Q4 Facilitation of On-the-Fly Issues

The Real-Life Case

PA workshops incorporate participants’ real-life cases as key to the learning process. Participant feedback consistently rates the real-life case as an extremely effective part of our workshops.

How does it work? Workshop participants prepare for practice sessions by writing up details of a business conversation they need to have. The Real-Life Case activity leverages two of our key learning principles: 1) Practicing skills in a setting that provides immediate feedback, and 2) Using a real-world scenario from participants’ real lives. These combine for a singular learning experience.

But in a recent workshop, one participant asked if we could shift from his original Real-Life Case to a new one sparked by the workshop content. For me, it was a tough call: Should I stay with the scheduled activities/discussions, or allow one participant’s situation to take center stage?

What Should a Facilitator Do?

  1. Play it safe and stick to the scheduled activities and discussions.
  2. Make a management decision to go for it!
  3. Put the idea to a vote of the learners.

Let’s look at each through a more critical lens:

  • A is a safe choice, since everyone already has the same expectations in place. In the above situation, I had only a very high-level understanding of this learner’s situation — which presents a certain level of risk. There’s nothing “wrong” with this choice, since no one’s expectations would be compromised. However, there’s an element of Q2 caution and unresponsiveness here — plus, you chance being seen as rigid or unable to deviate from the script.
  • B is the most uncertain scenario, because the facilitator doesn’t have the group’s buy-in. It’s also very Q1: Forcing ideas upon others and dictating what’s going to happen without taking the group’s pulse. The potential for a powerful teaching moment here is great — if you can pull it off. But if the learners lose interest midway (or never get onboard at all), there is no good way to change direction again. You’ll lose trust.
  • C is the optimal, Q4 choice. Certainly, if you are new to facilitation, I wouldn’t recommend changing subjects midway. But if you are a seasoned Q4 facilitator, putting the choice to a vote has many benefits.

The Q4 Power of Choice

The benefits to allowing the learners the power to choose are promoted in the work of adult learning guru Malcolm Knowles. Here’s what Knowles discovered about adults’ learning needs:

  1. Need to Know Why We’re Learning — When you teach, the material has to be personally relevant to the learners.
  2. Self-Concept of Capable — Entrusting participants with a vote on whether to modify the subject matter and schedule allowed them to say they believed they could handle both the material and the opportunity to be flexible.
  3. Readiness to Learn — As the participant’s story unfolded, everyone else in the group could see themselves in this guy’s shoes — opening themselves up to the material and to the change in direction.
  4. Problem-Centered — Making the discussion about a specific problem, instead of an abstract concept, invested the group in the learning outcomes.
  5. Motivation — The workshop participants wanted to believe they would be armed with the tools to handle a similar scenario, so working through it with the group helped everyone hone those skills.

I adjusted the workshop to accommodate the group’s decision to focus on the unplanned discussion. In the group’s eyes, it was time well spent (even though we lost an hour doing so, and had to cut corners later).

It’s key for a Q4 facilitator to keep your learners’ needs paramount, while also knowing your limitations. Don’t rush into a decision that can impact the entire group without weighing both the risks and rewards.



Dr. Hager has substantial experience in facilitation, and in courseware design and development. Among her many offerings, she facilitates PA’s flagship offering, Leadership Through People Skills®.

Related Insights