"The means is dialogue, the end is learning, the purpose is peace." ~ Founder Dr. Jane Vella

Posts tagged with "Engaging Meetings"

10 Tips for Being a Healthy Board of Directors

Board Meeting

Having the right people at the right time during the life of an organization is a significant accomplishment for any board of directors. Ensuring everyone is working together with a common focus and complimentary efforts is an even bigger accomplishment. Below are some tips for intentionally fostering a well-functioning healthy board.

These tips have been written for not-for-profit boards. However, much is also true for other boards.

(This is the third in a three-part series on boards of directors. See the first two posts: 10 Tips for Being an Effective Board Member and 10 Tips for Being a Strong Board Chair.)

  1. Respect the leadership of the board chair. This person is tasked to ensure the board meets its goals and work plan, facilitate meaningful meetings, as well as support and encourage the work of the executive director, individual board members and board committees. The chair needs your respect and cooperation therefore if there is tension in your relationship with the chair, it should be addressed right away.
  2. Meet regularly. There is always much work to be done. To ensure the ongoing strengthening of your organization, meeting once every 4-6 weeks is important. Meeting regularly means each member knows what is going on, is available to offer timely leadership, and the board accomplishes the goals in its work-plan.
  3. Expect full engagement at each meeting. A board is only able to accomplish work when and if all board members are authentically engaged and active in their responsibilities and volunteer tasks. A board that only comes to approve minutes or receive information of decisions already taken (sometimes known as “a rubber stamp board”), is not helpful in building a strong and healthy organization.
  4. Agree to ongoing confidentiality. Inevitability the board of directors needs to discuss challenging issues concerning staff, the executive director, leadership, stakeholders and clients. It is imperative that everyone commits to and understands that these conversations are confidential and are not to be discussed outside meetings. This code of conduct will help build trust and respect in and outside the boardroom.
  5. Communicate a “single” message. The Board of Directors needs to feel and be seen as having a common message. Whether talking to friends, family members, potential donors, or clients, the messages coming from the individual board members should be clear and consistent. This will help build confidence in the strength and leadership of the board and its members.
  6. Foster community and teamwork. The better your Board of Directors can work together the more you will accomplish. The stronger the sense of community and teamwork, the more likely your board members will be a positive and active participant for their entire term (and beyond!). People need and want to feel like they are contributing to something important – that together they are making a difference.
  7. Agree on a common focus. Whether board meetings and board activities focus on the organization’s vision and mission or the board goals and work plan, a common focus must be at the centre of each discussion.  To ensure this solitary focus, the chair and board members should make it a common practice to review their focus at their meetings.
  8. Hold each other accountable. As part of a team, we need to celebrate our accomplishments as well as hold each other accountable for promised work and agreed on board responsibilities. When the executive director, individual board members, or a board committee agrees to work on something or complete a task, the board needs to feel confident it will be done. It is healthy and helpful for the chair to monitor the progress of all work and hold people/ committees/ teams accountable for assigned tasks. To monitor this effectively and efficiently, the secretary should clearly note all assigned tasks and completion dates in meeting minutes. 
  9. Support your ED or President. This is the responsibility of the Board of Directors, with the chair as lead. Supporting the leadership can include: requesting regular reporting and checking in, annual performance review with concrete recommendations for growth, open and regular communication, and request for specific work to be done. Just as the executive director is responsible for leading his/her staff, the board is responsible for leading its executive director.
  10. Agree on annual goals and a work plan, and evaluate them regularly.  In order for a Board of Directors to effectively and efficiently help an organization and its executive director to grow and flourish, it needs a “roadmap” or plan. Having annual goals and a work plan attached to these goals will ensure you know what you are working toward/for, and how you will get there. An end-of-year formal evaluation of these tools is essential for knowing what the next steps/goals should be. Quarterly reports are also helpful.   

What other tips do you have for creating a healthy board? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Want to make your board meetings more engaging and productive? Join us for a 2014 SURE-Fire Meetings 2-Day Workshop:

May 28-29  |  Raleigh, North Carolina  |  with Karen Ridout

July 10-11  |  Montpelier, Vermont  |  with Peter Perkins

Oct 23-24  |  Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota  |  with Michael Culliton

10 Tips for Being a Strong Board Chair

There is a good reason why board members are not standing in line to be the chair – it is hard work! Below are some tips to help you in this challenging role. It is often true that the stronger the board chair, the stronger the board.

*These tips have been written for not-for-profit boards. However, much is also true for other boards.

(This is the second in a three-part series on boards of directors. See the first post: 10 Tips for Being an Effective Board Member.)

