Leaders must learn how to conduct their meetings, breakouts, and training sessions not only in an engaging manner, but more importantly, in an effective way. Author and podcaster Beth Cougler Blom is here to discuss facilitating on purpose with Douglas Nelson. She explains how bringing such an approach to your team’s learning experience can revitalize leadership, making them more intentional and deliberate. Beth talks about the most effective way to cater to people who have a deep desire to learn, as well as the different strategies facilitators can try to become constant learners themselves.
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Facilitating On Purpose With Beth Cougler Blom, Author, Podcaster & Facilitator
Our guest, Beth Cougler Blom, a Facilitator and Learning Designer who, along with her team, works with clients across all sectors to help them design and facilitate great learning experiences and meetings. I wanted to have Beth on because I fell in love with her book designed to engage. I listen to every episode of her show, Facilitating On Purpose.
I thought her expertise would be great to share with our readers and leaders across the social profit sector interested in creating more compelling and meaningful moments of learning with their teams, boards and essential partners. That goes deep on what it takes to facilitate a great learning experience and how leaders in the social profit sector can improve outcomes, advance their organizations, and become a much better leader. Please enjoy my conversation with Beth.
Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
As an admirer of your work, I am pleased to have you on the show and to have this conversation with you. Before we get into the deep conversation, we’re going to have about leadership, facilitation and how those two things are so closely linked, I’m hoping you can share with our audience a little bit about what your firm does and the mission that animates your work.
We have three prongs in our work. The first prong or area is learning design. some people call that instructional design. We like the word learning design. It means we partner with people to help them develop courses in any mode, whether online or in person, and provide that guidance, support and expertise to create the effective course people are looking for in their field. We also do group process facilitation. That’s your facilitation of things like strategic planning meetings, brainstorming or process planning and all sorts of things where they’re looking for that “neutral facilitator” to come and assist an organization and help them drive towards some outcomes they’re looking for.
The third area that we work in is what we sometimes have to call teaching because there’s such messiness around the word facilitation, but facilitating learning, workshop facilitation or teaching is the third area. What we do is help people learn how to do the same thing, how to design learning, learning how to facilitate workshops and courses. If people are looking for skills and how to do that, then they come to us. We have workshops and courses where we teach them how to do that.
How did you decide to do all of those things? What brought you to that work?
A lifetime of winding my way through educational-type things. I started on the administrative side years ago. Earlier in my career, I was hired as a program coordinator-type role. I coordinated education and learning in the academia in higher ed. I eventually found my way into community organizations, work at the non-profit volunteer center for a while, and over time, became the person who stood up in front of the group, not just organize the event. I went from that journey of, “I’m a trainer.” There’s this thing called facilitating and that’s more complex and maybe has more expertise. It’s a different thing than training. We eventually started helping people do the same as I continued my own journey and started helping clients increase their skills in the same as well.
I came upon your work. It was introduced by a mutual friend and colleague of ours. One of the things that jumped out at me is how consistent you are in encouraging leaders, facilitators and anyone standing in front of a group of people to be deliberate and intentional about what it is they want to communicate, what messages they want to teach or share, learn or co-learn with the audience. There’s such a strong parallel between that facilitation and organizational leadership. Let’s jump right in and say how leaders can become more intentional and deliberate in the way they’re leading in communicating when they’re working with their team.
The first thing that comes to mind is around the language that we use to describe the thing that we want to do. Sometimes I start here with people saying, “If you say you’re going to deliver a workshop to make a presentation or you’re going to give information to someone,” people don’t necessarily realize that’s denoting some type of experience that isn’t interactive or full of active learning experiences, like the type of effective learning experience that we want people to create.If you want to be more intentional and deliberate, be clearer on how you use language to describe the things you want to do. Click To Tweet
Sometimes, people don’t realize that the very language that they’re using is this unique directional content dump language, but that’s not what they themselves would even say is an effective learning experience. It’s working at cross purposes with what they want to do. That’s one thing around the use of language and being more intentional about what we talk about raises people’s awareness.
