Inclusive Facilitating with Christine Bell
On 1.2.2023, Pia and I had an exciting interview with Christine Bell. Christine works as a facilitator in the UK and tells us about her work before, during and after the Corona pandemic and how inclusive group dialogues can be created.
Christine, could you please tell us something about yourself and your work?
Christine Bell: I am the co-owner of a facilitation company based in the UK called “Centre of Facilitation” and we work with groups of people and help to have useful and productive dialogues. We’ve got a team of freelance facilitators, they are based both in the UK and in Europe and we bring them in when we need to expand our team for particular jobs. What does inclusiveness mean for you in the context of your work? Christine Bell: I think for me as a facilitator it is about making sure that everyone can contribute to the conversation. Facilitation is all about conversations and dialogues. It is helping people to contribute in whatever way makes sense to them whether that is writing, talking or drawing. It is finding a way that suits best for everyone to make their own contribution and to ensure their voice gets heard.
As a facilitator it is a key task to integrate different people and coping with very different personalities and capabilities, how do you approach this?
“I just accept there are going to be different people in the room but everyone has come with a good intention and wants to contribute and so my job is trying to make it as easy as possible for them”
Christine Bell: That is a really good question because this is a challenge. I know there is always the temptation of facilitation to try to control things that aren’t controllable and I have certainly worked with facilitators who have done before the session to personality test everyone in the room to get a sense of whose going to work well with who. I have never been comfortable with that approach because it puts people in boxes and labels them. I just accept there are going to be different people in the room but everyone has come with a good intention and wants to contribute and so my job is trying to make it as easy as possible for them. I focus on that common shared value which is they want to contribute and then finding a way that helps and supports them to contribute. Some of our support is encouraging certain participants not to talk and allow other people to talk because some of the people are uncomfortable with the silence so that they fill the gap and just continue with their talk. So, part of my job is to help those people to take some time not talking and for other people to be able to talk and to contribute. The biggest difference in a group is there will be some people who like to talk whilst their doing their thinking and some people who need some time to think before they talk.
Can you give us an example of how you integrate the different kinds of participants?
“There will always be the option that you can contribute to this conversation verbally but there will always be an option to contribute in a non-verbal way and (…) that helps people to contribute and feel that their voice is heard in a different way”
Christine Bell: The biggest shift I make is before we go into a break-out room and discuss something I would generally provide a period of about two minutes where I just invite everyone to quietly reflect on the question, to write their answers down on post-it notes, a personal pad or just gaze into the distance and to just take those two minutes. I usually say this is for those people in the room who like to think before they talk and I recognize some people in the room don’t need that space but let us recognize that some people do. The two minutes are not to chat, they are of complete silence and I put a timer on that the uncomfortable silence will only last two minutes. It is enough time for the thinkers to get their thoughts together and that really helps the process. Then, what I tend to do is when we are breaking out into rooms, I have got into the practice of nominating one person randomly in each group to take on that role of being group host. That persons role is to keep an eye on the time, invite people into the conversation and give someone in the group permission to support integration of everyone in the group. It kind of takes the burden off. If you do it randomly, it doesn’t mean the same people feel obliged to volunteer every time. That is another way of helping. Another way is to make it very clear that they have options. There will always be the option that you can contribute to this conversation verbally but there will always be an option to contribute in a non-verbal way and that might be in a face-to-face or virtual event using post-it notes, it might be using an online polling tool like “mentimeter”, so it collects reflective thoughts in that way and I think that helps people to contribute and feel that their voice is heard in a different way. Finally, the risk is that we get into labelling of bad behaviors in groups and I think we can prevent it by giving everyone a list of rules and using that in sessions and I certainly have seen that happens where the first half hour is spent with everyone working in small groups and determine what are the rules they think this group are ran by and in my experience it just feels like a waste of time because people know the behaviors that they should and shouldn’t be doing. They label them all, write them on a list, the facilitator puts them all together on a list and we all say that is the ground rule. It's like half an hour of time that you could have actually used in the conversation. I prefer an approach that gives very loose starting guidelines and then I intervene if I feel that behaviour is starting to be in a way that's dysfunctional.
What do you do with people who are just not used or not comfortable to talking in groups for empowering them to really take part?
