Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

I have written recently on a topic that I have plenty of experience with. Infighting, or a sense of competition between teams in the workplace, and how either a facilitator, or a group leader, can work to resolve it.

But here’s the thing. Even though I’ve got lots of helpful answers for those facing this morale-dampening corporate squabbling, these types of situations can be pretty stubborn to solve.

And even though I like to think I’m pretty good at what I do, I don’t always have all the answers.

When it comes to opposing positions, things aren’t always black and white. And even professional consensus-builders like me don’t get a pass.

Here’s a recent example that has led me to follow all my own advice – and hey, I’ll admit, it’s tough work with no easy answer. Here’s the scenario:

I was recently paired with a professional consultant to tackle a project for a valued client.

Because of the very different nature of what we both do, we almost immediately had a clash of approaches.

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It makes sense: a consultant is hired to bring the answer to the table.

Meanwhile, a facilitator’s job is to bring the answer out from the group of participants.

A consultant formulates opinions and shares their work, a facilitator discerns the opinions of the group.

A consultant provides content, the facilitator provides process. A consultant is hired for what they know, a facilitator is hired to help the group bring forward what they know.

So, she and I continue to go back and forth on how we want to run our joint session. Her job is to offer her insights and gain the approval of the group and mine is to discover what the group thinks and enable them to agree with each other.

Honestly, I am not entirely sure how we will resolve our distinct approaches.  And please stay tuned to hear how it ended up.

But I will tell you, in the meantime, it has reminded me that when you’re coming at a problem or opportunity from different mindsets, even if both have some willingness to compromise, the final outcome may not look like what you wanted or hoped it would be going in.

Why can’t we all just get along? Easy tips for building stronger teams

What’s the cost of infighting?

I recently wrote about the damage that infighting, or an “us versus them” mentality can bring to organizations. When groups aren’t getting along – or see themselves as competing with other departments or team members – it can drain productivity, dampen morale and lead to a lasting sense of bad blood between the opposing groups.

Why look to facilitation?

Part of what I do as a professional facilitator is to resolve old hurts, engineer a better sense of collective understanding and ultimately, build stronger teams.

Whether it’s a more general goal, like helping groups work better together, or a specific one – like putting together a strategic plan – leaders can use a similar process to reconcile perceived differences.

These are tried and true ways of building bridges, and often start with a simple clearing of the air and bringing misunderstandings – or different understandings – into the open.

Who needs this?

If you’re a leader, or work alongside a group that is having trouble coming to consensus, there are a few methods you can try to help bring everyone back onto a similar page.

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Try these tips – pulled straight from my facilitator handbook – to help reduce siloed thinking and find unity even among widely varying opinions.

It makes a world of difference – and here’s how you can try it easily, yourself, from the comfort of your own meeting room.

  • Get it all out

Ask everyone to tell you (or the group) everything they know about the subject. What are all the known facts about a topic or subject? Get everyone’s perspective, even when they are at odds. Then ask what is exciting? Concerning? Where are they feeling positive?  Negative?  Where is information missing? What else might they need to know?

  • Use active listening

You can borrow some of the specific exercises I <outline here>, or, more informally, you can simply give people on your team five minutes to talk about their perspective without interruption. Everyone just listens. Then let someone with an opposing or different perspective talk for five minutes, uninterrupted. If there’s a party with a third perspective, ask them to speak for five minutes, without interruption. By doing that, you can help give a sense that there is a space for all perspectives to sit around the table.

When all the sides have been heard (without interruption), ask the group to summarize their understanding of each perspective and confirm with the speakers that their perspectives have been correctly heard. In this manner, the group affirms its understanding of the various perspectives.

Often, I find the people that talk the fastest, the loudest, the most passionately, the ones with the most vehemence, often haven’t felt heard. They hang on to a position because they’re desperate for someone to simply hear them say it.  You can easily ease this by simply allowing them to fully hold court and present their view and understanding of an issue.

  • Focus on commonalitieshidde-rensink-156982-unsplash

If you’re finding teams or individuals are working at cross-purposes, try to find a common interest. Is there any common ground they can agree on? What are they worried about? What’s at risk? What are the implications if they don’t get the answer they’re looking for? What are some alternatives?

If you’re able to move towards common ground, even, say, making a joint recommendation from a shared position, then you start to move away from gridlock.

  • Reframe “rightness” and “wrongness”

Is being wrong so bad?

In her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Katheryn Shultz writes that when you open your mind to other opinions than your own, when you stop laser-focusing on being right, you can enable a whole new level of learning, brainstorming, problem solving and creativity.

But it’s tough! As she points out, since grade school, we’ve all been conditioned to try and get the best marks, find the right answer. And if we’re wrong, we’re diminished. We feel embarrassed, ashamed, rejected.

Yet, she contends, when you get a “right answer,” you’re simply affirming something you already know – and where’s the growth it that?

Only when you explore wrongness can you truly grow and learn something new.

With this in mind, try to encourage a mindset during group discussions that that nothing participants say is wrong. This will help create movement in the room – when that fear is reduced and when people find themselves more comfortable sharing ideas from all different viewpoints – and listening to those who they might usually not.

5) Think like a facilitator

If you’re facing a situation where your team members are really stuck – and you find yourself in the middle – don’t be afraid to say it. It’s not unusual for me to observe an impasse during a group discussion and share that observation with the group. I will ask the group if they see it differently.  And then I will ask the group for ideas on how to move forward: maybe everyone needs a break, maybe everyone wants to continue to hack away at the problem, or maybe we can shift tracks and tackle another issue and return to the sticky issue later.