The number of times that we worked with leaders and they’ve decided on an outcome and they want to jump to the answer. What we want to communicate is the answer. One of the things that my colleagues and I are often saying is, “You’ve lost some sleep over this. You are in this issue over and over again. You’re thinking about it all the time. The people you’re working with on your team may think about it occasionally, once a week, or maybe haven’t thought about it at all. They may need to walk with you before they’re ready to commit to an outcome.” When someone says, “I know what I need them to learn. Help me teach them.” How do you start?
They often come with a variation of that, but it’s mostly, “Here’s what I think I want to teach them, not necessarily what I hope they’re going to learn.”
How are those different?
A lot of people think, “Here’s all this content that I need to tell somebody or this group.” They come to it from, “Here’s what I know and I’m going to share this with you because you need to know this,” approach. In modern learning design, we want people to think about the learner first and what’s going on. Let’s say it’s in a business context and you have staff, volunteers or whoever you’re working with that you’re putting them at the center of your process going, “What’s happening in the business environment or in the environment with this person? Maybe why are they doing this thing? Can we give them skills, knowledge or behaviors that help them do the thing?
Center ourselves on what the person who’s at the heart of our process is doing or not doing. Start from their needs, what they already know and what they need to know. We call it being learned-centered. A lot of us make the mistake of being teacher-centered or instructor-centered first. We have to switch our minds. One of the biggest things we do when we work with clients is to help them situate themselves with whoever is in their learner group.
If you look at how to give a good speech or how to communicate better with your team, if you look that up on YouTube, you’ll have hours of, “How to be a great communicator? How to be like Tony Robbins?” which I hope no one reading wants to be but how to be that dynamic, charismatic figure at the front of the room, which is helpful to point if you want to have a YouTube channel, but in my experience, it’s not the signal or a signifier of great leadership.
When people want to do a better job of communicating with their teams, boards or essential partners, a lot of the training that people will initially go to is about becoming better themselves in being unidirectional and compelling when you’re doing that. How do you work with leaders and groups to change that channel and focus on the learner first?
It’s probably a role difference. I don’t work with speakers or presenters. That’s not the work that I engage in. I want to work with people who want to facilitate learning or process. We call ourselves facilitators because it’s not all about us. Maybe it’s not all about us if we’re speakers either, but the word speaker or presenter is denoting the more you need directional experience, but facilitating learning or facilitating process, we have to do a lot more listening than talking in some cases.
We have to bring that intentionality. Our work is mostly on figuring out how to draw the group out and how to engage the group and involve them in the experience. It’s a whole different thing than being a speaker or presenter. One of the things that I cringe a little bit when there are conferences and any field because often, when we go to conferences, we see a lot of presenting and lectures type of situations. I want to see more involvement, active learning, and participatory learning created by people who facilitate learning, not just have that speaker or presenter approach.
It’s only when we involve people in their own learning that we know it’s going to work. Why are we in this business? It’s for the impact that we’re trying to make in our organizations. If we can’t see the learner learning, then we have no way of saying that there is any impact being made. We have to create opportunities to measure and observe our learners learning the skills and behaviors we want them to be able to take on to make those impacts back in the environment where they are doing the work.Only when leaders involve people in their own learning can they actually know if it actually works and how it impacts the entire organization. Click To Tweet
We want to have a conversation with people that changes how they operate on any given Wednesday morning, not just what changes what they say in the room. One of the ways that we try to do that is we do a lot of pre-surveys when we’re working with groups. If we’re going to do a strategic planning session with boards and those pre-surveys, always include questions about, “What advice would you have to make sure this is compelling and interesting? What would you like to know more about? Is there any advice you have on how to make this different from previous strategic planning sessions you’ve been in the past?
What we almost always hear back, particularly when you’re dealing with teams, not so much as with boards, is, “I want to hear more about how my colleagues are handling the situation. I want to learn. I want to hear more from the people in the organization about what they’re seeing related to the issue that’s on the table.”
When we reflect that back to leadership, I am always surprised at how surprised they are to hear that’s a key learning objective for the team and hear what other people around them are doing and saying or how they’re handling different situations. Having facilitated as much as you have, what would you attribute that disconnect from what the learners are asking for and the surprise that leaders might have that they want to hear from each other? They don’t just want to hear from me.
Sometimes, they say that people teach how they’ve been taught. Often, we haven’t been part of good examples when we were students or attendees. I’ll use the word very intentionally. I wasn’t a participant but more of an attendee that we didn’t know how to do it a different way than what we’ve seen and been a part of.
