Practice your micro-skills

Micro-skills are simple intervention techniques. When using micro-skills, you will facilitate sessions and have conversations that yield more effect and value. Using the micro-skills offers support in your facilitator or leadership role.

I have developed a workshop to train a set of 18 micro skills. In this workshop, you will learn to consciously facilitate a discussion or an interview using micro-skills.

Workshop format

This picture can help you to get a better understanding of the components that a session consists of from the facilitator point of view:

Workshop format

  • number of people: 4+, you need to be able to make small groups.
  • time duration: 90-120 minutes
  • room setup: tables spread in a room, you need a table per group
  • materials: 1 deck of micro-skill cards per attendee (see below)

Intended audience

This workshop is aimed at novices in facilitation or people in a management position

  • who need to facilitate sessions
  • who need to conduct managerial conversations such as appraisals

Preparation

Make a card deck per group of 4 attendants:

  • Print out the cards
  • Glue them on cardboard
  • Cut the cards

The attendants need to have subjects to talk about. Prepare your conversation subjects. Possible discussion and interview subjects we have used:

  • We do not need leaders
  • There is a process change overkill
  • Our developers act like spoiled kids and have a bad working attitude
  • Personal development plan interview (using last year’s PDP as input)
  • Responsibility of company roles
  • a brainstorm session
  • a pre-prepped model conversation (e.g. AI=Appreciative Inquiry)

Although we talk all the time, when running this workshop you might have difficulties in finding a suitable subject to discuss. When the subject for discussion is not chosen correctly, the workshop will be less effective. I experienced that the subject you choose needs to resonate for the attendees. Chances for success are bigger if you ask them to choose a subject themselves. Another aspect a good conversation needs is a goal. To make the conversation live, choose opposite or unrelated goals for the interviewer and interviewee.

Example:

In a group of people managers, choose the yearly appraisal talk. Goal of the interviewee: the interviewee is very happy with his achievements and wants to negotiate a 500 euro raise. Goal of the interviewer: the interviewer is not allowed to give a raise. The goal of the interviewer is to get the interviewee to set action points on development areas and to make the interviewee leave the conversation feeling happy.

Note: Scale your approach

  1. To learn the micro-skills, start with a 1 on 1 or small group setup. Try group discussions after that (takes more and different micro-skills).
  2. To explain and train use only a subset of micro-skills:open question active listening clickdown paraphrase
    return to the subject call to action

Explain the micro-skills

The host of the session introduces the concept of micro-skills. The host uses a single sentence to explain all micro-skills: “I like being a scrum master because I love to help people.” For each micro-skill, the host puts down the card and repeats this same question, asking the participant to use the micro-skill as a reply.

Example: to explain the micro-skill “paraphrasing”:

Host: paraphrasing: “I like being a scrum master because I love to help people. How would you reply using paraphrasing?”
Participant: “Being a scrum master is cool because you can help.”
Host: “So the participant rephrases what i just said, and that makes me feel confident that he really understands what i was trying to tell.”

Some explanation on each micro-skill (description, usage and goal):

Learning to recognize the micro-skill

You need four people to demonstrate how to use the micro-skills: an interviewer, an interviewee, an Observer and a Pointer. The interviewer has a conversation with an interviewee. See above for tips on choosing appropriate subjects of conversation. As the conversation is going on, the Pointer tries to point to the card of a micro- skill when it is applied by the host. The Observer collects information to give all participants feedback. When the conversation is over, the group discusses the feedback collected by the Observer.

Make teams of 4 people and let them practise the micro-skills as described above. If you need to add a person to a group, then add them as interviewee or observer. Do four rounds; one round for each attendee and rotate the roles per round so everyone will practise each role.

Each round consists of 5 minutes conversation and 10 minutes of discussion. The discussion is most valuable. In the discussion, evaluate by asking how people felt. Asking how they experienced the conversation in their role. Verify if the anticipated goals of the interviewee and interviewer were attained.

Some explanation on each micro-skill (description, usage and goal): 

Open question

An open question is a question that cannot be answered by yes or no. A closed question is the opposite. “Is Blue your favorite color?” is a closed question. “What is you favorite color?” is an open question. We prefer open questions because they invite people to speak and they return more information. “Why do you like being a scrum master?”

“I like being a scrum master because i can help people.”

Active listening

Active listening is about the way you behave when being in front of someone while you listen. When you are practicing active listening, you nod, give vocal cues, are focused and you have an active posture. This technique will creates respect, and people feel that they are listened to. Be aware that simply mimicking the cues while dreaming of a tropical island will have the opposite effect.

Click-down

Click-down is the verbal equivalent of clicking on a link on a web page. As you are listening to what is being said, you interrupt people when you hear a verb or a noun that you would like to have explained. When you click-down on that word, the person will explain what that concept means to him and provide context and understanding. “I like being a scrum master because i can help people.”

“What does helping mean to you in that context?”

Paraphrase

Paraphrasing is repeating what someone said using your own words. Paraphrasing creates rapport because it makes people feel confident that you really understands what is being said. “I like being a scrum master because I love to help people.”

