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Case of the Facilitator as a clinician – Areas of Inquiry- Part I

There’s a certain Israeli professor who’s also a psychotherapist. I had seen him in action and he had helped me a great deal in making some personal breakthroughs. I wanted to share his work with others, so on his next visit to India, I invited him to my community of fellow facilitators for a small talk. We all stood in awe as he entered the class, and then he began to speak. 

“Wow!” You’d think, but not. Alas! what he spoke of was really basic, everyone knew the stuff he was telling us and eventually got bored. Afterward, I kept wondering, I knew this person had a treasure trove of knowledge as well as experience, then how come the session did not go well at all. While I was thinking about this a little voice at the back of my head kept saying: ‘Know thy audience’. 

As we near or cross our 10,000 hours of facilitating, we obviously become pretty good at it, some great and few of us outshone and become the best. However, I’ve seen the best take this step of knowing your audience for granted and I’ve seen the best fall. 

In today’s post, I’m going to share 3 ways by which we can get to know our audience better and design and deliver training programs that are even more relevant to them. 

The world’s best actor

Butcher, boxer, painter, couturier, oil baron, and Abraham Lincoln are some of the roles of famous method actor Daniels Day Lewis. For the movie ‘In the name of the Father’ he endured solitary confinement; for the filming of ‘My left foot’ he remained wheel-chair bound even off the set. In The Last of the Mohicans, becoming Hawkeye meant learning how to skin animals, throw tomahawks, build canoes and reload muskets while running. It is reported that he would carry his rifle at all times – even off the set and when he would go out for lunches (adapted from https://www.hbo.com/movies/staff-picks/last-of-the-mohicans-daniel-day-lewis-redefines-action-hero )

Immersion is a great way to get to know someone’s reality and 2 out of the 3 techniques I am going to share with you as a way of getting to know your audience.  

Understanding the stakeholder’s reality

1. Principle of Genchi Genbutsu – This is a Japanese principle that literally means – Go and See for yourself.  This implies if you want to solve a problem or want a job done,  walk up to the situation and observe – how that person is performing while she is situated in her reality, take notes, ask where you can, at the same time show respect. I love the last one: ‘show respect’. We facilitators come in trying to fix everything really quick. First go in there, observe, understand what they are doing, appreciate how far they have come then try to take it to the next level (as differentiated from fixing it). This works for any industry. 

But to give a manufacturing example, as far as possible when I am consulting for an automobile manufacturing organization I always try to do a plant visit. Walking along the assembly like, just getting to know what the plant smells like, sounds like, and looks like have helped me design and deliver training programs that get people to perform the required task / adopt a new mindset not when they are in the confines of a plush training room but when they are working in their reality. If there are no assembly lines, go along while the rep visits the doctor’s chamber or tag along with the consultant when s/he is pitching to her client – Genchi Genbutsu the hell out of their reality.

2. Going Deeper – Ira, an independent brand consultant was called upon to consult for a global chain of temples devoted to a particular god. Spending an evening at her place I was taken aback to see the stacks of books she had bought on that particular god. Different versions written by different authors brought out myriad points of view for that one god. She’s a very busy lady, but to my question, she replied – “This gives me the edge, this reading gets me to know my client’s subject, more than my client knows about him/herself.” She commands her respect and price in the market. 

 In stark contrast, I’m reminded of some instructional designers who have been working for the last 20 years, but just getting by from day to day – I ask them how many books on ID have they read. Very few of them own up to having read more than 2. 

Knowing your subject well is a necessary condition. But this method of immersive reading and research about your stakeholder’s reality does 2 things for any facilitator/designer:

1) It helps you to up your trust quotient with the stakeholder – since you can speak the language of the stakeholder there is a definite affinity bias that builds up, and 

2) Even though the research is about your stakeholder’s reality knowing, it gets you to come across as a specialist or subject matter expert

3. Are your questions stonewalling your clients?

The 3rd method of understanding your stakeholder’s reality may require some bit of immersion but will also require you to pull out and see the big picture sometimes – something the client may or may not be able to do by themselves. 

