People who work with groups wear different hats. I’ve learned a lot from the gym instructors at the London Central YMCA who don’t actually wear hats, yet.
“Don’t give up now, push yourself, see if you can work just a little bit faster”
The YMCA instructors motivate and manage groups of people – mainly office workers – bent on completing a circuit of exercises, safely, and within a set time. They welcome people, they introduce themselves, they explain and demonstrate how to do things. They shout and they laugh. They create a sense of purpose and energy with their physical presence. They use their voice to maintain contact with everyone all the time: “Keep working, push yourself, see if you can work just a little bit faster”. They keep an eye on health and safety. They give feedback to help people improve their performance. And when it’s all over they congratulate everyone and say, “Well done!”
That is more or less what I do when I am working with groups. And these are some of the hats that I imagine myself wearing when I am trying to get people to where they want to be:
A smiling, expansive hat
How you meet and greet participants can have a huge impact on how people work together. Make participants feel truly welcome by being warm, enthusiastic and – above all – smile. I’d like a hat with a bandana that reads: “This is going to be the best meeting ever. Between us we have all the skills and experience that we need to be successful”.
At the start of a meeting I usually tell the group something personal about myself. I try to choose something relevant to the purpose and content of the meeting. Telling a joke against yourself can work. Talking about an intimate body search – as I heard a well-known journalist do recently – is an example of what not to talk about.
Being open and relaxed gives participants permission to lower their guard and talk about themselves, too. Why does this matter? People generally feel more comfortable and connected once they know something about the other people in the room.
A purposeful hat
How you give instructions, the tone of your voice, your facial expression, your body language, the language you use, will impact on participants’ ability and willingness to complete a task. Be encouraging and show that you are interested in people and what they do.
A hat with a mirror
Sometimes when groups are getting a bit stuck, holding up a mirror can help people to see what the blockages are, and give them the energy to do something about it. What you can do is create the space for different voices to be heard. Try saying something like: “What I am hearing is…” or “What I noticed just now…” Then wait for people to say what they think.
A novelty hat to encourage different thinking
Ask questions that help the group to make connections, see the patterns, join the dots. Offering a new model or process can lead to a break through in negotiations. If there is no consensus, and perhaps no agreement on the right question to ask, suggest some criteria for decision-making. Better still, help the group to agree their own criteria.
A hat with a monitor
Use your eyes and ears to monitor the energy levels in the room. How are things going? Maintain contact with the other members of the facilitation team. Check in with your client – are they happy with the outputs for far? Is there anything else they want to have happen? Remind participants what the goals are, acknowledge what has already been achieved, encourage them to make one final push before the session ends.
A battered old hat for a storyteller
Starting a group narrative can help people to make sense of what they are doing and why. Who are we, what are we doing, how, and why? Remember what Churchill said about fighting on the beaches and fighting in the hills. Creating a shared narrative is an essential leadership skill. People need and want to feel connected. And remember to make people laugh. Humour can be a great energiser.
These are only a few of the hats that I wear. What hats do you wear?