The Long and The Short Of It

42. Facilitation

Episode Summary

Jen and Pete get practical and tactical, sharing a handful of ideas on facilitation.

Episode Notes

Jen and Pete get practical and tactical, sharing a handful of ideas on facilitation.

Specifically, we talk about:

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Episode Transcription

Jen: Hello listeners. As we approach the one year mark for The Long and The Short Of It, we want to thank you so much for making this podcast possible. It is because of you that we show up every week, and we love getting your emails, your messages with feedback, questions, ideas. Keep them coming. We so appreciate it, and thank you for listening.

Peter: Yes, thank you listeners, and happy anniversary, Jen. And happy anniversary to all of you who have been listening. If you are out there and you are interested in finding out more, you can go to our website,, where we have transcripts, where we have contact forms where you can send us a question, and we also have the ability to sign up for our box o' goodies, which will be coming out from August: a weekly email into your inbox, full of podcast recommendations, books, blogs, ideas, and maybe even insights from you, our listeners. So if you want to head there and sign up, that would be amazing. Also, if you are enjoying the episodes, please take a screenshot and send them to a friend and help us find more amazing listeners like you. Thank you, thank you.

Jen: Hello Peter.

Peter: Hey Jen.

Jen: I'm coming at you with a very practical idea this week.

Peter: Alright, alright.

Jen: I thought we might share with each other and with our listeners some group conversation facilitation methods. How can you elicit great conversation, or meaningful, or effective conversation in different ways through different lenses? That's what I want to talk about today.

Peter: I love it. I spend a considerable amount of time facilitating group conversation, so this should be fun. This is The Long and The Short Of It.

Jen: Okay, this one came up because a couple of weeks ago I heard someone on a podcast discussing a facilitation method that he called "question bursting," and - yeah, it's really cool, and so I decided to try it with a group in my studio, and the results were very, very cool. So then I was like, "Wow, I know a bunch of other methods that might be worth sharing, too." And since, as you mentioned, Pete, you facilitate group conversations basically all day, every day, you probably have a bunch of other ideas to share. So I'll start with a question burst, and maybe we can go back and forth.

Peter: Let's do it.

Jen: So the, the way the question burst exercise works is, people get put into trios, and each person brings to the table something that they are struggling with. It could be a, some roadblock you've hit with a project you're trying to figure out a way around, it could be something emotional, it could be whatever, anything that you are struggling with or feel an obstacle is in your way. And the person who is presenting their issue has ten minutes of uninterrupted time during which they speak about the issue from every angle.

Peter: Wow. Ten minutes.

Jen: Yes. Now when I did this, we cut it down to eight, because we had time constraints on the call. So we did eight minutes, but the person who I learned it from said ten. Then the other two people in the group do not speak. They cannot ask clarifying questions at that point, they can't offer anything, they just listen, actively listen. At the end of ten minutes, the other two people in the group have four uninterrupted minutes during which they can only ask questions, they may not make statements, they may not offer advice, and the person who is presenting the issue can't answer the questions, they just have to actively listen to the questions. And at the end of those four minutes, that round is over, and then it moves on to the next person. So I did this with a group, and what was really fascinating is they knew what the exercise was in advance, so they came prepared. But after a certain point, the things that they prepared to say had run out, and that's where the magic happens.

Peter: Totally.

Jen: So that was so fascinating. And then the people who were listening, they're writing down their questions, and they have to fill four minutes of question time, and eventually the questions they wrote down run out, and that's where that magic happens. So I loved this question burst facilitation of conversation, because it left a lot of room for the unexpected to creep in.

Peter: Yeah, I think that is, like, a magical insight, and great facilitation is when there is unexpected answers and questions that come out of a conversation. I love that it's like a, it's a, it's a build on an activity or a, I guess an exercise that I do quite a lot, which, I do it around creating and cultivating empathy, which we've talked about in, I think, episode two. And essentially, I would do breakouts of groups of two, and give everyone five, so they have five minutes each, and one person is only able to, only allowed to ask questions, but the other person is allowed to answer them. So it's a two-way conversation where only one person can ask questions and the other person must answer the questions. And the reason for this, and my assertion on this is that empathy is all about curiosity, and curiosity is all about asking questions. So you go into this conversation seeking to understand something from someone else, and because it's unscripted, you can have absolutely no idea what they're going gonna say. And so you have to practice listening, and then practice asking another question, and practice seeking to understand, which is practicing cultivating empathy. So that's one of my favorites.

