Right up to the moment it all went wrong, I had been feeling pretty pleased with myself. Because it had been a really tough brief, yet it all seemed to be going so well. I had been asked to create an experiential workshop on customer care, and deliver it, solo, as a participatory session for 140 delegate from my local PCT! I had serious doubts at first as to the value of this, but after chatting to the commissioner we had agreed that despite the actual opportunities for real learning being very limited, it was worth doing because just the exposure to that kind of training experience would be a positive for the client group. So I agreed to do it, and checked a couple of technical details, the most important being that it was a large conference space, with room around the sides and at the back to get everyone out of their chairs and on their feet.
I thought long and carefully about how to best structure the session, and came up with some sitting-and-standing-in-place icebreakers, followed by a demonstration role-play exercise using two pre-selected volunteers, and then getting all 140 participants on their feet and divided into groups of three, so they could try the exercise themselves, taking it in turns to be customer, service person and facilitator. It all went surprisingly well, people threw themselves into the exercise, and the room was buzzing. I had introduced my preferred method of getting silence from a large noisy group – a tip I learnt many years ago when working with adolescents and children. Trying to shout over a noisy room to get attention doesn’t work, and ends up wrecking your voice to boot. So instead tell them “when I need to talk to you, I am going to walk into the middle of the room, raise my arm and wait. If you see me with my arm raised, please stop talking, and wait with me.” This works a treat – once the first few people see you, silence ripples out in waves, and participants even start shushing each other. So simple, so effective.
Anyway, everything was going swimmingly, so I started the second half of the session, involving some telephone technique. Once again I used two volunteers to demonstrate, and once again I broke the room into groups of three to give it a try. And then I made what I thought was an innocent suggestion. I said “I find this exercise works best if you stand back to back, so you can’t see each other, just as if you were on the phone. Oh, and it tends to feel more natural if you have an actual phone in your hand. So dig out your mobile phone, and use it as a prop.” BIG mistake! Everyone pulled out their mobiles – and promptly started noticing all the missed calls, texts and emails. Whoops! Focus lost, concentration gone, experiential learning on hold, everyday work rolling in to swamp the moment! We were about to drown in bleeps and keyboard taps.
I very quickly used my “arm up in the air” method to gain attention, skipped the rest of the exercise, and got them back in their chairs for the next part of the session, so no great damage done. But it just goes to show, you can never quite think through all the consequences of apparently simple instructions. And it’s a mistake I shall definitely not be making again.