Consider the following: walk up to one of your peers and ask her – what do you want to achieve in life? What do you think the response will be – you might just get a quizzical look – which probably means – what’s wrong with you. 

Or try another question – if you have had a falling out with your spouse and don’t really know why s/he is pissed off / irritated at you,  just ask the question (try this at your own risk though) – “what’s upsetting you” – what do you think is going to be the response? I’ve known couples that have said that such a question has gotten them even more upset. 

So are the above questions wrong? Well, actually not. To me, these questions represent outcomes or pieces of information that you want. Asking direct questions doesn’t get you the desired outcome.  In order to get the required information you might have to ask other questions to arrive at answers for these ‘Areas of Inquiry’. 

What’s an area of inquiry?  

  1. When you want an answer to your curiosity/query/concern, but posing a direct question will get you: a) no answer at all b) a misleading answer or c) a worse situation. 
  2. When the person being asked the question doesn’t know the answer / has not thought about it before, and you want him/her to reflect on it. 
  3. When the answer doesn’t lie with any one person but needs to be arrived at by collecting different points of view and connecting the dots – something that your role allows/needs you to do.

Areas of inquiry vs Questions – 

While working for an FMCG – White Goods organization, the HR head asked me if I could do a program on product innovation. I promptly replied in the positive and went on to rattle topics I could cover.  

She proceeded to tell me that the workshop was for the R&D guys and showed me many graphs which basically pointed out that whenever innovation happened (even incremental) sales for that month would go up. It seemed cut and dry – let’s do an Innovation Program. 

Speaking to the R&D guys I asked them – “would you like a workshop on innovation?”. They all agreed. But I followed this up with another question. I asked them about the ‘as is’ status – “were they innovating at all?”. These guys turned around to look at me, almost offended. I knew I had stepped on something there. They said they were.  

The question kept running through my head then why do they need a workshop on innovation. To my silence, they responded that they did innovate and the ideas they came up with went into something they called the Idea Factory. 

Ok, so then what happened to the idea – “Well” they replied, “apart from the simplest ideas very few get executed.” 


 “Because marketing is too busy and doesn’t have the time to understand the product details / change their strategies” 

I asked marketing the same set of questions more or less. At first, they too agreed that R&D could do with a workshop on innovation. But going a bit deeper with them, they began to let their guard down and said they thought R&D is in their ivory tower and don’t have an understanding of the main street. “The ideas they come up with are difficult to implement and will take a while to understand – that same time we can use more effectively in other areas.” 

Finally, the program that we ran was actually a team workout – where we got Marketing and R&D to talk to each other, understand one another’s reality, and begin building bridges. We followed up with the program and they managed to get some interesting ideas rolling and a tidy spike in sales.  

One of the key elements of that program was ‘Empathy’. What struck me in all of this was – the initial need was the innovation we ended up with a piece on Empathy, nowhere did we do a session on innovation.   

From the above example, had I designed a program based on the responses to my initial questions I would have delivered a completely different workshop – people may have liked it, but I’m not sure it would have helped the organization. I had to get under the prima facie answers to get at the actual learning opportunity that needed to be addressed. 

Some examples of Areas of Inquiry

  1. Is there a difference between the mentioned need and the actual need?
  2. What parts of the puzzle am I missing?
  3. What’s preventing the stakeholder from …? 
  4. What is my stakeholder’s blind spot?
  5. How is my ability to look at the big picture adding value?  
  6. What is the complete story? 

Just keeping the idea of the ‘Areas of Inquiry’ in mind helps you to come up with sharper questions that help you to design and deliver better. 

The actual questions come much later (in part III of this post) If you’d like to go deeper – in part II of this post I am going to share how metaphors can be used to unpack your  Areas of inquiry.

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