posted 11 May 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 8
The Gurteen perspective
By David Gurteen
I was recently in Jakarta, Indonesia, where I ran a two-day knowledge sharing workshop for a client that included a knowledge café and, as I often do when abroad, I ran an open Gurteen knowledge café on one of the evenings.
I have a little experience of Asian culture, having run knowledge cafes in Singapore and Hong Kong and understand people’s reluctance at times to talk or ask questions and so I was expecting some learning on my part.
We ran the open knowledge café in a beautiful building that was part of the Dutch Embassy and about 60 people participated. The problem with this many people is that you need microphones and this can be intimidating.
Only one person in the room seemed prepared to talk in the whole group conversation until someone else was encouraged to stand up. Having got up, though, he said nothing about what was discussed at his table. But in an entertaining way he told us about his life and his work. I considered intervening, but looking around the room I could see that everyone was enjoying his talk – there was lots of laughter and people were starting to relax. I let him continue.
I then asked for another person to speak. Silence once again. So I talked for a while about just ‘being yourself’ like the last participant. People seemed to warm to the idea and then someone else spoke up and then another and another. The conversation gathered pace and really worked quite well.
In my workshop, the following day, people had no problem talking in small groups as in the previous evening. But if I asked questions of the whole group – more often than not I would not get an answer – even to simple ‘yes or no questions’.
So when I came to run my knowledge café, the small group discussions were fine, but as they came to change tables, two of the tables asked if they could merge to create a group of about ten. I don’t normally do this because in a large group some people get cut out of the conversation, but I wanted to keep them at ease and was also interested to see how it would work, so I agreed. It worked fine – everyone actively engaged in the conversation.
But how was I to run the whole-group conversation? I knew as soon as I took part that like the previous night they would clam up. And then I had an idea. I would ask them all to sit at one large table. Invite them to hold a whole group conversation but crucially not join in myself as I normally do. This way they could also speak in their own language. The problem, of course, is that I would have no idea what they were talking about and although my facilitator style is light touch I would have no way of intervening. So I asked one of the organisers to sit in and listen and to communicate with me as to how it was going by eye-contact with me. It worked a treat!
So what did I learn as a facilitator? Well to take my time, to go with the flow and to be prepared to experiment. And to do all that I can to make it easy and painless for people to engage in conversation. Everyone enjoys conversation. It’s at the very heart of being human. You just need to get some of the barriers out of the way!
David Gurteen is the founder of the Gurteen Knowledge Community. He can be contacted at www.gurteen.com.