Video and transcript from Leslie Forman’s talk at Austin’s 3rd Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

Recently, we hosted our annual facilitator summit alongside our sponsor MURAL, but this time, it was virtual. Instead of gathering in Austin’s Capital Factory, 172 eager learners, expert facilitators, and meeting practitioners gathered online for a 3-day interactive workshop. Our mission each year at Control the Room is to share a global perspective of facilitators from different methodologies, backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, cultures, and ages. We gather to network, learn from one another, and build our facilitation toolkits. 

This year’s summit theme was CONNECTION. Human connection is an integral component of the work we do as facilitators.

When we connect things become possible. When we are disconnected there is dysfunction. When ideas connect they become solutions. When movements connect they become revolutions. 

Control the Room is a safe space to build and celebrate a community of practice for facilitators, which is paramount to learn, grow, and advance as practitioners and engaging in a dialogue that advances the practice of facilitation. We must learn the tools and modalities needed to foster connection and be successful facilitators in the new virtual landscape. 

“We must establish a personal connection with each other. Connection before content. Without relatedness, no work can occur.” —Peter Block

This year’s summit consisted of 18 expert facilitator guest speakers who presented lightning talks and in-depth workshops, where they shared their methods and activities for effective virtual facilitation. 

One of those speakers was Leslie Forman.

Leslie Forman, Senior User Experience Researcher at LinkedIn, spoke about secrets, constraints, and emojis. By implementing the 3 Cs (concrete, colorful, and constrained) we can produce the best results from our team. Leslie discussed practical techniques that facilitators can use to guide participants into deeper discussions, especially about ambiguous or sensitive topics. 

Watch Leslie Forman’s talk “Secrets, Constraints, and Emojis” :

Read the Transcript

Leslie Forman:

Hi, everyone. thanks so much for having me. Thank you, Douglas. Thank you, Voltage Control and thank you everyone for being here. Today, I’m going to tell you three different stories from my experience about how I learned to lead deeper discussions. And there are three stories here, they’re all pretty different, but they have a common theme in that they share the same three techniques that I have found lead to deeper discussions.

Let’s dive right in to the first story, it’s about secrets in China. And then after that, I’ll be talking about two other stories. One is about embracing constraints around work life balance, the other one’s about user experience research using emojis, but we’ll start off with the secrets in China and what I learned about facilitation when I was teaching English at a university there.

The year was 2006. The place was Jiaxing University in China, about an hour on the fast train South of Shanghai in my spoken English classroom. I was right out of college. I didn’t speak Chinese and I had never really taught before. “How are you?” I’d asked my students. “Fine thank you and you?” They learned from dialogues in English textbooks there was one right answer to that question and it was, fine thank you and you? I quickly learned that my students didn’t really want to tell me how they were feeling and they didn’t feel comfortable answering in front of the whole class. And as their spoken English teacher, my role was to give them opportunities to practice speaking English, not to force them to open up about their feelings.

Eventually, I think through much trial and error, I figured out a more effective way. While researching for this talk, I looked through the deep archives of my soul, Gmail account, and found this note from a talk I’d attended when I was living in China. The speaker had said, “China’s way of working is learning by doing.” And learning by doing led me to one of my most memorable lessons. I cut out pictures from magazines and handed two to each pair of students in my classroom. They might’ve looked kind of like these stock photos. And I told my students, “Each of these people has a secret. What is the secret? How long has this person been hiding this secret? What’s the person’s name? What will happen if the other person finds out?” And suddenly my students were bursting with scandalous, fictional stories of infidelity, robbery, unrequited love and my English teaching heart smiled. And it made me think, why was it easier for my students to open their mouths and share the stories of these paper cutouts? Why was it that this approach spurred so much more creativity than an open ended question like how are you?

Thinking back on that activity many years later, I’ve been reflecting on why it worked so well and I’ve come up with three different techniques that I think I was using unconsciously at the time. Those three techniques are that it was concrete. We had pictures to anchor the discussion and I gave my students really specific questions to answer. And that gave us a concrete starting point for this. It was colorful because creating a fictional space gave my students permission to invent stories without getting too personal. And I invited them to push the boundaries of a typical class discussion. And so this was kind of creating a colorful way to enter the discussion that wasn’t just asking kind of rote questions. And also it was constrained. We started with a few characters, just a few questions, and this constrained starting point from which to imagine the rest of their scandalous saga.

