Ahem, we need to talk: How to prep for difficult conversations

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In the movie, Up in ­­­­­­the Air, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) makes a living as a corporate axe man, doing the deed that local managers don’t want to do. He thrives off of the lack of connection to anyone or any place, jets from city to city as a “career transition counsellor” and seemingly heartless when fired employees cry, get angry or even threaten to harm themselves.

As a manager, you don’t want to be in the role of Ryan Bingham – ever.

Many of us as managers and leaders have had to do the uncomfortable work of giving negative feedback, rejecting an idea – or, in the worse cases, dismissal.

Difficult conversations are a reality in the workplace and it’s a skill you can hone. You might even find the tactics you learn useful elsewhere in your life, as a parent guiding social media-entranced teenagers or dealing with a cranky neighbour.

My philosophy is that it doesn’t have to be painful for you or the person you’re talking to, if you follow some simple advice and use the tips I’ve learned from years of experience as a professional facilitator.

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Shed your protective armour

Getting mentally prepared is the first step. The last thing you want is to be tossing and turning all night in the days leading up to the conversation, ruminating on what you’re going to say. (Although, you may still anyway.) But take the time to get your head into a place and be clear about what is important to you and what you would like to accomplish. Put yourself in the position of the employee. Think about what may be going on with them, what are their perspectives, values and intentions?

This involves casting off your defensive emotional armour that helps us justify our actions. If you go in like an armadillo, it is not a constructive starting position.

Your job as a leader is to be compassionate and generous and walk into that meeting with an open mind and a real sense of curiosity. You may think you have all the answers, but you don’t. What does it mean to go in curious? It means you will have to challenge your assumptions and biases – something all of us have.  Your job is to be non-judgmental and impartial.

Like the author Stephen R. Covey said, “We judge ourselves by our intentions – and others by their actions.”

Put aside your assumptions and judgments

Writing down your observations but not characterizing them is a good first step for preparing yourself to be judgment-free. A statement like this, “I noticed you were on your phone a lot in the meeting yesterday and left the room twice,” is preferable to “You were disengaged at the meeting yesterday…” In the second scenario you are issuing a judgement (disengaged) of what you observed vs. sharing objective facts (you were on your phone, you left the room twice).

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If you can remove the blame-game language, it will go a long way towards diffusing emotions and ‘judge-iness.’ The goal is to give the person a sense of safety by laying out why you’re having the conversation and what you hope to achieve from it.

When I’m in facilitator mode with a room full of people, you might hear “ I am hearing more conversations, I notice that you are no longer writing.” I am sharing what I see and hear, but not my internal assessment of those behaviours and so the room remains judgment free.

Pay attention to the safety of the conversation.  As a facilitator, I am very aware of ‘room safety.’ By that, I don’t mean physical space, but rather the degree to which participants feel that what they say is received with compassion and consideration.  Your job is not to admonish and criticize and, if it is, don’t bother. Your goal is to allow the person to have influence over the conversation, by saying, “I really want to understand your perspective.”

Don’t fear emotions 

There are myriad of hard conversations you might find yourself in, including the performance review, or having to give negative or uncomfortable feedback. Yes, any of these tete-a-tetes can go sideways. But that’s usually because the situation has been allowed to go on for too long without being addressed. The employee probably already feels alienated, unheard, frustrated or apathetic.

In these cases, you really have to spend time unpacking emotional responses, which frankly terrifies most people in the workplace.

But learning how to ask the right questions, without judgment, is the place to start. How you ask the questions are key:  What about this frustrates you? or What makes you angry? And then let the response come to the surface.

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Be prepared to sit in the goo

When they don’t feel heard they can become angry or disengaged. Oddly, the person who talks all the time often feels unheard. Acknowledge the emotion by repeating back to them what you’ve heard them say. They need to know that you are hearing what they are upset about. They need to know you understand their pain, frustration and anger, by giving them their words back to them. This is when people become their real selves, and allows them to release their emotions.