  1. Be prepared. You are the person who holds everything: the agenda and knowing what needs to get done, the action items, the issues-at-hand, the board calendar, the work plan and goals, as well as the health of the board. It’s a lot, so stay organized (email and files) and take time to plan, read, and prepare.
  2. Send the agenda and all supporting documents out well in advance of each meeting. Just as it is important for you to know what needs to be accomplished and have read everything to do so, it is critical that all the board members are prepared. To do this they need time before the meeting to read required materials and consider what issues/ concerns/ questions they wish to raise in the meeting.
  3. Be punctual and manage time well. Ideally you want to be at each board meeting before everyone else. Doing this will allow you to greet everyone, check-in with individuals if needed, and be ready to start on time. Also, time management is essential for the flow and energy of a meeting. It is your job to move things along when the group is blocked, intervene when the group gets sidetracked, and give the appropriate amount of time for each agenda item. You may decide to take an entire hour for 1 agenda item – but be transparent about reasons for this!
  4. Invite input on the agenda. As chair of the board, you are responsible for drafting the agenda, considering all you know about the issues-at-hand, board goals and work plan, as well as action items. However, meeting with the ED/President to hear what he/she also needs on the agenda, as well as asking board members for input before the meeting, is a helpful practice. This can help foster respect and trust on the board.
  5. Be affirming and respectful. You help set the mood and pace of meetings, as well as influence how motivated individuals and teams feel. Affirm tough questions, good ideas, and challenging dialogue – they are all important. Stay professional, and select your words carefully - feeling respected and safe will foster open honest dialogue.
  6. Stay humble. Remember this is not “your show”, but you are part of a team. Sometimes you can feel the “power” of the role… But this can be dangerous. The Board of Directors has nominated you to lead them to successfully complete the organization’s vision, mission, goals, work plan, and agenda; not yours.
  7. Ensure all voices are heard and invited. Sadly, one’s gender, status, ethnicity, or age may at times be used to determine how much one’s voice is invited into a meeting or heard. As chair it is your responsibility to work against this inequality. You need to ensure all voices are heard, invited, and included in a discussion and during question time. It is true that some people don’t feel the same need to talk as others. Some cultures value the tradition of being approached for their views. You may wish to call on people to hear what they think.
  8. Be transparent and honest. Whether you want to spend a lot of time on one challenging agenda item, are only going to invite certain voices into a discussion, or want to offer a summary of what was discussed, it is helpful to be transparent about why you are doing something at a particular time – especially when it is something out of the ordinary. Being transparent about process can help minimize confusion and suspicion, and maximize safety and respect, which leads to sound decision-making.
  9. Listen carefully. During a meeting there may be signs of discontent, confusion, worry, or frustration – you need to listen for these and address them as they arise. During a meeting there may also be opportunities for rest/ pause, celebration, acknowledgement, or action – you need to notice these too and respond appropriately. Remember: The less you talk, the better you can listen.
  10. Plan for and welcome dissent. When people push back, ask tough questions, or voice disagreement, you know they are really thinking about the topic. This is great! Thank people for their thoughts and opinions, and be careful where you encourage more clarity and dialogue and where you need to leave an issue for further discussion to another time.

What tips do you have from your own experience? Share them in the comments section below.

(Want to make your board meetings more engaging and productive? Join us for an upcoming SURE-Fire Meetings 2-Day Workshop!)

10 Tips for Being an Effective Board Member

Everyone strives to have a “full board," but filling the seats is not enough. A board is most effective and healthy when its members intentionally work at their role as board members. Below are 10 tips for board members who want to excel in their role.

*These tips have been written for not-for-profit boards. However, much is also true for other boards.