The idea of constrained came to me after I watched this really great short talk, just two minutes long from Marissa Mayer and Marissa Mayer used to be the CEO of Yahoo. But these days she leads a more low profile life. And Marissa Mayer said, “Creativity loves constraint.” She says, “When you think about creativity, oftentimes we think about having a lot of freedom to do what you want.” But she says, “What I really see is that when you constrain yourself, that’s when ultimately a lot of innovation happens. It makes you want to think your way out of that box and do something really interesting.” And something to think about and something to reflect on is how might we design a box or a container that will make our people feel comfortable enough to really explore new possibilities? I think that one thing that’s really important to think about here is psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School has written extensively about psychological safety. She defines psychological safety as how people perceive the consequences of speaking up in an organizational context. She did this really interesting research project where she was trying to study how teamwork affects medical errors. And she did this study in a hospital where she looked at different teams and the teams that scored really high on teamwork also had a lot of medical errors. And she was like, “Wow, there must be something else going on here. More teamwork, more medical errors.” But what she realized was that in the teams that had a higher level of psychological safety, people felt comfortable speaking up and saying when there was an error or mistake and this was ultimately a good thing because with this climate of bringing up the issues of what was really going on, there was an opportunity to address and solve them.

One thing that I found really interesting in one of Amy Edmondson’s articles is that she says that, “It’s especially important for managers to cultivate psychological safety when the work is characterized by uncertainty and complexity.” I’d argue that now in 2021, all of our work is uncertain and complex, which makes psychological safety especially important. And as facilitators, how might we cultivate the psychological safety necessary to give people space to go beneath the surface and talk about what’s really going on, especially when it’s uncomfortable? And especially in a remote work environment?

I had an opportunity to think about this a couple months ago when my boss asked me and a colleague to facilitate an activity for our team about work life balance. My team was about 15 people on it. I joined the team right when the pandemic hit so I’ve met very few of them in person and we’ve all been working from home for months. After many months of pandemic life when people have been homeschooling kids while working from home, processing horrific news, just generally stressful life experiences, all the things, you know how it’s been. Everybody who’s exhausted.

And my boss and we were all wondering what could we do to make people feel a little better or at least more connected? My mind also flashed back to times in the past when I’d tried to start a discussion about a personal topic at work, but it ended up being too personal and rather than helping the group feel more connected, it led us to feel awkward and distant. And that was in the back of my mind when I was thinking about how to plan this. And I knew that a broad question like, how are you doing? Just wouldn’t get us very far in this context. We needed to create some sort of container where our teammates could connect comfortably constrained in a digital space.

The goals for this activity, we got really clear on them and we decided on three goals: to hear what other people were experiencing regarding work life balance, to share ideas that might help us in our unbalance and to feel closer as a team.

One thing that was really important was the logistical considerations. Everybody was working from home. This is a picture of my desk. It’s actually the same desk I’m using right now, but I rearranged my apartment in preparation for this talk today. And I think that it’s really important to make sure when everybody is in a different physical location, that everybody who’s in your group for that day is able to fully participate in the digital safe space. I would recommend considering using a familiar tool that the people in your group are already familiar with using and already know how to use. Especially if it’s going to be a short meeting in the course of a workday where people are doing many other things. As an in house researcher and facilitator, a lot of the things that I do are an hour or less and people are multitasking between many different things over the course of the day.

I also think in a remote setting, it’s especially important to write specific instructions, especially if you’re remote workshop is going to involve breakout sessions. There’s often a moment of confusion when you go into the breakout room and the person who gave the instructions is not there and people are like, oh, what do we do? If there’s something that they can read to resolve that conclusion, that’s really helpful.

Another thing that was really important, give permission. Give permission for people to show up with the way their lives really are now and give permission as well to be quiet. I feel like it’s really important to have this permission and create the sense of psychological safety.

Our digital container looked like this. We created a grid that had four lines for four different people in the group. And I specifically chose to do groups of four because I’ve read different studies that have said that in a conversation four is kind of a natural breaking point. If you have more than four people, you might either have people get really quiet and just listen or they might naturally break up into other side conversations. When I do breakout sessions, I tend to go four people or less. We asked four pretty straightforward questions related to work life balance that were applicable to people from all sorts of life situations.

First one, what does life look like for you now? What’s something that’s draining you or causing friction? What’s something that helps you or energizes you? And what’s something that colleagues have done? This was in a team situation so we wanted to think about building bonds between the team. We also made it really clear that people had the opportunity to answer with a picture or a gif or a screenshot or some words. There were lots of different options of possible answer.

This is what one group’s grid looked like. You can see in the first row, somebody was stressed out about immigration, but excited about lifting weights. Second row, you can see that this person was stressed out about homeschooling, but excited about the Peloton. And it was just very relatable, very specific and really helped to build more wellbeing within the team.

