Author: Craig Freshley

Chairs in a circle

Want a barrier-free group conversation? Want to “put your stuff behind you?” In this on-site video Craig explains the benefits of “chairs in a circle.” And some nuances.

This video has captions. To see them, click CC on the video screen.

Here’s what Craig says in the video

Hi everybody! Hey, it’s Craig Freshley here. I’m about to start a meeting down here. We’re doing kind of a unique room set-up for this meeting. I want to show you what’s going on. Let’s go take a look.

Today, this group needs to talk about some hard stuff. We talked about sitting around a table. We talked about “boardroom style” or “classroom style” or “hollow ‘U’”, but instead we’ve decided on “chairs in a circle”.

The reason is because this group wants to have some intimacy. Everybody wants to be able to see each other, and they don’t want to have the barriers of tables between them. You can see my set-up here in the front of the room – this is going to be where I’m going to put my projector, my laptop here, and my table for supplies and what not. By the way, I’ve got a projector that I can offset to the side, shine on the screen diagonally, and I can make it look really nice, even when it’s off to the side.

Notice how we have put tables behind the chairs – because I know that people want to bring papers and laptops and drinks into the meeting room, and they’d like to have a place to put those. So in this meeting you put the stuff behind you. You’ve got no barriers in front of you. Every person can see every other person. We can all see the screen and we’re going to have a great meeting today.

I hope this helps your group make good decisions.

Thanks a lot everybody!


Good Group Tips





In principle, accountability is comparing expectations with actions, what we hoped would happen against what actually happened. It requires that expectations are written. It requires that actions are evaluated in light of the expectations. And there’s another requirement. When we are accountable we say out loud that things were achieved as expected or that things were not achieved as expected. We don’t ignore successes or transgressions, we account for them.

Accountability done right is very helpful for personal and group development. It pushes us to be thoughtful about our expectations and to learn from our shortcomings.

Accountability done wrong creates conflict, like when I publicly hold someone accountable for something that they didn’t sign up for, or when I secretly carry an expectation or a grudge. It also causes conflict when a deed goes undone that someone did sign up for but no one calls it out; no one points out that the action was out of sync with the expectation. Accountability done wrong causes resentment, confusion, and unfairness.

Practical Tip: If you want to hold someone accountable, first ensure that there is shared understanding about the expectation. Write it down. Do not judge against someone for not living up to unclear, or even imagined, expectations.

It works well when we publicly acknowledge successes of others and failures of self. When someone else achieves an expectation, notice and point it out. When you fail to achieve an expectation hold yourself accountable, be the first to notice and acknowledge the failure, and take pressure off others to do so.

– Craig Freshley

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Understanding first

Good Group Tips

In principle, understanding is that upon which we stand. It is the basis for all our beliefs and actions, like a foundation.

All that we do and say is based upon our understanding of the situation. We do best to make sure we fully understand before judging and before acting.

Practical Tip: Be aware about crossing the line between understanding the situation and solving the problem. In a conversation, ask questions before offering advice. In a meeting, be sure you fully understand the proposal before giving your opinions about it.

Ninety percent of all disagreements are the result of misunderstanding. Disagreements often disappear when we take the time to understand where each other are coming from, how things look from other points of view.

Misunderstandings, presumptions, and premature judgments almost always result in bad decisions. Shared understanding is the basis for creative, peaceful, enduring decisions.

– Craig Freshley

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Google Docs for Group Reports

In front of a room of 100 people, Craig takes us behind the scenes and shows us how people at each table are writing up the table conversations in Google Docs. He also shows us the instruction slide that everyone is following. (Don’t worry, that slide is frozen on the big screen while Craig shows us around his laptop.)

This video has captions. To see them, click CC on the video screen.

Here’s what Craig says in the video

Hi everybody! Hey it’s Craig Freshley here. I am here at the University of Maine at something we call The Nursing Summit. We’re facing a nursing shortage coming up here in Maine so we have in this room legislators, hospital administrators, people from the University System, and all kinds of stakeholders trying to figure out how to address this shortage. Right now they are talking at their tables and I just wanted to share with you a little bit about how this is working. Take a look.

Right here on my laptop is what’s shown on the big screen. It basically is the instructions for these small group discussions.

Behind the scenes, every table is typing into a Google document. We have students here from the University of Maine School of Nursing and from the Economics Department and I have provided a complete set of templates for them and these recorders are typing into all of these templates. I just want you to notice how well organized they are. The numbers match the table numbers at their tables, and they’ve been given clear instructions and training on how to do this.

We’ve even created a document where we’re going to summarize all of the top strategies. Let’s just peek and see if anybody’s typing in here right now. “Region Two – Oxford, Franklin, Androscoggin” is typing in their top strategies. Some of these others have already been typed in. And at the end of this little session I’m going to show this document on the screen and we’re going to be able to talk about all the top strategies as a full group.

Thanks for letting me share with you a little bit about what’s going on behind the scenes: how we’re collecting the data and how I’m helping this group make good decisions.

Thanks for listening everybody!

