Trainer's Notebook: Just A Few Participatory Facilitation Techniques | Beth's Blog

Trainer’s Notebook: Just A Few Participatory Facilitation Techniques

Capacity, Tips, Tools and Tactics, Training Design

Recently, a colleague asked me a wonderful question:  How did you learn to become a good facilitator and trainer? Did you read books, take classes, or have a coach? I answered yes to all, but more importantly I think these two methods helped me the most:

  1. Carve out time for reflection after each training and do an after-action review with yourself. Evaluate your content, facilitation, and logistical skills against participant evaluations.  If time is available, also do a plus/delta exercise with participants as a close out to the session.    Measure, evaluate, reflect, and improve.
  2. Be a participant in other people’s training sessions. Conferences are a great opportunity to take workshops and observe the facilitator’s techniques. Many of us do this and take content notes, but it is also great to take notes about instructional design and facilitation techniques.  I typically draw a vertical line down my notebook page, and label each column “Content” and “Instructional Process” to capture both types of notes.   I also pick one thing that I learned in terms of facilitation and commit to trying it out as soon as possible.

At the beginning of the summer,  I taught a master class and workshops with colleague Tharum Bunn from Cambodia at the IFC/Asia.  I also had an opportunity to attend a couple of sessions that used participatory facilitation techniques.  Here’s what I learned.


I was asked to facilitate a small group in a participatory session called “Digital Forum,” designed for peer sharing by Marco Kuntz and Mike Johnson.    The session kicked off with a Spectragram exercise involving the full group.     I learned this technique from Allen Gunn from Aspiration over ten years ago at 2007 Penguin Day.  It is also used in education, although it is called something different, “The Human Continuum.”

The way Spectragrams worked in those days is that the facilitator identified a couple of provocative questions related to the topic being discussed and had people line up as to whether they agree or disagree with the statement.    It is a useful method for getting participants to express a point of view, engage in debate, listen to others and hear another person’s different point of view.   For training where you are focusing on a skill, it allows for folks to express their opinions (negative or positive) and not have debate get in the way of the instructional flow later on.  My colleague, Dirk Slater, has written about how he applies the Spectragram technique in his technology/activist trainings.   Others have also documented and used the technique or taught others how to do it.

If you are new to participatory facilitation techniques, use the Spectagram as an opener and use it to better understand skill levels in the room.  Next, try provocative statements.  To prepare,  come up with statements based on a participant assessment, interviews, or survey and that are related to your training topic.    The statements should express a point of view.

A more participatory approach, and one that Allen Gunn uses, is to crowdsource provocative  questions from participants.  Have them self-organized into small groups of three or four people and use sticky notes to come up with some statements.   Participants volunteer their question for the Spectragram.  As the facilitator, you have give clear instructions to people and keep time.

At the Digital Forum Session at the IFCAsia, we did the Spectagram twice to help to identify different skill levels of participants and their organizations capacity levels.

Four Corners/Brainstorm Small Group Facilitation

The meat of the session was done in small group work using a technique called “Four Corners” where participants go to four different corners of the room to focus on a specific sub-topic. There are different approaches to assigning people to groups and facilitating small group discussions, but it is used to have the same facilitation method for each.

In the Digital Forum, the session organizations recruited people with both subject matter expertise and facilitation experience. We were assigned a topic, but we also also used the same brainstorming and synthesis techniques in each corner.

The topics

1. Social Media (Facilitator: Beth Kanter)
2. New Audiences and Acquisition (Facilitator: Christoffer Holm – Amnesty International)
3. Digital Fundraising (technology, skills and staffing) (Facilitator: Meredith and Martin – Homemade Digital)
4. Content (Facilitator: Kavita and Michael – GlobalGiving)

We had roughly 40 minutes for the small group sessions.   We did a classic brainstorming/SWOT analysis exercise related to our topics.

Each facilitator’s “corner” has two pieces of  flip chart paper on the wall which was divided into a two x two grid and a stack of colored sticky notes.  We were asked to brainstorm ideas in each category, jotting down notes on the post it notes and adding to the wall.

a) Green: Great things you’ve heard of, or done yourself
b) Blue: Things you’ve heard of, or done yourself – that failed
c) Pink: Name all the things getting in the way of (topic)
d) Yellow: Name all the things that you can do to get over those things standing in the way

As with most brainstorming techniques, you get participants to generate as many ideas of possible and categorize the ideas into different clusters or themes.  As a facilitator, there are different ways to do this and they work best depending on the size of the group.   The final task was to do a synthesis, using this fill-in-the-blanks:

The closing part of the session was used for each group to give brief report out  and Q/A.

This approach to brainstorming and synthesis is based on Design Thinking methods.  Here are few nonprofit toolkits that can help you adapt this exercise to your nonprofit.

Round Robin Brainstorming

Michael Gale and Kavita Mathew from Global Giving hosted several sessions on Crowdfunding, including a lunch and learn on Crowdfunding in Asia.  It is always a challenge to deliver an informative and participatory session in less than 60 minutes, but this session succeeded in doing so.

Since it was a lunch session, we were seated in a private area of the restaurant in rounds of about 6-8 people.   We ate lunch first.  Then Michael and Kavita gave a brief overview of crowdfunding in Asia.    The next, they gave each table a sheet of paper and we were asked to brainstorm challenges to crowdfunding and identify what we thought the was the biggest challenge.   We were given approximately 10 minutes.

Next, the facilitators collected each table’s paper and give it to another table.   Next, we were asked to brainstorm ideas to address the challenge.   We were given ten minutes.  Finally, each table reported out on the challenge and their ideas for another ten minutes.  This was followed by group discussion and Q/A.

This design reminded me of a brainstorming technique from Luma Institute called “Round Robin,”  which is inspired by a game played by Surrealists called “Exisquite Corpse.”   All participants are giving a piece of paper to write down an idea for a campaign or strategy, they pass the paper to another in the room who writes down the reason’s why the idea won’t work, and the paper if passed to a third person to revise the idea. Usually this generates many ideas and variations on ideas and you spend the next time identifying the best ideas and fleshing them out.  Here is a simple step-by-step template to follow if you want to try it at your organization.

Does your nonprofit uses participatory design and facilitation at meetings or for trainings?  Share in the comments.

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