By Jennifer Hofmann and Nanette Miner, Ed.D.
A fatal flaw in facilitation training: Facilitators may believe they are responding and encouraging discourse in their sessions but in reality, their responses often lack enough depth or insight to truly facilitate learning.
Phrases such as:
- "That's interesting."
- "I agree."
- "Yes, I've experienced the same thing."
- "Thank you for that contribution."
- "Good dialogue!"
don't exactly help learners.
Where have you heard these lines before? Perhaps in a training class? Perhaps they came out of your own mouth?
We've noticed many virtual facilitators who respond in ways that sound similar to the quotes above. They may believe they are responding appropriately and encouraging participation and conversation but in truth, these types of responses lack the content necessary to actually facilitate learning or learner engagement.
Changing your comments to be more effective and appropriate is one of the vital facilitation training skills. Here are some examples to do just that.
A Humorous Example
You may have seen a humorous e-mail circulating regarding pilots who left notes to their ground mechanical crews regarding potential safety issues they encountered during their flight. A typical exchange goes like this:
Pilot: "Funny noise from panel when thrusts engaged."
Mechanic: "Funny, indeed."
The pilots are trying to contribute, but they are met with sarcasm and indifference. As a facilitator, you run the same risk when you use these types of phrases; you pacify people by acknowledging their response(s) but run the risk of being perceived as disingenuous. It's funny to look at such an exchange as an observer, but in reality, the mechanics would have been more helpful if they had asked questions such as:
• "What occurred before the noise started?"
• "Have you experienced this before?"
• "What does it sound like (loud, soft, repetitive, sporadic, squeak, thud)?"
• "What happens after the noise begins?
Why Don't We Know What to Say?
Following an instruction to encourage group discussion, leader's guides often say, "Comment appropriately."
When you lead people down a path that fosters dialogue, it is your responsibility to make sure the dialogue happens. Perhaps the instruction to "comment appropriately" is where the dilemma lies — perhaps trainers don't truly understand what the phrase means.
Here are a few examples of appropriate and inappropriate responses that might assist you the next time you facilitate a program.
Virtual Learner: "In my last job, we would make product upgrades based on customer feedback."
Virtual Facilitator (inappropriate): "That's interesting. Any other comments?"
Why is this response inappropriate? The facilitator is telling the audience it's interesting, but not why it is interesting. The facilitator is also missing the opportunity to incorporate the comment into the content of the program, and make it a learning point others may be able to emulate.
Virtual Facilitator (appropriate): "What was the data collection process and when did it enter the workflow?"
Virtual Learner: "I don't think a manager can motivate someone else — motivation is a personal thing."
Virtual Facilitator (inappropriate): "I agree."
This is inappropriate because the facilitator's response doesn't address the participant's point. Personal or not, how can we create a situation in which that participant can be motivated by a manager?
Virtual Facilitator (appropriate): "Let's explore that further. What motivates you as an employee?"
Then, redirect to the entire group: "We've heard what motivates Mark, does anyone have a suggestion for how a manager could foster this type of motivation?"
Virtual Facilitator: "What types of disasters have you experienced during an online learning class?"
Virtual Learner: "My computer crashed, I couldn't find the tech support number, and I was frustrated."
Virtual Facilitator (inappropriate): "I've experienced the same thing."
Why is this inappropriate? The training isn't about the facilitator's experiences. We need to know what the "remedy" is and how participants might prevent future "disasters."
Virtual Facilitator (appropriate): "What did you learn from your experience and how can you prevent it in the future?"
Virtual Learner: "Customer service is a myth nowadays. People's jobs have been reduced to tasks. They don't raise their heads above the task to see the whole customer experience — so how can they possibly be expected to improve it?"
Virtual Facilitator (inappropriate): "Thank you for that contribution."
This is just an acknowledgement that someone has spoken; the facilitator hasn't agreed, disagreed, or offered any food for thought. A participant on the receiving end of such a mundane response actually might be discouraged from offering an opinion again, because he may feel the facilitator isn't really listening.
Virtual Facilitator (appropriate): "What do others think?"
Virtual Facilitator: "How many of you have experienced conflict in the workplace? Let's hear some examples."
(Participant(s) provide examples.)
Virtual Facilitator (inappropriate): "Good dialogue!"
What's "good" about the dialogue? How does it relate back to the content? Is this just a gripe session, or is there a purpose to the discussion?
Virtual Facilitator (appropriate): "Conflict is a natural occurrence in the workplace; sometimes it is interpersonal and sometimes it is caused by the environment. Today, we'll explore a resolution process, and try to apply it to the issues you just brought up."
Wrap Up: Facilitation Training Skills 101
Facilitators generally accept that dialogue and contributions from participants should be encouraged and welcomed — but that's not the end of the process. For true collaboration and learning to take place in the classroom (virtual or otherwise), participant contributions need to be more than just heard, they need to be incorporated into the learning process.
So the next time you hear yourself saying, "Thanks for sharing," follow up with a response that generates discussion and deepens the audience's understanding of the content.
That's what "comment appropriately" really means.
Interested in learning more about facilitating in the virtual classroom? Click on the graphic below to read about our Virtual Classroom Facilitation Mastery Series course and learn how you can earn your Virtual Classroom Facilitator Badge.