  1. Be prepared. A board meeting will be more effective, interesting and productive if everyone has thoroughly and thoughtfully read all the material being discussed before the meeting. Whether something is of high or low priority in the meeting, most documents and information are interwoven and connected, and therefor important. The more you know about the work of your board and organization, the better you will be able to offer ideas, make decisions, and volunteer for projects and activities.
  2. Be punctual and attend regularly. We all have numerous commitments and responsibilities – we are busy! To ensure the meeting finishes on time, it needs to start on time. Being punctual shows respect to the board and the work it does (you are saying, “This is important.”), as well as the organization (you are saying, “I care enough to be here and work to strengthen this organization.”). If you need to be late or are not able to attend, inform the board chair. The board will be better able to attend to work when there is a full quorum and punctual attendance.
  3. Be positive and affirming. There is nothing that can demotivate a board member faster than a feeling of not being appreciated or being undervalued. When work is done, it needs to be celebrated. When ideas are shared, they need to be affirmed. Creating a respectful appreciative culture on your board will help maximize the possibility of its member happily attending meetings and enthusiastically serving their full term (and beyond!).
  4. Be respectful. Most boards strive for diverse representation – this is good. However, with this diversity of people (whether cultural, gender, skill sets, experience, age, or faith) will also come diversity of thinking, styles of communicating, and expectations of a board. Affirming different ideas, inviting clarification of diverse thinking, and welcoming all questions will enrich your board, its governance and work, and you.
  5. Be a good listener. We all communicate differently and use language differently. Whether someone speaks softly or loud, uses few words or many, speaks eloquently or simply, each board member deserves to be heard. A healthy board meeting is a safe and respectful space in which everyone’s voice is invited, honoured and heard.
  6. Be a team player. Regardless of how active your board is, there is always work to do. When decisions are made, ideas are shared and recommendations are offered, there are tasks to be picked up – so help out. The old saying is true: “Many hands, make light work.”
  7. Be honest and transparent. There will be times when you are asked to do something you are not comfortable with, or vote on an issue that you don’t fully understand, or participate in something you have questions about. Stop and tell the group. Full transparency and honesty are critical for a healthy well-functioning board, and can foster respect and trust among board members.
  8. Be responsive. Although most board work happens during your regular meetings and in sub-committee meetings, there is often a need to get a response to an issue or question by email, Skype, text or phone. Respond as soon as possible. This can enable further work by board members or others involved, and shows respect to the matters at hand.
  9. Be loyal and a champion for your organization. Most of us are involved in multiple organisations, communities, networks, and social circles, offering constant opportunities to talk about what your organization (of which you are a Board member) does and what you are excited about. Whether you share a link to the organization’s website with a curious friend, invite a colleague to help out with an event, or slip some information to a family member, board members are important advocates for your volunteer organization and the people you serve. Maintain your loyalty to the organization and help build its support community!
  10. Donate regularly. If you believe strongly enough to be a board member for this organization, you should also feel strongly enough to support it financially. This loyalty and congruence is important for your level of commitment (you are saying, “I believe in this enough to give of my time and resources”), and for your messaging (you can say to potential donors, “We need your financial support …. I donate”). How can we authentically communicate that this is a worthwhile place to give generously, if you don’t believe/ practice this yourself?

What other tips do you have for being an effective board member? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Want to make your board meetings more engaging and productive? Join us for a 2014 SURE-Fire Meetings 2-Day Workshop:

May 28-29  |  Raleigh, North Carolina  |  with Karen Ridout

July 10-11  |  Montpelier, Vermont  |  with Peter Perkins

Oct 23-24  |  Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota  |  with Michael Culliton

10 Tips for Making Decisions in the Workplace

Through our years of teaching SURE-Fire Meetings, we’ve discovered how valuable it is for organizations to have a thoughtful approach to making decisions. Here are ten tips.

  1. Get perspective on how important and urgent a decision it is. Most of us live in a rushed work world.  Every decision has got to get made as soon as possible. Really? Step away and check out how important, and how urgent, a decision really is. 
  2. Consider a range of possible decision-making options. Any of the following options are perfectly valid, depending on the nature of the decision and people involved. For example: single-person decides, subgroup decides, vote is used, consensus is sought.
  3. When seeking consensus, define what you mean up front. For example, you might continue to explore and debate until everyone is fully supportive of the final decision, regardless of the time spent on the process. Or, you might seek consensus for a defined period of time after which another decision-making option gets used.
  4. Get clear on the current situation that calls for a decision. For example, if you’re going to decide on a new client survey form, make sure everyone involved is clear about the current form, how its been used, the challenges with it, etc.
  5. Include the right people in the process. It’s a problem when the only people charged with making a decision are doing so for political reason, or by default. Think through who would be the best people to involve in the decision.
  6. Explain whether people have consultative or decisive voice. When you get people involved, let them know if you want them to be part of the final decision (decisive voice), or if you are inviting their consultative voice (i.e. their opinion, their suggestions, their perspective).  
  7. Make all the data available and know that’s never all of it. Get all the data at hand to help inform a decision. If you’re stuck, you need more. And, remember data includes people’s fears, wishes, sense of security etc. It is all data and all plays into a decision.
  8. Estimate when a decision will be made and let people know that in advance. If a decision gets delayed for whatever reason, give people an update. When the decision is made, make sure everyone knows.
  9. Expect and embrace struggle. Sam Kaner offers a great model for participatory decision-making, recognizing the inevitable “groan zone” of the process. We prefer to call it the “growth” zone but, either way, it ain’t easy but it is valuable.The "Growth" Zone from Sam Kaner
  10. Check out some great resources on the topic including the Heath brothers’ book Decisive:  How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, 2013.

What tips do you have for good decision-making? Share your thoughts in the comments section





Learn more about decision-making. Join us for a SURE-Fire Meetings 2-Day Workshop and sign up for our newsletter for more tips and resources.  .

11 Tips for SURE-Fire Telephone Meetings

If you haven’t yet seen this hysterical video that’s been making the rounds lately, do check it out:  A Conference Call in Real Life, by Tripp & Tyler. At GLP, we’d like to help you avoid these nightmares, so here are 11 tips to better telephone meetings.

