three at the same time? 

At its best, your participants imagine that the event is running smoothly and they are delighted that the group is making progress. But how do you do it?

You work on all three levels at the same time, with frequent check ins.

Working on all three levels

Now, your first consideration is the need to get through the content – the materials that constitute the topic of the day. There’s often a lot of it – papers, posters, reports and everything that anyone may want to say on the subject.

To enable that, you design a process – a series of activities to help the group consider the issues, discuss or debate them, reach consensus and make decisions about next steps. There may be periods of talking, of writing, of reflection.

And you deliver this process sequence by managing the people – guiding them to work individually or in groups or plenaries.

It may sound easy, but it requires all the skills of a top-class juggling act.  And what happens when one of those goes off track?

Content, process and people

Getting your session back on track

Here’s an example of juggling content, process and people, for a face-to-face session I facilitated recently for a group exploring climate risks.

We had a solid agenda, with lots of materials, mostly in the form of expert presentations on the topic, supplemented by the rich knowledge of the other participants which we could bring out in discussions.

We aimed to keep people engaged with presentations, panels, plenaries and groups – with plenty of breaks. And then watched as it ran.

The people part of these three pillars is the one you have to improvise, as you can’t know for sure what will happen until it happens. You need to be ready and willing to embrace whatever emerges and deal with it confidently in the moment.

In the case of the climate risk event, the introductory activity invited participants to gather in groups of 5 to reveal to each other their favourite book, film or TV show about ‘the future’.

Note how this addresses:

– Content – the subject is oriented to the future
– Process – everyone contributing a brief example in small groups
– People – will feel welcome and appreciated as they share a personal memory and learn perhaps a small surprise about their colleagues

The first activity ran to plan, but later in the day the client began to panic when participants returned late from a coffee break. The delay was compounded by the Q&A panel session running beyond the time we’d allocated. It was continuing full-steam ahead, with many questions and a lively debate.

It would have been easy to join the panic and feel overwhelmed – perhaps interrupting the Q+A, though that would have been awkward and probably counterproductive.

Instead, the client and I had a quiet chat at the back and assessed the options. We agreed that the content and people dimensions were fine –  the participants were thoroughly engaged in discussing the agenda issues with the desired depth and passion.

That meant we could simply change the third dimension, the process, and sacrifice (or cut short) the group reflections that were intended to follow.

On that day, I was able to check in with my client. Other times I make the choices myself.

It’s also OK to occasionally ask the group, ‘How are we doing?’.

When you ask a group, they’ll give you clear indications of the extent to which they are  making progress with the content, whether or not they are engaging with the processes and how well (or not) they are maintaining interest, mood and energy.

This will tell you where to make adjustments, for example:

– Ditch a section of content that needs no further exploration
– Replace a static activity with one with more energy
– Ensure more people get the chance to have their say

By confidently applying your professional skills to keep these three dimensions in harmony, you’ll ensure good results on the day and get better feedback – resulting in more bookings and greater satisfaction in your work.

Do you find yourself getting stuck in the detail of the content, or worrying too much about what your participants think?

Do you have a big training session coming up that you’d like to explore in our Inspirational Facilitator online community? 

The Inspirational Facilitator online programme is coming up in November. By signing up to our waiting list you’ll get priority booking when the course goes on sale in the week of 26 October.

You’ll also receive a number of new articles sharing practical facilitation tips and techniques. 

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