“A break-out group for me shouldn't be more than about 5 people where most people feel safe enough to say something. I will always say to people, you've got the option to pass, and to say nothing”
Christine Bell: I think some of that is the way you start the process and by stripping out some of the formalities and making it feel relaxed. I've got a very relaxed style, an informal style. I think that helps people to feel relaxed and able to make a contribution. Then, having very small break-out groups. A break-out group for me shouldn't be more than about 5 people where most people feel safe enough to say something. I will always say to people, you've got the option to pass, and to say nothing. I also started to do, and this was more a reaction to when we had to start doing virtual work at the beginning of the pandemic, was in a plenary session prior to the pandemic when all my work was face to face, I typically asked each group, if someone can share one thing to the whole group, and we would get into a group discussion. I just let anyone contribute who wanted to, and I would say you've already said something can I draw in someone else? I never used to call people out by name, because that felt uncomfortable. During the virtual switchover, if you don't call people out by name, it is difficult to know who's going to talk next. I did a face-to-face event just before Christmas, with a large research team. They had researchers, administration support, senior academics, and they were looking at their strategy as a team for the next year, and in the plenary sessions I deliberately used an app on my phone with everyone's name. There were about 40 people in the group, so I put all of the names into the app, and I explained to the group that I was going to use this, and pick out 2-3 people to contribute to the conversation and then I would open it up to everyone. It was funny because the first person I asked to contribute, said that was her worst nightmare, and she was dreading that I was going to pick her. And then she made an amazing contribution. This pattern continued. It was interesting, because they all had the option, right? They could pass, and I wouldn't force that when I introduced it. And I said, don't worry, you don't have to say anything. Somehow, just giving people permission and allowing them that space to talk allows people who normally would hold back to actually say something in those large group plenaries. That has been a really interesting shift in my practice. Definitely, post pandemic.
What about hierarchies within a company or a certain group?
“All you can do as a facilitator is, try and make the best condition you can”
Christine Bell: I think it depends on the company. I fortunately don't work with many organizations that are extremely hierarchical. I keep mixing people up that usually eliminates the element of hierarchy. Occasionally what I have done is to put the most senior people in a group themselves. It can sometimes be the same topic, or it could be a different topic, it is something I have talked about with my client when I am planning the intervention. Do you want your senior people to integrate, or are there times when we can put them in a group together and they can come up with something? Using that hierarchy in a different way. I use generally techniques where everyone, for example, writes 2 or 3 contributions down on a post-it note to make sure that everyone contributes and then, as a group, they start to pull that together a little bit. This is not failsafe. I'm not going to say that in every group people who are more senior in the organization don't seek to dominate. All you can do as a facilitator is, try and make the best condition you can. They realize that this is a time when they need to just hang back. By actually wording that to people and saying, this might be a really good time for you if you're a senior practitioner, just a hang back and I'm going to invite the early career researchers to share their ideas first. I'm going to invite the administrators who've been working in a group on their own to tell us what are some of the frustrations they see within the organisation so you can purposely stat it up so that people hear and reflect the voices that aren't heard so much.
Do you think that online formats can be helpful or do you think it makes it more difficult?
“We are all squares in the room. In a sense, there is an equality i n the actual way that the windows are all laid out because they are all equal size”
Christine Bell: I was very skeptical at the beginning of the Covid Pandemic. I had to change to online and I was a bit concerned about exactly that. I think if you use all the functions really well, then it is possible to make it easier for people to contribute and more accessible, because we're all in the same, you are in your zoom window squares. We are all squares in the room. In a sense, there is an equality in the actual way that the windows are all laid out because they are all equal size. And then you've got the chat function which allows people to send private messages to me as facilitator. It allows people to send messages to each other or to the whole group. There is quite a lot of stuff that can go on if you encourage it in the chat column, and then using small groups, breaking people into small groups, not using too much of the plenary. The other advantage when you're using virtual is, you can mute everyone as well. You can't talk over each other virtually, it's impossible. That introduced an element of etiquette of people raising their hand to talk, and you can purposely use that to make a slower, more reflective, plenary than you might have typically in a large group where everyone's wanting to contribute and talk over each other and it becomes very difficult to hear the voices of everyone.
