Visual Facilitation

Active listening in visual form

Any event that convenes a conversation – whether it’s a strategic planning session, a community engagement process, a workshop, or a dialogue between stakeholders – is only as successful as the quality of the listening taking place.

My visual facilitation work builds on a foundation of deep listening, drawing out participants’ thinking in ways that ensure everyone feels heard, and using visual metaphors to help people clarify their thinking and create shared meaning.

This is the power of visualizing language: We tend to use words as though they mean the same thing to everyone, but we rarely pause to consider whether we actually agree on their definition. For example, at the beginning of a leadership workshop I encouraged participants to help me draw what a “leader” looks like. Everyone had a different mental picture, and we worked through them all until we finally arrived at a visual metaphor that everyone agreed on. That image laid the groundwork for the rest of the workshop and allowed the group to move forward with a clear shared understanding of what they were talking about.

I’ve also witnessed again and again that when people can see and appreciate their own and each other’s contributions, they are able to trust more fully in one another and in the process. That kind of trust moves mountains, and I’ve seen groups make extraordinary progress through obstructions and communication challenges simply by helping them see what they were saying.

Beyond the wall

Beyond my own work with markers and paper, I also design collaborative visual workspaces and processes, such as graffiti walls, templates, collaborative drawing, and other processes that encourage participants to create images themselves. These activities inspire people to step up, share their ideas, and engage with others in profound and creative ways. Here’s how one person described the experience of collaborative drawing:

collaboration“When we were doing the collaborative drawings, things that looked like nothing by themselves somehow ended up expressing exactly what they were meant to when they were put together on a piece of paper. It’s kind of like life, really: the individual pieces are a bit smudgy, there are no straight lines, nothing’s perfect. But when you put them all together, suddenly it’s like, ‘Aha! I get it!’

Benefits of Visual Facilitation

  • Thoughts become visible and explicit, which increases clarity and reduces misunderstanding.
  • People feel acknowledged and heard, creating a safe space that engenders trust.
  • Diverse points of view are gathered on neutral ground, enabling people to respond to the ideas rather than reacting to the person who expressed them.
  • Visual metaphors help groups coalesce around new, shared understandings of formerly “fuzzy” terms.
  • Creative listening encourages creative thinking, which leads to deeper learning, greater innovation, and just plain better outcomes!
Avril is a gifted visual storyteller with incredible energy and strong interpersonal skills. For five days she facilitated our company’s presence at the TED Conference, documenting conversations between our staff and TED conference attendees. Her bold, colorful graphics were the major draw to our booth space and helped us attract hundreds of curious conference goers. Avril is professional, yet friendly and engaging. She comes with strong ideas but is also highly open to feedback and direction. We photographed all her drawings and have since used them in many sales pitches and proposals. In a world of more expected graphic design, her hand-drawn graphics really stand out in the crowd.
Jennifer Hoffman – Senior Director of Marketing, EverFi, Inc., Washington, DC