Category Archives: Facilitation

Virtual workshops and conferences – innovating fast and successfully

“Mummy, why can’t your clients come to you?” asked my 10-year old daughter a few years ago. I moderate large and small events at companies, foundations and governments all over the world and I work a lot – so that’s a lot of travel. I explained to my daughter why it was impossible for me to invite 500 people into our home for a large group conference or ask a company board to fly from North Carolina to Heidelberg for a strategy meeting.

Isn’t it strange how the “impossible” can change? IMG_0745 copy

Don’t get me wrong: things are tough. My business and daily life has been totally upturned by the COVID-19 situation. As a self-employed international consultant focussing on dialogue, many contracts have been postponed to when corona’s subsided. Whenever that is.

However, as in all crises, people see opportunities to innovate, adapt and change and I have clients and business partners with whom I’m excited to be doing just that!

We’ve already conducted workshops and small-group events with a cool mixture of Zoom, Slido and other tools and are working on a large-group conference in a few weeks with high-level panels and multi-room break-outs. It works!

But it only works if you completely re-think the format. A simple translation of the real-time event to its online alter-ego will bore, frustrate and (literally) turn people off. It certainly won’t achieve the results we’re after. One thing that strikes me about the sort of virtual meetings we’ve been running is that people can be both more and less efficient and focussed when they’re communicating via a screen. There’s a very fine line between strong engagement and the sort of 4% just about “in” that’s possible between reading a new mail and playing patience.

Timing is crucial: more than 60 minutes flat is unlikely to pay off. Those 60 minutes can be really effective though: start on time and engage with participants holistically from the beginning. Keep presentations that would have taken 30 minutes in the physical work down to at the most half that time and allow participants to engage briefly in small groups (e.g. on Zoom) before coming to conclusions or decisions with a pre-prepared tool like Slido. Our experience: we’re over twice as quick to get to goal. As long as the whole session is over within 90 minutes tops.

Rules of play need to be embraced by all participants too: similarly to the real world, effective dialogue needs people to turn notifications off during the discussion and focus on the issues at hand. Also as in offline reality, human basics such as eye-contact, respect and clear speech are a key parts of whole-person conversations that are meaningful and reach results. Participants at online workshops need to have their cameras on (watch that background and get out of your pyjamas) and a good microphone in place. There are loads of colleagues out there who’ve written about what makes online communication work and I’m grateful to all who’ve shared their experience.

We’ve learned a lot and will be learning a lot more over the next few weeks and that’s another joy of working in a crisis: people are keen to experiment, see what happens, reflect on what works and doesn’t work, show solidarity, criticise constructively and constantly improve. It’s more than a culture of error tolerance. It’s egging the errors on up front, in order to adapt on the fly and become excellent quickly. I’m seeing daring, speed, humour and genuine interest in what’s happening and who’s on board. That’s not recklessness, it’s courage and esteem. I think we really have a chance to conduct meetings and conferences in a more hybrid way after corona without losing our effectiveness.

Maybe my daughter had a point: saving on travel whilst aiming to serve my clients’ needs as well as I always have is a possibility, even though I’ll never give up on the many face-to-face conversations that need physical presence. This hybrid approach would certainly be a more sustainable way to get people engaged in the right dialogues.

Please let me know if you’re unsure as to whether your planned workshop, conference, debate or meeting could be rethought as an online event. I’d be happy to see what would work for you. Not everything has to be postponed. Life needs to go on. But maybe in a somewhat different way!

The strength of public private partnerships done right

High level Forum of the German Alliance for Trade Facilitation in the Museum der Kommunikation in Berlin052ED-066BE.jpg

This has got to be one of my favourite processes: the German Alliance for Trade Facilitation. I’ve been supporting it since its birth in 2016 and have marvelled at the growth of the network – German businesses and economic associations with the German Government. Monday’s first High Level Forum showcased how the simplification of non-tariff trade processes and removal of barriers not only benefits Germany’s exporting industry, but also business and community partners in developing countries. Whether in Ghana or Montenegro, the Alliance has shown it is possible to reduce time goods spend at customs, increase knowledge and reliability or generate more automated systems. As Dr. Thomas Ogilvie, Member of the Management Board at DHL Group, said: the Alliance is a unique opportunity to articulate, educate and innovate.