“You can't talk over each other virtually, it's impossible. That introduced an element of etiquette of people raising their hand to talk, and you can purposely use that to make a slower, more reflective, plenary than you might have typically in a large group”
The pandemic accelerated changes that had already started and which has challenged and changed participation. How do you generally perceive these changes in your practice as a facilitator?
“I think there was a willingness to embrace and to experiment, and everyone wanted to connect. It was actually a good way of making that shift, because there was a lot of forgiveness in there. We weren't all expecting it to be perfect”
Christine Bell: I went from having a very, very full diary to having nothing. We don't get a salary unless we are earning, so unless we are doing jobs. That was scary. I was also aware already that we had to start changing. This was a good way of embracing a different change of doing things, and potentially it could save a huge amount of travel that I was doing, but also participants were doing. To go somewhere to have fairly short conversations and then travel all the way back home again. I saw it as a real opportunity, and I thought it gives us a way of really reaching some people who perhaps never were engaged before, because they just live somewhere where transport makes it just too difficult to travel to join some of these consultations, where the disabilities have quite an effort to travel. So, we had a way of including different people, and in the early days of the pandemic I think there was a willingness to embrace and to experiment, and everyone wanted to connect. It was actually a good way of making that shift, because there was a lot of forgiveness in there. We weren't all expecting it to be perfect. We were just glad that someone out there had sorted out some way of us being connected and talk to others during a very frightening time. And now it's about sitting back and just figuring out. What is it that we want to? What is useful about this practice that we evolved during the pandemic? What do we still want to hang on to? For my International Association of Facilitators in the UK we've carried on with the practice of meeting up virtually. We used to meet face to face once a month for catch up and we now do that online. And it's better, it's so much better. And then these other times where you crave that face to face. I think we're starting now to make decisions based on what's the best format for what we want, what are overall objectives and our outputs are.
In terms of inclusiveness, how can we use those digital methods for increasing inclusiveness without excluding people?
“All of those things where people were excluded because of transport, disabilities, needing to be in one place, the digital format allows us to include those people more”
Christine Bell: I think the big issue is people's ability to travel and have time away from home and I think for so long it's just been accepted that people can travel without realizing the number of people who were excluded because they have got children, or elderly parents they are caring for, or because they live in a remote place, or the trains don't run beyond this time of day, or they don't drive. All of those things where people were excluded because of transport, disabilities, needing to be in one place, the digital format allows us to include those people more. I hear a lot about it excludes a lot of people, and it's often said all the old people that they are excluded from this, and I struggle with that because I've run quite a few events during the pandemic for the older generation and these are typically people who are actively elderly, in their sixties and seventies, they are still engaged in their communities, and their reaction was: “Oh, this is great! We love using it. We use zoom all the time we use it with our family!”. So, they were really good zoom practitioners. They found that easy to do as long as you made it simple enough. In those forums I would concentrate on verbal contributions, because people weren’t often using a device like a phone or an iPad. But if you ask them to contribute verbally that wasn't a problem at all. Sometimes people say “but what about all the people who can't access zoom, who can't access digital platforms?” I sometimes worry that those are the people who don't enjoy the digital stuff themselves, and that they are typically the most extrovert people who enjoy meeting other people and find the constraints of online forums quite difficult. Often, it is the client and the organizer because they don't get the same rewards when it is in a virtual event. They don't get the same kind of buzz and excitement. So, sometimes it can be their need to actually hear the buzz in the room that's driving this and we need to make sure we don't exclude people. It's quite curious the idea of excluding people from digital. I think there are definitely things that you can do to help make that possible for people
What about the aspect of creating personal relationships or trust within networks. How do you see those formats in this regard? And where do we perhaps need the in-person format?
