The physical space of facilitation and dialogue is important.
Co-written by Barb Pedersen and Chris Pedersen
I recently attended a one day conference in Montreal atop a prestigious hotel downtown. The entire top floor of the hotel has been transformed into a modern, industrial-esque conference space. It looked great.
At first glance, I was mesmerized by the beautiful space, the large windows overlooking downtown and Mont Royal, and the modern industrial metal and glass interior. The space was perfect.
That is, until conference participants arrived. It became a case of style over substance.
The only appropriate space for conversation, collaboration, group thinking, or any other form of people coming together to talk about important ideas was the room at the back that resembled a typical conference room. It was sound proof, had large bare walls and despite its relatively drab appearance compared to the modern monstrosity next door, it was perfect for gathering people together to think and talk.
The acoustics in the main conference area were just not great. At this particular conference, there were 5 or 6 sessions occurring in this one large space. It was impossible to hear people who were not right next to you. This caused people to fragment into isolated groups of 2–3 and thus the ability to converse, share and think with a diverse group of people was lost. Tragedy.
When we bring people together to think, converse and ultimately make decisions about how to move forward, whether it is in a business, a conference or at a coffee shop; thought about the space is important.
While a modern interior, large windows and a ball pit (yes they had a ball bit resembling McDonald’s play centres from my youth) are nice to look at, it is not conducive to dialogue or serious thought.
Sometime style doesn’t trump substance.
A library! What an exciting space to facilitate conversations for a non-profit organization. So I thought until I visited the small library within a non-profit organization’s facility and discovered that it was a great and not-so-great area. Lesson reinforced – never assume anything about a room!
The great part: The space was large and allowed us to use two conversation arrangements; a circle of chairs and a U-Shaped table arrangements. Participants enjoyed the different moods set up by the two arrangements, moving between a sense of more open and intimate dialogue in the circle and more structured and focussed discussions around the tables.
The not-so great aspect: The room had no wall space available. I mean, none — not even an area large enough for one flipchart sheet. Bookcases lined every wall and blocked access to windows. I was not allowed to hang on the bookcases. All of this presented a challenge. I believed that the outcomes desired by the participants were best met by use of the Technology of Participation (ToP) Consensus Workshop method which is easily carried out by a sticky wall or flipchart pages placed on a wall. While I am flexible in choosing methods, I wanted to use this method because of its effectiveness for the topic and discussions. I have facilitated in many spaces such as outdoor picnic shelters, hotel rooms with limited wall space, around a campfire; yet never in a room with absolutely no space to hang a post-it note, an index card, a flipchart. I decided to use the Consensus Workshop method and then creatively used a variety of temporary walls such as foamcore, flip charts, dry erase cling-on sheets and post-it notes on the tables and floor.
Never assume that a vertical surface will be available to allow easy viewing by participants of materials.
The physical space of facilitation and dialogue is important. Remember, style doesn’t overcome a lack of substance.