Video and transcript from Kevin M Hoffman’s talk at Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

This is part of the 2019 Control The Room speaker video series.

Control the Room 2019 was Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit with the goal of bringing together facilitators of all kinds to build rapport, learn, and grow together.

The conference opened with a talk by Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering.” After that, we moved onto 15 quick-and-powerful presentations by facilitators of all kinds. One of our amazing speakers was Kevin M. Hoffman, meeting designer, and facilitator. He gave a talk called “Find and Manage Your Style Biases.”

Kevin M. Hoffman

Facilitation is a balancing act. It requires empathy for a group’s interests and capabilities while simultaneously keeping them away from tempting, but unproductive, discussion.

Kevin M. Hoffman, meeting designer, and facilitator
Kevin M. Hoffman, meeting designer, and facilitator

The effort and focus needed to maintain that balance varies based on what kind of person you are and what kind of topic or group you’re facilitating. In his talk, Kevin uses three spectrums of bias to help people get a sense of their own (or anyone’s) facilitation style: Improvisation vs. Scripted; Drawing vs. Speaking; Space-Filling vs. Space Saving. These spectrums help to assess when a style supports a meeting, or when it needs something different. This brief, but fun, workshop got us thinking about our biases, how they serve us, and how they hurt us.

Watch Kevin’s talk “Find and Manage Your Style Biases”:

Read the Transcript:

Kevin Hoffman: So was talking about the I and the we, this idea that, the act of facilitation is thinking about where you sit between the I and the we. What I’m going to talk about, and what I want us all to explore together right now, is the I in the we. So how do you show up and what’s affecting how you show up?

But before we do that, I want to talk a little bit about where I work. I work at the US Digital Service. I started there recently. This is Matt Cutts. Earlier you saw in Ben and Marty’s presentation, they talked about our mascot being the crab. So I’d like to try an experiment with you right now. I’m going to show you how we applaud at meetings. At meetings at the US Digital Service, we do not applaud. We do not clap our hands.

Instead, we make the crab sign. Does everybody do this? All right. So today for the next 20 minutes, when you see somebody doing this, start doing it. All right? Because it’s going to get loud. We’re all going to start talking in a minute, and this is how… do this, everybody does this, we stop talking.

Now, I am a designer. I have been a designer for about 25 years. Part of that design work is facilitation, and as a designer, we’ve seen lots of examples of the design process, and the double diamond, and many other diagrams. But inherent in all of this, and something that Brian talked a lot about, is the idea of design as a way of learning about someone else, and then trying to design for that person to help them succeed at a task, to help them find either an emotional or functional goal, by learning more about them, and then designing for them.

Brian talked about empathy, how to practice empathy for the people where we’re working with. But the reality is, that I’m not even talking about before age 20, things that affected you. I’m talking about even before age 10, there are things that happened in your childhood that create biases. As a designer, I might think, “Oh, I’ve done my user research. I’ve developed an empathy for my audience, and now I’m going to make some decisions and choices about what I designed.”

There are still a lot of biases at play when I’m making those decisions, and as a facilitator, you are also biased when you make decisions in real-time when you’re facilitating a group. In my book, I explored a couple of different biases. There’s lots of ways that they manifest, but there are a few that I think if you think about how you might be biased to behave a particular way, and then you examine, does that bias affect the outcome of the room that you’re facilitating? It enables you to be more effective and kind of figure out different ways of approaching problems that might be outside of your comfort zone.

For example, we’ve been seeing some awesome improv today. Let’s hear it for the improv. We’re saving the clapping for something special. No, it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s good. I like the energy. Let’s give it up… How about this? Let’s try this. Let’s give it up for Patricia. Let’s give her real applause. Who’s doing the sketching. See? We were saving it for something special.

I think some of us are biased towards improvisation and facilitation. We’re more comfortable walking in a room, dropping a question like a bomb, and then observing what happens, and seeing where does the room go, and I’m going to react to that energy. And I think there are other people that are more comfortable being very scripted.