“In the sessions we did lots of mixing and getting people to talk and to share and so it is possible to build those trusting relationships”
Christine Bell: It is interesting, because I have done a couple of the things. I was going to have a 2 day event, and that was postponed from June 2020 to November 2020. And then in September 2020, it became obvious that this pandemic was a pandemic and it wasn't going to be quickly over by Christmas, and so we had to quickly switch to a 4 half-day session event, that was a interesting experiment. Because the feedback we got, and the proposals that were made were just as good as we would have expected in a face-to-face environment, and in some ways, for some people it was a better space because they weren't two days really intensely and having to work really hard and long with very few reflective breaks. 4 half day models worked over 2 weeks, so participants had a chance to reflect in between sessions. We encouraged people to connect with each other, so we set up an activity where they had to purposefully make a date with 2 or 3 other participants, to have a one to one in between the sessions. In the sessions we did lots of mixing and getting people to talk and to share and so it is possible to build those trusting relationships. I can think of at least 2 facilitators I only actually know through virtual connection, and yet do I trust them? Yes. Do I connect with them? Yes. Am I able to collaborate with them? Yes, so I think there's a sense that we have to meet people face-to-face in order to connect. But that is not an essential. The essential is probably having that one-to-one time to connect with that one person and not mediate it for a group all the time. I think trying to find ways of building that those getting people to work in pairs and trios more in virtual space. I think it's something I try now to do, because I realize that's how you start to really build relationships. And giving people the space to connect and to talk. If I was a client, what would you advise me to choose between fully digital or hybrid? “I started talking with clients now about doing a hybrid sandwich. (…) A virtual kickoff event, face-to-face event where we really get into the meat of things, and then, (…) we have a virtual follow-up 6 weeks, 8 weeks later” Christine Bell: It goes back to what do you want to achieve? What are the outputs that you want? The pure hybrid model where you have got some people joining online, and some people in the room, I have never succeeded with that, because it is complicated. It has got so many different elements that need merge together, and it relies on the venue having really super wi-fi, and we all know they rarely do. I have found it quite difficult, and I have tended to say to clients, I don't think our technology is there yet, and you are going to have to pay for me to have an extra team member, just to manage that extra element and then they usually don't want to do that.
I'm finding now works well when people do want a face-to-face, last year, in 2022 people just really wanted to meet up, they hadn't seen each other in person for 2 years.
People wanted to chat more, so you had to provide more time for doing activities because all of the social chat had been lost over the last 2 years. I started talking with clients now about doing a hybrid sandwich. We would start off with a launch event, an online kick-off event, so that everyone knows what we are planning to do. There might be some pre-activity work to do, so we either launched that with a little zoom together, or we launch it as a written guide, that we send out to people. But you do it in some way to get people focusing about the event. If I go back to the strategy that I was doing for this team, one of the things was about the values. Everyone came prepared to think about what were examples of the values in practice. They all had written a little story, and brought that with them to the event, so they could share that in the group. Then that frees up your events. Because you don't have to mess about with warm-ups. You can go straight into the real details. I then have the kickoff event, face-to-face event where we really get into the meat of things, and then, at the end of the event, we kind of get people to sign up to vague action, so the kind of statements they have a bit of time in a group to talk about what that statement might mean, what they did come up with and how they're going to deal with it. We then send them away, and then have a follow-up 6 weeks, 8 weeks later and we do a virtual follow up that might be for 1,5-2 h, and each of those groups then reports back on progress, or asks for feedback on a particular aspect and so it is a way of really making that action planning part come to life. To me, that has actually been a massive improvement and it is something that we wouldn't have been able to do pre-pandemic because people didn't have the capacity to do zoom or teams on their computers. You would have had trying to do this with a load of people, sat around a laptop in a room, and it would have felt uncomfortable. And now everyone's familiar with the technology. I think it is using it intelligently and balancing it out. And to go back to your original question. I think, do it virtually, if you've got people that need to join from lots of different places, and the travel is going to be a restriction, and you want to make that possible. If you want people to come together and get the most of being together in the same space together and having it as a bit of a social time as well, then have a face-to-face element, and then try and make sure that you get things started virtually and finished virtually to bring in the advantages of that. We ran a strategy day, it was from 10 am until 4 pm. It makes the day feel a bit lighter. You can have an hour for lunch, not try to squeeze lunch into half an hour. Just make the best of both of those formats.
And if you only have digital formats now, what is the most challenging?