Jen: Ooh, I love that. Okay, speaking of questions, I went to an event where there was a topic of conversation, a panel of experts, and an audience of interested people. And the idea was the panel and the audience were going to have this conversation about said topic, and the rule that was implemented was no questions allowed from either side. Everything must be stated as an assertion, no questions. And there was a facilitator who was definitely keeping everyone honest about that. So, if someone phrased something in the form of the question, you would say, "No questions please." And so then that person would have to restate their question as a statement. And what it made me realize is that, and these were the, the topic was a hot topic, like, it was a politically-charged topic that for many people, at least in that hot topic environment, a question was actually a statement in disguise.

Peter: Yeah.

Jen: So, it forced people to come out from behind their question, and just say what they actually thought, which I thought was completely fascinating. And I have borrowed that for certain classroom situations, and have found it to be really effective in certain situations.

Peter: Mmm. Practicing making assertions. I love that. So another, just like, general idea, thinking about facilitation or general concept is - and this works, I guess, probably best when the, when the room or the virtual room is, I would say less than maybe twenty-five people - and that is asking a question and letting every single person in the room answer it, and holding space to let everybody answer the question. And this is like, it's really powerful on so many levels, especially if you ask the right questions. So I will use this often with a question like, "What's the hard part?" or "Where are you stuck?" or, "What are you afraid of?" And what is so interesting is that you get, usually you get about halfway through the people in the room, and you can see the lightbulbs start to go off in people's heads when they realize they're all scared of the same thing, or the hard part is a variation of the same thing, and that they're not alone in their fears, and they're not alone in the doubts they have about the work they do. And all of a sudden, you can, like, almost see this backpack of anxiety slowly come off their back as they realize, like, "Oh, we're all struggling on this together," or, "We're all trying to do the best we can in the situation we have," and it works especially well when, which is often the case, the people in the room all look at each other and respect them and value them and think, "Wow, like, I look up to that person." And then when you have a room of people that are, everyone's looking up to one another and they're all sharing the things that they're, you know, working on that are hard and they're all struggling with a similar thing, it's like the magic kind of happens when they, yeah, they realize that they're all living a shared experience of some sort.

Jen: I have seen you do that, and it, it really is amazing to watch that all unfold. I heard someone offer up a technique right out of Lord of the Rings -

Peter: Okay?

Jen: - which was to have - not Lord of the Rings; Lord of the Flies!

Peter: Lord of the Flies. Very different. Very different.


Jen: Oh my gosh, that's hilarious. So essentially, that you endow an object as giving someone the power to speak. So the talking stick, the talking ball, the talking book, whatever it is, and that you may not speak unless you are in possession of the thing, and the person who is currently in possession has the power to give that thing to someone else. So rather than interrupting each other and constantly looking for, "What am I going to say next?" it sort of forces you into this position of listening and really taking in what is happening in the conversation around you. So I have not tried that one yet, but I am looking forward to doing so, because I, I do think it would be fun in a small enough group where everyone will ultimately get a chance to talk, to see how it plays out when you don't know who's going to be passed the item next.

Peter: Mm. I would say, I actually think you have done this and maybe not realized it.

Jen: I have?

Peter: In a virtual setting. So I'd like you just, unlock something for me, which is, so much of the facilitation that I do at the moment is virtual. So, via Zoom with people all around the world, and so you can't pass a ball from one side of the world to the other. But the rule that I have is everyone is on mute -

Jen: Yeah, me too.

Peter: - except for the, except for the person talking. And so the person talking is off mute. So the person talking essentially has "the ball," in that sense. And I've often wondered, how do you replicate this? How might you replicate this in, like, a workshop where you're all in the same room? And I think you just gave me the idea, which is to use a ball. So I actually think the idea of everyone being on mute and one person not being on mute is kind of the same as one person has a ball and they can throw it to someone else. Often I'll say you "pass the mic" on Zoom. So, Jen, you're speaking, and then you pass the mic to someone else and you say, "Alright, I'm going to pick Pete, and now you're going to speak."

Jen: Oh my gosh, you're right. I totally do that -

Peter: You do.

Jen: - on Zoom. Huh, well there you go.

