By Chris Musselwhite, Sue Kennedy, and Sue Probst of Discovery Learning Inc.
1. Early in the simulation, participants often look confused, lost, or skeptical. How much should the facilitator intervene?
Simulations are designed to resemble real situations. Handling new projects with limited information or struggling with ambiguity are real-world problems for today’s workforce. While it may be uncomfortable to watch people initially struggle to get started, it becomes a valuable learning to surface during the debrief. Stay in your observer role and carefully observe how they go about making it work.
2. How do you handle participants who verbalize or demonstrate through body language that they don’t like simulations?
Thank them for being honest and acknowledge that not everyone is comfortable with simulations. Also acknowledge that others in the room may be feeling the same way, then encourage them to give it their best shot if not for themselves, then for the others on their team. In our experience, most initial resistors get engaged in the simulation and forget their original concerns. In the rare instance where they continue to resist participating, observe how the other participants respond to this and whether they make any attempts to draw in the resistor. This can become a powerful learning opportunity for discussion later.
3. At what point do you intervene if conflict seems to be escalating, affecting the group’s ability to work together effectively?
Some situations call upon the facilitator’s ability to use good judgment. This is one of them. Conflict is not unusual in a simulation, which demonstrates how easily and quickly people forget this is not a “real” experience. The main objective is to allow the participants to handle this situation themselves. Groups either will attempt to find ways to surface and resolve the conflict or they will limp through the simulation, failing to address the conflict and perhaps suffering in their performance as a result. Either outcome is invaluable as a learning opportunity. This may be one of the most frustrating aspects of facilitating and yet to intervene takes away the group’s ability to figure it out for themselves.
4. What do you do if a participant leaves the room in tears or in an obvious emotional state?
First, quickly assess what is happening in the room. What caused this reaction? Is the group aware that someone has left the room? If they are aware, how have they chosen to deal with it? These are all valuable observations for the debrief. Second, use your sound judgment. Does the person just need a bit of time to compose him or herself? If yes, then allow them to do so without intervention. If you sense the person needs support, then it’s appropriate to intervene and simply ask them how you can help. Their reply to this will guide you in the appropriate actions to take. Remember, whatever happens during the course of the simulation is noteworthy, and the debrief will provide the participants the time to further explore the experience and their part in it.
5. How do you prepare a “senior person” to participate in a simulation with other members of their team or organization?
It adds to the simulation experience when a senior manager elects to participate. To ensure their participations does not stifle the full participation of the others, there are a few points to stress privately before the simulation begins:
6. Should you intervene when a senior person breaks the rule?
This is one situation where we WILL recommend that the facilitator become involved. If the senior person is being dominating or trying to run the simulation, it can seriously skew the simulation experience, as well as the outcome. Participants either may be intimidated or may choose to just “go along” to avoid conflict. Valuable learning opportunities will be lost. When this has happened to us, we’ve asked the senior person outside the room for a bit of coaching and feedback on the behaviors observed that may negatively impact the simulation. Simulations can seem real so quickly that participants often forget they’re in one and can easily lapse into their normal behaviors. Senior participants are no exception.
7. What if the senior person prefers to be an observer during the simulation process?
If the senior person is going to be present during the entire simulation, it is preferable to have them participate. As participants, they tend to be engrossed in the process, and the other participants seem to not be unduly affected by having them there. As observers, they may make participants feel they are being evaluated or assessed, and this can change both behaviors and performance, thus not providing a true experience. If the senior person insists on being an observer, they need to be coached to JUST observe and be conscious of neutral body language. Additionally, if they have not participated in the simulation, then they should not participate in the debrief.
8. How do you handle a group that chooses to break or ignore the simulation “rules?”
The rules that are written for a specific simulation should be explained carefully during the introduction process. When questions arise relative to rules during the simulation, it is permissible for the facilitator to answer the question. It is not unusual for a group to challenge rules that do not make sense to them. This may represent an aspect of the culture in which they work and, therefore, may be an important debrief point. To intervene here may prevent a good discussion during the debrief. Facilitators have found they need to exercise good judgment around this point and, with experience, will become more comfortable knowing when and if to intervene. Often, a group isn’t breaking rules but instead, coming up with different, innovative ways to improve work processes. A common example is borrowing a piece of equipment (e.g., paper cutter or stapler) from an office to expedite a process in the simulation. Most facilitators will allow a group to initiate innovation as long as it doesn’t change the intent of the simulation.
9. How do you handle a participant who chooses to dominate the process?
It’s best to NOT handle them but rather to observe how the rest of the participants choose to handle the situation. Peer pressure often arises to assert some balance. If that does not happen, participants have received a valuable lesson in the impact of a dominant personality on both morale and performance. If this doesn’t surface in the debrief, the facilitator should craft a question that might help participants bring this up for discussion. Additionally, if the simulation allows for feedback, the dominant player should receive some key behavioral feedback.
10. The simulation I’ve chosen has time allotted in the debrief for peer feedback. How do I set that up to ensure the feedback is open, honest, respectful, and balanced?
Many participants have not had the opportunity to experience receiving or giving peer behavioral feedback. This provides a wonderful opportunity to both model such feedback and allow them to practice crafting and delivering it. Prior to facilitating the feedback portion of the debrief, make sure time is allotted for carefully explaining the behavioral feedback process and for addressing any questions, concerns, or fears. An approach that has proven successful is to have participants providing feedback to describe a specific situation or event; define the behavior in terms of speech, interaction, or body language; identify where the behavior was observed; and make the feedback relevant by explaining the impact of that behavior on the group.
Generally, one person volunteers to receive feedback and each person delivers their feedback as you go around the table/room. The facilitator usually gives his or her feedback last. However, if you sense participants are having difficulty delivering feedback early in the process (especially constructive feedback), the facilitator may wish to provide feedback early in the process to demonstrate the proper way to do so.
11. When facilitating a simulation, are there differences between being an internal facilitator versus an external one?
The basic simulation facilitation and debrief techniques are the same whether you are an internal member of the organization or an external facilitator who has been hired for this purpose. However, there may be a few things to be cognizant of.
12. How do you handle the overeager learners who may tend to dominate the debrief discussion?
Occasionally, you have participant(s) who have enjoyed the simulation experience SO much that they can’t wait to share their observations, learnings, and overall experience with the larger group. While this is commendable and often helpful for the group, sometimes these same people begin to monopolize the debrief process without even realizing it. The role of the facilitator is to keep this energy and enthusiasm alive (as it truly helps the debrief) while ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to voice their observations and perspectives.
One way to head off this scenario is to take up to five minutes at the beginning of the debrief process to ask participants to quietly and individually reflect on their experience, answer several questions prior to beginning the discussion, or simply journal on their experience. These are all good methods to help calm the energy and help people begin to integrate key learnings while honoring both introverted and extroverted personality styles. A more balanced debrief with greater overall contribution will follow.
On occasion when the overeager learner persists, it is time for the facilitator to tactfully invite others to more actively engage. An example would be saying, “John, I’d love to hear your perception of this experience,” or, “Mary, do you have anything you’d like to add to this discussion?” Once the facilitator opens the space for other participants, the group dynamic changes and the debrief process is enriched.
Chris Musselwhite, Sue Kennedy, and Sue Probst are with Discovery Learning Inc. Since 1990, the use of experiential, hands-on learning and personal assessment have been central themes of Discovery Learning programs and products. By creating events that simulate real interactions, Discovery Learning programs and products help organizations achieve the benefits of experience without the risk of real-life errors.