1.  “All Meetings are Created Equal”    

In the rush from one virtual connection to another, we don’t always prepare for phone meetings in the same way we’d prepare for a face-to-face meeting. We suggest approaching telephone meetings like any other meetings, by preparing for key questions:  Who should be on the call? What’s the purpose of this call? What do we want to achieve by the end of it?

2.  Okay – Who Wants to Facilitate?     

Argh! We don’t like to hear that at the start of a telephone meeting – it immediately makes you start doubting whether the meeting was planned sufficiently. When planning the agenda, consider: Who is the best person to facilitate this meeting? Then, put their name right up top so people know beforehand who’s facilitating.

3.  Visuals Matter More Than Ever     

When preparing for in-person meetings we are usually mindful of the importance of visuals. We realize that the brain processes images faster than words, and remembers them longer, so we prepare visuals to distribute around the room. We suggest doing the same for your telephone meetings: What visuals will help convey key concepts efficiently? How can we best get those visuals in front of people before or during the meeting? We like sending people pdf files before the meeting, with a request to have them handy during the meeting.

4.  Find the Right Technology     

You’ve got options for telephone meetings and each one affects the meeting differently. For example, telephone-only has the advantage of letting people call in from anywhere and is usually free/cheap, but a computer-based platform lets people see each other and/or see the same visuals on the screen. At GLP, for our computer-based telephone meetings, we often pre-load files onto the shared space, use shared desktop, and/or share files in real time.

5.  More about Technology     

The last tip probably raised a bunch of questions for you, right? When it comes to technological options, the questions are endless – because the possibilities are endless: “What’s the best way for people to work simultaneously on a document during a meeting? How do you like Adobe Connect? Is it better than WebEx?” The questions certainly go beyond the scope of these 11 tips, but we will say this:  Focus first on the purpose of your telephone meeting and get your meeting achievements crystal clear. Then, decide what people will need to do together during the call and choose a technology accordingly.

6.  Create a Culture of Homework     

Yes, just like your teacher did in the first grade, create a social norm that people do their homework before they attend the meeting. As facilitator it’s on you to make sure the meeting achievements are set with enough lead time for you to decide what kind of homework would be most helpful. Send it out with plenty time, telling people how the homework will feed the dialogue and/or decisions to be made on the call.

7.  Decisions     

Did I say decisions? Decisions on a phone meeting get made all the time but, even more so than in face-to-face meetings, there often seem to be different recollections of what got decided, if anything. So, how about making sure you have a note-taker on the telephone meeting and preserve time before the end of the call to review the following: Were any decisions made? If so, what were they? Keep the meeting notes super brief or no one will read them. Send them to all meeting participants right after the call with an invitation to review them for differences of perception.

8.  Facilitation     

Giving advice to facilitators of telephone meetings is tough because everyone has their own style and there certainly isn’t one way to do it. Consider opening up with some guidelines for the phone call (which can be simply revisited as a quick reminder for groups who meet regularly). In drafting these guidelines the group will agree about questions such as whether to say who you are before talking and whether to put the line on mute when not talking.  But, you can also include in the guidelines requests you have as a facilitator, such as not talking over each other and not being afraid of a bit of healthy silent reflection on the line!

9.  Introversion     

At GLP, we’ve been paying a lot of attention lately to the value of “solo flights of thought” to quote Susan Cain. That is, the value of having time to sit and think about something before talking about it. While this may be tough for extroverts, it’s good for them! And, it’s essential for introverts to be at their best.

So, how about:

A) sending people ideas and questions in advance of the call for them to ponder;

B) creating time on a call for some breathing room; and

C) periodically asking the group whether they want to comment on anything that was already discussed, in case some more thoughts have come to them since it was first addressed?

10.  Enough Already!     

No matter how engaging the telephone meeting, people will need a break after less time than they would an in-person meeting. How much is too much for you on telephone meetings: 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes? Usually after this, folks have had enough. Consider breaking a meeting into two or more parts with a break of anywhere from 15 minutes to a day in between!

11.  Be S.U.R.E.     

We’d be remiss if we finished these 10 tips without reminding you of GLP’s SURE-Fire Meetings principles:  Safe, Useful, Respectful and Engaging. For each telephone meeting, ask such questions as:  How can we make sure everyone on-the-line feels safe jumping in and sharing their perspectives openly? What will make this telephone meeting most useful right now? How can we best respect these folks’ time and experience on the call?  How can we make it most engaging, especially if we can’t see each other on the call?

What tips do you have to create better telephone meetings?

2014 SURE-Fire Meetings 2-Day Workshops:

May 28-29  |  Raleigh, North Carolina

July 10-11  |  Montpelier, Vermont

Oct 23-24  |  Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota

6 Tips for Using PowerPoint to Engage People in Dialogue

PowerPoint. We love it. We hate it. We abandoned it to flirt with Prezi. Then we came back.

