The Power of Silence
A good facilitator makes it look easy-breezy, which is part of the magic. If the facilitator has accomplished this feat, then she is good! When one goes to and graduates from “facilitator training school,” as I have, the first lesson is that “it takes twice as long to prepare, as it does to deliver.” Fortunately, over time and with practice, the preparation time is cut down considerably. Among the seemingly sillier rules that are vital, are things like: “rip impressively” (meaning learning to tear off a sheet of paper from a flipchart in a snap with no pesky little pieces of paper remaining); standing to the side of the chart (so others can see it); printing on the flip chart so participants can see (four to five inches, please); facing the audience/speaking to the participants, not the chart; and, the list goes on.
The more important rules include:
- always repeat exactly what a participant stated when capturing the thought in writing, or ask permission to change it;
- engage all participants, not just those that raise their hands continuously;
- demonstrate understanding through nodding or repeating the comment; and,
- if the facilitator didn’t understand the comment state something akin to “I understood the comment to be x or y, is that correct?”
Another exceedingly important rule that is often overlooked and many find hard to follow is to “live with the silence.” Too often, a facilitator or trainer asks a question, and when there is no immediate response, he or she fills the void with the response sought, another question, or what could be called nervous chatter. Live with the silence: It can be uncomfortable, even unnerving; however, it can be very powerful.
What Happens in the Silence?
Participants have a chance to ponder the question or said another way to think rather than to blurt out anything that pops into their heads to fill the void. Sooner or later, someone else in the room always fills the void, frequently with a wise comment.
Why is this Important?
The facilitator is there to make the learning easy (root word facile), and the learning happens when the participants engage in the interactive process: in short, they learn from one another. Besides, the facilitator or trainer is not the font of all wisdom, merely the conduit by which the group learns.
What Happens Next?
When one brave soul says something, others join in. Visualize a millpond, a completely smooth, serene body of water with nary a ripple. That is the silence. Once the comment is made, it’s as if the person threw a pebble right in the middle of the millpond, and concentric rings start in the middle of the pond and radiate outwards. That represents the impact of the initiating comment on the balance of the participants, who then engage in the interaction. And, once the interaction starts popping, the facilitator’s role shifts, and she can ask a different question, redirect the conversation to cover all of the key points intended, play Devil’s advocate to an off-topic comment, or simply let the group process unfold.
Author Christopher Pappas distilled adult learning into “7 Top Facts About Adult Learning Theory.” The two that are key here are:
- “Past experiences play a pivotal role in adult learning;” and,
- “Mistakes are often the most valuable teacher.”
Both of these “top facts” are played out as participants share their own unique perspectives, and learn from one another.
It all began with the facilitator allowing the silence to unfold into a great group learning experience.