Notes on Designing Experiential Meetings

Posted by Chris on December 05, 2008

About a month ago at the AYE conference I participated in a full-day workshop on Designing Experiential Meetings, led by Jerry Weinberg (with support from Esther Derby). I really enjoyed it and learned a lot. A couple of days ago I was talking to Tobias Fors, telling him about the workshop, and he convinced me to post my notes in a blog post. So, here are my thoughts and notes from that workshop.

I must stress that these are my interpretations and notes of what was said, even when I refer to Jerry or anyone else.

What does experiential mean?

Wikipedia says:

Experiential learning is learning through reflection on doing [...]

In my own words, an experiential meeting (or workshop, training session etc) is a meeting that includes activities that allow you to experience something (through discussion, hands-on work, simulations or something similar) and then learn from that experience by reflecting on it. So in a sense it is about participation as opposed to just listening. But I would not describe a training session as experiential just because it includes an exercise. Without the reflection part a lot of potential for learning would be missed.

So, that brings me to the basic structure of an experiential meeting.

Exploration, Discovery, Application

Jerry described experiential meetings as having three basic components. First we Explore the topic we want to learn about, next we Discover something about it, and finally we try and find a way to Apply that knowledge. Sometimes these are used in cycles. For instance, while Applying something we learned we might move in to a new Exploration.

A style, or pattern, that I like is a session that starts with the participants exploring some concept, either individually or in small groups. They then get into larger groups (or the one group) to share their thoughts and discover patterns or key points. Next, a simulation is used where they will apply and reinforce these key points. The simulation helps the participants explore the concept further, and in the following debriefing they discover even more knowledge.

Whatever happens, happens

A basic principle of an experiential session is what Jerry described as “whatever happens, happens”. As the leader of a session, it is not your job to make sure that something specific happens, or to decide what knowledge the participants should get from it.

As a session leader you are not a trainer with knowledge to push to the participants. You are a facilitator for the learning of the group and the individuals in it. If the participants happen to take the session in a direction you had not planned for, do not automatically force them back. Of course this does not mean you should just be a bystander, or come to the session with no plan. That is not facilitating. Instead, use everything that happens to help the participants get maximum value from the session. Have a plan, and modify it as you go.

Always debrief

I guess there might be a difference for different people, but for me all the learning happens in the debriefing. Or rather, the debriefing sets my mind up for effective learning. During the debriefing I will learn a lot, but even at a later time I will realize things which I believe would have been much more difficult without the debriefing.

During the debriefing participants get to hear other participants’ perspectives. By sharing your own thoughts with others you will refine and extend your own understanding. An interesting way for the facilitator to reinforce this is to find ways to make the debriefing itself experiential. Instead of just having participants say what they thought, help them activate more parts of the brain by using alternative ways of providing feedback.

The Spectrogram activity is a good example. Ask the participants about how they feel about something. Tell them to stand up and place themselves somewhere along an imaginary line from max/agree to min/disagree. Interview people about the reason why they are standing where they are, what their context is.

As the facilitator, make sure that you ask open-ended questions of the participants. A good way to start is just asking about what they saw or heard. Move on to things that puzzled them, and next ask about insights. Finally, ask them about one thing that they can take back to work and apply. Notice the pattern? This is basically the Exploration, Discovery, Application structure again. :)

Safety and comfort

An experiential session can be very different from what many participants are used to. Make sure that everyone understands that participation in any exercise is completely optional. People can have many reasons for feeling that they do not want to be part of an exercise. For instance, Jerry told a story of someone with strong religious beliefs that would not take part in an exercise that involved playing cards. It can of course be much simpler than that, some exercises involve close contact that many people are not ok with. People who do not want to take an active part in an exercise can be given the option of being an observer for the group. They will see things that others do not, so this can benefit both themselves and the rest of the group.

When designing exercises (see more below), have safety and comfort in mind. Are the participants complete strangers to eachother, or have they been working closely together for a long time? Do not use exercises that would need paramedics to be close, or ones that single people out as “losers” (survivor-style). Giving someone a role that will make them look stupid can make them checkout of the exercise, either physically (by leaving) or mentally. Either way, it will affect their learning, and possibly the rest of the group as well.

Regarding people checking out (for different reasons), this is a strong reason (there are others as well of course) to be more than one person leading the session. Use lieutenants to help keep an eye on people. This way if a participant needs attention, the exercise can continue with the rest of the group while someone works with that person to make sure they are ok.

Designing exercises

To end with, here are a couple of tips on how to design exercises and activities for experiential sessions. To me, the most important advice is to keep the exercise itself simple, and let the learning happen in the debriefing. Think about the objective of the exercise, what do you want people to learn from it. Then think about all the steps of the exercise, all the twists it takes, and consider whether they help achieve that objective or if they distract from it. Note that I am not saying there must always be just one clear objective (the great XP game comes to mind), but that you should consider the elements of an exercise to make sure they do not distract from the objective(s).

This is also a good way to invent new exercises. An advice that was given was to try reversing the objective(s), consider how that affects the elements of the exercise, and design from there. I would recommend going further and try using all parts of a technique such as SCAMPER (not just reversal) to design new exercises with different objectives.

Finally, it can be a good idea to have backups for some exercises. Specifically if you are planning on using an exercise that takes some time, it can be necessary to have a shorter backup to use if previous parts of the session ran longer than expected.

To wrap up, in my own experience it helps a lot to include some humor and fun in the session. Try to create a positive energy, and go with that energy throughout the session. And remember, whatever happens, happens!


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  • Thanks Jerry. I agree, you really have to experience it to learn it. That was what was so great about the workshop at AYE. Since it was the last day of the conference, it was like a great debriefing of all the experiential experiences I had already had during the previous days.

  • Chris, you've done a BEAUTIFUL job of describing what experiential learning is all, and what we did that day. Thank you.

    There's a paradox here, of course. How can you explain experiential learning without being experiential, if what you believe in is experiential learning. I've been wrestling with that for some years, since I completed a manuscript on experiential learning--a paradox.

    What I would recommend to your readers now, to really bring your marvelous essay home to them, is to try to design some little experiential exercise, then debrief it with some friends. Here's a simple example to learn about change:

    Clasp your hands together, fingers interlocked

    Notice which little finger is on the bottom

    Reclasp your hands, but this time with the other little finger on the bottom.

    Notice how it feels to you.

    Notice your feelings about what you want to do next.

    End of exercise. Now debrief by sharing those feelings, then seeing what learnings you can draw from them about change.
    I hope this adds some retention to Chris's essay.

    Jerry Weinberg

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