If issues have been left unattended for awhile – be prepared to sit in the goo for awhile. Avoid justifying a circumstance – just listen. Then you can shift to the question: What do you need, what would help this?

Phew, that wasn’t hard at all.

Then you can get unstuck and move on to the possibilities for resolution.

You don’t have to have all the answers

It’s at this point that leaders make the common mistake of having the ready solution. Stop yourself right there. Rather, you should be asking the person, what does success look like for you or what do you want to happen next? This gives them the opportunity to process and interpret their own needs – not having you hand them the answers in a giftbox with a bow on top.

But, keep in mind once you have the solutions, your job still isn’t over.

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Listening = kindness and civility

Wrap up the conversation with an agreement on follow-up steps. Again, this is about you asking decisional questions : What steps can you take, what support do you need and when should we meet next? This makes the person part of the solution, restoring agency to them to design the right solution. Let them figure it out.

Don’t be a Ryan Bingham, armoured up. When we take a more open tack, we can be pleasantly surprised how things can turn out. Just listening to someone is a tremendous act of civility and kindness.

I really like that leading role.

Five strategies for having difficult conversations

  • Approach the conversation with curiosity.
  • Abandon your list of why you are right.
  • Ask open and curious questions. (If you can add, “you idiot at the end of your comment,” it’s neither open nor curious.
  • Assume you don’t know everything.
  • Pay attention to the safety of the conversation. Create the conditions for safety with your behaviours (e.g. active listening) and the physical environment. Thinking about where you have the meeting, sends a message of safety.
  • Ask the person involved for suggestions on how we resolve the circumstance and situation. This gives the person agency to help come to a solution.
  • Be prepared to check in following the conversation.

Have you got a difficult conversation with a group that you need to have? Contact me here.

Resources and reading

Here’s a link to a recent interview on this topic.

Mastering Civility – Susan Porath.

I am loving this book! Susan Porath outlines what incivility is costing leaders and organizations and what to do about it.  Along with being a super interesting read, it offers suggestions for a healthier, happier, more productive workplace, better relationships and results. It’s fun to take the ‘how civil are you’ self assessment!

Give and Take – Adam Grant

This is an interesting listen (I love audible)

It has been assumed that the individual drivers of success and passion, hard work, talent, and luck are unquestionable. In our modern context, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. It turns out that at work, most people operate as either takers, matchers, or givers. Takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly. Givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. While this might sound debilitating – it is fascinating to discover how givers are so successful, and what it means to be a giver. If nothing else – you’ll think about pro-bono work, volunteer time and lending ‘your stuff’ differently.

Nonviolent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg

I recommend this book often and refer to it frequently. The nonviolent communication model, at its core, is the model I use as a facilitator.  It is simple and incredibly effective in tense and difficult situations. Absolutely worth the time.

How to boost your influence magic at work

“We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.” – Daniel Kahneman, Author, Psychologist

When I ask people what they think it means to influence a person or group, I’ve occasionally heard this answer: “Winning them over to my ideas.”

BZZZZT. They would be wrong.

It’s a common misconception that the art of influencing means getting your own way or bulldozing people into accepting your ideas. I typically only see such attitudes in leaders who are, shall we say, self-absorbed or not really all that self-aware.

Good leaders – the type of people who have polished their self-awareness with experience – don’t walk into a room expecting the team to nod and agree. Is there really any satisfaction in that anyway?

Savvy leaders are more concerned with listening, getting to a shared understanding and building consensus instead of the ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ route.

Make listening well key to your leadership style

It’s true that it is part of human nature to try to influence other people and persuade them that we are right. (Yes, I’ve been guilty of that.) Everyone does it and it can feel really good – for about 10 seconds.