When in doubt, I always put it back to the group, so they understand where they are at in the process, and so that the group has the opportunity to identify what they need in order to find their way back to a productive place.

I’ll be honest, there used to be a time when I felt that I was failing to “own the meeting” when I turned the decision back to the group (i.e. how could I run the meeting if I didn’t have all the answers?). Now I understand that I never owned the meeting in the first place, the group did. My job was – and is – to help the group decide what it wanted… And, in a lot of cases, this is a leader’s role too. If this scenario sounds familiar, I encourage you to take a moment, forget about ownership, and think more about consensus – like a facilitator!

Us versus them: How facilitation can help pull back siloed thinking in the workplace

Polarized thinking, or the idea that there are good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, in every situation, is a common thing I see among teams in all different types of organizations.

When working through a planning or decision-making process, an all too often side effect of passionate professional minds – coupled with limited time and resources – can be fierce loyalty with one “side.”

Too often in a professional setting, teams of colleagues can form into camps, seeing themselves as the heroes, fighting the ‘right’ fight at the expense of another group that’s working towards different goals.

The cause

What causes this sense of “us versus them” in the corporate world? It’s human nature to bond with those who you work closely with – especially if they think the same as you.

The symptoms

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But problems begin to emerge when you start aligning too tightly with your own team to the point where you close your mind to the opinions of others and maybe even treat them a threat to your own objectives.

Power struggles often hatch when employees or team members feel like they’re competing: for scarce resources, for pride, power, prestige, time, ownership, budget, headcount… you name it.

The prognosis

The concept that in order to be right, someone else has to be wrong, or that we’re too busy to check with others, or that ignoring others means we don’t have to take them into account, can be a damaging one.

A division of teams into separate silos can lead to inefficiencies, lost productivity, slumping morale, duplication of efforts, confusion of responsibilities, and more.

At its best, a misaligned organization squanders time, skills and talks ‘past each other’, and at its worst, can lead to a toxic work environment, leaving people feeling like their fighting for their lives or being unfairly targeted.

What’s the cure?

Professional facilitators like me are trained to help people listen, hear and understand each other. It sounds straightforward, but when a team’s reputation or an individual’s career prospects are on the line, (as they might perceive it), it’s easy to let the basics of considerate, authentic two-way communication fall by the wayside.

Fortunately, there are plenty of tools that facilitators can use that work as a powerful antidote to the “us versus them” mentality. See this in your organization? Here’s how a facilitator might help restore balance.

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  1. Constructive listening

Participants in my sessions have told me time and time again that this technique is surprisingly useful.

I ask two people to sit with one another at a table, desk, on a bench, etc. I ask one to talk about their opinion, or the issue at hand. For two minutes straight they just talk, and the other person does nothing but listen. (They can take notes, but are encouraged not to respond in any way.) Then, flip it. For another two minutes the other person speaks and the first speaker just listens.

In a larger group session, I mix the partners up and start the two-minutes listening/two-minutes speaking exercise again. Now, that’s four minutes, six minutes, eight, that you’ve just listened to someone else.

Sound easy right? In fact, it feels quite unusual at first – to not offer response or ask follow up questions. But, even so, I encourage you to take the time and make the space to try this, as prescribed, and see what comes up.

  1. Asking the right questions

Another technique I love is called the Interview Matrix. In this exercise, there are four, straightforward, but unique questions that are posed. The questions are open enough that anyone can respond. Every person is assigned one of the four questions and is given note paper to record the responses of those answering their question. Through a round-robin process, each person will receive three answers to their question, and will also respond to the other three questions (six rounds if you’re doing the math – three rounds as a listener and three rounds as a respondent). Generally, I allot about five minutes per round.

Again, with this exercise, you are creating a situation where people must listen. Sure, they may have objections, questions, frustrations running inside their heads, and that’s OK! At very least, everyone gets the opportunity to put their stakes on the table, and have their voice heard. After that, a discussion can be had, where everyone is starting with the same information. A common response at the end of this exercise is “I heard so many different perspectives.”

  1. Good cop, bad cop

Ritual dissent is a similar active listening exercise that I often use. Here, a person presents an idea (related to the task, question or issue at hand) to a small group of people.  In the first round, the group that was presented to is instructed to only give negative feedback. The presenter then tweaks his/her proposal and moves on to another small group to present it again. This time, listeners are instructed to only give positive feedback to their presenter.

This is a way for the presenters to hear input they might never otherwise hear (i.e. an ally or team member being forced to consider if there are any downsides to an argument, or a non-supporter having to dig deep to find a bright side to the presenter’s argument). This is just another way to get different types of feedback in the open for consideration.

Real, meaningful change

These exercises are all great for sharing perspectives and generating discussion in a room. And while they are strong steps in the right direction, sometimes the hardest part is getting participants to consider a change on the inside – to consider that their view might not be the right one.

This is where I come in.

The neutral stakeholder

In the book The Third Side, William Yuri talks about the necessity of “cooperating to compete.” He identifies the importance of the third side, people who have a stake in the outcome, but don’t necessarily have a side. These people may enable process, idea sharing, shuttle diplomacy, or clarification as an example.  In my case, I provide the neutral process that allows a group to arrive at an outcome. My purpose is to help the group achieve the best outcome for the group, as decided by the group.

Consensus as the answer

To me, and my fellow professional facilitators, there is no right or wrong answer; rightness is whatever consensus the room reaches. But rather than simply encouraging a mob mentality, or agreeing for the sake of agreement, I consider a successful consensus one that’s arrived at only after everyone had been led through a fair and transparent process where all participants have equal say.