Trondheim Conference 2019 #TC9 – Making biodiversity matter

450 experts from National Governments, NGOs, science and international organisations are mobilising everything they can to make drastic progress towards the global vision of  living in harmony with nature. The Aichi targets from 2011 haven’t achieved what they intended to. The Trondheim Conferences are a safe, encouraging but also challenging space for candid discussions about what caused the failure to act. And they also push for collaborative ideas on how to improve the strategy and its implementation.


ashgar and Natasha stage

Schwung mod

I had the privilege of designing the interactive sessions of the conference again and moderating it. The results will be appearing in full as well as in the synthesised form on the website: Trondheim Conference Report (work in progress). This year’s conference promised to have more interaction and, in addition to the round table discussions on prepared questions, participants filled an Open Space Agenda with their own topics, in order to make sure the important and relevant lessons learned are taken forward (see photo below).

Open space agenda

Photos by IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis

In 2020 (in Kunming, China) the Convention on Biological Diversity will adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework as a stepping stone towards the 2050 Vision of “Living in harmony with nature”. SUPPORT THIS WORK!

Ostbelgiens Bürgeragenda liegt vor!

This blog post is entitled in German, because it refers to my work in the German Speaking Community of Belgium, where a randomly selected group of citizens have spent their free time working on a “Citizens’ Agenda” for the future of childcare in the region. The “Bürgeragenda” was presented on Saturday to the region’s politicians and welcomed as a call to action! Many recommendations and thoughts will be implemented or find a place in the region’s masterplan on childcare. Politicians and citizens alike praised the process and described it as a success. Media was involved in the process from the beginning. Here’s the latest report:




Albania hosts Regional Labour Market Monitoring Conference

IMG_3303The famous clock tower in Tirana ticks away on our conference on the relevance of regional labour market monitoring for more effective policy-making. The conference is drawing not only on the important research results of the European Network on Regional Labour Market Monitoring (EN RLMM), but also on GIZ’s work in developing and emerging countries. The aim is to create a platform for both groups to explore how research findings can be transferred to countries outside of the EU. Albania is an excellent choice to host – the results of migratory brain-drain, combined with strong economic growth, mean that national employment policy urgently needs to obtain and act on strong labour market information: where are which skills required and how can national and regional policy-makers support skills development and effective matching of supply and demand.

This is an amazing space for participants from EU, South East Europe, Central Asia and Northern Africa to understand their different situations and explore how experiences can be built on and used in different contexts.

International Germany Forum – Huge interest in the changing stigmatisation surrounding mental health

3. Internationales Deutschlandforum_Gruppenfoto_Group Picture copy.jpg

Bildnachweis: Foto: Bundesregierung/ Sandra Steins

These are the notes I took during the forum on Mental Health at the 2017 International Germany Forum (IDF) and hopefully show how exciting the near future could be for society’s understanding and treatment of mental disease:

  • Mental health stigma affects all of society:
    • people living with/suffering from mental health illnesses, thus making it more unlikely that they seek help early.
    • Families, friends, colleagues and public life as a whole, thus making mental health a “non-issue” and stopping people understanding what they have and how (effectively) it can be treated.
    • Healthcare and medical institutions – lack of understanding of the implications of mental health on physical health and vice-versa. Prejudice and maltreatment of people with mental illnesses when they need physical help.
  • What’s behind the stigma? What has caused it and is contributing to keeping it upheld? (Mirai Chatterjee: “People just don’t know how to approach mental health”)
    • Guilt – e.g. Mentally ill people and/or their parents and family: “what have I done wrong to have caused this to happen”
    • Fear of treatment – e.g. Exorcism, painful and/or humiliating experience
    • Lack of knowledge or the “normality” of mental illnesses: is it an illness? Are you dangerous? Is it contagious? Is there a treatment? Am I a lost cause? Will I waste my doctor’s time by seeking treatment?
    • Fear of exclusion and loss of legal rights after “coming out”: will I ever be able to drop the label? No understanding of the continuum of the diagnosis and the fact that it can end!
    • Lack of access to a group: I’m on my own.
  • We need to differentiate in our approach to mental health and mental illness:
    • Different mental disorders (from schizophrenia to depression, etc.)
    • Mental disorders (treatment) and mental health (prevention)
  • We need to learn from others on how to destigmatise mental health. E.g. HIV/AIDS, homosexuality
  • Main levers for destigmatisation: 1) Talk, talk, talk (famous people and normal people – multichannel – use social media to generate broad groups of people!), 2) showcase successful treatment! The more people are seen to be successfully treated and “well”, the less taboo, 3) involve people living with mental disorders in issues (relevant for them)
  • Main action for experts and specialists: connect the dots (there’s already a wealth of things going on, but no roof, so that the effect is reduced)
  • What should we be doing NOW?
    • International action: Germany is called on to take on a leading role in merging the agendas (Agenda 2030, G20, etc.). Create a movement – bottom up and top-down. Mental health is one of the prerequisites for all people to be productive citizens and combat the tasks on the agenda 2030.
    • National action: e.g. Germany needs a National Mental Health Action Plan to connect the dots, increase access, develop technology and treatment and destigmatise.


Feedback – effective, but what a difficult thing to do!

On 1st May, our daughter had an horrific accident at an indoor playground that resulted in emergency surgery on her head, only just saving her life. It took us 4 weeks to confront the responsible people and I’m glad we waited that long. Our initial reaction after the accident was anger: I wanted to sue the place and get it closed down. The fury made me sick. After 4 weeks and total recovery of our daughter, the anger had abated and (mostly) left, leaving in its place an urgent wish for “closure” (as one calls it nowadays). My husband and I drove out to the nice looking play centre with that one goal: to leave it all behind us and forgive. There were 3 hurdles though, preventing us from doing that:

  1. We had put our trust in a professional institution that avoids unnecessary risk (she was at a children’s party and we weren’t there) : how could it have happened?
  2. The responsible people at the centre hadn’t called the emergency services and our daughter was operated on only just in time (after we’d heard her strange crying on the phone and demanded they do so): why didn’t they call them immediately?
  3. No one from the centre had called to ask how our daughter was doing (having watched her leave in an ambulance): don’t they care?

There was obviously only one solution: dialogue with the people responsible based on feedback and avoiding attack (which produces counter-attack and creates a situation of war). Oh yes, because I knew if it didn’t work and I felt understood and acknowledged with each of my 3 hurdles, I would go to war. And I wanted to avoid that if at all possible (knowing how impossible it is to really win).

We arrived and had a look round – an intimate, clean and friendly place. And then I calmly asked the lady who was older than 25 if she were the manager and introduced us as the parents of the little girl who’d had the accident, asking if we could have a talk. She was alert and gracious and immediately invited us to a quiet table, somehow signalling to one of her colleagues to bring us a coffee. I asked her if we could give her feedback on what happened, because it was stopping us from getting over the situation. She agreed, was very focussed and listened. That was already 80 % goal reached, I think. I’m not sure how we managed to stick to the feedback rules of speaking from one’s own perspective, mixing positive and negative perceptions and voicing one’s wishes for how we would have liked it. I’m not sure how we managed to completely avoid judging her. I suppose it’s because we knew we wanted to shake hands at the end of the discussion, rather than “We’ll see you in court” or something equally melodramatic (my husband’s a lawyer).

