Active Listening Tools for Faciliation

What is Facilitation?

Facilitation is a service of assistance you provide to a group of people to make decisions and achieve goals collaboratively based on those decisions. The action of facilitation smoothens and optimizes the process of achieving the goal. Facilitation,

  • Help identify the problems,
  • Solve the problems and
  • Make decisions.

A scrum master is also a facilitator. Scrum Masters are responsible for facilitating Scrum events which means, you have a far bigger role than just being the scrum event host or organizer in your team.

For example, suppose the customer comes in the middle of the sprint and changes the priority of a product feature. The product owner has the decision of accepting the change for the ongoing sprint or otherwise. As the facilitator, you can mediate the decision-making process to assist the team to make a better and informed decision. How? A scrum master well versed in the of the art of facilitation can create visibility into the question of accepting or rejecting the change in the sprint by showcasing the long-term and short-term impacts and benefits.

But, that is only if they has mastered the art of active listening to skim and highlight the valid points and encourage the flow of focused discussion within the team.

Strategies for Active Listening

Sam Kaner, in his book ‘Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making’, suggests the techniques for facilitative listening skills. Let us see what skills you, as a scrum master, can make use of to improve your active listening skills for facilitation.

Paraphrasing or Summarizing

Paraphrasing or summarizing is repeating the idea of the speaker in your words as you understood it in a non-judgemental manner. Paraphrasing is the most straightforward technique to indicate that you are counting and respecting the ideas of the speaker. Paraphrasing indirectly encourages team collaboration as you facilitate an end for the team to think out loud.

This is a useful technique to exercise when you or the team members are presented with a confusing or convoluted statement from a speaker. You can clarify the speaker's statement beginning as “Is this what you mean?...” or, “Let me see if I’m understanding you.” followed after the paraphrase. At the same time, paraphrasing helps the team to re-validate opinions.

Stacking

Stacking is the process of facilitating an even platform for everyone who is willing to put out an input, to hear. Think of a Scrum event where several people at once compete to speak. As the facilitator, you should make sure everyone is heard and everyone hears each other. But, if they are continuously vying for a turn to speak, they lose focus on what is being discussed which can drown the efficacy of the Scrum event.

Stacking is a four-step procedure. After you open up the discussion,

  1. Ask those who want to speak to raise their hands.
  2. Create a speaking order including everyone with a raised hand, by assigning a number to each person (as first, second, third…).
  3. Call on people when their turn to speak arrives.
  4. After the turn of the final speaker, ask again if anyone again is willing to speak. If so, repeat the steps from the beginning.

Tracking

Tracking is keeping track of every discussion thread going on parallelly in the major scrum event. Say that two team members are discussing how much of a product backlog they can complete in the upcoming sprint, another three discussing possible risks to expect in the sprint, and others are in a discussion clarifying a feature. As the facilitator, you should step back to summarize and clarify each of the discussion threads to create equal visibility to every line of thought within the Scrum event.

You can practice the tracking technique following the below four-step procedure.

  1. Pause the discussions, offer to summarize every discussion rolled so far.
  2. Paraphrase and present every discussion played.
  3. Revalidate the accuracy of the paraphrased discussions within the team.
  4. Invite back the team to resume discussions. Repeat tracking.

Balancing

Balancing means balancing all the opinions in your room to incorporate all the views on a matter. There is a high probability for a discussion to lead down either one road set by the first few people who speak on the topic or to polarize the topic on two ends. Only a facilitator can balance the direction of the conversation and assist the team to see the context from every direction.

As a facilitator, you can use balancing questions such as,

“ We have heard two perspectives, does anyone have a third view?”, “Are there other ways to look at this issue?”, “Can everyone agree with this perspective?” and so on to encourage the audience to have a balanced conversation. But, make sure you direct your questions positively.

Linking

Linking is an effective listening tool for facilitating complex conversations. Linking invites the speaker to explain the connection his/ her statement has with the main topic. It is very common to sidetrack at Scrum events. Linking ensures we stay on topic and we are understanding the path of our thought train as a team.

You can initiate the linking technique in four steps.

  1. Paraphrase the speaker’s statement.
  2. Invite the speaker to link his/ her statement to the main topic.
  3. Paraphrase the speaker’s explanation/ answer.
  4. Identify the validity of his original idea. If it is a relevant and valid statement, draw out or refine and develop the speaker's idea, otherwise put aside the idea to the ‘parking slot’. Then, return to stacking if the situation permits.

Final Thoughts

Active listening can spice up your facilitation skills. A facilitator must be able to listen both skillfully and respectfully to everyone. But, practice, continuous introspection, and improvement are a must to master these and any facilitation skills.


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