Funny enough, I’m often invited to facilitate group discussions or planning sessions where my client is hoping I can bring over difficult personalities or strongly opinionated naysayers to a certain side. They hire me with the intention of reaching a specific outcome at the end of the day.

I tell that that, in fact, I’m not there to lead the discussion in a certain direction, or manipulate the outcome. I’m there to make sure the group lays their thoughts, ideas and opinions on the table for others to hear, so that a well-informed opinion can be reached – among all.

The result? Even if the group doesn’t land where the client is expecting, they usually tell me they are happy with the group’s decision. They are satisfied because the process was clear and they watched the engagement and support happen along the way. This, they often agree, is more important than the nature of the outcome.

What’s the point?

Having someone leading the discussion who has a strong incentive to find resolution (a.k.a. the neutral facilitator) can be extraordinarily helpful.

This is the person who can focus on bridging understanding, motivating the room to a space where everyone can agree – even if that means ceding some of the power, the prestige, the budget, the headcount – the rightness – that some may be holding on to as the thing that will save them from the punishment of being wrong.

Show me the ROI: Here’s what professional facilitation is really worth

What’s a professionally facilitated session really worth? Can the value be measured or quantified?

I say yes.

Just like any other professional service, professional facilitation offers real value to your team, your projects and your organization.

Though some may brush it off as a feel-good, warm and fuzzy exercise (trust falls, anyone?), in my experience, those who take part in a well-run, facilitated session nearly always take something away. And not just nebulous positivity, but actual, measurable, bottom-line value.

My clients continue to tell me that facilitation offers them numerous intangibles that, much like having a good boss or feeling passionate about your work, are difficult to put a price tag on. But, for those who are looking for a return, the value per dollar can be proved.

So, if you’re trying to determine whether your organization can justify the cost of a single or multi-day session with a facilitator, bring out your own calculator and see what kind of savings you’ll actually be walking away with.

Here are some examples that I have experienced.

Recouping the cost of a bad meeting

In recent years, analysts and professionals have become increasingly frustrated with the tried-and-true traditional boardroom meeting. Volumes have been written about how poorly run meetings waste time, money and goodwill amongst even the keenest staffers.

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Read enough of articles in this vein, and you might walk away wondering if you should ever host—or attend—another meeting again. (You can find a few more thoughts, from different industries and professionals, here, here, here and here.)

With professional facilitation, you flip that equation.

Instead of being a drain on money and resources, a well-run meeting can in fact offer tangible rewards. Think: a meeting where the real work happens. This is what happens when you hire a facilitator.

Reap returns from employee engagement

As above, researchers continue to demonstrate the benefits of having a well-engaged workforce. Employee engagement—measured by happiness at work, willingness to try new things and understanding how one’s role serves the organization’s greater strategies —has been shown time and again to lead to measurable profits, because employee morale is linked to performance, which is linked to organizational success.

Professionally facilitated sessions or meetings draw heavily on the principles of employee engagement and are designed to leave attendees with a sense of belonging, a strong voice and, yes, a sense of being personally engaged in the process from start to finish.

Time is money – and so is time saved

I had a client who was new to an organization and had inherited a team she characterized as “traumatized.”

She needed to get to know this team, and importantly, she needed to get past the trauma so the team could be productive, quickly.  We hosted a three-hour workshop where the group explored its past and its impacts. My client believes her onboarding and relationship-building with her new team was accelerated by at least two months.

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She leap-frogged over the common new-leader hurdles, and was able to see problems and opportunities at the organization in a more complete way.

She says this was all thanks to her team’s open and thorough input during our facilitated session, and that it led directly to operational efficiency (not to mention an improved sense of morale!).

For the price of a half-day facilitated session, she told me later she estimated she had gained two months of improved productivity.

Let’s do the math:

According to articles highlighted above, if an average salary is $60,000 (this is was a not-for-profit organization), and eight people were in the room, for three hours, the cost of participant meeting time was $720 (assume 2000 working hours a year). The cost of the manager’s time was another $120 or a cost of $840 cost for meeting participants. Add in the cost of the facilitator at $1,200 and the meeting cost was $2,040.

If productivity, due to improved employee engagement improved by just 10% (i.e. suggesting that $66,000 worth of work would be accomplished annually) the cost of the meeting is recovered in less than two weeks!

(Disclaimer:  I’m not an economist and I am often guilty of bad math!)

Harnessing the power of alignment

I often run an exercise called an historical scan, where the group create as a visual representation of their history-to-date. As they see their highs and lows and the shifts that they have experienced, they explore the implications of their experience. Individual stories merge to become a shared story, a common context emerges and a sense of belonging often results.

This collective understanding is a powerful springboard for planning  for future success.

The impact of stakeholder buy-in

When everyone takes part in a strategic planning session—and actually takes part, not just sits in the back row on their phones—the result is a team-wide, or company-wide, ownership of that strategy. I create space for every participant’s voice which supports both stakeholder engagement along with the time-savings of collective understanding and power of alignment – it’s like a project-accelerating trifecta!

This is an example of going slow to go fast.

The cost of 10 people in a room for eight hours of strategic planning at $40 / hr., plus $3,000 for the facilitator puts this cost of this meeting (not including lunch or meeting space at a hefty $5,500).  Now, subtract the cost of the four meetings with 10 people each for two hours trying to align themselves, which have now been avoided ($3,200), not to mention 15% of everyone’s day reading lengthy email chains for the next month ($48 / person / day for email time= $9,600) now that they have shared understanding, and the cost of a facilitated meeting is recovered many times over, very quickly.