After about 45 minutes we thanked her quietly and shook hands. She was truly sorry and shocked by what had happened and thanked us for opening her eyes. She invited our daughter to come and have a free play, which we’ll do one day.

It was over and we could get on with our lives in forgiveness.

I was so grateful to her for her ability to take on our feedback and even formulate clear learnings for the future, and I was grateful and proud of our ability to give feedback – rational, emotional and fair. I have practised giving and receiving feedback for 22 years – it’s part of my job. It’s not easy and I’m often hopeless at it in a private context, but this encounter proved to me above all others how effective and wonderful it is.

A few of my clients are currently working on improving feedback in their teams and everyday working situation. Why? Because it’s a safe way of moving onwards, learning, improving, dealing with mistakes and staying happy and sane! Confrontation, attack and judgement destroys people – whether in their private lives or at work. If we’re obsessed about being right, we may “win” our point, but still lose, because trust is destroyed along with the opponent’s lost face. Feedback can make everyone a winner – it allows us to see the world through a different perspective and decide for ourselves if we want to change our viewpoint.

We don’t know for sure whether the play centre has changed any of their practices to reduce the risk of other children hurting themselves, but I believe they have.  Because the feedback session with the owner enabled her to see ways of doing so that allowed her keep face and be in charge.

Meister meistern Herausforderungen

Der deutsche Industriemeister ist eine Schlüsselperson in großen Unternehmen: sie haben eine Sandwich-Position inne, in dem sie den Großteil der Belegschaft disziplinarisch und fachlich führen und für die fach- und Termin gerechte Umsetzung und Ausführung der Managemententscheidungen verantwortlich sind. Gefühlt ändert sich nichts so schnell wie der Industriemeisterberuf, und viele der Kollegen arbeiten 45 Jahre im Betrieb! Allein die Digitalisierung hat den Job revolutioniert, geschweige denn LEAN-Ansätze, Umstrukturierungen, etc. Ein Meister verbringt heutzutage die Hälfte seiner Arbeitszeit am Computer.


Meister meistern Heraus-forderungen

Ein langjähriger und geschätzter Kunde von mir bei einem der größten deutschen Unternehmen hat diese Schlüsselposition erkannt und ich begleite ihn seit 2013 bei der Initiative “Meister meistern Herausforderungen”. Wie läuft die Initiative? Alles basiert auf den Input der Meister, die in einem ersten Schritt die derzeitige Belastungssituation analysiert haben und selbst Schwerpunkte für die Verbesserung identifiziert haben. Engagierte Manager begleiteten den Prozess und lieferten den Meistern die erforderlichen Informationen oder Unterstützungen. Auch bei der Lösungsentwicklung waren die Meister federführend dabei, mit den Managern zunächst die Optionen auf den Tisch zu legen und dann in umsetzungsfähige Konzepte zu gießen.

Die Skepsis war anfangs groß, dass diese Initiative einfach eine neue “Sau, die durch’s Dorf getrieben wird”. Dass sie ein beständiger Prozess geworden ist, verdankt sie der Kreativität und Veränderungsbereitschaft der Meister, dem Engagement der Manager und dem energischen Projektleiter, der im Laufe der gut zwei Jahre viel über sich und das Unternehmen gelernt hat und den Prozess als extrem wertvoll – für den Standort und auch für sich – sieht.

Ich genieße die Zusammenarbeit mit den Meistern. Ich habe viel gelernt und gelacht in den vielen Workshops, die ich moderierte. Ich schätze die Offenheit und Ehrlichkeit der Meister und ihren Willen, Dinge anzupacken und miteinander um die besten Lösung zu ringen. Mich hat auch beeindruckt, wie einige zugeben konnten, dass bestimmte angedachte Verbesserungen doch nicht so einfach umzusetzen seien, und diese Botschaft den Kollegen vermittelt haben. Das zeigt Größe.

