About the presenter: Russ Hicks has stuttered significantly all his life. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and joined the National Stuttering Project (now the National Stuttering Association) in 1985 and Toastmasters in 1988. He has had great success in Toastmasters, winning the Southwestern United States Regional Humorous Speech Contest in 1996, and recently attaining the rank of DTM, a Distinguished Toastmaster, the highest rank in Toastmasters International. He is currently the president of the Dallas Chapter of the NSA.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to Russ Hicks before October 22, 2001.

The Chicken and the Alligators
- or -
How to Facilitate a Support Group Meeting

by Russ Hicks
from Texas, USA

I'm certainly not an expert at facilitating meetings, but the good news is that I don't have to be. Let me tell you a true family story from long ago that taught me a valuable lesson..

Many years ago when our kids were about 10 and 7, our family took a vacation to Florida. On the edge of the Everglades we came across an "Alligator Farm" that, of course, we HAD to see. We got out of the car and walked back to the huge pen where they kept the alligators.

This circular pen was about 25 yards across, bordered by a five foot high concrete wall. We all peered over the wall into a surreal scene. There were at least a hundred alligators in there lying around everywhere - perfectly still. All they were doing was staring at each other with the malevolent alligator grins on their faces. No movement of any sort. At first we thought they were still life statues as we watched for several minutes before we detected any movement at all. One alligator slowly moved his eyeballs to look at us!

Then the owner walked out of his house carrying a dead chicken by the feet. He casually walked over and unceremoniously tossed the chicken into the middle of the alligator pen. WHOA! You'd have thought he'd have tossed a hand grenade in there! You wouldn't believe the reaction! Before the chicken even hit the ground, there was an explosion of alligators that is hard to describe. Every alligator in the pen leaped into the air, thrashing, snapping, teeth bared, tails crashing on one another...!

We jumped back to get out of the way of this frantic alligator riot to save our lives! The five foot wall hardly seemed tall enough to contain the melee of writhing alligators all trying to get at that one dead chicken. It was a sight to behold!

After less than a minute, everything calmed down a bit and we ventured backto the wall and peeked over again. There was the still life scene once more. One alligator near the middle had more of a grin on his face than the others, and a slightly fatter belly, but other than that, everything was back to normal. The owner had gone back in his house and the alligators were patiently waiting for the next chicken.

To this day, our family still talks about the chicken and the alligators. Whenever we want to stir things up a bit, someone throws a dead chicken in the middle of the crowd and the riot is on again!

Facilitating an NSA meeting is a lot like throwing a chicken to the alligators. The dead chicken is no more a gourmet meal than a facilitation is a Shakespearean play. People tend to think that they have to give an academy award performance just to facilitate a meeting. Not true at all. A dead chicken - or a single thought provoking idea - is all that's required to start the riot. Then all the facilitator has to do is to stand back and watch - and be amazed.

Lee Reeves and I used to carpool down the our Dallas NSA meeting. About half way down there, we'd say "Well, what do we want to talk about tonight?" We'd toss an idea or two around and by the time we got to the Callier Center, we'd be ready to go. Total preparation time: 15 minutes, max. Total effort involved: hardly any. But the discussions were always very meaningful and we felt proud of ourselves for coming up with these profoundly moving topics.

It wasn't until several years later that it occurred to us (really to Lee) that the success of the show wasn't about our topics at all. All we did was to throw the chicken to the alligators. And humbling as it was, it wasn't even about us either. The alligators couldn't care less who threw in the chicken. Anyone can throw in a chicken and get the same results.

We tried getting other people to throw in the chicken each meeting, and sure enough, the results were the same. Huge successes. The show was about the alligators, not the chicken - and certainly not the owner. (Would the show have been the same if the owner had thrown in a old tire? Probably not. At least not for long. Or for very many times. But that's another story.)

Anyone can come up with a chicken. Look out on Stutt-L or any of the stuttering discussion groups such as Stutteringchat or Stutt-X for an infinite supply of good chickens. A recent topic on Stutt-L on "Stuttering Recovery" is a perfect chicken. Topics - chickens - such as relationships, families, stuttering at work, growing up, books such as Marty Jezer's, winning attitudes... the list is endless. And anyone can come up with one. See the bottom of this article for an additional list of chickens.

A simple chicken is probably better than a complex chicken. And a sweet chicken is probably better - in the long run at least - than a sour chicken. Upbeat topics, successes and triumphs and good attitudes, make the best ones. Downbeat topics, job discrimination, rejections, etc., even work sometimes, as long as they aren't overdone. But even then, positive alligators in the audience can turn those topics around.

Remember people come to your meetings to TALK, not to be preached to (says I). As long as a person can talk, stuttering or not, then the meeting is a success for him or her. If someone goes away from a meeting and hasn't spoken or hasn't been given a chance to speak or asked for his opinion on some topic, then the meeting is a failure for him. So the object of the chicken is to get everyone to speak, not for the facilitator to show what a wonderful chicken he has.

Size? To give everyone a chance to speak, an ideal size for a breakout discussion group in about 4 or 5. Any number over 7 is probably too big. If you have a meeting with 9 people, break up into two groups for maybe half an hour. When we get 30 people, we generally break up into 5 or 6 small groups. A small meeting of 6 people can probably stick together the entire meeting. But we've even tried 2 people "groups" and that generally works pretty well. (We do that in our "Small Talk" meetings.)

You may have to designate a person to facilitate your next meeting. The facilitation part shouldn't run over 15 minutes, max. Five minutes or less is all it really takes to toss out a pretty good chicken. One of the perks in our meetings is that the facilitator gets to wander from small group to small group, just listening to what is being said. That's so cool and amazing. Most of the time (much to the chagrin of the facilitator), the topic itself has been left behind and what is being discussed is something else entirely. No problem. The people are talking and that's what's really important.

Once a person has facilitated his first meeting, getting him to do it again is typically no problem. Facilitating is fun and contagious. It's another stretch of your comfort zone. Try it once and succeed (and you certainly will) and you'll come back for more!

Alligator's Chicken Menu: a list of additional discussion topics

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to Russ Hicks before October 22, 2001.

August 26, 2001