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Photo: Mihai Surdu

But when we have listened well and heard well, we are rewarded. Good leaders get that. It’s the suspension of having to own something long enough to have heard what someone has to say. I know that sitting and listening is tough to do because it takes more effort to hold judgment at bay, there are just so many thoughts tumbling around in our heads.

You’re probably thinking, but that’s just not my style. But being a good leader transcends all types of people. I believe everyone has the capability to listen well; it just takes practice and thoughtfulness.

‘Quiet leadership is not an oxymoron’

I was recently on the teaching team for a six-day course.  One of our students was a self-confessed introvert. True to type, he tended to be quiet in group situations. Also, true to type, he was thoughtful.

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Photo: Trung Thanh

While it seemed that he was processing (taking notes, looking at people who were speaking) the teaching team had some concern about whether we were creating enough space for his participation.  Happily, he didn’t disappoint – when he spoke, he had the full attention of the room and significant influence by virtue of listening well and offering deeply thoughtful contributions.

Extroverts tend to ‘think out loud,’ giving the impression of listening less. But studies also show that leaders who spend more time listening than talking are regarded as more effective.

In my experience as a professional facilitator, I’ve learned that one personality style is not better than the other. We can all do this to get to a place of more holistic conversations.

Listen up: Influencing dos and don’ts

Don’t – Repeat a statement again and again. I call that the I’m-going-to-hound-you-until-you-agree approach. (This is also how children get puppies).

Do – Be more collaborative. Learn to listen well and grasp different threads of what people are saying. Then put them together to make a connection between different points of view.

Do – Acknowledge differing points of view.

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Photo: Jason Rosewell

Don’t – Talk over people. It is a no-no, and so is saying ‘Yes, but…’

Do – Say ‘Yes and…’ It’s much more powerful and shows you are knitting together ideas.

Don’t – Invalidate someone’s comment with ‘I already said that…’

Do – Acknowledge pain or emotion because you’ll be seen as validating a person’s feelings.

Some of this may sound daunting. But in the realm of influencing you are better to be seen as the leader who says, ‘I thought I had the answer when I came in, but I see I did not.’ You show your human side, as a person who is able to challenge their own biases and shift their thinking.

Now that’s a satisfying feeling and one that will have your team giving you respect in a whole new way.

Close the listening loop

Another strategy you can consider as a leader to increase your influence is to wrap up a lengthier meeting or discussion with a short, reflective set of questions, such as:

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  1. What stood out for you today as a result of our conversation? You might get some eye-opening responses.
  2. What did you like or dislike about this session? If you ask this, be prepared for some honesty.
  3. What new insights did we take away?
  4. What is different now than before we met?

These four questions will get you to see the power of thoughtful conversations and understand – in the moment – how your group is thinking when they go back to their desks. After all, influencing is not a one-way street but a shared space of consultation and collaboration.

Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

Update: Here’s what happened!

June 6, 2019 – Thanks to those of you who weighed in on social media and offered thoughts based on your own experience to this post.

I wanted to make sure I delivered an update to close the loop and share a pretty interesting lesson learned – one I wasn’t expecting from this situation.

Normally, in my work, if a group is searching for a way forward, I would recommend some sort of consensus-based solution which sometimes feels like a compromise. In this case, as I write below in my original post, my own advice probably would have been to get both people to try and find common ground and act in good faith as they both moved more closely toward it.

In fact, in this scenario neither I nor my fellow consultant had to really give anything up or change the way we do things.

Instead, we just worked hard to keep our sections separate and define our scope and goals for the audience. I think the saving grace really was that we had discussed it beforehand and realized that the value, outcome and skills we were offering to the client were different.

So, we told them that! The consultant explained she was there to review and aggregate data, draw out insights and offer advice from her lens of experience. I explained that I was there to help the group explore the content, discern patterns, generate insight and draw their own conclusions.

Together they determined their next steps.

christin-hume-482925-unsplashThe consultant and I kept our sections separate and never interfered or interjected during each other’s activity – knowing it could confuse the crowd if we did.