Manager und Meister sollten sich viel häufiger die Zeit nehmen, auf Augenhöhe miteinander ins Gespräch zu kommen. Wir brauchen eine Diversitypolitik in den Unternehmen, die diese alte Grenze bewusst aufbricht. Gewinnen tun alle: Firma, Mensch und Prozess.





Facilitation is about organising content.


It’s a bit like putting together this Scottish Highland picture: it’s not just about building a wall that should be robust enough to stand the elements, but also about ensuring that the big picture – in this case the mountain – isn’t lost in the process. It’s about changing perspectives – on the one hand to deal with the details where they’re needed, and also to become more abstract. It’s about empowering a group to work out the best way to put their expertise, ideas and interests together: building a wall that will not fall down at the first stress-test. And it’s about creating a result that is pleasing – that the group can take pride in.

How does it work? What are the essentials of structuring content as a facilitator? This list is not exhaustive!

  1. Invest time and effort in establishing a joint understanding of and buy in for the goals, deliverables and agenda (structure) of the meeting. A group of people will only feel motivated and dedicated to building a wall if they’ve agreed that’s what they’ve set out to do!
  2. Ensure joint understanding – this sounds obvious, but most of my speaking in the facilitated meeting is spent on making sure what people want to say is said and heard by the others (i.e. “translating” and summarising complex or unclear messages in the most efficient way possible – active listening). People need to share an understanding of
    1. where they’re coming from (history, problem or potential),
    2. whether they have a similar or diverse position on the issue and what that position is/those positions are (consensus/disagreement),
    3. what people feel is important and relevant or irrelevant (priorities),
    4. why people feel and think the way they do (rationale),
    5. how people suggest a problem should be solved or potential achieved (propositions),
    6. where opportunities for collaboration lie (partnership),
    7. the way forward (plan) and
    8. how success will be measurable.
  3. Recording (visually) the main points of the discussion (see 2.) and how they relate to each other (this is wall-building),
  4. Interrupting or even disrupting the wall-building to make sure people are still aware of why they’re building the wall, how high it has to be (i.e. in order to frame the mountain) and which stress-tests it will need to withstand. This can involve inviting external expertise – independent – into the group to allow it to question itself,
  5. Making sure the right people are involved – the evolving and final structure depends on the input received!
  6. Separating brainstorming (opening out) and prioritising/rating/ranking (funnelling and closing). If you mix these processes, you will not only lose the structure of the content, but also most of the people involved in giving it.
  7. Ensuring 100 % participation. The results are useless if half the group lets you know at the end of the process that “it’ll never work”.This means structuring the room and time of a meeting to cope with dealing with multiple voices and, interestingly, creating an atmosphere not of power or importance, but of trust and curiosity. Only then will people listen to each other and stop merely thinking about how to say what they’ve probably said at many meetings before…


Facilitation is about creating bridges between people.

Natasha Walker


Those bridges can be semantic and factual; they can be inventive and suggestive; they can involve “translation” of one participant’s meaning to another’s understanding; they can mean putting up stop signs to protect participants’ feelings and allow them to hold their heads high and they can be bridges of energy and stimulation to get participants thinking and working together.


One of the most effective bridges is a smile, which is infectious and can even lead to laughter, one of the best ways to cement humans together.

I don’t always smile when moderating. My mimicry obviously tends to reflect my feelings – concentration (e.g. on complex material) or concern (e.g. for the process) will often produce a frown. But there are many opportunities to smile and we should use them: welcoming participants individually and as a group, thanking them for input, encouraging participation, etc. I’m not talking about forced smiles or smiling when there’s clearly no cause (e.g. when recognising a crisis or standing up for process fairness). I’m talking about liking (I would like to actually say “loving”, but it’s been so romanticised by today’s usage) one’s participants and accepting them for who they are. Because they are the resources and the capacity of the process. They are its problem-solvers and driving force of change and implementation.

We should show them we appreciate them being there and trust in their competence and ability. And what better way do we human animals have to do that than with a smile?

A smile is a self-fulfilling prophecy: all will be well!