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More Than Conduct: on losing control in workshops to gain more for everyone

I facilitate workshops on senses and emotions – there is physical contact between participants and there are emotional outbursts. This is something I have to be responsible for but is not something I should necessarily manage or control. I may have good intentions in trying to control workshops but my intentions are not as important as the agency and autonomy of the participants.

This post is about how I talk to workshop participants at the start and why I am changing my approach again.

Here are the 4 codes I will now announce and explain to them. The last one: Control is new.

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I’m going to explain each line.

Code of

Whatever you are doing there needs to be some form of boundaries. Humans do not cope well in space that appear to be totally limitless and uncared for.

The history of the 1960’s communes shows how open social spaces without rules merely enable bullying. Loud voices, strong muscles and ancient ideas of privilege defined failing communes.

There must be codes and rules. They must be spoken of.

Conduct

Conference codes of conduct can be, somehow, a point of contention.

Making it clear that some behaviours are inappropriate and wrong seems entirely reasonable. Making it clear that inappropriate behaviour will have consequences matters. Making it clear who to speak to when attacked or threatened is important.

Being clear that there is a Code of Conduct is where any workshop must start. The workshop of part of a conference or related to an organisation. Conduct is the basis of any shared space.

Conversation

Workshops are full of chat – the novelty of place, people and content makes that happen.

A lot of my work is in accessibility and often there are very clear problems with speech and privilege. People who are used to talking and ordering others around take over, while those are are not so confident hold back.

This happens in all workshops and so I make the point explicit. If you are the kind of person who talks a lot then shut up and listen. If you are the kind of person who stays quiet then take the opportunity to speak up.

Making this point overt isn’t just about conversation. It’s about enabling and permissioning control by participants. I cannot facilitate a room of 150 people by myself. I cannot help each individual table with loudness and quietness of participants. However, I can enable people to think of their group and mutual behaviour. They can softly police the conversations together.

There’s always people who talk too much or try to control too much but this method allows me to spot and concentrate on them.

Losing control to gain more is a theme I’ll get back to.

Comfort

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Being comfortable in a workshop is a point that has become more important the more I have worked in design for cognitive accessibility (generally speaking design for people with dementia and autistic people – in terms of user groups that funders speak of).

Comfort is a very vague concept but it’s important. The question cards in the photos are ones I use in workshops lately. They are to help people be mindful of things that may affect their sense of comfort.

Workshops are not lessons. It’s not school. Adults must have autonomy (to be honest, children should have autonomy – unschooling is a useful concept here).

How comfortable a person feels is entirely dependent on their sense of place, time, society and intent.

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Workshop rooms can be horrible. Workshops can be horrible if you’re with people you are not comfortable with, in a place you don’t like and with worries about things that are happening outside that room.

Because workshops are defined by time and space, you can end up feeling awful because it is the wrong time and space for you.

Comfort is the code for enabling people to realise they can walk away. Involvement is not compulsory. Workshop materials are available to read later. I’ll happily chat with anyone about the workshop at another time when they feel more open and receptive.

I design workshop as experiences but I have learnt that is not appropriate for all people, all the time. Again control must be passed from me to the participants so they can make choices.

Control

Finally, the new Code – Control.

As should be clear thru this post, control is a huge issue. Power and privilege are in action all the time. Between me as facilitator with participants, between participants with each other and within participants themselves.

Control can be used overtly and strongly to minimise ‘bad behaviour’. This is the old school teacher idea of ruling over a class.

Most workshop participants will have been thru formal education and expect (or at least be aware of) this idea of teacher/pupil relationship.

It is however, not helpful. For all the participants who feel only the lightest of touch of control (because of their internalised sense of privilege and power), there will be too many who feel constricted (because of their lack of both those factors).

Taking control myself for the benefit of the room is a form of liberal bias. I want to do good so I must control for what is good.

This cannot work out well.

I need to be explicit that control is in each participant and in mutual respect.

Control must be ceded and lost to provide the best workshop environment. The choice to walk away from the workshops, to not take part in group activities and to find your own comfort is essential.

This will make workshops harder to facilitate as I’m losing an easy use of authority. However, I need to learn to do better for all participants and this is how it starts.

Written by

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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