It's like that relationship we know is not good for us, but we keep it on speed dial.

So, we won't give you the long list of how not to use PowerPoint. You've been there and you could write that one. (But this Gettysburg Address example is worth seeing if you haven't already).

Here is a list of how to use PowerPoint and still get the kind of engagement you want with your presentations.

  1. Consider not using it. (Sneaky, I know, but at least consider it). If it does not enhance your presentation in meaningful ways, don’t use it at all. It has a bad reputation and people have come to expect that they will be passive and unengaged when the first screen comes up. You will have to work against that in the first few seconds.
  2. Set it up with an open question (i.e. “As you look at the numbers, be thinking about how they will impact the work in your own department in the short term.”).
  3. Use it to visually communicate what you are presenting (that is not the same thing as “textually” communicating). Images stick in our minds, for instance, and some graphs can help people to make meaning of complex concepts.
  4. Use text that the group needs to see in order to react to it. (And then give them time to do just that). i.e. “Read through this description of the product we are considering purchasing. What jumps out at you from this description? What features are most important to your team?" (Hint, if the text is too long to fit on a slide, use a hand out or a pre-read instead.)
  5. Intersperse it with dialogue (i.e. "Which of the policies that we’ve outlined so far might be a challenge for you? Why?").
  6. Divide it into short chunks (no more than 10 minutes) around core concepts. People won't stay with you much longer than that.

Above all, remember this.

Your PowerPoint is not your presentation. It is a visual aid to your presentation.

What are your best PowerPoint tips? Worst cases?! Show us some examples in the comments section below.


Hey, good news! We messed up the original Early Bird deadline for The Art of Facilitation, which means you have until September 10th to save yourself $80 on registration! The course is October 10-11, 2013 in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.

Upping the Ante on Brainstorming: 5 tips to increase group creativity and productivity

Next time I’m planning an idea-generating session, I’ll consider suggesting that we invite a few new people to the group who can offer a novel take. Maybe I’ll even throw a rubber chicken into the circle when things are running along a predictable path! ~ Michael Culliton

For years I have used “brainstorming” to help groups generate creative responses to important and challenging situations. Recently, I’ve run across several things that have led me to realize that if I really want to help groups cultivate and amplify creativity, then I need to do some things differently.

The journey began with reading James Zull’s The Art of Changing the Brain as preparation for Dr. Jane Vella’s plenary session, “The Biology of Learning,” at the October 2013 International Dialogue Education Institute. This has heightened my curiosity about learning, creativity and the brain and led me to, among other things, a fascinating interview with Rex Jung, a professor of neurosurgery and a clinical neuropsychologist talking about creativity and the everyday brain.

It was in the interview with Dr. Jung that I heard the bad news:  my beloved brainstorming was not a healthy host for creativity. The studies supporting this conclusion are presented in a New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer, “Groupthink: the brainstorming myth.” (If you are interested in a thorough and nuanced explanation of the research mentioned below, I highly recommend the article.)

Based on the research presented in the article, here are five things I plan to do differently.

  1. STOP using the term “brainstorming.” As far back as 1958, a study at Yale University showed that the process doesn’t yield the best results within a group. So, I think it’s time to give it up. I’m not sure what to call the revised process of creative idea generation just yet (any ideas?).
  2. Ask people to engage in “solo” idea-generation first.  Subsequent research at Northwestern University confirmed the Yale study and also showed that a group produces a greater number and better quality of ideas when people generate a solo list of ideas first and then bring them to the group. (Sorry fellow extroverts!)
  3. When the solo ideas are brought to large group, introduce a “debate condition.” Studies done in 2003 at Berkeley found that ideas and actions are more effective when they are vetted via a process that allows for questioning and challenge. (Farewell my sweet brainstorming guideline of “No judging, analyzing, or evaluating of ideas!”) Given the principle of “safety,” as a Dialogue Education practitioner I’ll need to experiment with structures that allow ideas to be vetted while honoring this important principle.
  4. In group idea-generating conversations, experiment with ways to interject “errant responses” that have the potential to interrupt predictability and foster “aha’s.” The same Berkeley researcher mentioned above found that “unfamiliar perspectives,” as well as “unexpected” – even wacky – responses, can help groups think their way off of well-worn paths. Next time I’m planning an idea-generating session, I’ll consider suggesting that we invite a few new people to the group who can offer a novel take. Maybe I’ll even throw a rubber chicken into the circle when things are running along a predictable path!
  5. Structure meeting and break-times in ways that foster more mixing and happenstance. Recent studies at Harvard University suggest that physical proximity and spontaneous interactions foster creativity. This has led me to wonder how I as a Dialogue Education practitioner can better structure meeting and break-time environments to increase the opportunity for people to interact with a greater number and variety of people. For starters, in designing meeting processes, perhaps I’ll make greater use of tasks that invite people to share “cocktail party style” or “speed-dating fashion.” Maybe I’ll put the beverages at one end of the room and the snacks at the other.