The dividends of risk avoidance (a.k.a. the money you’ll save by doing things right the first time)

If you fail to include a group of stakeholders that are required as part of a formal consultation process, you could potentially find yourself facing missed deadlines, increased project costs, and the addition of scope. Even if not required, missing out on including a stakeholder group’s input could still ding your budget in a big way. My sessions are designed using careful discovery and a nine-step planning tool, help teams and organizations avoid this type of risk up front.

I ask the questions you might’ve forgotten to ask yourselves at the outset!

How to calculate value:

If you take any of the above scenarios and estimate that they represent even 1% of a project’s value (whether by adding performance-enhancing information, improving attitudes/productivity/efficiency/understanding or avoiding a costly missed discovery), the return begins to add up pretty quick. On a $1 million initiative, you’re already representing five figures worth of payback for your time and effort put into organizing a facilitated session.

Ways to sustain the value:

Now that you can start to see some of the value of this type of planning, you can even plan to multiply it! Do this by:

Following up

  • Plan a similar engagement each year (i.e. for annual planning) or schedule a follow up (I recommend at least one, 90 – 120 days following the initial planning) to ensure you’re keeping your promises to yourselves. These can be professionally facilitated or internal, but following a similar style.crissy-jarvis-1316073-unsplash
  • Committing also to regular third-party or internal check-ins for a multi-month or -year project will allow you to keep the conversation going and continue to build listening and analytical skills among team members or participants.

Engaging the next level down

  • If you’ve completed strategic planning or visioning with senior levels, ensure that this work is passed down to the next level of leadership and follow up with those leaders, and their direct reports, to measure understanding and adoption of those ideas.

The multiplier works both ways

The cost of disengagement and productivity loss can be reversed with a facilitated process. And, if you follow up, that gain endures.

But, if no follow up action is taken, not only do you lose the productivity and plans of the day, you reverse the engagement. If you’ve promised yourselves the world and then do nothing, this encourages people to feel worse than possibly even when they started.

 

Keep this in mind as you embark on your next strategic or project planning journey. If you need me, I’ll be close by, ready to offer real impact — to your people and your books.

Stop fearing – and start feeling – your instincts at work.

Here’s how emotions can make a powerful decision-making ally.

When making corporate decisions – when should you consider your gut?

The answer is easy. Always.

Contrary to popular belief, embracing your instincts at work – and, yes, acknowledging your feelings – can lead to more effective decision-making. But, like other levels of thinking, there is a time and a place for this type of articulation.

Read on to learn more about how tapping into your instincts can give you a leg up in corporate planning, strategy, decision making and discussions.

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What are your senses trying to tell you?

How often have you said “I have a gut feeling about…”, “My ‘Spidey senses’ were tingling” or that “Every instinct was screaming at me”?

When you make these statements, you are acknowledging the powerful insights that our emotions offer. These are our instant, instinctual responses to stimulus. They are what we as facilitators call the reflective level of thinking.

When I offer group and strategic facilitation, I use a model called the Technology of Participation TOP® It offers a chronological methodology for clear thinking that we facilitators affectionately refer to as O R I D.

  • O is the objective level of thinking.
  • R is the reflective level of thinking.
  • I is the interpretive level of thinking.
  • D is the decisional level of thinking.

It is surprisingly easy to tap into the reflective level of thinking and insightful and enabling when we do – especially when it comes after the objective (or facts-based) level of thinking and before the interpretive and decisional levels of thinking.

I will go so far as to say it will be a relief to the people in your group to be given an opportunity to share this very essential level of thinking openly. You’ll make better decisions too.

Here’s why.

You tap into your survival-level reaction

The first level of thinking, the objective (O) level is the facts, data, external information that is readily available to us. This is the grounding level information that ensures we have a common starting point in a discussion. Without objective levels of thinking, conversations become fuzzy.  I wrote about this in a previous blog, The Level-Setting Toolkit.

The reflective (R) level of thinking is the next level of thinking. It’s the internal response that we have to objective-level data. Put simply, it is our emotional reaction to things we hear, see, touch, taste, read, and observe.

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It is an essential level of thinking that originates in our limbic brain, also known as our primitive brain, that is responsible for our fight or flight responses. The limbic brain is what we have relied on for survival for millennia and serves humans well.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman calls this our “fast brain.” This brain responds very quickly, very instinctively and not simplistically. This brain values memory (reflective) more than experience (objective).

The reflective response associates the objective data to something else, creates an emotional response or conjures up images. In short – it mines our internal responses to give additional context to objective data.

Why do we shy away from emotions?

Curiously, the reflective level of thinking is marginalized in the workplace. We are often uncomfortable with anything emotional and have many methods for shutting down emotional responses.

We label it unprofessional. We ask people to park emotions at the door. We say, “It’s just business, what’s the big deal?” In fact, internal communications are typically asked to steer clear of any language that’s remotely emotional and stick with clinically professional expressions.

As proof of this orientation, I was sharing the ORID model with a group recently, and a participant said “Wouldn’t it just be easier if we skipped the reflective level all together?”

That is a good question — should we skip it?  Absolutely not – and I’ll tell you why.

Why we need the reflective level of thinking?

We must observe and respect the feelings because they keep us out of trouble, they prevent cyclical thinking and they broaden our creativity and decision-making skills.

Our emotional response keeps us safe.

When we miss the reflective level of thinking, we overlook key insights and leave critical information out. For example, if we don’t pay attention to the immediate revulsion we experience at the smell of bad meat, we risk making ourselves sick.

The same is true when making a call in the boardroom. If changing the price of a product is giving you chills (and not the good kind), take that as a red flag that you may need to explore the data and rationale a little closer before making the final call.

