All-Star Facilitator Series

How to Read a Group

Sam Killermann

All-Star Facilitator Series

This is an one of the many lessons in our All-Star Facilitator Series, designed to help social justice educators improve their skills. Click here to see the rest of the posts, or if you have an idea for a lesson get involved. Note: this series spun off into our book, Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation — where we expand on some of these lessons, and include others.

When I first started performing stand-up comedy, someone gave me a piece of advice: good comedians aren’t the ones who know how to talk the best, but the ones who know how to listen. Admittedly, I didn’t understand the advice (even a little bit) until I started facilitating group discussions a year or so later. The best comedians and the best facilitators, in this case, have a lot in common: they know how to read and respond to a group. And to do that, you have to know how to listen.

I would get onstage and if I had 15 minutes to perform, I would spend roughly 14 minutes of that time talking. As I got more comfortable and funnier, I managed to get that talking time down to something like 13.75 minutes (because I was killing it with the extra .25 minutes of laughs, obviously). It was bad. I didn’t give the crowd any time to think, digest, let alone laugh.

I did the same thing with group discussions. I would go from one facilitation question to the next, asking follow-ups in rapid succession, get an answer from the group then move on. Or, if nobody answered, I would provide the answer myself. From the group standpoint, it was probably intense (sorry, y’all). I didn’t give them any time to think, digest, let alone to learn.

Fortunately, thanks so some good training I went through as an orientation leader, I was introduced to the importance of silence. We used an acronym WHALE, where the first two letters (if I’m remembering correctly) stood for “Wait” and “Hesitate.” That’s right: two parts of the five part solution were don’t do anything. For the first time ever, I took the risk that is being silent in front of a group. It was intimidating, felt wrong, and uncomfortable, but it allowed me to learn a skill that I now rely on for many aspects of my life: the ability to read a group.

I’m telling you all this for two reasons: (1) I want you to realize that this is something that didn’t come naturally to me, but took a lot of discomfort and time to get to where I’m at; and (2) because before you can learn to read a group, you need to know how to listen.

Learning How To Listen

This isn’t one of those “the difference between listening and hearing is…” points, though those are also important. In fact, it’s not even a smidge that philosophical or nuanced. It’s a wonderful coincidence that listen and silent are spelled with the same letters. What I’m getting at here is quite literal, simple, and one of those things that seems easy until you try it: listening instead of talking.

Develop a system that works for you. And by that I mean something that keeps you from filling the empty air with words. For me, the acronym WHALE helped a ton in the beginning. I would ask a question, then in my head recite “Wait… Hesitate…” and usually by then someone else would have broken the silence. Maybe counting works for you. Maybe you know all the words to “The Raven.” Whatever. Just something to fill the timespace in your head.

Trust the system. This is probably the only time you’ll ever see my type those words, but in this case it’s important. When you’re in a situation where you feel like it’s your responsibility to talk, a second of listening feels like an hour. It’s easy to throw it all away and just ramble. Hell, I still do it. Try not to. Trust the system, Neo.

Allow others to crumble first. There aren’t many laws when it comes to groups of human beings, but there is one that has never failed me: if you don’t talk, someone else will. Sometimes you have to wait a seemingly excruciatingly long time (like 2, maybe even 3 whole seconds), but someone else will crumble if you allow them to. The more you experience this happening, the more fun it becomes. Biting my tongue through awkward silences has actually become one of my favorite things, like a Fear Factor challenge (only in that case, it would probably involve biting some other thing’s tongue).

Just stop talking for a bit. Like I said before, there isn’t anything philosophical or fancy about this version of “learning how to listen.” Just use your ears and other people will be more likely to use their mouths.

I have almost never regretted being silent or giving participants space to think.  On the other hand there have been a boat load of times that I’ve walked away from an activity or workshop thinking, “mhmm, I did too much talking there,” and that keeps me motivated to keep quiet next time.  Share the air.

Reading a Group

Think of a group of people like a pop-up book being read to you by someone else. There is so much more to it than just the words on the page — there are movements, visuals, tone, and variety. And there are also the words on the page. Now imagine that pop-up book is also a choose-your-own-adventure style of pop-up book (which I don’t think exists, but now I really wish did exist).

The Words On the Page

While there is much more to a pop-up book than the words, the words are still important. Similarly important are the actual words you get from your group. This is square one: asking people how they feel about something, then having them tell you.

In comedy, it’s typical to ask a crowd to applaud if they’ve heard of something/done something/chewed on something. This is the words on the page. In social justice workshops, we can do the same thing “Show of hands if…” or “Nod if…” or (my personal fav) “Snaps if…” (because I was a bad snapper as a kid, but am now awesome at it).