Adapt, migrate, or perish

Good Group Tips





In principle, when faced with discomfort, there are basically three choices: adapt, migrate, or perish. These are the alternatives available to species, communities, companies, governments, and individuals.

To adapt is to change one’s own behaviors. It’s about doing things differently. Although change is hard and often resisted, evolution has taught us that adaptation is the key to survival. In business terms, innovation is the key to prosperity.

To migrate is to leave one’s situation for a better one. This is sometimes the appropriate response to external factors. If your group, your partner, your company, or your community are doing you wrong and unlikely to change, you might exercise your choice to leave. But if your discomfort is caused by something internal, some attitude or habit that only you can change, when you leave you will simply take the discomfort with you. Best to adapt: the solution is to change something in yourself.

To perish is an option not to be overlooked. Sometimes the best choice is to actually go out of business, disband, surrender. This is often the way to peace.

Homo sapiens, with our enlarged brains, are inclined towards a fourth choice: wishful thinking. When faced with discomfort I am likely to spend huge amounts of energy wishing that things were different, complaining, trying to get others to adapt to me, denying my part in my discomfort, justifying why I am right and others are wrong, and being angry at the situation with all manner of adverse consequences. These approaches rarely, if ever, improve my comfort over the long run.

Practical Tip: If you or your group don’t like things the way they are, adapt, migrate, or perish.

– Craig Freshley

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Round Robin

In this video Craig explains the “round robin” facilitation technique — giving everyone a chance to speak, one at a time — and he offers some tips on when and how to use this technique in a meeting.

This video has captions. To see them, click CC on the video screen.

Here’s what Craig says in the video

Hi everybody! Hey it’s Craig Freshley here. I just finished up a day-long meeting right here in this room. I want take a minute and talk about a specific facilitation technique, sometimes called Round Robin.

It’s basically where you give every single person in the room a chance to say something and you deliberately go one at a time. I find that using this works best when the group is stuck; when it’s not clear how the issue should be resolved; when it’s not clear what the next steps should be. I have found over and over again when I am stumped as the facilitator — when I really don’t know what the sense of the group is or how something should be resolved or what we should do next — I turn to this technique and often times resolution happens magically.

I think it works best if you apply a few things here.

First of all, be really clear on what you are asking each person to respond to. Write it on the wall, type it onto the screen, or just say it in really simple terms like, “Okay we’re going to go around the room, each person one at a time, and I would like to hear from each of you: “What do you think we should do as an immediate next step? Everybody got that? One at a time: What do you think we should do as an immediate next step?” I’m crystal clear about what I’m asking them to respond to.

Number two. Call for a volunteer to go first. Do not point to somebody randomly or to the person on either end and ask them to go first. You have a much better chance of success if the person who goes first actually wants to go first. That person is already prepared with a response, they don’t mind going first, and because of those two things they are likely to model good behavior for everyone else. If you just point to somebody randomly you might get somebody who is embarrassed because they don’t have a response, or somebody who goes on way too long and then after that everybody else thinks they’re supposed to talk for that long. All kinds of bad things could happen. Call for a volunteer. Like, “Okay who’s ready with an answer and would like to start?” Look for a hand.

When that hand goes up, number three. Say something like this, “Okay thanks for putting a hand up. Before you give your answer let me just point out how we’re going to do this. We’re going to start there and we’re going to go around the room like this [point or signal s direction left or right]. You can pass if you want but I am going to call on each of you one at a time.” This way I’m letting everybody know when their place in the lineup is going to happen. That’s really helpful to people; they know what to expect. If I just call on one person and then I wait for another hand and then I wait for another hand,  now the people have to not only think about their response, they have to think about when they want to say their response. I can actually clear their mind and help their creative thinking if I take that responsibility away from them and I just say what the order is going to be.

Maybe I’m up to number four. Let people pass if they want to. I look at them in the eye and if I see that somebody’s not quite comfortable with the response, I will say to them, “You can pass if you want. No problem. We’ll come back to you if you would like to say more later.” And I might move on and then come back to those people that passed. Not everyone is able to come up with a response as fast as others.

Number five. As I take the comments from each person I’m writing them down on a clipboard or maybe I’m writing them on the wall or somebody else is writing; but I am looking for themes. I am looking for the resolution. I am looking for the sense of the group and after everyone has gone, I either reveal on the screen what I think are the themes — the general sense of the group — the commonalities — or I simply say it out loud based on my clipboard.

I am often surprised at how well this simple technique works in moving a group forward.

For one thing, we get to hear all of the ideas. In a conversation where I’m calling on those who most want to speak, it’s remarkable how many ideas get left unspoken. With the Round Robin we really hear what is most top of mind from every single person.

Second, we all get to see what everybody thinks and what the themes are. They tend to emerge and become self-evident.

I’m not saying that this technique should be used all the time and there’s a danger of overusing it, but I am saying that I think it’s generally underutilized and underrated as a technique for moving a group forward; if done well, keeping in mind the five things that I just pointed out.

Thanks for listening everybody. I hope that you help your group make good decisions!