We have no skills to unlock those things for ourselves. It’s only when leaders are CEOs or whoever it is that it’s trying to do something more effective. It’s only when they work with someone who knows how to do that, has seen that and experienced that themselves that they can unlock that together to create a more effective learning experience because you’re right, what we forget sometimes when we design experiences poorly is that the people in the room are knowledgeable in many different things around their job.
It’s not just because of working in the actual organization on that particular topic or work that they’re doing. It’s all of those past experiences that they’ve had in previous jobs and educational experiences and whatever. We are rich, complex human beings coming together in a learning situation. The more we can teach people and we can do ourselves as facilitators to draw that out, the more effective we’re going to be.
Hopefully, the business or the organization sees that impact because they can solve the problems with the people that they have. They have to enable and use that intentional approach to draw it out. It’s probably there. It also takes the pressure off us as the people who facilitate those types of experiences because we don’t have to have all the answers. That’s maybe a fallacy that people come into it when they’re new to workshop facilitation or course facilitation.
They think, “I’ve got to have all the answers because the people ask me something, I sure better know.” I like to take the pressure off myself and think, “Maybe I don’t know, but probably somebody else in the room does. Let’s just throw the question back or, better yet, create an experience where we ask them the question in the first place and maybe add it to the things they missed.”
I like the way you oriented that back on the lead on the learners and participants and that distinction between being a participant and attendee is worth anyone who’s organizing a conference should reflect on that very important difference. I’m a big fan of your show, Facilitating On Purpose. You do a wonderful job of both educating and engaging people and what it is like to be open when you’re standing in front of a room when you’re anticipating what it’s going to be like. I’ve learned a lot from it. I hope it becomes everybody’s second favorite show.
I’ll make a goal for myself for that.
The name of it is Facilitating On Purpose. What does that name mean to you?
It was a real deal to come up with the name of a show, which you probably had as well when you deemed this one. I had colleagues who helped me come up with the name and we wrestled with a lot of things. Facilitating On Purpose came forward because when I wrote my book Designed To Engage, you have that moment where you’re asking yourself, “What is this all about anyway? What does that big idea that I keep coming back to time and time again and the crux of the whole matter?”
When I wrote the book, I thought, “If people spent more time in the design stage, they would be able to engage their participants more effectively.” Design To Engage became a great title for that book. Facilitating On Purpose was that same recognition that if we spend more time thinking about, “Why are we doing this thing? What’s happening in the environment? What’s the purpose of this thing that we want to create that may or may not be a learning experience?” That’s a whole other conversation because sometimes we create learning experiences when we hand out or something we would do or create a workshop.
It comes back to purpose, intention and learning outcomes. The more we use those skills and intentionality, the more we will become better facilitators. We have to back up. A lot of people might advertise something and throw a PowerPoint together, go off and lead that workshop, but I try to work backward with people and get them to start way earlier than they did to question, “Why do we need a learning experience? Do we need a learning experience? What learning experience do we want to create? How are we going to design the thing that is going to solve that problem that we’re seeing? What skills do we use to design it?” and so on.
There are all sorts of structural pieces that, when you haven’t been trained in that education, you don’t get the memo. I have a Master’s in Adult Education and so do you, and I probably didn’t get a lot of the memos in my Master’s either. It’s the practical experience of years of doing this work where the foundational pieces have been strengthened for myself and try to pass those. All of that intentionality, if we create the time for it and do it, we will create better learning experiences, which will have the impact we’re looking for.
One of the things that I’m sure you hear and I certainly have heard from working with clients is this, “I don’t have time to do this.” From your answer there, to pull an important threat out, you will have a better outcome. It will take less time if you step back before charging forward. Those moments of reflection when we’re communicating important messages within our organizations, there are a little reports or to essential partners, we want to be thoughtful about it.
Intuitively, professional leaders in the social profit sector know that they need to be thoughtful before they stand up at the AGM and talk to all of the members of their society or they know if they’re getting ready to talk to the board about a particularly delicate issue. They need to be thoughtful and not charge forward. They have a story that says, “When I used to work at this other place, I charged forward and now they invited me to work here.”
