Thinking on Your Feet

Facilitators' Day Discussion outline
June 17, 1999 Discussion Thread
Sandy Schuman Lost in the Forest

Discussion Outline

Why is this an issue?

Anticipate the unanticipated

Work it out with the group

Divert attention; go off topic; give it a break

Use the diagnosis-intervention cycle

Be authentic; sincere

A discussion thread on
Thinking on Your Feet
from the
Electronic Discussion on Group Facilitation

----- Original Message -----
From: Sandor P. Schuman
Sent: Wednesday, June 02, 1999 1:24 PM
Subject: Thinking on your feet

For a local conference for facilitators I've been asked to facilitate a one-hour session on "thinking on your feet." What suggestions would you have to help facilitators prepare for the unanticipated? How are you able to act in the face of the unexpected? Can you articulate how it is that you "think on your feet"?

Date: Wed, 02 Jun 1999 14:06:39 -0700
From: Bernie De Koven <>

Humor helps a lot, not necessarily a joke, but laughing at myself, sharing my confusion or my alternatives, sometimes letting the audience dip in to the current rapids that have formed in my stream of consciousness. giving up. asking for help. reviewing (I do this often, either asking the audience to review or do it myself, out loud).

Oddly, being on your feet is really an important step to being able to think on them

Date: Wed, 02 Jun 1999 16:45:03 -0700
From: Sterling Newberry <>

My method for dealing with surprises depends upon the nature of the surprise. If someone asks a question I usually hand it back to them; after all. it's their meeting, and they are the "experts" in the content. I find that this gives them the opportunity to think more deeply about what they are asking, and often the group has the answer. Sometimes more questions are needed a la active listening.

If someone raises an issue that brings into question what the group is doing, I open it up to the group, again, in the form of questions. " Mary or Joe has said "XXXX" what do other people think?" "Would anyone like to respond to what they've just heard?" I find that some silence after the asking of the question is helpful, i.e., don't be too quick to jump in and save the group from embarrassment if no one answers right away.

If a conflict breaks out into the open between two or more participants, I let it go for a bit, then ask the group how they want to handle it. I'm a mediator, so I'm comfortable with "sitting in the fire", as Howie Mindell puts it.

I think that my basic reaction is to slow down what's happening, and offer the group an opportunity to use the situation to either gain clarity, acknowledge something that has gone unspoken up to that point, and/or make a decision on what to do next. This is the basic standpoint in "THE PROMISE OF MEDIATION", by Bush and Folger, and it seems to suit my style. I try to find creative ways of using it in non-mediation situations.

By the by, this puts me into the less directive end of the spectrum in facilitation, although I'm willing to vary my approach to suit the client. In reality, though, I'm going to find opportunities to use my less directive approach, and that's probably my way of being directive!

Date: Wed, 02 Jun 1999 17:01:52 -0500
From: Lynda Baker <>

Three spontaneous suggestions

1. Be prepared to ask good questions - it focuses attention on the group rather than on the facilitator and also gives you time to think

2. Remember that you are sharing responsibility for the outcomes with the group - work in partnership with them to create the process to get there

3. Silence for a while works wonders.....

Date: Wed, 02 Jun 1999 17:33:26 -0400

A book with the title Think On Your Feet (all about attitude, energy & enthusiasm in the face of a crowd) was written some years ago by a fellow named Ken Wydro (I think. I have it at home & will check). Ken & his wife also co-wrote the play Mama, I Want To Sing.

I think it is potentially a great topic. If you think about Izzy and Improvisation, you have a natural way to play with the topic. So rather than you feeling the burden, how about asking participants to brainstorm calamities that could occur while facilitating or presenting, and then break up the group into smaller groups to role play & respond to the calamity of choice. Have the small groups vote for the winning team & then process learnings that could be used spontaneously. Lastly, create/borrow a list of key points that you recommend be remembered. And compare your list to the wisdom, the group generated.

Date: Wed, 02 Jun 1999 21:15:22 -0400
From: Izzy Gesell <>

My pre-facilitator existence training was in 3 areas: teaching, improv theater and stand-up comedy. I highly recommend improv as a way of becoming a more spontaneous person. As paradoxical as it seems, in order to become spontaneous you must practice spontaneity. And in order to feel in control of a situation you must give up the need to be in control.

To prepare for the unanticipated: Remember that most unanticipated events have occurred before (disruptive participants, technoglitches, time constraints, etc.). Before going into a session, consider what MIGHT occur and prepare some responses. In comedy you prepare for the hecklers by having a couple of comeback responses ready. In improv you accept whatever happens and take it from there. In teaching you have a "Plan B" for your lessons.

I'm much better able to face the unexpected after studying Improv theater. I find its relevance to everyday living to be a revelation. My mantra in unexpected situations has become "Its Improv. Go with what you are given." I'm also still helped by something Angeles Arrien said at an IAF conference about an important leadership quality being "the ability to become comfortable with surprise." Which I think is a learned trait.