I’m looking forward to playing with these changes in the idea-generation process and to discovering how these revised practices help me and the groups of which I am a part to be even more creative and productive.

What ideas come to mind for you?

What might a Dialogue Education-based idea-generation process, one that puts the research outlined above into practice, look like?

How might a Dialogue Educator introduce such a practice to a group or in meeting?


Michael Culliton, GLP Partner, is co-facilitating a session entitled Educational Jujitsu for the 21st Century: Applying User Research and Design in Learning at the Learning & Change International Dialogue Education Institute, Oct 24-27, 2013 in Baltimore, MD, USA, where he's also offering one-on-one private consultations.

You can also work with Michael is an upcoming workshop:  Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach   |   October 1-4, 2013   |   San Diego, California

What Do You Think Causes Malaria? Asking Questions Appropriately

The other day I had a conversation with an international DE practitioner who really got me thinking. She said: 

The GLP approach is great -- I believe in dialogue and open questions to make dialogue happen. But, people also need information! Especially in the fields of public health and financial literacy, there are right and wrong answers to questions. The dialogue approach I've seen poses questions to which any answer is correct and that's just not always the case. It's not useful to ask "what do you think causes malaria?" The people in our groups are busy trying to make ends meet -- they want to talk but they also came to learn something -- not just talk. I'm not sure the dialogue approach is right for that.

Well, I agree with her wholeheartedly -- and not at all.

Over the years, I've also seen many practitioners needlessly pose questions to which there is a correct answer. I think people understand that engaging learning involves asking questions and as a result they can become so intent on asking instead of telling that they can go too far and ask what could more easily be told. For instance:

  1. How does the pill work to prevent pregnancy?
  2. How do companies calculate credit score?
  3. What is official poverty rate in your city?

Any one of us could generate a zillion and one questions to which there is indeed a correct answer. But these are typically not the questions we want to pose to learners (unless, of course, our learners are taking a test to pass an exam as a public health nurse, a financial advisor, or a worker for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

Dialogue Education practitioners need not feel shy about telling instead of asking. The trick – as described years ago by our very own Dr. Jane Vella – is this:

Don't tell what you can ask. Don't ask if you know the answer - tell in dialogue.

That's always been a tough axiom for folks to grasp in our introductory course. And, I dare say, it's a hard one for even some seasoned Dialogue Education practitioners to fully internalize. 

Here's how I might transform the three questions above from simple asking to telling in dialogue, with this axiom in mind.

  1. Watch this video clip that shows the action of a pill to prevent pregnancy. How does this alter your perspective about when life begins?
  2. Study this pie graphic showing six factors that contribute to credit score. Which of these factors do you imagine has most influenced your personal credit score?
  3. Examine this chart comparing poverty rates in 5 U.S. cities (adjusted for differences in the definition of poverty). What surprises or alarms you?

This was fun! It's much more rich, as a designer, to provoke dialogue around facts than to try and "fish" for information from people who came to you to learn that very information.

How might you transform the question "What Causes Malaria?" into a rich dialogue?


Valerie Uccellani is a Senior Partner with Global Learning Partners.

4 Simple Suggestions for Better Meetings

I’m the president of a non-profit board of trustees and before I took the helm our meetings were primarily show-and-tell sessions:  the director showed and told and we sat passively and listened, contributing ideas when we were asked. That was then. 

Fast-forward to now. I remember the moment when, after months spent introducing some SUREFire Meetings practices into our group, I realized our board culture had shifted for good – here’s what I saw:

  • Every single person was up from the table, posting ideas on the wall;
  • An enthusiastic and constructive dialogue was taking place as people worked;
  • As facilitator I completely disappeared from people’s consciousness – this was their meeting!

To be honest, I don’t use everything I learned in SUREFire Meetings, one of the courses offered by Global Learning Partners, but I use just enough to make a difference (and aspire to use even more – practice, practice!). Here are a couple of suggestions, based on small things I did that made a difference:

  1. Prepare & Seek Input – E-mail everyone in advance and ask for their input on the agenda (feedback on the draft and additional items to add).
  2. Plan for Reactions – Know that people have reactions when information is presented (whether it’s invited or not), so plan in advance a specific way to ask them to react – people feel more comfortable when they know their role, so spell it out for them and steer them in the right direction. Ask open questions!
  3. Engage – During the meeting, break up the usual round-table discussion with small groups or pairs work so everyone’s voice can be heard. For example:  In pairs, describe the new policy in your own words. Back in the larger group, what are your questions about the new policy?
  4. Be Respectful – Start and end on time, with periodic check-ins during the meeting; it sounds so simple but think how often it doesn’t happen – respect people’s time!