They made mistakes and lost their job. They are bringing someone else because they didn’t step back. I’m taking it from the lens or perspective of individual leaders. You talk in your book and I’ve heard you talk on the show about developing that organizational muscle around being reflective, intentional, and moving forward. How do you approach working with organizations and individual leaders to bring that alive in their own in their own organizations?
I was meeting with a client where we were talking about the importance of developing a learning strategy. They’ve taken the time to think at a high level about what being a learning organization looks like, write some stuff down about that, talk to your people and in developing such a strategy and there are probably values in there around what you think effective learning looks like that you’re want to write down. It takes time to do that. We’ve done projects like that where it’s been several months of work because we’re doing this for and with an organization we got to talk to people, write things and pull it all together, but that’s time we’ll spend because then you’re giving your organization clear directions into how you want any learning experience to look.
We’re not just talking courses or workshops. We’re talking about a five-minute video that you create, a PDF handout, an article you put on your website or whatever it is, a conversation that happens between two people who work together. We have to take a broad look at what learning looks like in an organization and learning is not just courses and workshops because there are all sorts of ways we learn in a micro-informal way every day of our lives in the workplace and what the broad view look like of what you want learning to look like in an organization.Learning is not just courses and workshops. There are different ways to learn, especially in micro and informal ways every day. Click To Tweet
Someday, I’ll do something with this concept that I like to call Every Day Acts Of Facilitation because I think as facilitators of learning or process, there are things that we do in a group session with people, whether it’s a meeting, workshop or whatnot, but there are ways to facilitate on a daily basis whether you’re a CEO, coordinator, manager or a reception is to facilitate with your colleagues to draw things out from each other. It allows every person in the organization to use facilitation skills for the betterment of their own lives, but the organization certainly and then their clients are whoever they are impacting in their ultimate word.
Have you found people more receptive to the idea of facilitating or even everyday facilitation since 2020?
I have this hope that because of the pandemic, maybe people realize that facilitation, first of all, is a thing. A lot of us do it in the world. There are many worldwide excellent facilitators and it’s different than training. It’s more intentional, as we’ve already talked about. When we are especially online with each other, these skills are even more important because there are certain things that we’re somewhat missing in an online environment.
I never let people off the hook when they say to me, “It’s not going to be as good as it is in person,” because we can create excellent virtual experiences. I’ve been doing that for a lot longer than just since 2020. Some of us have been in online learning for many years, and we know how to effectively engage people in online spaces, but maybe it heightened our field a little bit. I hope my ideal world is heightened to what facilitators can and do for organizations.
How do you approach if you’re going to be facilitating a session? How is your approach different in an online when you know it’s going to be online versus in person?
There are some differences. We use the same process tools. If it’s a Zoom-based workshop, for example, we are still going to be writing a lesson plan and doing learner analysis, thinking about who’s going to be in the room and so on, but there are extra complexities around the technology, the platform and, “Are people familiar with it? What does it afford us to do or not?” Certain tools even feel differently than others to be in.
I talked about this on an episode where some virtual platforms prevent us from engaging people in the way that I think we should be engaged. When we can’t see who’s in the room because the tool prevents us from doing it, we have a big problem there. It is because we are enabled by the technology to do it. I’m not sure that that’s a good idea. Should we always have 100 or 200 people in the room because we can or should we record the meeting because we now have that ability in tools like Zoom? I’m not sure.
We just can’t look at the tools and say, “We’ve got this ability. Let’s do it.” We have to question ourselves to make intentional decisions about how to use things, what to use and why we are making the decisions we’re making. I will fight back most times on recording any session because it will change the conversation in the room. I have that conversation a lot with why I would intentionally not record and have turned down contracts for people who want me to “present” something so they can record it and put it on their website later, but I facilitate learning experiences. I don’t make one-hour presentations where it’s just me talking.
There are some intellectual property issues there, but I don’t think that’s what you underlining there. I find that in sessions, especially when they’re recorded, it exacerbates the issue of introverts not connecting and not talking. It makes it harder it puts another barrier for people to share. I find those who are going to talk anyway, talk more and those who want to be more thoughtful take a little more time to engage, just don’t.
When the red light goes on or, “Click this button if you’re okay with recording,” it’s almost permission to not engage for a significant part of any group of people you’re working with. If you want to hear the extroverts talk, you can do that. I am an extrovert, but I know the best fundraisers and the best organizational leaders that I’ve ever worked with are introverts. We need to make space to listen to often the smartest kids in class.