Our emotional responses get us unstuck.When groups ignore the reflective level, they often become stuck. You would know this situation if you’ve ever seen it. It looks like silence, polite conversations, dialogue without conviction, big white elephants and simmering anger.

Groups can get caught in a place of subordinated, unarticulated thoughts which can show up in toxic and unproductive places later.

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Recently, a client invited me to help them with team development activity. They alluded to some past issues that had a new group struggling. The client did not want to explore the past, preferring to focus on the future, which is incredibly rational, normal and feels more productive.

The difficulty for this group is that the emotions were unexplored and had gone underground.

The result? The group was politely professional, engaging in safe dialogue and unable to build the quality of relationships they needed to tackle the sizeable project ahead of them. They were stuck.

Our emotional responses help stimulate higher levels of thinking

In the example above, we would have been far better to dig into the issue and risk some emotional statements in order to move the group forward. A group simply can’t move to higher orders of development, thinking and behaviour if it is stuck at the reflective level.

Importantly, they can’t tap into additional creativity and decision making capacity if their reflective state is buried.

Won’t this lead to messy, emotional chaos?

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When I teach facilitation skills, students express fear and trepidation at exploring the reflective level of thinking in their work environments. They do not want to ask people how they feel. They fear opening a pandora’s box of chaos.

So, how do we let the reflective level of thinking into our organizations without turning into a sobbing, hysterical, fist shaking mass of humanity? How can we tap into this brilliant and essential level of thinking to enhance and improve our outcomes?

Next time you’re engaging with a team, try this approach.

Alternate positive and negative questions

The best ways to tap into the reflective level of thinking is to ask questions which mine for emotions.

Ask a question that asks for a positive, emotional response and then one that asks for a negative emotional response in your next conversation and see what additional insight emerges. Make sure you ask for both sides of the emotion to get a complete picture.

Here are some examples:

  1. What do you like about that? What do you dislike about that?
  2. What are you optimistic about?  Pessimistic about?
  3. What are you excited about? Worried about?
  4. What are you feeling positive about? Negative about?
  5. What is an association that you are making?
  6. What images are coming to mind for you?
  7. What is a metaphor that captures your thinking right now?

Treat your own deep-seated reactions as a friend, not a foe, next time you’re working in a group setting.

You may be surprised at the productive path it will lead you down.

What success have you found when following your instincts in the workplace? What barriers do you face from doing so? Feel free to share in the comments below.

About Robin Parsons: I’m a certified ToP® facilitator with a decade of experience in business facilitation. I’m here to help your corporate team define problems and solutions, plan clear paths forward on complex projects and fully leverage the expertise in your group. If you’d like to explore what facilitated strategic planning services or group facilitation could look like in your organization, contact me

Facts are friendly

What are some key words? What phrases did you highlight? What number was quoted?  What did you hear? What graphs did you notice?  What colours do you see? 

These are a series of questions that I frequently ask participants and students of facilitation alike. It is surprising how difficult it is to get a response to these questions.

The questions are easy and the answers obvious, and yet, people hesitate to offer a response. They are perplexed. Why you would ask such simple questions of a capable group of people? Is it a trick question? There must be some deeper significance sought. The answer couldn’t be as simple as ‘red’.

…students have said to me, “I didn’t know where you were going with the question, so I didn’t know how to answer the question” … when I asked the question, “what colour did you see?”.  

Facts, data, sensory information

In facilitator parlance, we call these simple questions objective level questions: the facts, basic information and sensory inputs. And we use them to begin a conversation aimed at thinking through a topic. These basic pieces of information are drawn in through what we’ve read, heard, seen, experienced, touched or tasted and they help us to form a common understanding of the topic at hand. These pieces of data inform a concrete starting point that is necessary for a group to successfully think through a topic.

Western thought values thinking that connects dots, sees patterns and looks for meaning or what we call the interpretive level of thinking. Analysis, deductive reasoning, extrapolation, interpretation are all forms of interpretive thinking and are tremendously well trained in professions such as business, engineering and accounting. A connect-the-dots response is the kind of response that is often rewarded and the thinking that make us seem smart. When we can take a piece of data and turn it into thoughtful commentary we are ‘bright’, ‘insightful’ and ‘quick thinking’.

“Our nervous system is at the same time a data-gathering system, an emotional processing system, a meaning-creation system and a decision/implementing system.” – Edgar Schein

There is a bias towards interpretive thinking

In my experience, groups have a bias towards interpretive thinking. Without question, interpretive thinking is an essential part of the thinking process. The challenge that emerges with our bias towards interpretive thinking is that we are quickly led towards interpretations without having fully considered all our data points. Decisions are made before all sources of data have been considered and all facts present. The result can be outcomes that later earn a “how did we miss that?” kind of reflection.

In the absence of the objective data, we flounder

Without a solid grounding in the objective level of data, we tend to flounder. We find ourselves going around in circles and struggling to ground ourselves in the present reality. Each person approaches the conversation with a different understanding of the situation which often leads to confusion and the absence of clarity.

 …. an 8 year old child comes through the door with a story of a fight erupting from a simple game at the playground. The child launches into her story and you find yourself asking: Where were you playing?  Who was there?  Whose ball was it? What happened first?  Then what happened? Who showed up? When did they show up? Ok, whose dog was it? 

You can’t understand the story until you understand the situation. You can’t understand the situation until you’ve compiled your facts – the objective level of data.

…a participant walks in to a meeting room, well prepared, having read the pre-read package. The meeting chair starts the discussion. The well prepared person shares the conclusion they’ve drawn. Someone else, who did not read the package says something like – “Are we talking about project x? What dates are you referring to? What part of the project are you addressing? “Who provided this material?” And around it goes until everyone has a common understanding of the situation. 