What have you done to make your meetings better?

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT:  There's only ONE SURE Fire Meetings course in 2013, and it's fast-approaching! March 21-22 in Stowe, VT (still good skiing at that time!). Check it out!

10 Ways to Get Some Quick Feedback

As a facilitator, it is important to get feedback from the group you’re working with to hear what they think of both the content they are learning and how they are learning it. Here are some ideas for gathering feedback that don’t take much time. For each of these, you only need to hear a sampling of responses. Of course it’s just as important that you are prepared to act on the responses, should something important need to be addressed. Check out GLP’s myriad downloadable resources for more information on facilitation.

  1. How I Feel  |  “Take a minute on your own to think about how you feel right now…. In the large group, call out the word or phrase that expresses how you feel about the session today.”
  2. What was New  |  “In the large group, let’s take a minute to hear one thing that was new for you today.”
  3. What Worries You  |  “In the large group, let’s take a minute to hear one thing that worries you about what you heard today.”
  4. What Surprises You  |  “In the large group, let’s take a minute to hear one thing that was surprising to you today.”
  5. Your Questions  |  “At this point in our program, what one question do you hope gets answered before we finish?”
  6. What Bothers You  |  “After all we learned today, what do you think is most misunderstood about the topic we’ve been studying?”
  7. I Want More  |  “After today’s session, what do you want to learn more about?”
  8. Your Session  |  “What went well for you today for you?” and,“What suggestions to you have to our next session that would help your learning?”
  9. Check Energy  |  “Let’s rate our energy at this point in time by indicating it on our fingers:  from 1-10, with 10 being the highest, what is your energy?” (All at the same time, everyone should hold up their hands to show their number.)
  10. Checking in Privately  |  Sometimes it is wise to check in on someone who is concerning you (whether you are wondering about interest, engagement, relevance, or something else). During a break, just ask, “How is the course working for you so far?” or “You seem to still have some questions or concerns about what we were doing. I’d love to hear what they are if you have a minute.”

What methods do you employ to gather some quick feedback during your learning events? What advice do you have for facilitating the responses to any of these 10 tips?

If you’d like to learn more, check out GLP’s Professional Development Opportunities – we’ve got a great slate of learning events coming up soon!

5 Tips for Working With Small Groups

Dialogue Education™ can work with any group size,  but may look different depending on how big or small your group is. Here are a few things to keep in mind when working with small groups.

  1. Continue to use smaller groups or pairs. Avoid the temptation to have all dialogue happen within the full group no matter how small. Learners may still feel reluctant to be the first to share with the whole group even when the group is small. If the group is quite small try splitting the group in two or using pairs for initial discussions and then hearing a sample as a whole group.
  2. Be prepared. Plan ahead if you know or suspect that the group may be small. Make sure that your “How” or your design will work with a small number of people. Adapt any tasks that rely on a larger number of learners.
  3. Use Energizers. Without the buzz of dialogue that comes with a large group it can be easy in a small group for the tone to become more subdued. Inject energy through music,  change,  movement and humour.
  4. Ensure all voices have space. In a small group,  strong personalities may become more overpowering and impact the safety of the group. Refer to the “10 Types of Learners” for strategies to respond to various learner personalities. Be sure to continue to invite,  not expect,  participation in group dialogue so that learners don’t feel pressured to speak up.
  5. Make it Safe. Small groups can tend to feel more intimate. This can be a great atmosphere for learning – if safety is adequately established. Be sure to create group guidelines together,  use a warm-up,  keep it relevant but light at the beginning,  and don’t get too personal too soon.

What tips do you have for working effectively in small groups? Share them below in the comments section. And if you missed it,  check out last week's post,  5 Tips for Working in Large Groups.


Want to deepen your learning even further? Explore our Advanced Learning Design workshops! It counts toward fulfilling the requirements towards becoming a Certified Dialogue Education Practitioner.