There are a lot of ways to read the words on the page. Here are three:

1. Entry surveys. If possible, have the group fill out a little survey before your training to get a sense of their wants, experiences, dispositions, and identities. Demographic data of the group are words on the page. Questions they have for you before the training starts are words on the page.

2. Ask the group check-in questions throughout the workshop. Ask them what they think about things. Ask them how they feel. Ask them to reflect back on the first half of a workshop aloud. Process the processing. Ask the whatever, just, you know, shut up once you do (see section “Learning How to Listen”).

I love index card check ins.  You can pass out index cards and use them to check in with the group whenever you need to know what they’re thinking but you’re not sure that they’ll say it aloud.  I use them during vocabulary to allow people to write the words they don’t know, I use them after an intense activity to help people write down how they are feeling.  They are a way to do anonymous check ins to get the sense of the group.

3. Use responses to questions and activities as launching points for discussions. Nothing will tell you more about where someone is at on a subject than their responses to your discussion questions. A great prompt to see if someone understands something is “Recap what we just talked about in your own words.”

The Moving Parts: Examining Body Language

The way people are sitting, where they’re looking, and what they’re doing with their hands are all important parts of the story. Body language is nuanced and I’m not going to get into it here, but google “Body Language TED Talks” or books if you want to learn more. For our purposes, here are a few non-verbal cues I look out for:

1. Crossed arms and legs might mean someone is feeling threatened, or needs to put up their guard. In a training, this might be because they are feeling targeted, or just uncomfortable with the subject.

2. Physically turning away from someone, whether it’s another member of the group or you as the facilitator, might indicate someone is attempting to disengage from that person.

3. No eye contact, or staring off into the distance might mean that someone is bored, but it also could mean someone is processing. The best way to figure out which is to check in. Processing is good. Bored is less good.

These are all super important things to look out for and if you need to check in with the person about (1 on 1).  If they say nothings wrong it is also important to take them at their word because it is totally possible to read into something that isn’t there (but generally it tends to be.)

Tone and Quality of Voice: The Message Behind the Words

How someone says something can be as important as what they’re saying. One of my favorite examples of this is the famous “I never said she stole my money.” This sentence can be emphasized to mean seven different things, by changing which word is emphasized:

never said she stole my money. [someone else may have]

I never said she stole my money. [I didn’t say it and how dare you accuse me of doing so]

I never saidshe stole my money. [but she tots did]

I never said she stole my money. [but someone else did, and that person is a jerk]

I never said she stole my money. [I gave it to her, just, not, entirely willingly]

I never said she stole my money. [but she stole someone’s, and for that she’s a jerk]

I never said she stole my money. [she stole my heart. I gave her the money. I <3 jerks.]

Try to pay as much attention to the how as the what. And, as always, if you’re unsure of what someone is trying to convey with their tone, check-in.

Choose Your Own Adventure

If you’ve never read a choose your own adventure book, the premise is simple. At different points in the story, the author gives the reader the ability to decide where it’ll go next (“turn to page 113 if you get this reference; turn to page 89 if you want to see Sam stop using this analogy”). In reading a group during a workshop, it’s great if you can create opportunities where they have the ability to choose where the story goes next.

The simplest way to achieve this is by asking. You could do a vote (“Raise your hand if you want to spend 5 more minutes on this.”) or ask for submissions (“We should we talk about for these last 5 minutes).

Another way is to simply listen when the group is trying to tell you they’ve already chosen their own adventure. If folks keep asking questions about a certain subject, they’re choosing their own adventure. Cover that subject. If nobody seems engaged by whatever you’re talking about, ditto. If someone seems triggered, angry, or confused, that likely warrants switching to a different page.

Remember, facilitation isn’t about plotting out a course and etching it in stone, but about letting the winds and currents nudge you around on your way toward a common goal.

Cliff’s Notes of Group Reading

Unfortunately, there isn’t such a thing (blame Cliff!). I wrote a lot on this topic above because of just how difficult I know it is, and how much I didn’t want to just throw you out there with “the more you practice, the better you’ll be.” Because that’s almost cheating. But it’s also real life.

Alas, that’s where we’re at. Learn to listen. Spend a lot of time intentionally practicing this. It’s not a step you can skip. Then, once you’re listening, you’ll find that whatever group you’re with wants to be read — and they’ll do a ton of little, sometimes-invisible things to help you. You’ve just got to know where to look.