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Workshop Facilitation: From Good to Great

If I’ve learned one thing in 25 years of workshop facilitation, it’s the importance of experiential exercises. You almost have to wonder whether John Dewey, an American philosopher whose ideas still shape education, had been to a boring, lecture-only type workshop when he wrote

An ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory simply because it is only in experience that any theory has vital and verifiable significance. An experience, a very humble experience, is capable of generating and carrying any amount of theory (or intellectual content), but a theory apart from an experience cannot be definitely grasped even as theory.

(Dewey, 1916, p. 144)

Kind of a mouthful, but eternally true!

People often contact me saying, “I’ve only got 30 minutes t. Guess I’ll just explain the theory/process/content?” I reply, “No, give them an experience with just one aspect of the training you’d do in 3 hours and you’ll leave them wanting more.”

In other words, when for example I’m facilitating a personality type workshop, I trust type. If you set up an activity properly, people will grasp that there are significant differences in how normal people perceive and judge—and that there are patterns that make this theory useful. If, note, you set it up properly. Here are three things I’ve learned—often the hard way!—about doing just that.

Plan for Processing

Often, the key to understanding isn’t so much the exercise you choose but the way you process it. For example, to clarify Extraversion and Introversion I might provide a definition and quickly teach through five or six bullet points that contrast the two preferences. Then I insert a simple exercise such as having the group sit silently for 2 minutes.

To process, we first discuss what we saw. Many of those who prefer Extraversion start toe-tapping or looking around while giggling after about 30 seconds. Those who prefer Introversion often close their eyes and lean back in their chairs while smiling. It’s simple, but it illustrates the heart of the preference pair: are they energized through action and interaction or through reflection?

Second, we process their reactions. I ask, “Who’s sure you prefer Extraversion? How does staying silent for 2 minutes relate to being quiet in real life? What happens?” They’ll often talk about getting in trouble at school or how they love to talk through problems with friends. Then I ask those who prefer Introversion. They might describe exhaustion in noisy environments. Or, how much they like the morning bus ride (when everyone’s tired and quiet) versus the afternoon bus ride (when all the Extraverted passengers  Extraversion are energized after a day of interaction).

Too often, we rush through this processing stage, but it’s essential for making exercises worth the time invested.

Plan for Illustrating Clear Differences

A second key step for effective experiential exercises is ensuring that those new to your theory grasp the point you’re trying to make. Let’s take the common “Write about a ____” often used to illustrate Sensing and Intuition. I used to simply display a Salvador Dali picture and say, “Write about this image. You have two minutes. No questions, no talking.” When participants finished, I displayed definitions of Sensing and Intuition. I asked for volunteers to read their writing and had the group try to categorize their responses.

Sometimes this worked. Typical Sensing responses for “The Enigma of Hitler”, one that as of yet none of my participants have recognized, include lists of objects in the picture—dish, crumbs, shoreline, umbrella, shadowy figure, etc. Typical Intuitive responses include “This is a depiction of the day after a nuclear disaster” or scribble the start of a fantasy story about sea monsters.

Often, though, examples aren’t clear. They start with a list and then switch to a story. Or, a dominant Feeling type might write, “This picture makes me feel depressed with all of its dark colors and that creepy, melting phone,” seemingly mixing themes and descriptions.

Now as people write, I circulate the room to find the three clearest writing samples for each preference, placing green sticky notes by the Sensing ones and pink notes by the Intuitive ones. I then display the definitions and have “green notes” read first, then “pink,” and ask people to describe the difference between the sets.

Prepare Key Debrief Points

For the above exercise, and most others, I list some other key points in advance to ensure maximum impact. For this one, I make sure to explain:

  • This isn’t a definitive test for Sensing or Intuition since how you respond can be influenced by school experiences, training, or by second-guessing the facilitator’s intentions
  • If I’d asked, everyone could have described the picture and everyone could have written a fictional story. You’re trying to discern what you prefer,where you’d naturally begin.
  • These preferences are about the information we naturally pay attention to—do we start with reality or do we start with hunches, connections or analogies?

Use Observers

If some participants aren’t sure of their preference or are otherwise reluctant to participate, I’ll ask them be observers. Forcing participation seldom yields good experiences. If they watch as type-alike groups work on a task, they may clarify their own type preferences or see for themselves the empirical evidence for the workshop goals. Frequently, group responses look very similar, but there’s a huge difference in how they work together—and the observers can help you by conveying what they saw and what they learned about which group would be easier for them to join.

For Sensing and Intuition, I might ask the two groups to draw floor plans of the building we’re in. Usually, all of the drawings are fairly accurate, with little that reveals differences in how we perceive. The observers, though, report that the Sensing types use reality to draw it. They may walk out into the lobby or access Google Earth on their iPads and draw from the satellite picture of the building’s footprint. In contrast, the Intuitive groups start with a short discussion of the general outline of the floor and then brainstorm connections among their impressions as to various lobby, hallway, or restaurant features.

As the observers report out, conversation usually turns to how often participants have bumped into these different ways of perceiving information in real life, as well as how they’ve been shut down when in the minority.

Look Ahead

One overarching danger of exercises is that you won’t have a diverse group. If I’m working with groups of less than a dozen people, I often bring examples from other groups to ensure I can demonstrate the differences. I also do this when I suspect a larger group may lack diversity. For example, I once worked with a high-tech marketing team who all preferred Intuition and Thinking, for example.

I might hand out cards with the Dali writings from previous participants and have people work in pairs to sort them for Sensing and Intuition. I also have pictures of ideal office spaces drawn by Extraverts and Introverts..

My point? Take pictures of flip charts. Save writing samples and other artifacts for future groups to analyze and discuss!


There is a limit to how much groups can process, though. Further, the less they know about your subject, the shorter their attention span will be for listening to reports from various groups—imagine listening to reports from all 16 types! Images, not words, can better help them process the different types.

I often give each type-alike group markers and a sheet of copy paper on which to draw a symbol of how their group leads, influences, serves others—whatever fits with the goals of the workshop. They also add a one-line answer to a question such as, “What is most frustrating in meetings?” “What is your motto?” “What one rule would improve this place?” Then for report-outs, one person has 10 seconds to describe their symbol and read their line while I tape the sheets up to form a type table “quilt.” You’ll find participants studying the images at every break.

Following these workshop facilitation guidelines—planning for clarity, noting group processes rather than just results, readying examples for homogenous groups, and using symbols—frees me up to boldly go where no type practitioner has gone before. I can trust type to deliver even with exercises I’ve never tried. That keeps this work as fresh and exciting for me as it was 25 years ago when I first learned how seemingly unfathomable differences among people could be explained—and bridged—through this rich theory we shepherd called psychological type.


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.

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Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

This Post Has 2 Comments

    1. Sorry to get back to you so late on this–the notification didn’t show up way back when. And yes! As John Dewey put it, we learn not from experience but by reflecting on experience.

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