This activity also embodied these same three themes in that it was concrete, it was colorful and it was constrained. It was concrete because it was open to a wide range of life situations. It was also concrete in that we had really strong support from our management. The most senior person in the room was the one who had initiated this activity and made sure we had time for it. Also the senior management of the company is very much in support of wellness in general and it’s been very clear in the company culture over the last several months. That I think is a really important aspect of the concreteness. It was colorful because people could answer in various forms, pictures, gifs, words, et cetera. And constrained. These neat boxes gave a starting point for conversation. And when we had filled out our boxes, there was a lot to talk about.

My last story is more core to the work that I do as a user experience researcher. And I’m specifically going to talk about one user experience research method that I’ve used that uses emojis. At a very high level, as a user experience researcher, I lead teams through a learning process. We start in discovery mode, big questions like, what do you want to learn? What do we want to learn as a team? And talking to all the different stakeholders that are affected by this topic. And then we dive into planning mode. Lots of decisions to make, who do we want to learn from? When? Where? What kind of methods are we going to use? Is it going to be a survey? Is it interviews? Some sort of activity? Et cetera, et cetera. And then once it’s all planned, we go into the lab, which is where we gather our data. Then we analyze what we learned and try to work through the themes and figure out what the story is. And then at the end, there’s usually some sort of presentation as well as a discussion of what we should do next, based on these findings.

Every project is different, but generally they follow the same kind of sequence. In this case, I’m going to go through a hypothetical example. Let’s imagine that we are in the lab gathering data and our research question is, how does it feel to look for a job? I know a lot of us have been there looking for a job, lots of feelings in this stage and it’s a really interesting question.

Now imagine that we are in the lab and we are with a young woman named Jo and she has recently started a new job and she is participating in our study to share her experience in this process. Here we are, the lab is often a video conference these days, and it’s really, really important as a researcher to keep in mind that job seeking or any other topic can be really sensitive. It’s essential to approach it with empathy and humility, an awareness of the power dynamics that might be at play in a conversation between a representative of a company, an individual who’s sharing a personal experience. It’s important to start with clear expectations, explicit consent and appropriate compensation for the people involved. These are all things essential to creating a digital safe space. And also full disclosure, this is a hypothetical story and this is a stock photo. See, privacy is important.

But in this sort of conversation, we start by warming up with light questions like where are you calling in from today? How’s the weather there? And then I might ask Jo a question like, “Tell me about the moment when you decided it was ready. You realized it was time to look for a new job.” We might think about this as a visual timeline like this from I need a new job, to day one at the new job. But in the real world, it often feels a lot more like this.

How might we bring this conversation down to a more manageable scope as a container that might help guide our conversation with Jo so we can learn how the experience has been for her? We might want to narrow it down like this, with tighter bookends on our visual timeline to go from, I need a job, to I learned about an opportunity that seemed like it might be a fit. In my research sessions I’d sometimes make a timeline like this and show it on our shared screen and type up what Jo is telling me in real time. And it might look kind of like this. She might tell me, “The company laid off a 1,000 people, including me. And then I called my sister.” And so on and so forth. And I could document her story one virtual yellow sticky note at a time on a screen that we can both see.

One thing that I think that is really helpful in terms of going deeper in this kind of conversation is to use emojis. Emojis give us a constrained and safe way to talk about emotions without necessarily asking too many direct or personal questions. The emojis that I like to use in this sort of activity, I often choose pictures that are a little bit vague. For example, this house emoji could stand for working from home or could say, “I feel like I’m at home when I’m doing that part.” Or it could stand for that’s the home stretch. We’re almost done or many, many different things. And then what I would say to the participant like Joe, I might say, “Here’s a collection of emojis. Would you like to decorate any of the boxes in your visual timeline with one of these and invite you to tell me what you mean with each one.”

Then it might look like this. The company laid off a thousand people, including me, that was a sad day. Sad face. But then I called my sister, she and I are really close. I talk to her all the time and so on and so forth. And by tapping into these emojis, we’re able to build a deeper connection and really understand what’s beneath the surface.

This also connects with our three themes. It’s concrete, it’s colorful and constrained. Concrete, specific steps, colorful, lighthearted images, constrained, finite collection of emojis to draw upon.

I want to invite you all to reflect about a discussion in your life, either one on one or with a group. How might psychological safety play into this? Is there a way you could make it more concrete? Is there a colorful way you might stimulate the discussion? How might you constrain the initial frame to make people feel more comfortable? Maybe talking about all of this and running through some of these activities in small groups in my workshop later today. Would love to have you there and meet more of you. Thank you so much for having me and have a great rest of your day.