Earlier, Dan was talking about people bring him their agendas and they say, “Tell me, is this a good agenda?” The fact that they need to make an agenda means they’re going to be more comfortable working towards a script. And the thing about scripts is that they make meetings really brittle, right? If you think about going into a, a big workshop, let’s say with a hundred plus people and you’ve got a very specific script and something goes wrong, not even talking about technical things, let’s just say, cognitively, you’ve made an assumption that a group is able to do something they are not able to do. That meaning has broken. And if you’re not able to improvise, if you’re not comfortable improvising, you’re not going to be as successful in making that meeting turn in a different direction, the direction it may want to or need to go.

But there are certain situations that improvisation works really well in. If you have a team that’s got mature relationships, improv is great. Approaching a meeting with a very open canvas, but if you don’t have a team that has a mature relationship or people aren’t self-starters, you might need that script to fall back on.

So, on your table is a worksheet. Everybody should have a pile of these worksheets in the middle of the table amongst all the other detritus that’s on the table. I want you to grab a pen, and I want you to look at that scale between improvisational and scripted and just look inside your heart, feel your gut, and circle the number that represents you, where you’re most comfortable, where if you had no constraints, the way you would approach a meeting, and just circle that number. Could be a one or a five, a two or a four. Or it could even be a three if you’re not sure, or if you think you do both well, you’re comfortable in both spaces.

Another way we bias as facilitators is we kind of bias towards the visual or the spoken. Let me tell you a story about before I was 10 years old, so I grew up in a very conflict-heavy household. My parents had a lot of conflict when I was growing up, and it became very volatile, so when we were talking, I felt like things were more stable. I felt more comfortable, and as a result, when I’m in a conflict situation, I tend to talk more. I actually bias towards being more of a spoken facilitator than a visual facilitator. Even though my background is in design, capital D design, not necessarily graphic design, although it’s a little bit of that, too.

But some people, if you describe a problem to them like we’re trying to change this thing in this organization, the first thing they do is they go to the whiteboard and they draw. So graphic facilitation, both facilitation capture, which is what Patricia is doing, but also, just generally using graphic facilitation to elicit discussion to get people to express themselves. It’s great for designers, and there are tons of amazing books that you can pull from to learn how to do this, but it doesn’t work in every organization. So now, go to the sheet. Where are you? Are you someone who approaches facilitation from a more verbal disposition? Or do you tend to visualize things and hope that gets the results that you want?

All right. There’s one more that I like to think about, and it’s the one that I think is the most interesting, and it requires a lot of self-reflection. I think as facilitators, generally, the facilitators that I meet, the people who geek out about facilitation, are more likely to fill space.

Recently, I heard about a device, and you can see this in remote meeting software, too, a device where you wear a little screen and while you’re talking in a meeting, there’s a number on that screen that represents the percentage of time you have taken up in the conversation. That is a device you can find and introduce into your meetings if you want. I think, as facilitators, we tend to fill space, and I know, personally, from my childhood, silence kind of felt uncomfortable to me. I felt really nervous if things got too quiet for too long, so I might want to fill the space to move things forward.

That’s where I’m more comfortable. But some people are more like Jedi facilitators, and one of my favorite friends who’s a Jedi facilitator is this guy named James Macanufo. James used to work at a company called XPLANE. He co-wrote a book called Gamestorming, which if you’re a meeting facilitator, and you haven’t checked out Gamestorming, it’s a great book. James is the kind of person who can go into a room, go into a team, and say, “You know, I think the problem is this. What do we make of this?” And then step back and let the meeting emerge, and observe, and wait for the right time to contribute, and help the group move along. If you think about the difference between holding a steering wheel tightly, and kind of sitting by the side of the steering wheel, and just kind of poking at it every once in a while.

So I think people who are space fillers if there’s a room where people don’t quite understand what’s going on, if they’re nervous, if there’s low-energy, filling space is fantastic. It helps move the room forward. It helps create a kind of safety, and it helps you connect to the facilitator, which is really powerful. It’s like, “Oh, they’re talking to me.”

But one of the, one of the biggest challenges I see with facilitators that take up space is sometimes their momentum overtakes their ability to read the room. So they get so far ahead, they get so energetic, they make so many contributions that they can’t see that people are kind of backing away a little bit. You know, people are kind of tuning out. So that’s when I think it’s good to think about, okay, I need to modulate how much space I’m taking up, or filling.

