Workshop dynamics - understanding and shaping the flow

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Isn’t it strange that you can deliver the exact same workshop materials with two different groups and one session will go like a dream and the other can feel like an endless nightmare? Same materials, same trainer, completely different outcomes.

The magic factor, of course, are the delegates themselves, their characters and the way they are behaving on the day.

We have an opportunity to understand and get the best out of that behaviour rather than being at the mercy of it.  I use David Kantor’s model of group dynamics shared in his great book Reading the Room as my guide.

Behaviour types and consequences

Kantor says that there are four kinds of behaviours we can look out for.

  • The mover, who wants to lead the way. We need drivers to take us forward, but if everyone is trying to drive we may all end up going in different directions.  
  • The follower, who will take the path shown. We need some people to do this, but we need the following to be active and thoughtful rather than a passive default.
  • The opposer, who will challenge the status quo. We need some of this, to question, to explore, to take us deeper. But if there is nothing but opposing going on, no progress will be made.
  • The bystander, not actively participating. Having someone who is observing objectively can be a valuable resource in a group. But if no-one is actively participating, then even the most brilliantly interactive session will fall flat.

Having recognised these different types of behaviour, we can now do something with them.

Calling it out

In some sessions, for example when I want to build the team and their relationships, I want the participants to be aware of their own behaviour. In that case, I will describe these four behaviour types at the beginning of the workshop, ask them to reflect on their own styles and that of the team.  

I ask them to consider the approach they want to take in the session. They are encouraged to pay attention to the dynamics as the session evolves and consider how to get the best out of each other in their ongoing work together.

It’s my own style to use humour and little stories that highlight my own (not always helpful) behaviours to lighten the mood. I want to create a safe place where they can to reflect on how they are with others.

They are encouraged to pay attention to the dynamics as the session evolves and consider how to get the best out of each other

For some well established groups, this will be the first time they have ever spoken openly to each other about this, and it is important to encourage them to be respectful and supportive of each other as they do it.

Challenging it

There will be times when you will want to challenge the dynamics in the room, either to make the session itself more successful or to help the participants be aware of their behaviour in general.

When it comes to people who are bystanding, it might be that people are not truly in the room, they are distracted by thoughts or ideas happening elsewhere. Alternatively, they might be very engaged, but either can’t get a word in or need time to process their thoughts.

One way to draw in a bystander is to give them the space to share what they are observing about the discussion or the dynamics in the room. Not only does it draw them in, but they will often have observations to make that their more vocal colleagues have missed because they are so focused on what they have to say.

They might be very engaged, but either can’t get a word in or need time to process their thoughts.

It might be that a pattern of constant moving or directing without listening to others is what is getting in the way of that person making progress in their career. In this case, I might play back to the person doing the moving that there are objections that have been raised that they need to acknowledge and address.

I might instead ask someone who is inclined to follow why it is that they are following the approach, and if there are any changes that they would make to make it work even better?

Shaping it

Sometimes we want to go beyond calling out or challenging behaviour, and want to get them to experience a different way of doing things. In the example that follows I am seeking to move Fred out of opposing to get him to either follow the proposed direction, or to provide their own direction to make the plan work.

My starting point is one of respect and of acknowledgment of what they are doing well, for example ‘Thanks Fred, I can see that you have done a lot of thinking about the problems with this approach’. Then I move onto what I am observing and what I would like to see differently ‘I would now like you to consider this from another angle - you all want the same outcome, so what would it take to make this particular approach work’.

Once he has tried doing it differently I will acknowledge what they have achieved and if appropriate, give some tips for the future ‘Great work, you provided some really useful ideas there. That’s a technique you can use in future when you agree on the outcome, but have concerns about the method!’

Adding extra value

Often we are engaged to deliver a very narrow brief in our training and workshops - teach a particular subject or run an exercise to develop particular skills. We might start off reading and shaping the dynamics of the room so we have some kind of control over the outcomes in our sessions. The more we do this though, the stronger the impact of our sessions.

By raising awareness of peoples’ impact on others and sharing ways in which the can be more effective, we are helping people become better collaborators and better leaders. Now that really is extra value!

About Jean Gamester

Jean Gamester headshot

Jean Gamester is founder of Semaphora which helps companies get the best from their people through leadership, communication and change management, as well as coaching and business simulation workshops.

 

Jean’s various roles and assignments have included interim charity CEO, national volunteer leader, public and private sector transformation.  She’s a programme manager, troubleshooter and professional public speaker. 

 

Her workshops and coaching focus on delivering change through getting the best out of people and teams.  Her work focusses on helping people achieve success through strong leadership, teamwork, influencing and communications skills.

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