The biggest Aha for me about thinking on my feet came from a comedy teacher I had many years ago. I asked him how to overcome my fear of getting up on stage and bombing. He said, "you don't overcome your fear, you bring it up on stage with you and show it to people. That's what they're interested in." So I take that to mean when thrown by unexpected events, resort to the truth. Be human.

Be able to laugh about yourself and your situations in a self-effacing rather than self-deprecating way. The former being able to laugh about things you DO, the latter is more about who you ARE.

As to how I think on my feet: I don't respond right away. Rather, I take a moment for silence and cognition of what's going on. I consciously "accept" what's going on and respond to it that way instead of trying to change it. Often, embracing it makes it less threatening. That lowers the emotions and allow some logic to creep in.

Mostly, its just practice. Realize how much we think on our feet every day. Driving, supermarket shopping, writing proposals, answering e-mails. There is no script for our lives. It's all improv!!

Date: Wed, 02 Jun 1999 23:18:00 -0500
From: "Paula Diller (Another Way)" <>

The first thing that comes to my mind is to not prepare anything at all. To, in fact, force yourself (and disclose same to the group at the beginning of the meeting) to think on your feet for that hour. Also, leave your usual tools at home (whether they be flipcharts, laptops, overheads, markers, whatever) so you're forced to improvise on-site. And set the room up in a classroom style or some other un-facilitative-like configuration for the beginning of the meeting. And play off of the expressed frustrations, confusion, and any other difficult group feelings/responses/body language that result from your seeming ill-preparedness as additional points to illustrate thinking on your feet.

Date: Thu, 03 Jun 1999 09:01:38 -0400
From: Wayne Nelson <>

I have found that using the O-R-I-D steps of ICA's Technologies of Participation helps me "see" my thought process and gives me a wee process to run through when I need it.

O is objective - the facts, sensory information - what happened? Actually take the time to notice them before moving on to other parts of the thought process. Often I have to "go back" to check the facts to be sure I have not "jumped to inappropriate emotional or rational conclusions."

R is reflective - feelings and associations - What are my immediate responses? What do the facts remind you of? What feelings do you notice in yourself? It's amazing how much difference it makes when we step back far enough from our associations and emotions to see them for what they are rather than for what we want them to be.

I is Interpretation - meaning, significance, importance etc. What do the facts and my responses to them tell me? What is the point? What matters? What is really going on? What are the implications? What are the options?

D is decisions - choices, decisions, plans etc. What relationship will I going to choose to take to my situation and how will I actually play it out.

This, "on your feet" is a way to run the thought process in slow motion - might be for just a few seconds or less. It allows one to intensify their consciousness in order to be really present to the situation at hand. It's hard to do, but it works. It a way of getting off auto pilot; which, I think, is actually thinking on one's feet.

You can get more on this in "The Art of Focused Conversation" by Brian Stanfield. It's not easy to get, but most of the ICA offices carry it.

Date: Thu, 03 Jun 1999 11:37:50 +0800
From: jomay.verrier@CBH.COM.AU

A really good exercise I have used for helping facilitators "Think on their feet" was to : -

Once everyone has had a go, we discuss each of the responses - of course those at the end have had more time to think and listen to the other responses - and that's OK because we are trying to build on our ability to respond. I find this exercise to be useful and fun at the same time.

Date: Thu, 03 Jun 1999 12:17:57 +0800
From: Alan Wilson (Facilitated Solutions) <>

At 09:15 pm 2/06/99 Izzy Gesell wrote:
>My pre-facilitator existence training was in 3 areas: teaching, improv
>theater and stand-up comedy. I highly recommend improv as a way of becoming
>a more spontaneous person. As paradoxical as it seems, in order to become
>spontaneous you must practice spontaneity. And in order to feel in control
>of a situation you must give up the need to be in control.

Izzy has put my thoughts in a "nut shell" ~ I usually call this "planned spontaneity".

As Izzy suggests, rehearse "scenarios" rather than scripts. This will then enable you to interchange them as discrete segments without the participants knowing.

For example, I did a 45 minute breakfast session last year on the other side of Australia that a friend organised. He couldn't grasp the concept of "planned spontaneity" until the audience asked me to play the piano for the second time in the session. Funny thing was that the sheet music was already on the piano. In fact, I recall rehearsing that "scenario" back in my home state for two weeks before the event. Spontaneity is a well-rehearsed art!!!

