Facilitation for Introverts

Why should we care about facilitation for introverts? What does it actually matter? Let’s run through it.

“[…]someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments.”

noun

I sat there in the audience, gazing up at the exuberant figure breathing life and energy into the room. New to facilitation, I felt anxious just watching him play the room. I could see how the content was broken up with quick questions to the audience, group activities helped to encourage engagement from everyone. Engagement, that seemed important. If I was going to be good, then I needed to get everyone involved somehow.

For the past few years, I’ve sought to hone my craft at facilitation. Engagement has been a driving force for how I structure my content and a measure for how successful I feel that I’ve been. I felt that if everyone was active in some way, then that’s a quantitative measure of success, right?

As my confidence swelled, as did the repertoire. A growing catalogue of workshops and games, designed with engagement in mind.

How can I change this activity so everyone can speak their mind?”.

“How can I change this so that the lady doesn’t dominate the conversation again, that guy barely had a chance to say anything.”

Alongside building content, I focussed on my participation. Moving to a coaching philosophy allows me to listen more, paying attention to the audience without dominating from my personal soapbox, the crutch of poor facilitators everywhere.

“Does anyone having any questions?”“No, but I have a 5 minute long personal opinion I’d like to share.” “godhelpme”.


I sit there, leafing through my lists of bespoke and novel activities and games, a carpenter in a workshop. Each item crafted to maximise engagement. Years after the first introduction to facilitating, I feel like I’m starting to get it, whatever it is.

Massive groups? I’m your man. Everyone contributing? You got it. Fun games with an Agile twist? Bread and butter. Unfortunately, I may not have been focussing on the right things.

Late, I slink around the end of the circle of chairs arranged in our largest meeting room. With the last session overrunning, I’ve missed the first 10 minutes of the company book club session at our monthly conference. I haven’t even read the book.

The group welcomes me, and discussion continues on the latest book choice: “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. I sink lower and lower as the conversation continues. Those who identify as introverts in the group share anecdote after anecdote around their thoughts on inclusion. I realised that I’ve spent years of my life building content to actively include everyone, without first even asking if they wanted to be.

That discussion sparked a change in my thinking that has had a dominating influence on how I want to engage with groups in the future. I’d like to share some of the insights with you. Here are my top tips for facilitating for introverts.


Stop thinking of the comfort zone as a bad thing.

We’ve all been there, there’s that small group that just doesn’t seem to have the same level of engagement as the rest of the audience. We spend some more time with them, gently soliciting feedback (if we’re good), or forcing the attention on them (if we’re bad). We recognise that feeling of discomfort in the group, but choose to continue pushing because we compare it our own and find the barrier minimal. The issue is that we only have point of reference, mild discomfort for one may be excruciating for another.

Never focus attention

The focus of a group moves frequently in a dialog, bouncing between facilitators and participants alike. You notice that someone in the group hasn’t said a word yet, so you leap to their rescue during a break in the conversation. “What do YOU think?” “Excellent mediation”, I say to myself smuglyDuring my quiet session with the book club, I learned how harmful this type behaviour could be. Putting someone on the spot can be uncomfortable at the best of times, but for some it can be straight up painful.

Instead of drawing attention to individuals, allow the team to push out to you. Pay attention to those who are trying to speak but are unable to squeeze into the conversation, these are generally the people that could benefit from your intervention. Look for behaviours like people leaning forward or taking a breath when someone speaking seems to be winding down. If these anxious behaviours are not manifest, then that individual may be content to quietly reflect on the conversation. We’ll discuss how best to engage with these a little later.

Rethink your “Self Organise” commands

We love this, it removes the onus from us to organise, and encourages participation across the board. How would you feel in this situation if you “prefered calm, minimally stimulating environments”?

We need to get away from this assumption that everyone engages in the same way. Carefully think about how your “self organise” direction could impact people in the group. Instead of leaving it completely open, offer some minimal structure with the directive. If you want people in groups, try asking them to organise based on rows, or a category like role. For pairs, ask people to turn to their left, this can help to reduce the discomfort of struggling to find a partner around the room.

Allow quiet participation

Not everyone in your group is going to feel comfortable, or get value from, sharing their thoughts openly with a group. We need to offer mechanisms for those to contribute to the discussion in a safe way.

Instead of just providing verbal channels, provide for people to contribute quietly. Allow people to write down their thoughts. These can be collated by you, in a box, or through a digital format. You can then add the contributions to the discussion by reading them to the entire group.

Share the format in advance

“Prefer non-stimulating environments”. Let’s surprise them. Perfect. It might be a minor point, but consider sharing your format before the activity so that people know what to expect. Don’t craft an essay, but detail the overall structure and any specific questions you want people to think about. You get the added bonus of providing advance time for participants to reflect on their answers ahead of time. If you allow for the group to submit their thoughts ahead of time, I’m willing to bet that you’ll get more thoughtful fuel for the discussions.

Don’t use tokens

I was all over this at one point. “How can I enforce a provision for allowing everyone to speak equally? I know, I’ll issue speaking tokens!” Genius. See quiet participation and attention focussing above.

Introverted doesn’t mean shy

Ignore the dictionary, our understanding of introversion should be much more sophisticated than that by now. Introverts prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments. This is not the same as reticence or shyness. As long as you think of introversion as shyness, then you’re going to suffix it with “helping them out of their shell”.

Learn about your audience

Taking the time to learn more about your audience can’t be a bad thing. Try communicating with your group ahead of time to find out what their comfortable with. When you share your format, how about asking how comfortable people would feel with each activity? Afterwards, encourage the collecting of feedback (in a quiet way), learn what works and what doesn’t.

Conclusion

If you structure your content to focus specifically on those who thrive in a highly-stimulating environment, then you’re disengaging 25–50% of your group (https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/thrive/201205/are-extroverts-happier-introverts). That’s insane, all of your hard work in crafting activities is actually reducing quality engagement. How would you feel if only one gender was able to effectively participate?

Do not make the assumption that introverts are some fragile group that needs our protection from the world, this couldn’t be further from the truth. This group is a powerful, thoughtful voice that simply benefits from a different type of engagement.

This is the start of a new journey for me and I don’t have all the answers. What I do know, is that we need to start adopting a much more thoughtful approach to how we deliver content. Until we do, we’re always going to missing out on half the great ideas.

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