“unwillingness to change”
Christine Bell: I think it's still sometimes people's own digital competence. That has got better. But there are some people that still struggle a bit, and there's some people who just have made a barrier for themselves, and that unwillingness to change. That can sometimes be challenging. Making sure in those digital formats that you give enough space for connection and conversation. Experiment more with putting people into pairs and trios and building that connection. Using much smaller groups, not focusing as much on the plenary session, that can help. The other challenging aspect is just people don't read the instructions. They come at the wrong time, because they have not read the time zone correctly, they click on the wrong zoom code, because they have not realized that that's different to the other. All those complications of the difficulties. I think the other thing that tends to happen now is that digital events are not given the same priority. People just dip in and out, people walk along the street while trying to participate in a discussion, people suddenly leave. You have this movement in between which sends a message out this is not so important to me, and I can, just because it is virtual, I can just catch up on it. People sometimes turn the cameras off and just listen and do their emails at the same time. The most challenging thing right now is just that keeping people engaged. And keep helping people realize the commitment that you need to take part in a virtual workshop.
“Digital events are not given the same priority. People just dip in and out, people walk along the street while trying to participate in a discussion, people suddenly leave. You have this movement in between which sends a message out this is not so important to me”
In a future perspective, what should we keep? And what should we rather not keep from these experiences during the pandemic?
“That is something that we need to keep, that kind of fluidity”
Christine Bell: Definitely keep the virtual. So much can be done virtually with the planning. I think that is great that we now have that ability, and that we can sometimes switch if we need to, as well. That is something that we need to keep, that kind of fluidity. “I would like to get rid of the idea that hybrid is just setting up a laptop in the corner, and that's it” We should keep the idea that virtual needs to be shorter. Not everything has to be done at the same time. Actually, trying to make more use of asynchronous activities as part of your virtual setup. Not all in the zoom all of the time, and you have times where people work independently so I would like to keep that and get rid of long whole days in a virtual activity, and I would like to get rid of the idea that hybrid is just setting up a laptop in the corner, and that's it. I would like to get rid of that idea that hybrid is a cheap and easy way of dealing with the people who want to be in the room and the people who want to be in the zoom. No, you've got to really make sure that you are using the right tool for the right job.
You mentioned this as aspect of creating a relaxed atmosphere. I think it's quite important also for inclusiveness, because some people are nervous, they cannot just take part. It would be nice to hear some examples on this.
“I have nothing to contribute to this conversation content-wise, and I think that relaxes people”
Christine Bell: Creating a relaxed atmosphere, I think it is something I have always done in my practice. It is kind of a natural thing for me. I am relaxed about my facilitation, and I am not going into a facilitation space wanting to be the center of attention. I see that my job is to get people talking to each other, and then for me to back away as quickly as I can, back to the shadows. I do it quite naturally by getting rid of those ground rules. When we start an event, half people are late, right? It starts at 10 o'clock, and the first thing we do is we put people into break-out rooms, in trios or pairs, for 2 or 3 min to have a quick conversation, and then they come back and we do another spin. So, we do like 2 or 3 just very quick rounds of networking conversations, and that can help people get to know the other people in the room. It has a bit of crazy chaos to it, and then we go into a more formal introduction. It means, before you start the formal bit you've already had a little time of informality and then it is even the formal bits not taking us too seriously. I mean, my job is just facilitating. I am not an expert like half the people in my room, you know. I have nothing to contribute to this conversation content-wise, and I think that relaxes people, because I sometimes say you'll have to explain to me what you have just said, because I don't understand it. And I think it is about not letting my ego obsess to get in the room and just creating a space that feels comfortable and supportive by just being really nice to people, being warm and friendly and making sure that they have got coffee. So, it doesn't feel like a classroom or a conference. Sometimes I enter conference rooms and they look really neat, and I come in, and I make it look untidy, and because that way it feels less set and formal. So, there's a lot of things that I am probably doing in the background that no one is really realizing. And even now articulating it, I just do that. But all of those things are kind of deliberately. They have become part of my methodology to create when you arrive. It's feels like a relaxed space. I look like, I know what I'm doing.
Sometimes it is also about giving a topic first, where everybody could easily say something e.g., if you ask, what do you have in your cup? Because it's something everyone can spontaneously say something about. I have the impression that this is also an element that is quite nice.