Date: Fri, 04 Jun 1999 09:49:19 -0400
From: Ned Ruete <>

Izzy wrote:
>As paradoxical as it seems, in order to become
>spontaneous you must practice spontaneity. <snip>

At the aforementioned session on storytelling which I attended, I heard a story about this. When focus groups were convened to judge which US Presidents in the last 100 years were the best communicators, #1 was The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan. # 2 was Theodore Roosevelt -- a surprise because all his speeches were recorded on silent movies. It was his body language, not his words, that got him into the #2 spot. Applicable to this thread, #3 was John Kennedy. Not for his speeches, but for his press conferences. His ability to think on his feet came from constantly collecting stories and metaphors and other tidbits in school notebooks and constantly reviewing them. He had a database that he could access on a moment's notice.

><snip> As to how I think on my feet: I don't respond right away. Rather, I take a
>moment for silence and cognition of what's going on. <snip>

When I was learning to handle casualties in a submarine nuclear propulsion plant, the engineer told me, "The only two things you have to react to immediately are massive flooding and a major steam leak. Everything else you can take some time to assess before you react." In all my years of teaching, presenting, and facilitating, I have never seen a major steam leak or massive flooding.

For me, the ability to think on my feet comes from being an abstract conceptualizer. One theory of learning, the Kolb Learning Cycle, holds that we all move from concrete experience to passive reflection to abstract conceptualizing to active experimentation to concrete experience to . . . But each of us has a preferred place on the cycle where we like to start. I am one who needs to start with the abstract concept as a basis on which understanding of experiments, experience, and reflection can be based. When in a situation where I need to "think on my feet," that abstract, sometimes preverbal, often non-linear understanding provides a rich harvest. While some people practice answers to all possible questions, I often hear myself saying things I didn't know I knew, but that come from a largely unspoken but internally consistent model of how things work. However, to be able to do that I have had to practice converting that model into words in real time.

This is where, for me, thinking on your feet meets gorilla-tation. When I'm with a group, I often perform abstract conceptualization services for them -- I listen for awhile, and then when they start to propose solutions that are inconsistent with the constraints they have voiced, I point out the inconsistencies. When they are talking all around a position, I will verbalize the position for them and point out ideas IN THE GROUP MEMORY that lead to that position. (Sorry for shouting but I think as much as we use and value group memory it is still underused, undervalued, and under-understood -- a lot of facilitators have not done the abstract conceptualization around what group memory really is.) If they want to change constraints or reject my synthesized position, I let them. But I don't let them proceed without being explicit about their choice. This is how *I* use content and process, brakes and thrusters; where *I* am most comfortable on the 2-or-is-it-3-D model.

><snip> The biggest Aha for me about thinking on my feet came from a comedy teacher
>I had many years ago. I asked him how to overcome my fear of getting up on
>stage and bombing. He said, "you don't overcome your fear, you bring it up
>on stage with you and show it to people. That's what they're interested
>in." So I take that to mean when thrown by unexpected events, resort to
>the truth. Be human. <snip>

Authenticity is a theme for me. When the instructor for sex harassment prevention training asked the group what behaviors represented respecting others, I offered, "Being authentic. Being willing to share the real you with someone else is the best way to show them respect." When the storytelling teacher asked what characteristics made a good storyteller, I offered, "Authenticity: the person the audience sees telling the story is the real person that is up there." I believe that a facilitator has to be authentic, both to function effectively and to model a critical behavior for the participants. When choosing a place to be on the 2-or-is-it-3-D model I try to find a place that serves what the group needs now in a way that I can be authentic. If I can't function in that place, or the closest I can get is not close enough to where the team needs me to be -- or if my opinion of what they need and their opinion of what they want or what they expect from "facilitator" are not close enough together, then I don't have a "match." I need to get a different client and the group needs to get a different facilitator.

P.S. Much of what I post here doesn't come from knowledge or experience in facilitation, but from mining my model of how groups work. This forum is one place I practice my approach to "thinking on my feet."

Date: Fri, 04 Jun 1999 23:52:20 -0700
From: Les McKeown <>

I regularly run a session on creative thinking. The folks there obviously arrive knowing what the topic is. I often start by sitting down somewhere in the middle of the participants, throwing a marker at one of the participants, pointing to a flip chart and saying 'OK - get us started.'

Just thought it might help with this one, also.

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Lost in the Forest*

A teaching poem from the Northwest Native American tradition. This poem was used to answer the question, "What do I do when I am lost in the forest?" The cedar forests of the Pacific Northwest are so thick that, 200 yards into the forest, there is nothing to see but green, not even the sky above. This poem was used to teach children how to react when lost in the forest, but it applies equally to any of us who are lost. When a child asks, "What do I do when I'm lost in the forest?," an elder will recite:

Stand still.

The trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost.
Wherever you are is here, and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. It whispers,
"I have made this place around you
That, leaving it, you may come back again, saying

Are any two trees the same to raven?
Are any two branches the same to wren?
If what trees do and branches do is lost on you then you are truly lost.

Stand still.

The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.


* Posted to the Electronic Discussion on the Group Facilitation by Ned Ruete on 11/22/98.