8 Tips to Facilitating Events for Anxious Participants

Todd Eden is co-founder of Lead Now, an organisation that runs events for UK undergraduates to to boost their emotional intelligence, self-confidence, stress tolerance, aspiration and motivation; enabling them to achieve personal wellbeing and career potential. Todd’s LinkedIn profile can be viewed at www.linkedin.com/in/toddeden/.

The below article is based on Todd’s experience of delivering workshops, including to Autistic students.

Seventy 3rd year Engineering students in a banked lecture theatre, at 2pm on a wet Autumn Thursday in Birmingham; the long 5 meter long curtains drawn open, but daylight smothered by low dark clouds. My slot: 45 minutes to impress upon the students the importance of getting started on their applications for graduate training schemes, like the one I was on at Rolls-Royce.

“How many of you have made applications for a job?”, I ask.

Six hands tentatively raised to shoulder-height. The rest….. motionless.

Was my question clear? Have 90% really not started applying yet? Or are they so disengaged within the opening 1 minute that they don’t have the motivation even to raise their hand?

So, of course, I focus on one of the six.

“So who have you applied to?”

I’m now in a dialogue with one student that isn’t helping them, and 69 students have tuned out completely. This is going to be a long session, and afterwards I’ll reflect: “they weren’t interested”.

You’ve heard this before from your colleagues, or you’ve said it yourself, “not interested”; “a quiet bunch”; “it was like getting blood from a stone”.

If it’s a one off, then OK we can let it go. If it’s a routine, then there is a problem. And the problem is ours, not theirs. Here’s the problem statement:

How can I facilitate a session with a large number of students to ensure that everyone is engaged so that the learning outcomes are achieved?

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good number of extroverts who respond enthusiastically to your questions, and slowly encourage the slightly hesitant to also contribute. We may then reflect “that went well”. Yet, what we’re measuring is what is visible… the ratio of contributors to group discussions to the non-contributors. But this is a vanity measure for facilitators, and an ego trap. We’re hard wired as humans to want to be accepted in groups, it’s our overriding need, and that’s why we internally over-emphasise the importance of people responding to our questions in plenary.

What if your audience is selected specifically because it is their anxiety that is holding them back from achieving their potential? When I work with students with disabilities, this is a common challenge. So how can we overcome it, and at the same time reframe our internal model for what a ‘successful session’ looks like.

Here are 8 tips:

  1. No Surprises. The fear of the unknown is a genuine fear. For some groups it’s good to leave an air of uncertainty about what might be coming, but in general, people feel more comfortable having a structure that they can hold onto. Share the agenda in advance, and run through it at the start of the day.
  • No Hierarchy. In front of a parent figure, individuals worry about ‘getting things wrong’. The nature of the classroom set up throughout the educational years means that if you are at the front and standing, whilst they are in rows facing you and seated, then you are the Teacher (Parent), and they are the Pupils (Children). To break the visual cues of hierarchy, when students are entering the room, be with them eye to eye, sitting next to them on the same chairs, wearing the same style of name badge, being curious about them and sharing something about yourself. When you’re ready to start, then go to the front, and if possible, remain seated.
  • Thinking Space. Some people have the ability to take in everything that they’ve just been told (perhaps in a foreign language), understand the question posed, search their brain for a response, turn the thoughts into language, and respond out loud … in a fraction of a second. Many people don’t. So you need to create space for the cogs to turn for the majority of people. “In a moment I will ask you all a question”, triggers the audience to get prepared for a question. “The question I have for you is xyz, and I’ll now write it on the board”. “To give your subconscious some time to work through your response, here’s a short anecdote….”.
  • Finding Voice. Even with some space to think, the idea might not be fully formed as coherent language, and therefore the student lacks the confidence to share it out loud. “Take 30 seconds to note down your answer, and when you’re done, turn to the person next to you to share what’s come up for you, and to hear what has come up for them”. Now, you can ask the audience for a response because they have practiced.
  • Giving Voice. Some students will not share their thoughts in front of the full room, and any implied pressure to do so increases their anxiety. Yet, you also want them to know that their contribution is valued and important. “I would like you to work in groups of three. One person from each group will take the notes of the contributions from everyone within the group, and then present a summary of the ideas from the whole group, back to the room”. In this way, everyone has the chance to be heard, even if it is not his or her voice that is doing the talking.
  • Peer Power. They open up to one another in ways that they will never open up to a teacher, so foster it. The quietest people often make the best listeners. It’s such a rare thing to be listened to attentively, and such an easy thing to give – everyone can feel very good, all you have to do sometimes is stop talking!
  • Establish Trust. Right up front, establish a culture of sharing what feels comfortable to share, and a culture of listening like the Budha (non interrupting, non judgemental, peacefully curious). To establish trust in a new group Patrick Lencioni suggests the following questions for an opening round of 1×1 sharing: where did you grow up?; How many siblings do you have?; What challenge have you successfully overcome?. These feel non-intrusive on deeply private matters, yet personal enough to begin to build a foundation of openness.
  • ‘Informalise’ the room. Rows of chairs theatre style equals lecture, and those at the back are further from the action and most likely to be disengaged. Having a back row is a bad thing. Large tables and big spaces between people means that the voice has to be louder to be heard – speaking up is already a challenge, so keep distances between people small by removing physical barriers. The best set up to move to quickly is 3 or 4 chairs clustered together in a circle, with no table between them, and no obvious ‘front’ of the room. One big circle is ‘marmite’ – loved by some people (typically extroverts) who like to see everyone’s faces, and despised by others who feel vulnerable with so many eyes on them. Nice to move to it over time if the dynamics of the audience feels right, but don’t pressure it.

By following these tips I have experienced wonderful engagement from the shyest of individuals, and groups bond in deep and meaningful ways. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, if you want it to land, you have to create the landscape that suits everyone.

I used to run events that were fun, and energetic, and lively, and appealed to extroverts. Having been challenged to work with students that have anxiety, I’ve adjusted my delivery style for all my audiences. Every audience has a mix of those with extroverted charisma, and those with deeply fascinating introspection, and every shade in between.

‘Facilitation school’ teaches you to measure success by level of interaction, but this produces negative consequences in our facilitation methodology. Our real goal is to land our key messages in the minds and the hearts of participants, whoever they are.

If you’re getting it right, the magic is happening deep within the student, you might not hear it, but you can definitely feel it!

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