Even if we identify as extroverts, that doesn’t mean that we feel like carrying out extroverted behaviors every day. Someday, you might show up to a workshop and you want to work alone in a quiet breakout room. We give people choices. If we have designed the activity to be a pairs activity or a small group activity, it’s going to be in a breakout room, then we say, “If you don’t want to be in a pair or in a group, then go into the quiet room in a breakout room instead.” That’s not just for people who are introverts. That’s for anyone who just feels like they’re overwhelmed.
That’s a great perspective method. The other issue that comes up a lot and should be coming up a lot more for facilitators is the idea of hearing from everyone in the group and the implications of hearing from everyone that we see through the lens of equity and organizations wanted to do a better job some of them intuitively very good at it, some of them with a longer learning journey ahead of them to be diplomatic. How do you approach that issue of equity in your work?
We have been doing a lot of self-learning about this as a company. I feel like it’s going to be an ongoing learning journey for all of us. Going back to what you said earlier about CEOs working with their teams or whatnot, we only know our own experience. We have to try to find ways to get out of our own experiences and think about other people who are in our experiences with us. Let’s say, our learners.
We do a lot of work around inclusive facilitation in our own learning and then we try to pass that on to the people that we were working with as well. You said the words, “Hearing from people.” We have to question ourselves, for example, “What does it mean to hear from someone in a workshop? Is that an audible thing that we want to hear from them verbally?” Not necessarily. How do we design things so that people who don’t want to participate audibly can participate in other ways?
One of the things we are trying to learn about and that’s also ongoing universal design for learning. How do we create learning so that all people can participate in ways that work for them in any of our learning experiences? The CAST framework for UDL is very complex. We can’t do all the things all the time. One of the things I try to do at the very least myself, is offer an option for what to do. If I say, “Please, I’d like to invite you to go into a breakout room and discuss something with another pair or with another person, but if you prefer to work on this alone, we’ve got a quiet room opened up for you.”
That piece around different means to the same end and offering people choice within that is a huge thing that if only people thought about that then they could design another option, there you go. There are all sorts of pieces around how we be inclusive facilitators, get out of our own experience and keep learning about what it means to welcome, invite and have other people feel that they belong in our learning experiences. It’s very complex work but very worthwhile.
I hear some organizations that see that as an extra burden or thing that they need to do to have that quiet rumor. There are other features of those organizations, but the exceptional organizations are looking for ways to engage people where they are. We want to hear from them and it doesn’t need to be them talking and us listening. Is there another way to do it? It’s something that we work hard to incorporate the opportunity. With pre-surveys, people get issues on the table to make sure they come in so there’s a nuance to the session feedback afterward and in online environment feedback during.
An example is typically when we’re doing an online session have somebody who’s there, you can send a direct message to one of my colleagues who is going to respond or try to work it in or make sure that remind me that I’ve been calling someone by the wrong name or some mistake I’ve made, but more often it’s something more significant that they want to make sure he gets addressed in the room. Make sure that there are lots of ways for people to access the conversation, not just in real-time, but over the entirety of the work.
It doesn’t just happen in the experience, as you’ve said. You’re talking about pre-surveys. I like those as well. It’s how we find out about who’s going to be there and what they need. I also like to think about the precession communication we’re sending out to say, “Please tell us if there’s something that we can do to support your learning in this session.” It is a general statement that is very easy to add to that almost marketing/advance email that you send out to a group to say, “I probably haven’t thought of all the things yet. Please tell me if there’s a way that you think we can do to support your learning better.” If we can try to help people help us get ahead of these things and maybe we can design and facilitate better learning experiences.
We know that many of our readers are involved in teaching, learning and facilitating to a greater or lesser extent on a daily basis in their organizational life. They may not facilitate a session at the scale you do, but most of them lead those sessions with volunteers, staff and donors. If someone wants to get better right away like, “I read the interview of Beth. I’m committed,” what’s the first thing they can do to become a better facilitator?
