Groupwork Centre Blog

Bagpipes raise the temperature to boiling point

The penetrating sound of bagpipes can’t fail to grab your attention. There’s something undeniably formidable about this Scottish way of announcing, “Hear me roar. Are ye fool enough to compete with me?” Eek. No way!

When a lone piper pierced the cloying summer air outside the venue where my colleague Sarah Norton and I were facilitating the other week, my microclimate rose instantly from warm to hot and bothered.

I stepped outside into a blast of hot air to investigate. Was someone about to toss a caber too? Turned out a bagpiper had been hired to play for 45 minutes at a wedding that was about to take place right here, just a few metres away.

I returned inside and announced to Sarah we would need to relocate. “That bagpiper is just practising. We need to move the group somewhere quieter before he begins in earnest!”

So we did. Enlisting the help of the group, we grabbed chairs, whiteboard, toolkit – and our dignity – and shifted the final session of the day to a nearby empty space.

Ever one to look for the funny side, Sarah decided this was another feather in her cap. “In the 20 years I’ve been facilitating, I’ve never had a group interrupted by bagpipes before,” she beamed. What a trouper!

We ran the last session in the quieter space. The bagpiper was discernible but comfortably distant. Shame about the smell of a dead rodent that stuck in the nostrils of those seated close by. Can’t win ’em all.

Later, reflecting on the workshop, Sarah and I mused about the challenges we’d faced and how we had fared.

Number one on our minds had been the heatwave. Two days of 38 degrees was daunting. Especially as the venue had no air conditioning. Fortunately it was an old bluestone building with high ceilings and good ventilation designed to stay cool on hot days.The site manager arranged some large fans and we kept the doors and windows shut.

On day two, with no end to the heatwave in sight, we spent a good 20 minutes negotiating with the group about some possible options. Keep going. Relocate to an air-conditioned space after lunch. Run the final few modules online.

After thinking through the options, the group decided to keep going, subject to review to see how we were travelling every couple of hours. We purchased hydrolite tablets for fluid retention; we sought out cool drinks and ice blocks during the breaks. We got through a little sweaty but relatively unflustered.

There were other challenges too, though none as big as the first two. The group had grown from 21 to 24 during the week before delivery. Even with two facilitators, any larger would have been tricky given the focus of our workshop: challenging encounters.

With more than a couple of dozen people, voices tend to get lost, and getting the whole group back from breaks on time becomes nigh on impossible. Everything takes more time as the group grows, so you need to adjust your agenda accordingly.

The other thing we’ve noticed as we hold more face-to-face sessions now that lockdowns are a thing of the past, is that people appreciate a bit more time for breaks. The opportunity to catch up, chat, schmooze and reflect is precious now so many meetings and gatherings are held online.

Workplace-based workshops like this one are perfect opportunities to do just this. And there’s plenty of material to get tongues wagging.

As we ran through the evaluations together at the end of two very big, hot days, we noted the many favourable comments. Although, not everyone concurred. One or two commented there was too much time spent negotiating how to handle the heat.

Making that pivot from soldiering on regardless to looking at alternatives can be a challenge for those of us focused on the main task. But if we had ignored the sweltering conditions and not had the discussion we risked losing people along the way. The risks rise when we fail to take account of the big picture.

In any group we run, we have to face what’s in front of us. With some people telling us they were flagging at morning check-in on day two, we knew we needed to have this conversation.

Expecting that to happen in less than 20 minutes in such a large group is folly. For some that length of time may be too long. But for most, the time discussing the oppressive heat signalled we had their needs on our minds.

Building safety, trust and goodwill is a big part of what we do as facilitators. Finding the right balance to meet a variety of needs can’t be done with perfection. Compromise means some people won’t get everything they want.

Just as the faint smell of a dead animal was unpleasant. Compared to being drowned out by bagpipes, however, it was a price people were prepared to pay.

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