Objective data brings clarity

There is tremendous power in spending time on the objective information that sometimes seems ‘too simple for words’.  It accomplishes a couple of things. First, it ensures that everyone in the room shares a common understanding of the topic to be discussed. It is much easier to move a conversation forward when people in the room are not grappling for facts. Many times I have seen a meeting chase its tail because participants did not start with the same set of facts. How many times have you seen a discussion start with the ‘rightness’ of a number? Until the facts are clear and known by all – the meeting will be circular.

Second, it ensures that if there are different perspectives on a fact, that it is surfaced. This is not to suggest we are trying to surface ‘alternate facts’, but it does remind us that I can see a 20% gross margin as excellent and someone else can see it is an opportunity for improvement. You can see the process of using a sticky note to pass information along as efficient and someone else sees it as ‘vintage’.  I can see a colour as orange and someone else as tangerine.

Objective data grounds a conversation

It is surprising how often people push back on starting a discussion by confirming the objective level of data. I hear things like – “everyone knows that”, “these people are too busy for this”, “we don’t have enough time”, “we all know the process”. In our time pressed environments, the time spent one ensuring we are uniformly grounded in the facts has become either luxury or superfluous.

When I walk into a room to do business process work, we start with the current state. It is virtually a guarantee that when the current state goes up on the wall, people will say, “I didn’t know that”, “I had no idea”, “seeing it from end to end really helps me understand the situation”.  

Objective data reduces anxiety and frustration

Frustration, anxiety, pointed questions, bad decisions and blame often stem from a fuzzy understanding of the objective level of data. When decisions are made with incomplete data, where one person held a piece of information that another did not, blame and frustration are often the outcome. Time spent sharing the basic facts contributes to the clarity which allows anxiety and frustration to dissipate.

A group I worked with found itself in a circular situation where there was resistance to exploring current state processes (because everyone knows the process) and frustration because no one knew what the processes were and what came next. There was an overwhelming sense that the problems were too hard to solve.

 

Objective data helps us to challenge our assumptions

One of the most important aspects of spending time on the objective level of data is that it helps us challenge our assumptions and prevent us from relying on past strategies and outcomes that may bias our thinking in a situation. A former NASA flight director talks about the approach they use for staving off panic in a crisis situation.  They start with a series of questions:

  • What was everything they knew and did not know about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What did the data actually say about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What was the worst thing that could happen as a result of the situation? (may draw on experience and sometimes an objective question)
  • Did the team have enough information to know for sure – and how could they get more information?

Helpful objective level questions

What are some helpful objective level questions for your next meeting? Consider the types of questions a reporter might ask:

  • What words did you hear someone say?
  • What did they actually say?
  • What did phrases did you read in the document?
  • What do you remember seeing? hearing? doing?
  • What happened first? second? third?
  • Where did the incident occur?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who was there?
  • Where were you?
  • What do the meeting minutes say our resolution was?
  • What did we capture as an action item?

Facts are friendly

Years ago, I worked for someone who used to say to me “facts are friendly, facts are friendly”.  It wasn’t until I jumped deeply into the study of facilitative methods that I truly understood what he meant.  The objective level of data (facts) are not just friendly, but the essential starting point for thinking clearly, when clear thinking is needed. 

 

 

 

 

Meeting organizer: book facilitator first!

I would like meeting organizers to call facilitators before they book venues and dates for meetings.

In the past several months, I have done a dozen facilitations for as many groups, and in virtually all situations, the date was booked, the agenda partially defined and the meeting room decided BEFORE talking with the facilitator.

While this sounds like a rational approach, if you’re the facilitator it is completely backwards.

A professional facilitator starts every client engagement with a thorough needs assessment. We need to understand what is to be accomplished, what has happened so far, the challenges and the dynamics of the group and who will carry out the work that emerges from the work shop. We are curious about the relative strengths and weaknesses of a group; the history of the group and its promise.

Once we understand these factors, we can address the client’s uniqueness and design an appropriate agenda and meeting process. Until the process is defined, the room needs are less clear (beyond something BIG).

So, I’ve crafted a list of things that I’d like meeting organizers to know:

  1. Give your facilitator SUFFICIENT LEAD time. Good facilitation needs preparation time. The call on Monday for a Thursday facilitation is thoughtless at best and a recipe for disaster at worst. Leave booking your facilitator to the last minute and it is likely that the good ones will not be available.
  2. Make time for the facilitator to conduct a thorough NEEDS ASSESSMENT  interview with you. If there isn’t time for that conversation, consider changing the meeting date. Without a good discovery conversation, you may not get what you want from your meeting.
  3. Consult with the facilitator BEFORE you finalize dates and rooms. Your facilitator will know what their room needs are when they’ve considered the processes to be used and the number of participants involved.
  4. Do NOT hand a professional facilitator an already baked agenda. The value in hiring a facilitator is their expertise at designing an effective agenda that will accomplish your meeting goals. If you’ve already decided agenda and process, hire a time keeper.
  5. TRUST your facilitator. Facilitators have spent lots of time with lots of groups and  have learned through trial and error what works and what does not work.
  6. Book a room with LOTS OF WALL SPACE. Natural light is awesome and we love it too, unless it means that there are NO WALLS for posting the efforts of the day. Golf courses seem like a good idea until you realize that there isn’t any uninterrupted wall space.
  7. Book a BIG, FLEXIBLE room. We want two or three times more space than ‘maximum occupancy’ dictates. People NEED to move around during a long meeting.
  8. Avoid rooms with a FIXED BOARDROOM table in the middle of a long narrow room. These rooms aren’t comfortable or particularly functional and you will certainly feel like you’ve been held hostage by the end of the day.
  9. PUT AWAY DEVICES. You are making this investment and taking people out of their jobs for a period of time for good reason. Give yourself the gift of focus and implement a no device rule for the day.
  10. SEPARATE lunch space from work space. Move lunch to a different room. Food is messy and so are work spaces. Participants need a physical break during full day meetings.