In principle, e-mail is an efficient way to communicate in groups, but it is a relatively new way of communicating that we are still getting used to. E-mail is instant, like conversation; enduring, like a written document; and able to be copied and distributed like nothing we have ever known. The combination of these three attributes makes it rather like a chainsaw: very effective when used properly, very dangerous when used on impulse or in anger.

E-mail is most effective when used to convey facts quickly. E-mail is most destructive when used to convey a negative reaction to something, like a previous e-mail. It is so quick and easy that we are apt to forget that what we write may be distributed far and wide and long after the feelings behind it have subsided. It is so impersonal that we are apt to underestimate its effect on other people’s emotions.

And then there is the problem of interpretation: Very few of us are skilled enough to convey exactly what we mean with written words, or discern exactly what written words were meant to convey. E-mail messages are easily misunderstood and misunderstanding is usually at the root of bad decisions.

Practical Tip: Beware of using e-mail to convey negative emotions, arguments, or sarcasm. Be thoughtful and deliberate about who you send to and about forwarding e-mails. Consider if you should send the message at all. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it by e-mail.

If you don’t fully understand something you read in e-mail, don’t fill in the blanks with assumptions. If you don’t understand what the sender meant, ask them (perhaps by phone or in-person).

E-mail is an easy way to say something not to someone’s face. That can be efficient and/or hurtful. It cuts both ways.

– Craig Freshley

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Before and After

Craig explains that it’s not just what he does IN the meeting that earns him compliments; it’s what he does before and after.

This video has captions. To see them, click CC on the video screen.

Here’s what Craig says in the video

Hi everybody. Hey it’s Craig Freshley here, about to start a meeting.

I facilitate a lot of meetings and I get a lot of compliments on my meetings. But I have learned that what makes for a really good meeting is not just what I do during the meeting, but what I do before and after. Lets talk about that for just a minute.

Before every meeting that I facilitate I have a planning meeting with the leaders, with the organizers. I ask them, “What is it that you want to accomplish in this meeting? What would success look like?” Based on that, I draft an agenda. For every single piece of the agenda I think through exactly how it’s going to work, what I’m going to do, and what props or materials I need to make it work well. I make slides in advance, I make charts in advance, I make handouts in advance of every meeting. And I usually run those by the people who are leading the meeting.

Okay then the day arrives and I run the meeting but there’s an important piece of follow-up also. With every meeting that I facilitate I prepare some sort of follow-up report. At the very least it contains themes and highlights of what we discussed.

Now look,  you don’t have to be a professional meeting facilitator like me to employ these techniques of “before and after.” Even if you’re having a quick standup meeting among your staff, before the meeting starts think through what is the purpose of this meeting? What is the purpose of every single part of the meeting and how I am going to handle it? And after every meeting — no matter how quick or how casual — write something down: some sort of conclusion, theme, highlight, or action that is going to take place as a result of the meeting.

Without advance preparation before and without documentation after — no matter how good you do stuff during the meeting — the whole effect is not going to be nearly as great as if you do this important stuff before and after.

Thanks for listening everybody! I hope you help your group have good meetings and make good decisions.

Leaders hold secrets

Good Group Tips

In principle, we expect our leaders to tell the truth and it’s easy to criticize them for lying. But let’s be honest, we also expect leaders to keep secrets. There is not a highly revered leader among us — a politician, a CEO, a minister, a parent — who has not held secrets for the benefit of their followers.

In fact it might be said that the leader’s heart is where otherwise hurtful confessions, embarrassments, and gossip go to die. The leader’s head is where plans are patiently kept safe and refined for future deployment. Leaders’ hearts and heads hold a lot.

I once witnessed a group of parents gathered to celebrate the end of a teacher’s journey with their children. They composed and read to her a poem that said, “Thank you for all you taught each day, and for all the things you did not say.”

Practical Tip: As a follower, understand that your leader is serving multiple interests, not just you. Understand that sometimes your leader serves you by telling the whole truth, and sometimes by holding secrets. Actually, serving many interests and keeping some of them secret is exactly what we want our leaders to do.

As a leader, be discerning and diplomatic about what you say and what you hold. Are you keeping a secret to shield your own indiscretions or to serve your followers? What would best serve others, keep or tell?

Knowing what to keep and when to tell and who to trust is extremely hard. Appreciate those who do it well.

– Craig Freshley

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I don’t know

Good Group Tips

In principle, most of us want to appear knowledgeable. We want to provide an answer to every question. We want to impress our fellow group members. In reality, saying “I don’t know” is often more helpful. When we think we know things it can close our mind to new, more accurate knowledge. When we convey what we think we know to others, it can lead them astray and provide a false sense of security.

Groups working with presumed knowledge rather than actual knowledge can waste huge amounts of time. Worse, decisions based on false presumptions rarely hold up over time and usually bring costly consequences. When we say, “I don’t know,” it inspires us all to learn, to get the facts, to ponder until clarity emerges.

Practical Tip: Adopt a posture of “I don’t know” and say, “I don’t know” until you really do know. Resist the temptation to impress; rather, answer to the higher callings of honesty, integrity, and humility.

– Craig Freshley

Click here for one-page PDF of this Tip, a great way to print or share.