Bus Stop! Facilitation Exercise for Complicated Conversations

This exercise is great for facilitating higher energy conversations on tricky issues.  Complicated issues may just be logistically complex or they can be emotionally complex – both are a good fit for this process.  It is easy for complicated conversations to turn into a confusing spiral in the larger group. This exercise is one way to begin moving forward from diagnosing a problem area to creating a plan.

Why I like it:


  • The smaller group can be a safe space to chew on big topics.
  • The bus stop can go a long way to get us literally “On the Same Page”

I didn’t make it up, but I don’t know of any on-line references where it is written elsewhere – please pass them along if you know of any!

This is a bit tricky to explain – but it’s very simple in practice – here goes!

So — say you identified a few issues that need deeper discussion – “Membership Structure” “Communication Structures” and “Distribution of Workload.”  The bus stop is a great next step to create proposals that you can then discuss as a full group.

If you have a three-hours the structure goes something like this (obviously you can take as long as you want):

1 hour – You have three groups and three different topics – aka “Bus Stops”.  Each group gets one topic to start with, as well as a giant piece of paper and a discussion prompt.  For example: Group 1 has “Topic A” and Group 2 has “Topic B” and Group 3 has “Topic C.” A note taker captures key aspects of the conversation as well as potential proposals on the big piece of paper.  Give a ten-minute warning at the end and then switch the paper and the prompt to the next group.

45 minutes – Group discusses the second topic. So for example if Group 1 had “Topic A” in the first round, now they have “Topic C” Group 2 has “Topic A” and Group 3 has “Topic B.”  Groups are encouraged take 5-10 minutes to read over the notes the previous group wrote on the big paper. They then discuss the topic, again capturing key take-aways and any potential proposals.

45 minutes – Groups are now on their third topic. There are likely a lot of discussion notes and proposals, etc. coming from the previous groups notes!  They probably need more paper by now too. The third session should be guided to take time to read the notes over and focus on next steps for the topic.  What happens next? How do we move this topic forward? Who else should be a part of this conversation? What decisions might need made?

30 minutes – Gallery tour! Hang the papers on the wall. Allow folks to take time to read over all the conversations that have happened. You can give them stars to highlight areas that they are most interested in, or stickies to add some notes to the conversation. Potentially encourage them to flag areas (via stickynote) that feel complicated or have some dissonance, as well as areas where there is strong consensus for a plan to move forward.

As a facilitator, take this gallery time to discuss where these conversations go next. One suggestion is to have the group take a break and check in with co-facilitators or interested participants to pull out areas that should be brought into the full group for discussion and/or decision-making.

If you have time and the energy is there, you can discuss the gallery – how were the topics moved forward? What are some exciting areas of synergy between the groups? What are some areas where there is more dissonance that we should discuss?

Thoughts on Prompts and Facilitation Logistics:

  • When you are creating your 3-4 discussion topics, think about what the priorities for the discussion are.  Should the group aim towards creating a concrete proposal on the item? Or should they stick to broad visioning and exploration of the topic? What are the next steps for this topic? How does it move forward? What is the point of the conversation? (Sometimes a topic is so rough, the point of the conversation is to figure out what the point is!).  It might be helpful to provide guiding questions for each topic that travel with the big paper from group to group.
  • If the goal of the conversation is to diagnose and explore a problem, then it’s ok to do that – but if the group wants to be moving forward you may need to encourage them to begin thinking of proposals and solutions to the issues they are discussing – how do we deal with this? How does it move forward?
  • It is generally useful if this process ends in a long break (like say lunch or dinner) that allows the facilitator to think about emergent design  to continue developing the conversations.
  • While the small group conversations are happening the facilitator can walk around and try to find the balance between letting the conversations flow where they need to and making sure people are answering the questions and moving the topics forward.  If you think it’s needed, you can have facilitators for each group to serve this role.
  • You may need to remind people to trust that the other conversations are happening – they need to focus on the topic they have for that session, not try and do all of it at the same time.

A specific example!

Here is an example of a time when I used this exercise:

A group had had a long visioning exercise the day before.  A number of complex topics came out of the visioning exercise, and we decided to use the bus stop exercise to dig into a few of the most important topics.

With each topic, I printed out the following information to guide the conversation.  The detail was meant to honor the hard work and content that had happened the day before – to keep the conversational momentum building  – if the notes are already typed up from the previous conversation, sometimes I’ll even print those out as a quick reference to the work that has already happened in this topic:

Communication Structures

We discussed yesterday that there are gaps in our communication structure.  While it may be useful to discover/diagnose/flesh out additional areas that need work in communication, a goal of this time is to come up with proposals that could address these gaps.

Here are some questions brought up yesterday that could be useful for the discussion:

    • What are the ways we communicate? (Here is a start: email, facebook, conference calls, one on one phone, in person)
    • What are some of the most effective ways we communicate? What’s working?
    • What is the most important information to be communicating over distances?
    • What information is not being shared? Where are the crucial gaps?
    • How can we increase trust in our communication systems?
    • How can we increase fun and camaraderie and feelings of working together over distances?
    • How can we support connections between different campaigns over distances?
    • How often should we be meeting in person?  What should those meetings be like?

One thought on “Bus Stop! Facilitation Exercise for Complicated Conversations

  1. Pingback: Then What? Next Steps for Diagnosis After StickyLand Exercise | Round Robin

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