Successful meetings are a result of good discovery, good process design and good physical environment. The role of a facilitator is to ensure all  three elements are well addressed. So start your meeting organizing with a call to the facilitator!

When groups struggle to decide

One of the most interesting things about working with groups is observing their dynamic through a decision making lens.  At certain points, during a workshop, a group needs to make a decision, revealing much about the nature of their group.

As a meeting leader, you need to be aware of what is happening in your group at that time. Is the decision process going well? Is it stalling? If so, what is happening?

Step 1: Observe

The first step of a meeting leader is to observe the dynamic. What are you noticing? What behaviours are evident? What is going on at the surface? Below the surface?

When groups are struggling to decide, you may see:

  • silence, the group is not speaking
  • limited support for new ideas as they arise, the group doesn’t know what it believes
  • stilted dialogue, the group is uncertain of safety and is feeling cautious
  • an absence of insight, the group can’t decide what something means
  • different perspectives are not acknowledged, the group hasn’t decided to support each other

A struggling group is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it may
be a necessary thing. 

Bruce Tuckmans article Developmental Sequence for Small Groups  defined a the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model that many of us are familiar with. At the heart of this model is an acknowledgement group development follows a cycle and takes time. Groups go through four distinctly different phases characterized by different behaviours and challenges.

That groups struggle is necessary and to some degree unavoidable. Importantly, if even one member of a group should change, you start over. You are back at the forming stage.

Step 2: Self reflection

This is a small but important step as the meeting leader. How are you feeling about what is happening in the room? How important is it that the group resolve their roadblock right away? Do they have time to resolve it?

Take a quick breath to understand how you are reacting to what you are seeing first, before you jump to diagnosis.

Step 3: Diagnosis

Why are the observed behaviours happening?  What do you think is a root cause?  What might some contributing factors? A bit of dispassionate analysis is needed. This is often where a third party facilitator has an advantage as they don’t have a lot of pre-conceived ideas.

  • Is there an overweighting of a single thinking style?
  • Is the group newly formed?
  • Has there been a change in the membership of the group?
  • Is the topic of discussion relatively unfamiliar?
  • Are trust levels within the room low?
  • Are there ‘factions’ within the room?
  • Are there ‘elephants’ wandering freely in the room?
  • Is this a ‘hostage-like’ scenario?

Intervention can be simple.

Step 4:  Intervention

As a meeting leader – there are things you can do to address the dynamics that you see happening. You have to decide on the degree of intervention that is needed. Intervention can be quite simple.

In the case of an overweighting of a single thinking style (which is common when you deal with departmental groups), add diversity. Bring others, into the discussion, who will offer a different perspective which can be beneficial in unblocking a group. Alternatively, plan your meeting activity so as to stimulate an alternate thinking style. A common approach with technical groups who tend to be quite analytic (left brained) is to have them work with images, which stimulate the more holistic, pattern thinking right brain.  (see Too Much Left Brain )

Often, I work with newly assembled groups. As an example, a board of directors has turned over and is quite new, but open to working together. Their limited familiarity causes them to be cautious and reserved. Their group dynamic is as yet, undeveloped. They are forming.

This is the easiest problem to solve. Spend time on activities which will increase familiarity such as personal story telling and small group work or fun exercises. Have the group define its primary purpose. Maintain a supportive environment and encourage articulation of thoughts. In my experience these groups become much more comfortable over the course of a single day. Be aware that a similar process is necessary when new members join an existing group.

New topics are an interesting dilemma for groups. The topic is often the reason for bringing them together, but the topic may be quite different, unfamiliar or uncomfortable and causes the group to act accordingly. In this scenario it is important to give a healthy quantity of time to the topic itself. Increase the amount of time spent the group spends on reviewing facts, reflecting on the topic and exploring meaning before moving to decision. Often groups are pushed towards decision too quickly in these scenarios and find themselves resistant. Time spent exploring the topic will improve decision making.

An untrusting dynamic is more complicated to resolve and will take more time. A good starting point may be to clarify the purpose of the group. Have the group articulate their issues and focus on ideas. Acknowledge and reflect the experiences of the group. What has happened before? Encourage transparency of thinking. What did they mean when they said that? Ask group members to state their reasoning and intent when they speak to reduce the risk of further misunderstandings. Maintain an open and supportive environment. Adoption of this form of dialogue may allow you to get to a decision. Turning this dynamic on a permanent basis is a longer term proposition and a more complicated intervention.

In the case of factions in a room, where the camp is obviously divided, decision making becomes elusive because the factions may be supporting a specific position. In this scenario, it is necessary to define the problem and define the common interest of the group. Focus on establishing options, establish decision criteria and then move towards decision making. A deeply divided group has a host of issues that take time to overcome.  This may be the most complicated intervention and require more than one conversation to get to a result.

When there is an elephant wandering freely in the room, suspend your planned agenda and deal with the elephant. Good decisions can not be made with a large, unresolved issue.

In the case of a room full of ‘hostages’ – people who would rather be anywhere but here, find out what would be a useful outcome to them. If there’s nothing in sight for them, let them leave the room. They do not want to be a part of the process and won’t help you get to a good decision.

