Friday 29 May 2020

Facilitating online workshops

I was not a fan of the idea of running the kinds of workshops that I normally facilitate online. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by how effective they can be - and somewhat moved by how valuable some have found them to be in these extraordinary times.

So I thought I would record a few of the things that I have learned, that seem to make them run rather more effectively than I had imagined; and also a few things I have learned by attending online events that have worked rather less well...  I also have an unresolved question, which I'll get to later.

The first thing is to recognise that this is a different type of engagement and plan accordingly - don't simply do online what you would have done face-to-face.

One of the limitations is people's attention span in listening to one person. I can hold an audience for a good while when face to face; but don't attempt to do so online (I have sat through some poor presentations that involved hours of lecturing - which would probably have worked well live, as the presenters are experts and have interesting material, but really doesn't work online.)

Therefore, I prepare even more assiduously: I work out what I can send in advance for people to read (and make that as brief and clear as possible). I don't, however, assume that everyone will have read it... Also, I decide what questions it will be most helpful for people to discuss in smaller groups, to engage with the material of the session and apply it to their own situation.

Then I start the session by getting everyone to check in and talk, early on. A question about why the topic is important to them is one good way. With a very large group, I may put people into separate online rooms in smaller groups for this.

I try to be particularly clear about the agenda, and the structure of the session, including the questions that they will be asked to discuss in groups. I may also have circulated this in advance. I also tell them about the protocols of online sessions, particularly that all should be muted in the main sessions except when they are talking. I also mention that it is helpful if they post any questions in the chat, or use the 'raise hand' icon, rather than simply interrupt the session

Next, I give a quick introduction to the topic, recapitulating the advance reading, (sometimes by sharing a couple of slides) and then put them into groups quite quickly, with a clear question, or set of questions, to discuss. I make sure to tell them how long they have in the groups, and tend to message the groups at the halfway point, and again towards the end of each small group session, to give them a time-check. One thing I learned the hard way, is that once in groups, they can't see any slides I may be showing: and my questions were on my slides...  So now, I have taken to posting the questions into the chat box.

I tend not to drop into groups, as arriving in the middle of a discussion invariably causes everyone to stop talking; so I trust people to have sensible conversations without me having to check on them.

When people re-convene in plenary, I either ask to hear briefly from each individual (in a smaller meeting) or from each group (in a larger meeting). I then try to summarise the main themes that emerge.

Normally, I will then have another topic and another question: so I follow the same pattern: a brief intro, group work, and feedback. And I close the session by checking if there are any unanswered questions, concerns etc, thanking them for their participation, and telling them what happens next.

And now, here's the unresolved question.

If you want someone to feel that you are really listening to them, it is most helpful to look directly at the camera on your machine: then they will experience you looking directly at them; however, if you do that, you actually see them slightly peripherally - so may miss some of the subtleties of their non-verbal cues.  So what is the best option?...  I continue to ponder (and experiment)...

Friday 15 May 2020

Job Club

I mentioned in my blog last week, in passing, that one of the things that was causing me some stress was the fact that three of my children are on the job market at a time when jobs are scarce.

One of the antidotes to feeling stressed, of course, is to address the stressors, as best one can. So I have instituted Job Club for Clare, Mike and Lizzie.  

They are, of course, all in different situations: Clare is employed but furloughed, and looking to move North to get married; Mike is employed, but part time, and wanting to develop his career; Lizzie graduates from Durham this year with a 1st (pretty much guaranteed, as I understand it) in Archaeology.

The idea of Job Club is that we get together every Wednesday afternoon to talk about where they are up to in their respective job hunting activities and what they are going to do this week. 

It has been fascinating for me, trying to facilitate the meetings. I am keenly aware of the difference between working as a coach or facilitator for others, when one can be truly disinterested; and working with one's own family, when one cannot. And of course, three children in their twenties know how to push their Father's buttons...

Nonetheless, and despite their natural sarcastic humour at my endeavours, it’s actually working really well, as they are much tougher in holding each other to account - and saying when they think one of them isn’t committing to do enough - than I would be. So at least each of them is building his or her sense of agency rather than that being depleted; and is using lockdown time to some good purpose.  They are doing training online, developing clarity about their strengths and aspirations, polishing their CVs and so on.  But as for actual jobs to apply for - those are few and far between…

So if you know anyone who needs a volunteer manager, a lighting and sound design technician (or failing that, a
graphic designer with a strong interest in typography) or an archaeologist with an interest in museum curatorship, don't hesitate to get in touch.

Monday 11 May 2020

Put your own mask on first...

Anyone who has flown will be familiar with the safety briefing and its instruction about what to do should the cabin lose pressure. We are told that oxygen masks will drop from the panel above our head, and that we should put our own mask on, before helping others to do so.

That, of course, is sound advice. We are better able to help others if we put our own mask on first; and also, we are less likely to need help ourselves (and thus become an additional problem).

I have heard this quoted a number of times in recent weeks, in the context of resilience during these extraordinary times, and have indeed used the metaphor myself.

Both halves of the admonition are important: looking after yourself first is not selfish. If you fail to do so, you may well end up being an additional problem, just at the time when we (your family, your community, your colleagues, the NHS...) really don't need additional problems.

But the second half is equally important: before helping others... That is to say, we should not only look out for our own well-being, but contribute to others' too. Apart from the obvious reasons - the dictates of charity, or altruism, or community solidarity, or whatever frame you want to put around that universally recognised value of beneficence - there is an interesting feedback loop. Helping others is key to our own social and psychological well-being.

And both of these imply a third aspect to attend to: being prepared to ask for and accept help. That is important, both as a part of looking after yourself, and also in order to permit others to help you, which is good for them, too.

All of which is obvious, just like the things we all know about our physical wellbeing (the importance of hydration, a balanced diet, rest, exercise and so on). Yet knowledge is not always enough. Sometimes, and particularly in periods of extended (or acute) stress, we adopt maladaptive strategies.  On the physical level, we may cut down on exercise, and rest, to make time to get more done: and keep going on caffeine, and perhaps console ourselves with alcohol. All of which have a short term benefit (or we wouldn't do them) but with a long term cost attached.

Returning to the theme of looking after yourself, we may do similar: tough it out (because we are tough) for example, or martyr ourselves in the service of others, or simply not notice that we need to ask for, and accept help.

Reflective practices and feedback are valuable here: which is, indeed, why I am writing this blog post.  I realised, when I started to make some simple errors, that I was more out of shape than I had thought. When I reflected on that, it was obvious: we had had a death in the family, 80% of my work had been cancelled, three of my children are looking for jobs at a time when they are hard to come by... and I had given no thought to the fact that I might need additional support at this time.

Fortunately, I am well-supported, both personally and professionally, and the minute I realised this, I was able to draw on that support, take a little time, put a few self-care measures in place, and I am the better for it.

But I thought it might be helpful to share the experience and the reflections it prompted. Hence, as I say, this post...