5 Tips for Working in Large Groups

Dialogue Education can work with any group size,  but may look different depending on how big or small your group is. Here are a few things to keep in mind when working with large groups.
  1. Match the WHERE with the WHO. When you know you have a large group coming to an event it is critical to find a space to allow everyone to sit and move around comfortably,  which enables you to easily work in groups. The learning environment has a direct impact on what types of tasks you can execute and how. If you have no control of the space,  limit the number of people. If you have no control of either,  find ways to have groups move to other nearby spaces for various tasks or portions of tasks.
  2. Sample. When work,  debate,  and engagement with new content has happened in groups,  there is no need to share everything again in the large group. The learning has already happened;  the time in the large group can be used to hear a summary of the work,  OR general observations about what happened,  OR pressing questions. This can be done by quantifying the responses (e.g. “Let’s hear one idea from each small group”) or hearing a few examples of what was discussed (e.g. “We’ll hear a few of your strategies”). Long periods of time talking in the large group can de-energize,  give select (often articulate and powerful) people time to talk, and exclude many voices.
  3. Use individual or reflective work. In addition to small group work,  time to work independently can help learners to individualize the learning by analyzing how it fits within their context and planning how they will use what they are learning. It can be helpful to follow up individual work by hearing a sample from the group.
  4. Ensure safety. Many learners do not feel comfortable sharing within a large group setting,  unless safety is well established. When facilitating dialogue or sampling within the large group,  invite participation but don’t require it (those who want to speak up will),  give lots of affirmation to those who do contribute without taking anything away from those who don’t,  have opportunities for learners to share in small groups or pairs before sharing in the large group and begin with open questions that invite dialogue about topics familiar to the learners.
  5. Use more pair,  trio and small group activities. The best way to raise all voices,  engage everyone at the same time,  and make all learners feel included is by using pair,  trio or small group work. Learning happens when new content is challenged,  debated and used. Reducing the size of a group by dividing it up is a great way to do this. It is also very energizing!

What has been helpful for you in working with large groups?


Deepen your Dialogue Education knowledge and skills. Explore our Advanced Learning Design workshop.

Respecting Others in the Age of Distraction

Tom James the unicycling juggler. . .I have to confess that in a conference call meeting the other day I found myself multi-tasking instead of paying careful attention. I justified it to myself by only doing it during agenda items that didn’t completely involve me. Still, I was clearly distracted! After trying a few times to do more than one thing I took a breath, reminded myself how disrespectful I was being to the other participants, and focused again on the conversation at hand. In an earlier post I wrote about the difficulties we have with multi-tasking, about how switching from one task to another is wildly distracting. More and more I believe this is true. Jim Taylor from Computerworld says that “multitasking is a big fat lie:”

Multitasking, as most people understand it, is a myth that has been promulgated by the "technological-industrial complex" to make overly scheduled and stressed-out people feel productive and efficient.

 So how do we refrain from the temptations of multi-tasking when we’re in a virtual meeting? Eilene Zimmerman, in a New York Times article – Staying Professional in Virtual Meetings – suggests the following: 

  • prepare in advance for the meeting and actively participate just as you would in a face-to-face meeting;
  • use the mute button only to cut out distracting noises in the background (ie NOT to mute the sound of your keyboard as you check your e-mail!);
  • if you find yourself constantly asking for clarification or for questions to be repeated, take that as a sign that you’re not paying attention – focus;
  • there’s sometimes a delay on the line, so preface your remarks with an intro like “excuse me” or “question” and wait to be recognized.

If you have trouble focusing you might consider getting focus: a simplicity manifesto in the age of distraction, the new free e-book by Leo Babauta. It’s full of great advice for minimizing distractions and staying focused on the moment. How many of you Dialogue Education practitioners have tossed the principle of respect right out the window by multi-tasking during virtual meetings? Come up, ‘fess up! I can’t possibly be alone! [This post was written with single-minded, laser-beam focus, without allowing any distractions . . . oh, except for the three times the phone rang and I checked caller ID to see who was phoning.]

You might also consider learning how to apply the principles and practices of Dialogue Education in an online setting by registering for Dialogue Education Online - hurry, though, it starts on January 24, 2013!!

The iPhone vs. Dialogue Education

How many of you facilitators want to frisk your participants before a learning event so you can strip them of their iPhones (or Blackberries or Palm Pilots or . . . )? No more sneaking peaks at e-mail during the warm-up tasks, no checking the weather while another team is practice teaching, no calling in for voice messages during the break . . . ah, wouldn’t that be fantastic?

People think that because they’ve spent years learning how to multi-task, they can easily pay attention to a facilitator, their iPhone, and their learning partner all at the same time. Guess what? They can’t. According to Dr. Earl K. Miller, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, you can only truly focus on one thing at a time. What we think of as multi-tasking is actually just switching our focus from one thing to the next, albeit with incredible speed. But what this means is that if someone is engaged in a group conversation while simultaneously texting a friend, they are really only able to pay attention to one thing – either they don’t hear all that’s said in the group or they send their friend a garbled text message. Dr. Miller says that one reason for this is that if our brains are trying to perform similar tasks at once – like communicating orally and in writing – our brain is competing with itself to use that brain function and it’s “nearly impossible to do [two similar things] at the same time.” And then, of course, the brain gets tired and overwhelmed.

Listen to this brief piece from NPR’s Morning Edition:  Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again. Next time you frisk your students, tell them you’re simply trying to provide their brains with an oasis of focus – a welcome break for their weary minds – in their typically chaotic, multi-tasking world.

Have you forbidden mobile hand-held devices in your classroom? Do you turn off your own while you’re teaching (even on breaks)? See the comments section, below, too, for a link to Dwayne Hodgson's post about how TO use the iPhone in the classroom!