Participatory Facilitation Techniques

A few weeks ago I facilitated a 1.5 day meeting for young leaders on the topic of the Columbia River Treaty (CRT).  The CRT is an international agreement between Canada and the United States which governs how water is managed in our region (You can learn more at   The ultimate goal was that young residents in the region are knowledgeable about the CRT and comfortable talking about it as a formal consultation process begins in late spring with the Province of British Columbia.  Thirty participants ranging in age from 18 to 38 years old learned complicated subject matter in a short time frame.

Screen shot of the twitter stream at the Young Leaders Conference

My strategy in designing the conference was to use a range of participatory and visual techniques to engage the leaders in thoughtful discussions and encourage participant conversations.  One of the participants asked for an overview of the techniques so here are some examples as well as explanations as to why I chose them:

Scavenger Hunt

  • Games are a great way to engage people in dense material, particularly when you have players, levels, points and prizes.  Playing in teams acts as an ice breaker for participants helping them get to know each other over shared tasks.  Providing fun from the get-go sets the tone for the rest of the meeting.   This was an idea of the client and worked well.

Concurrent Thematic Discussions

  • Not everyone comes to the meeting with the same interests or levels of knowledge.  Having concurrent sessions where participants can choose to attend one or more topics allows people to focus on their personal areas of interest and ultimately keep them engaged.


  • Metaphors are another way to think about, or talk about, subject areas.  By imagining a complicated or technical topic such as an international water treaty as something more familiar such as a garden or a computer, people find new ways to understand the subject matter.  We had a lot of fun with this activity as small groups not only described the topic as a metaphor, but also drew it on large pieces of paper.

Participants drawing their metaphor

  • Each group presented their version of the Treaty using metaphors such as a garden, the Commodore 64 computer, a river and a ski hill (with green, blue and black runs representing the challenges ahead).  We debriefed the exercise by looking at similarities, differences and opportunities that were brought forward.

Samoan Circle

Graphic Recording of Samoan Circle discussion by Lisa Theissen

  • After a plenary presentation on how dams and reservoirs work in the context of the CRT, we held a Samoan Circle.  This was a great way to break free from the traditional Q&A format.  I believe the new format kept people interested and also presented a new way of listening and digesting the information for everyone.
  • The technique consists of a large outer circle where everyone sits and a few chairs in the center for people who want to discuss issues. This is the traditional way Samoan elders discuss issues of importance to their community.  It’s an opportunity to learn more from each other and everyone is invited to participate.  The working principles of the Samoan circle are:
    • Outside circle: may not talk
    • Inner circle: can talk until prompted by a tap on the shoulder to retire
    • You must enter the inner circle before you talk
    • You can enter the inner circle at any time if you want to participate in the discussion
    • You can enter the inner circle if you want to stop somebody from talking
    • You must finish your point and leave the inner circle when prompted
    • We had a couple volunteers get the conversation started and people jumped in over time to ask questions, share thoughts and a range of opinions.  During the discussion, we graphically recorded the discussion on the adjacent wall.  The circle was very successful with lots of people joining the inner circle.  We had to cut it off due to time.

Building Scenarios

The building blocks for future scenarios

  • It’s interesting to understand a topic from different perspectives.  Furthermore, by putting oneself into the character of another, it’s possible to dig deeper into the mindsets of different stakeholders and go beyond your own personal view points.  In addition, by comparing scenarios from different stakeholders, one can really start to see the areas of overlap and divergence.  I chose scenario building to help us go from the status quo scenario to a range of possibilities including those that may not be talked about in mainstream circles.  The purpose was to think outside the box and understand different perspectives.
  • In order to ensure the scenarios started from a common framework, we worked in small groups to brainstorm the foundation of the scenario.  I asked participants to consider the current context:
    • Driving Forces
    • Pre-determined Factors
    • What’s Missing
    • Critical Uncertainties
    • In plenary we took ideas from each small group until we had exhausted the information.  Everything was graphically recorded on a large format wall template.
    • Once the building blocks were in place, four personas were identified representing different view points (i.e.Canada,USA, First Nations and Local Residents).  The groups had to come up with a potential storyline as well as a recommendation for the future.  Groups were asked to consider the implications of their storyline and information needs and present back to the plenary.

Conversation Café with Introductory Panel

Conversation Cafe in Action

  • The purpose of the session was to explain some key concepts around education and engagement and then generate new ideas to engage young people.  A conversation café is a great way to dig deeper into a topic that has many layers.  We started with a short panel which introduced the current situation.  There were three speakers and each had 5 minutes to talk.  We then had two rounds of 20 minute conversations.  After the first conversation, one person stayed at the table as the host and the other people moved to new tables.  The host shared the past conversation highlights with the new people.  By moving people around, ideas are cross-fertilized and opportunities to build on each others’ ideas increases.  At the end, tables had 5 minutes to link ideas from the two rounds looking for themes and patterns.  They then shared their top two ideas in plenary.

Graphic Recording of Conversation Cafe by Lisa Theissen

Open Space

  • Our final session used open space which is an opportunity for participants to create their own agenda.  A question was posed to act as the overarching theme for the session (i.e. What’s next for young leaders in the CRT Process?) and participants who wanted to discuss a certain topic were free to suggest items.  In 15 minutes we created an agenda with 8 topics.  We had four concurrent sessions taking place followed by a second round.
  • By leaving the agenda open, this ensures that participants have a chance to talk about their interests or what they want to learn more about.  There is only one law which is to take responsibility for your learning and contributions.  If you find yourself in a session where neither is taking place, you should move with your two feet to another location.

 Overall, the 1.5 days were highly engaging and inspiring with many good ideas coming forth.  I hope some of these techniques inspire you to add participation, graphics and conversation to your next meeting.  If you have some other fun and interesting techniques to share, please add it to the comments!


Filed under Effective meetings

2 responses to “Participatory Facilitation Techniques

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