Facilitation Friday #2: Behavior is the Result of People Interacting with the Environment

Preparing to facilitate a group involves many considerations.  One framework that I always draw on comes from Kurt Lewin, considered to be one of the pioneers of social psychology.  Lewin asserted that the behavior of individuals results from how they interact with their environment, b = f(p,e).  This simple equation helps unpack much of what we need to review for an individual facilitation effort.


Think of the outcomes for your facilitation efforts.  At the end of it, what do people need to be thinking, feeling, committed to doing?  What are the behaviors you hope people will display during the meeting?  How would you like them to interact with each other? What do you envision as the pace, tone, and nature of the conversation?  Visualize the conversation you hope to help create as if it was happening in front of you and you are viewing it in slow motion


Who will be involved in the conversation?  What are their existing roles and relationships? How do they learn, process information, engage in group settings? What meeting norms and expectations are they accustomed to? How do they like to do their work? What strengths can they contribute and what weaknesses might they need support managing around? What diversity of perspectives will they bring to this work and what lenses will they be filtering it through? Do any individuals have special physical needs?

When possible we must make sure the “right” people will be contributing to whatever meeting or conversation we are facilitating.  The right people are the ones needed to achieve the desired outcomes for the effort.  Some individuals may only need to offer input or feedback at various stages of the conversation while others may need to be an active participant throughout.  We should honor individuals’ time by involving them only when it is most appropriate as opposed to assuming everyone needs to be in every moment of every conversation … the way it is traditionally done in organizations.

Sometimes, we inherit an existing group of people who may or may not be inclusive of everyone who could help achieve the desired outcomes.  If we are unable to change the composition of the group, we need to help the group explore whose/which perspectives may not be represented among them and how they want to access that information to inform their efforts.

The Environment: Theirs

What are current issues affecting the people you will be facilitating?  What’s the state of their profession, industry, organization, department?  What’s happening in their world right now that might have implications for how they engage in the conversations?  What’s the context to which they will return after the session?  What does the space where they do their work look like and how does it affect their pattern of interactions?  What are the communication norms in their organization?  How do they use technology in their environment?

The Environment: The Meeting

When will the meeting occur, and what implications does that have for individuals’ participation, particularly for individuals in different time zones? Think about the physical space for the meeting:  room size and layout options, privacy or openness, sound considerations, tables and chairs, lighting, open space for movement, what’s on the walls, options for displaying information and output, sightlines, ceiling height, location within the building, access to food and beverage, location of restrooms, what will people find when they arrive (signage, music playing, a greeter), and much more.  Think about the design and contents of the materials involved in this effort: the agenda, pre-reading, any advance homework or surveys, name badges or nameplates, and items you might have on tables to engage participants (toys, markers, notepads, Post-It’s). If virtual, what technology will be used? 

So what? Now what?

The environment is perhaps the most under-utilized facilitation resource.  We often are able to change it far more than we are able to influence the participants we are facilitating.  Doing so means really thinking about the behavior/results you want to produce and what you know about the people you will facilitate.  What environmental considerations will increase the likelihood that these people will produce the envisioned results for the session?  What room set and other logistics will help support the conversations that need to occur?  What supportive material will help inform people’s thinking so they can make the needed contributions to the conversation? 

But wait …

Don’t forget yourself: you are a part of the environment.  The existing you have (or don’t have) with participants will influence the behaviors they display.  Your attire, your speaking rhythm and pitch, your nonverbals, your physical placement in the room … all become a part of the setting that influences how people contribute or don’t participate.  This requires remaining very self-aware of the choices you are making. Always consider how you might change yourself and what you are doing in order to create a positive change in how the group is functioning.

Next week: the role of challenge and support in effective facilitation. 

Every Friday in 2012, I will post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

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