I bought a small present for a colleague who left Henley Centre HeadlightVision last week. Specifically, since we’d done a lot of workshops together, I bought her a copy of Robert Chambers’ book Participatory Workshops. There may be better books out there on workshop facilitation, but not better value books.

Participatory Workshops,which was published seven years ago, is described as a ‘sourcebook’, and its organising conceit is that it is divided into 21 sets of ideas and activities, and within each set, in a suitably holonic fashion, there are 21 ideas or activities. Perhaps for this reason one review described it as being like a cookbook.

I run a lot of workshops, and have found quite a lot of the literature on workshop process and facilitation to be on the formal side, not to say downright stodgy. Some of the things I like about Robert Chambers’ book, in contrast:

  • He has worked in a wide range of countries, and so he has multi-cultural view of facilitation – which also tends to mean that he prefers low-tech to high-tech approaches to workshops.
  • There is simply lots of stuff – it is a very rich compendium, which covers everything from exercises (of all sorts) to icebreakers to feedback techniques to room layout to facilitators’ tips (e.g. “How to avoid lecturing”) to workshop and process design.
  • He has a refreshingly honest perspective on what goes on in workshops – as evidenced by the sections on ‘dealing with dominators’ and – more radically – in ’21 tips for surviving participatory workshops’, which includes sub-sections headed ‘hide’ and ‘evade responsibility’.
  • He has a good eye for power issues in workshops (I don’t mean the electricity) and how to manage them.
  • He is also engagingly open about facilitation and facilitator’s errors. The chapter on ‘Messing Up’ contains a section called ’21 Mistakes I Make In Workshops’, which is a list which every facilitator should keep their  own version of, if only to keep them honest. (The ’21 horrors’ list which follows it starts with arriving late – and then finding the room locked and the janitor absent).

It’s a few years since I first read the book, and it tends to stay on my shelf – although I’ve lent at least two copies to people which have never found their way back to me again. But looking at it again, I realised how much of his guidance I’ve incorporated into my facilitation work over the years – especially about using the many techniques he recommends to make workshops more informal and more fluid.