Creating common ground for working together – what it needs and why it matters

May 17, 2017 | Blog Admin | Methods & Tools |


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Workshop space is precious space we want to use wisely. Creating the right conditions is the facilitator’s job. It is part of the design process to think about how to create these conditions and the ambiance conducive for working and learning together in a productive and inspiring way. In this blog post, we share our reflection on what it takes and why it matters to create a common ground for working together.

By Jany Barraut, Beyond Boundaries and Nadia von Holzen, Learning Moments

Think back to the last workshop you attended or facilitated. How was the atmosphere? Were people engaged? Was it collaborative? How did you work together? Could you sense a spirit of openness, curiosity and mutual trust throughout the event?


In March we organized a 2-days facilitation training with SDC staff members who are facilitating internal workshops. The ambiance was relaxed, amicable and reflective. There was curiosity in the room as well as a little excitement. Long before the facilitation training started, we asked ourselves many questions regarding the workshop’s purpose, the participants, and the process :

*How can we help create a collective understanding of what we are aiming to achieve through the workshop?
*How can we create the appropriate climate?
*What’s the best “container” we could create to help work towards the workshop’s purpose?
*How can we invite participants to collaborate?

In this blog post, we share our reflections on what it takes and why it matters to create a common ground for working together:

Create collective clarity around what we are aiming to achieve

Before the workshop, clarify together with key stakeholders, what you are aiming to achieve. Be mindful of one’s assumptions and interpretations. Explore different perspectives, and inquire, through conversations until you reach alignment and shared understanding.

Part of this process could happen online, but this is by no means sufficient in itself, as you would be missing the generative process of conversations and the relationship building dimension that is important during the phase leading to the workshop.

At the start of the workshop, together with the participants, align on objectives and intended outcomes. There is an opportunity to gather expectations, or a possibility to confirm with the group the type of outcomes one would like to achieve together.

In our facilitation training, we connected to the participants during the design process to understand their experiences, expectations, questions and to create opportunities to involve them in a proactive way. This exchange by mail and phone was valuable for both sides. And, we started the 2-days training in the circle with an opening question: ‘What in your development journey brings you here? What is your edge?’

Thinking of the climate we want to create – and how we will do this

It is important to think how you will open the workshop through the first session, and who will do this. Be aware that what you say, how you say it, your tone, body language and the behaviours you are displaying, all have have a certain impact on the group. The way of opening could support or hinder the atmosphere you are aiming to create.

For the facilitation training, we designed for a “workshop world” that would be creative, experimental and collaborative. Conversation and practice was at the centre, supplemented by short teaching and mindful moments.

Creating the best “container” for our purpose

Creating a space – a “container” – that allows the collective wisdom to emerge requires some preparation. This design process is guided by the purpose of the workshop. Based on the clarification of what you are aiming to achieve, it will be clear which kind of “workshop world” – or in other words, which kind of “container”, environment and atmosphere you need to create.

At the facilitation training we consciously built on the power of sitting in a circle to help create the type of environment we needed for sharing and learning together. The circle meant coming together to listen and share. Participants had many opportunities to be in conversation in small groups, as well as in pairs and triads.

Inviting participants to collaborate

There are different ways to invite participants in a “motivating” and “non-threatening” way, and to create the conditions for effective collaboration and learning; for example:

*Prepare some “guidelines” on how you will be working together that are proposed to the group;
*Define together with the group the “spirit” you would like to encourage to work with,
*Propose some “principles of engagement” and invite the group to enrich and complement;and define how they will help make this happen.

Ground Rules

At the beginning of the facilitation training, we talked about how we want to work together as group in a productive and creative way. The word “ground rules” triggered some interesting discussions. The group came up with the agreement to replace it with “How we work together”  what is the spirit that will guide our interactions.

* Approach the conversations with an open mindset
* Treat the conversations with confidentiality
* Support each other’s learning; listen with attention – speak with intention
* Respect the work the group is doing; leave smartphones and laptops outside of the workshop room
* Share responsibility for learning and well-being

What is your experience with creating common ground for working together? What are your ideas on this?


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