“There are so many things on zoom you can mess about with the reactions. You can put an avatar on, and I am not frightened about doing some of those things a bit silly, just to mess about and use a bit of time while people are gathering back from a plenary. I don't take myself too seriously”
Christine Bell: It's definitely not scripted, but we do have like a mug game. So that you show I've got a hedgehog today and let's have a look at what mugs have we got, and then sometimes just asking people to just share something that is on their desk that is blue or red or something like that. I think, the first conversations are usually getting people to share what their expertise is and how it relates to whatever it is we are talking about for that session. So, when we talked about the value, the strategy day, the first conversation that people had was just to share in really small groups, probably in trios, each person just sharing their experience of that organization's values in practice. And that is something I can't debate with you whether that is a good or bad example. So, start with the personal, and then move into the more structured conversation. There are so many things on zoom you can mess about with the reactions. You can put an avatar on, and I am not frightened about doing some of those things a bit silly, just to mess about and use a bit of time while people are gathering back from a plenary. I don't take myself too seriously.
We also realized in a direct comparison between online and offline workshop that it is easier to get creative online, because you can then also just copy a picture. I had a workshop online and the people are really creative. And now I had the same workshop offline, and people were so reluctant to put something on paper, and it was much more difficult to get them to being creative. I think this is an interesting difference.
Christine Bell: Yes, and also sustainability-wise as well, you know, in order to do some of that creative stuff I have had to carry huge amounts of craft materials. And then what you do with those craft materials afterwards, and you know I have done some fantastic creative stuff creating sculptures, using straws and play paper plates and things like that. But I can't use plastic straws anymore from a sustainability point of view. That is also a change as well.
And are you integrating virtual methods like a concept board or something in in-person workshops?
“What I do use is we now capture the output and put it on a padlet, a digital pinboard”
Christine Bell: No, I've not tried doing that. What you will see then is that everyone has to have a laptop on their table, and then the person who has got the laptop has the power, because they are writing into it, or they are all set there with their laptops. That doesn't look like the inclusive environment that you want to use. So, at the moment I'm sticking with post-it notes and flip charts. What I do use is we now capture the output and put it on a padlet, a digital pinboard. And then people can see the output quite easily, and they can view it from their own phones. So I have done that, but not using concept board and things like that actually in the room, yet!
One last aspect: I often think, if we go very strongly towards hybrid or digital, that there is somehow a two-class participation. Some people are really there, and they can meet people face-to-face, and some participate only online. It's like you are second-class participant. How to overcome this? I think it's much more difficult now to also build a network, especially if you have this two classes thing, and it gets more difficult to travel and to justify to travel also.
“I think the whole inclusion exclusion thing is really interesting, because before we never talked about all the people who were excluded from events. (…) All the people who were excluded because they had disabilities, or they had family members they needed to look after. It is kind of curious that we have only really started talking about inclusion and exclusion when it became “oh, yes, but the virtual excludes a lot of people”, and I think that is a curious thing”
Christine Bell: I think it is interesting. I do come back to when I look at my own network. I have got people that I have got to know purely virtually. I think it is maybe a slightly longer burn to get to know people and build that trust. But I think it is possible to do that virtually. I think it will change things. I don't think I have got the answer to that one if I am honest, we're still in evolution about it. I think the whole inclusion exclusion thing is really interesting, because before we never talked about all the people who were excluded from events because they lived too far away. All the people who are excluded because they didn't want to fly anymore. All the people who were excluded because they had disabilities, or they had family members they needed to look after. It is kind of curious that we have only really started talking about inclusion and exclusion when it became “oh, yes, but the virtual excludes a lot of people”, and I think that is a curious thing. That is now a hot topic and yet it wasn't prior. Honestly, it was not in people's thoughts before. What about all the people who couldn't do those 5 day in-person events? What about all the people who actually really struggle to have that close eye contact and face to face stuff. And we didn't think about them at all. That is why I mean, we have to sometimes challenge this assumption that digital is not inclusive, and that face to face is more. I think last year there was a real kick back. That is what I sensed in my work. It was like, no more of this digital stuff. And I think now we are getting back into a more realistic balanced approach where we start to say there are certain things in which we can use this technology to make it more inclusive and to bring more people in and there is a shift.
“What about all the people who actually really struggle to have that close eye contact and face to face stuff. And we didn't think about them at all. That is why I mean, we have to sometimes challenge this assumption that digital is not inclusive, and that face to face is more.”
You can find out more about Christine's work here:
Listen to the interview in full length here