So those are just three biases. I want you to figure out, are you a space-filler? Are you a space maker? Circle the number that that represents you. Okay, so now, we’ve shared some ideas. I have some friends in the audience that are going to help me out. You have circled, raise your hand if you circled a one or a five anywhere on this chart. A lot of you. Okay. Raise your hand if you circled a two or a four. All right. There’s lots of twos or fours. Raise your hand if you only circled threes. One, two. Okay, a couple of people only circled threes.

All right. In that corner, we are going to have Dan, right? Dan is going to be in that back corner. And Dan is going to have, which group do you have? So if you circled a one for improviser or a two, and that’s the most representative of who you are, I want you to walk back to there. Not now, just in a second, okay? I’m going to give you the instructions.

If you circled close to a four or five, for being scripted, I want you to come up here and hang out with Eli. So Eli is going to be up here. If you’re a talker like me, just come on the stage, okay? If you’re somebody who likes to draw, go back there with Douglas. I like to call Douglas, Douglas 1.0, I’m kind of Douglas 0.9, because I recently shaved my beard off. But go back to Douglas if you’re a drawer.

And if you are a space filler, I want you to go to my friend Reagan. Oh, Christie, right there. And if you’re a space maker, I want you to go over here to Reagan. Okay? So right now get up. We’ll make the chair noise and go to where you are going to go and I’ll get you to crab in a second. You have a question? If you have two that you can’t choose between, pick the one that’s more emotionally resonant for you.

If you have ones or fives, go to those. If you have twos or fours, go to those. If you have all threes, just look for a group that isn’t crowded. Talkers? Yup. Okay. All right. It looks like we’ve sort of distributed. If you’re all threes, just go to a group that isn’t very crowded. We have a lot of drawers, not as many talkers.

Okay, so here’s what we’re going to do. We have six minutes left. You’re going to have a two-minute rapid collaboration session. So when I do the crabs, we’re going to stop talking. For two minutes in your group, talk about why this bias of yours is a superpower. Okay? What does it enable you to do that no one else can do, or what are you really powerful? For two minutes, because we only have five minutes and 32 seconds left. So for two minutes talk about why this bias is a superpower. Go.

Okay. You have two minutes left. For the next two minutes, I would like you to talk about why this bias that you have, the way that you are, is your Kryptonite. When are you in situations that the fact that you’re this way prevents you from being successful? Okay. Two minutes.

All right, that’s time. So, stay in your group. I have 20 seconds. I would like one person from the space savers group to tell me why it’s Kryptonite, in a very short amount of time. Space savers. Oh, space savers. Yeah, no, it’s okay. Your tendency is to fill space, so it’s fine. What is one area where it’s Kryptonite for space savers?

Speaker 2: We didn’t feel we could control the energy of the room [inaudible 00:14:02] a meeting could go off rails if we couldn’t bring back up the energy.

Kevin Hoffman: Right. So being people who make space, they have a harder time controlling the energy of the room. Is that kind of… Well, this is for you. Thank you. This is a copy of my book. So listen, I did not have the ability to carry as many books as I would like to Texas from Washington, D.C., but I do have a discount code for you, if you’re interested. Now, before we go, because I’m out of time, look across the room. So we need to look at the drawers, need to look at the talkers, space savers and space makers look at each other, and scripters and improvisers look at each other. What I challenge you to do, is in the next four weeks, pick one meeting, and imagine and try to sit in the other side of that room for the meeting.

So somebody who’s a scripter, you’re going to improvise, within the next month, some meeting that maybe feels, maybe not too high stakes, not too low stakes, but a meeting that you’re going to try to improvise entirely. Somebody who makes space a lot, you’re going to try to fill space and create energy. Try it one time, and see how it feels. Okay. Thank you so much for your time. I know I’m over time. I’m sure we’ll distribute these slides, but if you’d like 20% off my book in any format, Rosenfeld was nice enough to make this discount for all attendees of this conference. And again, thank you so much for hanging out with me today. I really appreciate it.