Peter: I think I've, I could - just some general observations, having listed a few ideas here, something that I know to be true is that really good facilitation is a dance, and to your point earlier you can't, or it's better when people start talking about things that they didn't realize they were going to talk about. And as a facilitator, I think it's best to let go of an expectation of where a conversation should and might go, and instead just, like, treat it as a dance, and create some general guidelines and some rules and some exercises but with no expectation of where it might go. Because often what might happen is, you know, in the ball example, is you might ask someone a question, or you might ask the group a question, to use the example I used, like, "What's the hard part?" and then you realize after ten people have spoken, they've all said they're struggling with imposter syndrome, and so what you can do off the back of that is do another question about imposter syndrome, or what I often do is just give a little riff about how I think about impostor syndrome, which I might not have had any intention of doing when I started the call, but I was able to hear and see what everyone was saying, and then, like, dance with it, and like, oh, adjust, let's talk about imposter syndrome, because clearly it's important to the people in the room. So I think, allowing some slack for what I call, like, "dancing."

Jen: Ooh, I love that.

Peter: How do you think about speaking versus holding space when you're facilitating?

Jen: Well, it's funny because I'm in the middle of this summer program at my studio right now, and I try to be really clear with the people who are participating about what kind of conversation we're having each time. So if it's something where I am speaking - like, I am doing a content lift, I call that a "webinar" - and when we are in conversation and are passing the mic, and I'm asking you a question, and they're really doing most of the talking by answering it, we call that a "community call," and it's just to set the expectation. Like, today you can, you can listen and learn and take notes and really just be a student in this moment, and when we're on the community calls, you're there to be a contributor to, that the quality of the call is determined by the quality of the conversation. You know, you can come to the webinar and tune out, but that's not going to affect someone else's experience, because I'm going to give the same content either way, but when we're on the community call, you've got to show up with a generous and curious posture.

Peter: Mm, I love that. Yeah. I think, I think hearing you make that distinction makes me realize that I think I do - almost ninety percent of my work is the latter, which is creating spaces for other people to generously contribute, as opposed to, I guess, I'm more traditional webinar/lecture of like, "Here is a content lift," and that's just through the nature of my work. So I think that's really interesting, cause I often think about, I often think about, and I'll say this at the start of a lot of my workshops or calls that I'm running, that I'm going to speak for about ten to fifteen percent of the time, and I expect that ninety, or eighty-five to ninety percent of the time will be the people in the room speaking, and that my role was to facilitate and hold space and ask questions and create the conditions for you to connect and collaborate and work with one another and give insights to one another. So that's an interesting distinction, I think.

Jen: Mhm. I have a friend who uses the term "community call in" - and this is when the conversation is going to be on a hot topic; it's something that is pretty triggering - and he came up with this because it felt like the opposite of calling someone out is calling someone in. And I just love that idea. He does these community call ins where everyone is invited to come into the conversation, and I love that distinction. I don't know why that just popped into my mind, but it did.

Peter: I love it. For some reason it sparks another experiment/technique I've used in the past, which is completely unrelated, but for some reason it came into my head. Are you familiar with PechaKucha?

Jen: No, and I'm trying to spell what you just said in my mind's eye, and I literally have no idea what you said.

Peter: P-E-C-H-A-K-U-C-H-A, I believe, is how it's pronounced. It's Japanese, and it's this presentation method where - I'm totally going to butcher this so for those PechaKucha fans out there, I apologize - essentially it's a presentation method where you get, like, five minutes and thirty slides or something, and you have to, like, deliver a rapid presentation in a short period of time. That's kind of the premise. So I've taken that and kind of iterated on it, in that I don't have the slides, but what I will do is do like, these mini presentations, where I will hold, say, three, four minute slots, and ask one person - I usually pre, like, I usually do a pre-warning of like, "Hey, there's going to be four PechaKucha slides, so if you've got an idea that you'd like to share with the group, you've got four minutes. Go." And it's like, it's kind of amazing, is the insight and the, the level of intellect in each individual is so great that, like, if you can create a space where they can share it and just realize that you're not the smartest person in the room, the smartest people in the room are all around you, and your role was to give them space to teach everyone or share knowledge with everyone. I found PechaKucha a really effective way of doing that. So it's like four little, four minute keynotes, if you like.

Jen: This is so wild, because we've literally never talked about this before, but we have these conversations where I'm like, "How is it that we are doing the same thing when we've never talked about it?

Peter: Really?

Jen: The public speaking class that I do, people are asked to bring in four-minute presentations.

Peter: No way.

Jen: Yes. That's so wild.

Peter: That's so cool.

Jen: It really is.

Peter: And that's what we say when we say, "How is it that two opposites can have the same brain?"

Jen: Wild. Wow. Aright, well, I hope that some of these methods are things that our listeners will try out and report back on how they work.

Peter: Yes. Please let us know how you went. Send us an email:

Jen: And that is The Long and The Short Of It.