Selfishly, read my book, Design To Engage. I wrote that book because I was straddling the worlds of higher education and community organizations for a long time. I saw that there’s a lot of talk in post-secondary environments about how people learn and how we work with that. In community organizations, not as much. I looked back on my own experience, too, and realized, “A lot of people fall into this. They are doing their job. Somehow, somebody thinks that they have to lead a learning experience. They have to create a workshop, create a course and lead that, but they’ve not been taught how to do that, as you’ve said.
They fall into this and where do they turn? I wrote the book for those people who don’t need to go to do a Master’s in Adult Education because, as I’ve said, I’m not sure it gave me all the things I had anyway, but I tried to write the book to meet those people that their experts in some mission or vision content are not experts in education so how do they get the things that they need?
I tried to write it so that we can just talk like real people about learning in a fun and interesting way. I have nothing against academia, but sometimes we talk even a level that’s too verbose, too hard to understand for people because they’re busy they need what they need at the time they need it. Even at the start of the book, I said, “Don’t read this from cover to cover, start to finish, if that’s not going to work for you. Go to the place that you need it at the time you need it. Use the index and the table of contents.”
It’s the companion for people who fell into the work of leading learning that they didn’t get and, hopefully, have been able to use. I do get good feedback on it. That’s still the work I do with people to partner with people who know their subject and they need to know more and how to engage people and a beautiful partnership is made there.
I shared with you that I am a big fan of the book. In fact, we had our team days where we brought everybody in the Discovery Group together here in North Vancouver, I used the book as a way of structuring the two days that we spent together to make sure that I was being intentional. I know it because I would excited to have everybody in the same room. It would be successful for me if everybody sat there and smiled at each other for two days. We thought we’d try to get a little bit more out of it. Design To Engage is a big help for that.
I encourage leaders to order a copy of the book. Have it on their desk as something to flip through. You don’t have to read cover to cover, but there are great jumping-in points to improve the next meeting, and I’ve used it several times. As we come to the end of our conversation, one of my favorite questions to ask our guests, particularly those leading organizations, is because you’ve been leading a change in how the world sees facilitation and facilitator. What are you looking forward to?
I’m in this business because I love learning and this is a field where if you love learning, there will always be something to learn. It’s the lifelong journey of knowing that we can always get better in doing this thing, designing and facilitating learning. It’s not easy, even though people joke it’s based on the root of the word facilitation is facil in French and it means to make it easy, but it is very complex work.
Inherent in the field, if we’re not continuing to learn about it, then I think there’s a bit of a problem there. Being in the field is the thing I always look forward to that there’s always something around the corner. The impact of AI on facilitation and facilitating learning is one of the things I’m seeing a lot of people talking about and convening conversations around that myself. That’s probably a whole other episode that we could do together. We’ll watch and see where that goes because we’re using it, but again, it’s an intentionality that we need to bring to that partnership perhaps of using AI is the thinking or learning partner helping us with the right learning outcomes or whatever we’re doing.
There’s a bit of caution there for sure, but what are the opportunities that lie within? There are quite a few exciting things coming our way. Always in tech, there’s something to be excited about. We have to keep reminding ourselves that it’s not all about the technology. Don’t just use AI-generated characters to say your videos because you think it’s a cool thing to do. There are a lot of cautions in that particular choice itself. It’s a whole other conversation there.Keep reminding yourself that learning is not all about technology. Do not use AI-generated characters to teach just because it is a cool thing to do. Click To Tweet
Keep coming back to purpose, intentionality and the question, “Why do I want to have this tool? What purpose is it going to serve not just me as the facilitator who’s designing this thing, for the learners? Let’s go back to where we started, the learner-centeredness of it all, and make good decisions around those things.”
That’s great advice, whether it’s AI or facilitating the next staff meeting. Thank you so much for being on the show. Before I let you go, can you let everybody know how they can learn more about your work, listen to your show and where they can buy your book?
It’s not just my work. I have a team that I work with in my business and you can find us at BethCouglerBlom.com and learn a little bit more about what we do. Design To Engage is my book. I hope you listen to some of the episodes of Facilitating On Purpose. Always feel free to give me feedback because I’m always learning in this field. I talk a lot on the show about my own failures and what I’ve learned from them in the field. I’m very open about that stuff. You’re definitely not alone, all you people out there trying to figure out how to do this. We’re all somewhere on the journey and that’s why we’re here.