The First Group Meeting: How to get Buy-In from Participants

December 14, 2009 at 7:52 pm Leave a comment

We received a great question from a Girls Circle Facilitator in Northern California last week and we wanted to share the response because her challenge is so common whether you’re running Girls Circles or Councils. Here’s the scenario: It was the first group meeting and the kids were talking over each other the whole time, the talking piece was disregarded, they were clowning around and general silliness ensued. This community member acknowledged they only had 35 minutes for Circle – a challenge in itself – and she didn’t have time to let the girls create group agreements (or “guidelines”.) She asked how she could get the kids to focus and be interested in their Circle.

First of all, we want to acknowledge that the first group is always challenging – especially if your participants are mandated to be there. So take it easy on yourself and realize it’s a process. It’s natural for youth who haven’t experienced a Circle or Council to be inattentive because they haven’t bought into the idea of the Circle yet and don’t know what to expect.

This is all about guidelines. As hard as it is to fit them in or as dull as it may be, try your best to create group agreements during the first session. The way to get them engaged at this point is to let them know that they’re creating their group. One example of how to say this would be, “Ok, this is your group – not mine. Let’s discuss what you want your group to be like.”

This may be like pulling teeth at first because they A) may not be sure what you mean or how much actual freedom they’ll have to make up the rules of their group and B) it’s just scary to speak first, right? If this happens you can give them examples that make it sound fun like, “For example, do you want a group where you can have tea at the beginning of every meeting? How do you want to be treated when you’re speaking? These are the types of things you’ll need to agree on and make part of your group agreements.” (TIP: the ability to have beverages, snacks, pillows/blankets, or to play music are great bargaining tools for getting them involved in the agreements.)

Obviously, you may decide to very subtly steer them towards some basic agreements, like respect and confidentiality, but don’t force it. If they’re still silly about creating the guidelines then you can ask suggestive questions like, “I just want to check in because I’m noticing some giggling while others are talking. How does it feel when we’re talking and we’re not being listened to? Is this something we want to be able to do?” If you don’t get a response, just wait it out. Eventually someone will say that it’s hard to be avoided when talking and then you can bring up the agreements and ask if they would like to add that. That way it’s their group, their rules and you can remind them of that if they get off track in the vein of, “Let’s check in on our agreements: How are we doing with cell phones, confidentiality… what about side-talking?”

But the BEST trick in your pocket is to be preventative through strengths-based comments.

For example, “I just want to acknowledge that when Jane was speaking you were all listening attentively and that’s really cool… And Jane probably appreciates it too.” Noticing when they’re using the talking piece, when they’re on time for group…sharing, speaking, participating are all opportunities to make a strengths-based preventative comment.

Remember there will always be curve-balls thrown at you, but normalizing them and acknowledging what they’re doing well should pay off. If you have a story to share about the challenges or successes of your first group, please leave them in the comments section!

– Vanessa Brook Caveney, Program Coordinator


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