Ask the group what it needs. 

Last and perhaps most important, ask the group what it needs to resolve its struggle. Ask  what would be helpful to the group at this point in their struggles. Sometimes groups will ask for more think time, or more discussion time, more facts, more structure, or better decision criteria. When in doubt – ask the group.

It’s important to remember that not all struggle is bad. In fact, struggle is often needed to come to a common understanding or agreement on a topic.

Some of the benefits of a struggle during the decision process include: 

  • increased group cohesion
  • increased commitment to outcome
  • increased likelihood that important topics are coming to the surface
  • areas for additional discussion are exposed

As the leader of a group meeting, your role is to create a healthy process for decision making. The group’s job is to get the decision made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What does hearing look like?

January 2016

When I’m working with groups, I am always watching to see whether they are listening, and more importantly how they are listening to each other. Do they actually hear what each other has to say? After all, the whole point of a facilitated session is to ensure that people share, listen and learn from each other.

From a physical perspective, listening appears to happen when:

  • someone looks directly at the speaker
  • notes are being taken while someone is talking
  • body language is forward and attentive (e.g. leaning toward the speaker, head nodding)

Any school teacher or professional trainer will tell you that the physical signs of listening can be misleading. For example,

  • I am looking at the speaker, but thinking about about how tight my belt feel today
  • I am taking notes, but really I am preparing my grocery list
  • I am leaning forward and nodding my head, but I’m doing this to keep myself awake.

While I’m watching for the physical signs of listening, it is crucially more important to look for the evidence of listening, which is hearing.  We all know what it looks like when hearing doesn’t happen. Think back to a presentation you attended, your last project kick off meeting, or a vendor sales pitch! A failure to hear looks like:

  • ‘umm, can you repeat the question’
  • non-sequiturs: responses feel like they are disconnected from previous commentary
  • people speak in vague, unspecific terms
  • or worse… ‘deer in headlights’ … stunned silence

So – what then does good hearing look like? What is the evidence that hearing is taking place?

Hearing can be observed when:

  • clarifying questions are asked of a speaker
  • objections are raised to what was said and in context of how it was said
  • the speakers comments are restated or rephrased
  • a response was provided that was directly connected to what was said
  • additional insight was added to the previous level of insight

When I work with a group, the evidence that they have moved from a more passive (or physical) level of listening to an active level of hearing becomes obvious when they seek to clarify statements; when they identify underlying assumptions and when they challenge the assumptions of others. This can create conflict, but as long as the group continues to hear what each other says, they move beyond conflict towards resolution.

When groups start to build on each other’s ideas, hearing is actively at play. It sounds like:

“I liked what you said when… and if we did also did this then…. we’d accomplish what … said”. 

I work with a small management team that doesn’t always agree with each other. What I really appreciate about this team is that they actively hear each other. They demonstrate their hearing when they genuinely seek clarification from each other; they openly disagree with each other and more importantly state why they disagree with each other. Once the source of disagreement is understood, then they start building resolution by referencing statements that they have said earlier and begin to stitch together a go forward approach. This management team has well developed conflict resolution skills and their number one asset is their capacity for hearing each other.

When I am working with a group – large or small and I see these moments of hearing, I feel that anything is possible. These are the little moments that feel like big wins in a facilitated discussion.

When was the last time you observed it in action?

What I believe to be true…

“I’ve been asked to speak on work-life balance at a women’s leadership conference”, said a friend of mine.

In my blunt fashion I said, “Good lord – why are we still asking professional women this question? Why do we assume that women, who are powerful and competent, need answers to this question? How often do we ask men this question?”

Image governs behaviour

In 1956, Kenneth Boulding wrote a book called The Image. In it, he wrote that our behaviours are a reflection of the images that we hold of ourselves. In his words “…what I believe to be true; my subjective knowledge. It is this image that largely governs my behaviour“.  

As events occur, they alter our images and as our image alters we alter our behaviour accordingly. Images are built up as a result of our past experiences. They can be deeply ingrained and are held in place by the messages that reach it. “The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image“.  When a message hits an image – it can be rejected; it can add to the image or bolster the image; it can clarify the image; or it can intrude on the image, catalyzing some kind of change, even a revolutionary change. When this revolutionary change happens the image may be re-organized. 

The key element of how the message is received and how it impacts the image is the value screen that a message must pass through. In Boulding’s words “the values are perhaps the most important single element determining the effect of messages on its image”

I was reminded of this model the other day when I realized that if really DO want to be 10 pounds lighter, then my image needs to shift to that of a person who IS 10 pounds lighter (the revolutionary change). I need to filter the allure of the pumpkin scone through a value filter that says “skinny people don’t eat pumpkin scones”.  Then I will triumphantly turn up my nose at said scone. 

If we accept this model, then maybe the question we need to ask professional women is:  “What is the underlying image that we hold, that makes us think we need to keep answering this question? What messages are we receiving that say we don’t know the answer? What values are we filtering our perceptions of work/life balance through?”

 I think this would spark a far more interesting conversation.  

Facilitation for image shift

When facilitators work with groups, they often work within the framework of image shift. A group wants a certain outcome – so what needs to shift, in order to achieve the outcome? If a group wants to be a high performing team – what image do they hold of themselves? What messages are reinforcing the current image, and what values are these messages being filtered through? What are the resulting behaviours? How do these aspects of the image model need to shift to move the group towards its aspirational state? What are the underlying contradictions preventing this shift? 

These are fascinating conversations that groups must navigate as they shift from their current state towards the desired, future state.

Facilitation is an enabling process.