What Visual Facilitation Really Looks Like

Process Over Product – The Real Super Powers of Visual Facilitation

David Sibbet presented recently at the International Forum of Visual Practitioners, the professional association of people who draw images and words in real-time while people talk. At this conference we had 85+ practitioners there from the newest practitioners, picking up pens and walking to the wall for the first time, to some of the pioneers in the field. There was mind-boggling, gorgeous work on the walls. No doubt. In MY OPINION, the most powerful chart in that room, after three days of visual productivity was this one:


Later when the plenary room was papered with the multitude of glorious and colorful charts generated from the conference, I did a double take in seeing this one again. My initial thought was, “What the hell is that?” It looked messy compared to some of the well executed illustrations that sat to either side of it. It is. However, this chart was, for me, the most powerful chart of the entire conference. In my opinion, this chart visually facilitated my experience and understanding of the conversation that accompanied it more than anything else in the room. Then I was reminded of the wise words I have heard David say many times about our work as Visual Facilitators: It is the process, not the product.

I think that our clients often miss this and I think many of us practitioners miss this as well. We get distracted by the beauty of the product and forget to take deeper consideration of the value it may or may not add to the process.

You don’t need help


Recently I was not able to work with a client in the room, so they wanted me to create some templates and maps that they could use in my absence. This is fabulous! This is a client that has only ever though the markers should be in my hands. Good news for my business, as this increases capacity. Better news for the world with more visual facilitation taking place.

Many visual practitioners will tell you that at almost every meeting, while hanging paper or moving charts, someone steps up and wants to help you. How lovely is that? I always appreciate the generosity of spirit and willingness to collaborate that seems to be a part of having creative engagement in the room. Well, the fact is, it is easier to hang a chart by yourself, if you know how. You wouldn’t know how unless someone showed you. Every visual practitioner was shown or witnessed the more effective ways to handle those big sheets of paper in the beginning of their career. The process is not usually instinctive. Once we see it we say, “Of course!”

After I finished the large charts for my client, I wrapped them in a tube to pass off. It occurred to me that I would not be there to hang them. I imagined the cumbersome antics that might happen, involving multiple people and loud paper wrinkling. I didn’t want to give my client a five paragraph essay on “How to Hang a Chart.” Instead, I created a visual step-by-step.

I offer it to you and the world, demystifying how one person alone can effectively hang a huge piece of paper.

How Do I Listen?


I am a professional listener. I get paid to listen and respond to what groups and individuals say. The ability to listen in a way that is valuable for people is not that I reflect back everything l have heard, like a human audio recorder. What they pay me for is how I respond to what is said and what I reflect back. A question I often get, usually in corporate environments, is, “How did you know what to capture? Did you study our business processes? You got all the important stuff. How did you know how to do that?”

My candid short answer: I try not to pay too much attention.

Seems flip, and I usually don’t say this, but it is in fact, the very truth. What does that mean? Well, unlike a machine that will record every word that is said, no human is likely able to capture and keep up with that, unless you are a court reporter. Capturing everything is not necessarily valuable to a group. When your friend tells you about a conversation they had last week, they tell you the highlights, the interesting points, the sense of the conversation. They do not proceed to iterate everything that was said, in the way it was said. That would be tedious, and probably not give you the sense of what happened in the way that your friend wants you to know.

So when people are talking about business processes, steeped in their own esoteric language and ideas, how do I listen in order to capture what is most meaningful? I describe it this way: I listen to the sound of the conversation and also the words themselves. The sound of a conversation is like music. The cadence indicates to me what is most important to the person speaking at that moment. It helps me sort from the onslaught of content. I listen for what rises to the top and wants to be on the map.

Another way to describe how I listen comes to me from a painting teacher I had in college. In our instruction about composition, he suggested we look at paintings from a distance and with squinted eyes. This would allow us to see the composition of the image from a meta-view, without the distraction of the detail. This is exactly what is valuable as a professional listener. You want to hear the shape of the conversation, with access to the detail, but to first hear the meta-view. This guides the organization, the relationship between the line and shape in the dialogue that contributes to the overall composition of the conversation. So I listen by squinting my ears, which enables me to not get lost in the details of everything, and to hear the larger shape of what is being said.

Not all visual practitioners listen in this way, or describe how they listen in this way. How do you listen?