Have you ever taken a family trip before the pandemic happened?
If you haven’t, let’s look at the following passage:
- Suppose a family of six was taking a trip to the beach. They had never been to that beach before, but their relatives mentioned that it was a good place to bond and relax. They used their minivan and the dad was behind the wheel. His eyes were focused on the road, he was determined to get them there safely, by taking the best route possible.
- Mom was pulling double duty. She was holding a map to assist dad by making sure they didn’t miss any right or left turns. In addition, she ensured the children were having a good time in the car. When one of them was hungry, she was quick to give him a biscuit. After 1 hour on the road, she told dad to stop at the nearest rest area. She ushered the youngest child to the bathroom and told the rest to stretch. Then she bought snacks and sodas for all of them. She was intent on keeping them happy and energized until they got to the beach.
Did the above illustration resonate with you?
We intend to show a clear separation of responsibility between the parents:
- Dad was responsible to get the family to the beach
- Mom needs to accommodate the children’s needs during the trip
Together, these two roles complement each other. Without the dad, they wouldn’t get to the beach; whereas without the mom, they’d get there feeling famished, exhausted, or even unenergized.
[We also acknowledge in some situations Mom took the responsibility to drive the family to the beach, and Dad was to attend to other passengers' needs.]
The two roles
These roles do not exist solely when you’re about to go on a trip. You can actually adapt them into responsibilities that facilitators or hosts take up during a meeting. Of course, a slight change in the designation is necessary: we call dad the host and mom the guardian.
In Product Narrative, we’ve been practicing this approach as an attempt to better facilitate a meeting. We often opened our meetings by clarifying our roles—considering we often work in a pair—and explained in brief what purpose each of us served in the meeting.
What we noticed: while most people immediately understood what a host does, it took an extra minute or two for them to comprehend the guardian’s role. In fact, it’s not uncommon for them to wonder aloud what a guardian was during or after the meeting, even after hearing our explanation.
Thus, this article represents our attempt in drawing a better distinction between a host and a guardian.
A host is a more figural role: someone who assumes this mantle drives the conversation. Their focus is on the content. If there are 4 items to be discussed in the meeting, then the host is responsible for ensuring there’s enough time to cover each item.
If the conversation gets sidetracked—perhaps as a result of participants’ feedback and comments—then it’s up to the host to steer the conversation back to the original path. The host can also park unanswered questions or irrelevant topics, which can be picked up separately or discussed offline.
If the host is focused on the content, the guardian focuses on the people, specifically on the participants.
In any given meeting, the guardian’s responsibility can be described from 2 lenses: energy and emotion. These 2 often influence how participants interact with themselves and others during the session.
A guardian needs to track and maintain participants’ energy levels from the start of the meeting until the end, and then suggest appropriate actions that need to be taken.
One alternative is to have an energy check throughout the meeting. This will give signals to the guardian (and host) whether they can safely proceed with the content or pull the brake.
A guardian can also employ a one-on-one approach with a particular participant if they notice something is not right. In an online meeting, the communication can happen via a direct message or chat group, which can be leveraged by the guardian to find out what’s going on.
Based on the result or information that the guardian acquires, they can propose suggestions to the host: whether it’s time for ice-breaking activities, refreshment, or a simple 5-minute break to boost the participants’ energy level.
In addition to tracking participants’ energy levels, a guardian also needs to track their emotions as well. Emotion, as in what do the participants feel? Do they feel safe and comfortable to ask questions or speak up on things that matter?
Managing the participants’ emotions becomes more important when we’d like them to understand—or even draw takeaways—from new topics that are presented by the host. Do they feel overwhelmed? Can they comprehend the terms the host used? Is the delivery too fast for them or can they keep up just fine?
The guardian needs to pick up the signals by observing the participants. How did they respond to the host’s explanation? Did they look confused? Did they not participate in a discussion?
When the guardian is unsure what to do, a safe alternative they can suggest is pulling the brake. In other words, the host should not proceed with the next item on the agenda. Instead, they can allocate more time for the participants to do one of these things:
- Internalized the learning by jotting down notes (journaling)
- Ask questions to the host
- Group discussion with other participants to strengthen each other understanding
We experimented with these roles (host and guardian) to balance the 2 equally important variables in any meetings or discussions: people and content. And, based on our observations so far, these roles are useful to clarify our intention and manage the participants’ expectations: they know what to expect from each of us. Essentially, we’re telling them: we’ve got you covered. You’ll be taken care of in this meeting.
Without a doubt, it’s easier for these 2 roles to be assumed by two different people. It allows more focus for each person to do their responsibility. However, it doesn’t mean one person can’t take up these two roles at the same time. In such a case, she might need to exert herself to balance the two hats she’s wearing. We believe mindfulness is one of the requisites to juggle these roles: she must be aware of which hat she’s putting on and ensure her action is aligned with it.