“So for you being a scrum master is being helpful.”

Return to the subject   

When a discussion goes off tangent and you need to return to the subject in a respectful way. Your conversation will stay focused and chances for reaching the intended outcome of your meeting or conversation will increase. “I like being a scrum master. I also like cats by the way. Don’t you?”

“Off course i do, but why don’t we get back to the subject of this conversation: the reason why you like being a scrum master.”

Exclude

There might be an option or a related subject in a discussion on which we all agree that is not valuable to explore any further. Identify such subjects and agree with the whole group that it is excluded from the conversation. This makes your problem area for discussion smaller. “Do we all agree that adding hardware is not a valid option?.”

“Yes.”

“Then let’s exclude it from this discussion  and focus on things that we find more valuable.”

Call to action

Talking is intentional, meaning that you have facilitated talks for a reason. When the conversation or meeting comes to an end, you can use call to action to let the interviewee formulate his or her next steps. This micro-skill can also be used to stop people from complaining. Makes your conversation purposeful. “I like to become a scrum master because I love to help people.”

“What would be you first step to becoming a scrum master?”

Common ground

When people are in a discussion, focus on what we agree on. Helps to move away from the conflict and brings people together.

Meta level

Intervene when you notice that people are stuck in their emotions rather than having a discussion. You move from the content to the process (overlooking their behavior), making the pattern that blocks the conversation visible. Makes conversations that are stuck valuable again. “So do you guys see what is happening here? You are both defending your turf, but you are not getting any closer to each other.”

Synthesize

Make a summary of what has been said and formulate a conclusion. Helps people to agree on a common point of view or aggregates various approaches, which makes discussions more focused. “I heard you were referring to blue, there was some white and a little bit of yellow was addressed as well. Looks like we will end up painting this wall light green. What do you think?”

Thinking out loud

As a facilitator, you collect the ideas that have been voiced by the participants, and you elaborate on their ideas. Use an introductory sentence such as: “For the sake of a thought experiment, let’s suppose that…” Invites people to think creatively to explore a subject. “I hear all kinds of interesting approaches. What if we would take this a bit further and suppose that…… “

Body Language

The messages you send that are unspoken are very strong. As a facilitator, ensure your posture is open and friendly. Be aware of other’s people posture and address it by asking an open question about it. Creates safety, which helps people to vocalise what they find difficult to address. “Hey john, I am under the impression that I see a lot of tension. What’s going on?”

Boomerang

When you are asked a question on the content of the discussion, you bounce the question back without answering. Not the facilitator, but the attendees should find answers to their questions. “You are asking me what the best option is? I really don’t know, i am not a subject matter expert. What do you think?”

Balancing

During a discussion, people can get close to an agreement too easy. Balancing looks at a problem from a different angle. Prevents a discussion reiterating over time because they were insufficiently explored. “I hear that we all seem to agree to solve our problem by buying a new server. But what problem will that solve? Will it solve people not carefully managing their system resources?”

Provoke

In a conversation you can use a provocative remark to get people to react to something unsuspected or to make them aware of their stance. Forces people out of their comfort zone and makes them think about their point of view. “If you are so convinced that you did everything perfectly well, then I suppose there is nothing more to improve, right?”

The following micro-skills are more suitable for group facilitation rather than one on one discussions.

Making space

During a group discussion you notice that not everybody contributes. Intervene by asking one of the quiet people’s opinion. Ensures that everybody contributes to the conversation. “I hear a lot of good things. Iw was also wondering what Peter has to say about this.”

Air time

When a discussion is very active, people will have the urge to do their say. They are too preoccupied trying to intervene, which makes them miss out on the information others are giving. Tell everyone will get their turn and if needed, even give them a numbered order. Follow up by hearing everybody in the order you proposed. People know that they will get their turn and will be more susceptible for listening to what others say. “Looks like this is a very hot topic. We don’t want valuable contributions to get lost. I will make sure everybody will get their turn. Why don’t you start, John?”

Intentional silence

When you ask a difficult question, there might be an (awkward) silence. Do not fill it up. Wait until someone else speaks. People are forced outside of their comfort zone, and they are triggered to respond to a difficult question.

Variation: order the cards

The cards (micro-skills) cannot be used at any time in the conversation. For example, synthesizing is something you can’t start with. In this variation, you ask the attendees to order their cards to usability in the course of a conversation. Discuss and compare the results.

Variation: practice weakest skills

Make a participant select which cards do not resonate to them. Ask him to put all other cards aside. The selected subset represent the micro-skills this person is not using a lot. Practise a conversation using only this subset of cards, so the participant is forced to use them. This will make him/her experience the effect of these techniques.

Variation: practice unknown skill

If there is a micro-skill you never use or you do not find useful, take the card with you during the day. Put it in your pocket or in your scribble book. You will be aware you are carrying the card and will think about trying to use it. Count the number of times you applied the micro-skill after a day of work. Evaluate the effect of the micro-skill

Click to Download your personal deck of micro-skill cards

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