Facilitation Lessons from a Drum Circle

Drum Circle

In the summer of 2001, I was introduced to the concept of a drum circle. As I reflect on that experience, I realize it exposed me to three key elements of effective meeting facilitation.

I was visiting my friend’s mother, Susan Bauz, at her home in Newport News, VA. All afternoon, people were talking about going to a drum circle. They weren’t sure if I’d enjoy it. They gave me the opportunity to stay home. I had no idea what a drum circle was or why they thought I wouldn’t like it, but I insisted that I’d like to go.

I thought it would be a performance where I could sit and passively listen. I had no idea that it was a participatory activity.

Everyone present was given their choice of percussion instrument and we were welcome to exchange our instruments at any time. Then someone said “go” and the drum circle was off and running. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I was quite sure that I didn’t like this at all. There were no instructions. There was no structure. Just people beating drums.

I sat for 30 minutes, beating the same staccato cadence from the minute it began to the minute it ended. There was a moment, about halfway through our session, in which another drummer found my cadence and repeated it. Eventually everyone was repeating my cadence.

Ha! I thought. I’m doing it right! They’re all following me. Finally!

And then as quickly as they found my cadence, they moved on to their own beats once again.

Lessons for Facilitators

A drum circle, like meeting facilitation, involves a lot of improv. To be sure, meeting facilitation will often have objectives, maybe even a lesson plan and some structure, but in the end, skilled facilitators are willing to move away from their planned lessons depending on the needs of their audience.

I’ve been told that there are 3 rules to improv:

  1. Listen
  2. The answer is always “yes”
  3. Make the other person look good

Can you imagine the consequences if we violated any or all of these rules as we facilitated a meeting? What happens when we don’t listen to our audience? What happens when a participant asks a question and our immediate response is “No!” or “That’s wrong!”? What happens when we don’t attempt to make our co-facilitators or our attendees look good?

In the drum circle, there was one brief instance in which my fellow drum circlers humored me and marched to the beat of my drum. And I felt like I was a part of something. For a brief moment, this was fun!

But I never gave anything back in return. I kept to my own beat.

I violated all three rules of improv and this turned out not to be a great experience for me. I’d like to think I’ve learned from that experience and am able to better adhere to these rules when I facilitate in order to create an amazing experience for my audience and my co-facilitator(s).

As for Susan Bauz, the one who introduced me to this whole drum circle business? She passed away this weekend. I’ll be forever grateful to her for inviting me to come out of my comfort zone in order to get a life lesson in improv.

4 thoughts on “Facilitation Lessons from a Drum Circle

  1. Brian, as a training manager, I enjoy your blog. And as a former improv performer in Chicago, I was excited to see you mention improv.

    I was just chiming in to reiterate what Kirby said — the golden rule in improv is “yes, and.” The idea is that it’s a collaborative process, and each partner has to contribute equally to building a scene/sketch.

    It’s actually surprising how much of my improv background I end up using in my training. There are some fun group games/exercises that are done as improv warm-ups that work really well in other situations. The best warm-ups are all focused on getting people to be in the moment, actively listening and responding to those around them — which is a recipe for success in a lot of areas.

    There’s a great book called “Truth in Comedy” that lays out the rules for long-form improv — specifically, a form called the “Harold” — that goes into a lot more of the rules of the genre. These are great and really applicable to most situations that require working in groups.

    • Thanks Scott. I published those three rules to improv holding my breath and hoping that an improv expert didn’t take me to task. Those were the three rules I was taught in an organizational psychology grad school course… though after reading Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” I learned that there are different philosophies on the rules to improv.

      In any case, the “Yes, and…” is definitely key… as is the skill, flexibility and confidence to be able to adjust (and improv) on the fly. It’s absolutely what makes facilitation as much of an art form as it is a daily job task.

      Thanks for your comments. I’m going to have to put “Truth in Comedy” in my Kindle queue!

  2. Nice. I’ve always heard a slight variation on your second rule of improv: the answer is always “yes, and…”

    The and is the peice you describe that’s missing–what you are giving back to your acting partners.

    Also, a book recc: There’s an interesting if a little magnanimous book called “GameChangers” that looks at improv in organizations.

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