We both had plenty of time to work with the group, and the client’s support, to let our skills shine. And, it turned out to be a great pair of workshops – for all involved.

Overall, the client was happy we were able to accomplish separately for her what she needed us to do.

What would you have done in this situation? Feel free to tell me in the comments below.

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.

The importance of Interpretive thinking: Here’s how to dig deep while still staying on track

You been waiting patiently for me to uncover this next level of thinking. It’s familiar and comes easily to most groups. The only problem is, once you let the checkered flag fly on Interpretative thinking, it can be a little to easy to get stuck in an endless loop of synthesis.

Let’s explore how to make the most out of your Interpretive thinking – without running out of fuel before the finish line.

What does the Interpretive level entail?

By this point, you’ve collected a good amount of factual and intuitive information at the Objective and Reflective level of thinking. Without these information-gathering phases, you won’t have all the details you need to start digging deeper into the issues.

And that’s what this level of thinking is all about: connecting the dots between all the information you’ve gathered so far, and discovering the deeper insights. Now is the time to ask the group what it all means.

This is where you start considering the broader implications of the topic or project in questions and its potential impacts, significance and purpose.

You’ve determined X and Y to be relevant, and now you have to ask yourselves aloud, “So what?”

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This is the last stop before you start making decisions, making it critical in the sequence.

How can it benefit my group or team of stakeholders?

During Interpretive level thinking, you will draw out the significance of information you’ve collected so far. When done properly, Interpretive-level discussions ensure all participants are heard, ultimately giving everyone a greater sense of ownership of the final decision you arrive at.

This level should also prevent others from feeling railroaded into agreeing to a certain conclusion, and that together you’ve thought about all the other people and processes that might be impacted by your actions.

The good news is, you should have no problem encouraging a group to dig into these meanings; in fact, it’s a level that people jump to quickly and easily — we’re all well trained to think at the interpretive level.

Sounds great – how could it go wrong?

Picture this.

You’re sitting in a meeting and you just can’t shake the feeling you’ve been here before.

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The same familiar faces, sipping from the same coffee mugs, repeating the same arguments you know you’ve heard before. Is it just you, or were you in this exact same meeting, discussing the exact same topic, last week? And last month? And last quarter.

Nope, it’s not your imagination. Welcome to over-interpretation.

When groups get to this level of thinking, it can be easy to get stuck. And that feels frustrating.

As a professional facilitator, I see this “Groundhog Day” syndrome all the time.

There are further red flags that you have entered interpretative thinking no-man’s-land. Maybe there’s a small handful of loud voices that are dominating all others. Maybe the discussion is superficial, avoiding thoughts on the future impacts of a decision or how other stakeholders will be impacted by a project.scott-van-daalen-7183-unsplash

Maybe one team’s conclusions to race ahead are taken as the final decision – even before the discussion happens. If this is the case, it’s time to act.

Recognize these progress-blockers

You will not move forward productively if you find some of these characteristics repeating themselves. If you do notice one of the following, try and reverse it by broadening the group’s thinking with some structure using  thought-provoking questions. Here’s how.

Conversation killer: Combat it with:
Starting with a foregone conclusion or inserting one into the conversation

(e.g. “We have made a decision to go left – who wants to go left?” “We believe this is the best approach, now what?”)

Broaden the conversation and explore the position by asking the question – what are some other options available to us?  What else might we do?  What are some other considerations?
Intellectualizing or abstracting
(e.g.“We need to live into our values and walk the talk, set an example for the industry, be the change we want to see, aim for 110%”)
Bring these high-minded, noble ideas back down to Earth with practical examples. For example: What does living our values look like? What are some things that we might do? What specifically does setting an example look like?
Judging responses as right or wrong

 

If you have an opinion on what someone else is saying, remove your good/bad judgement and seek to clarify meaning instead. For example, “Tell me more about what is behind your thinking?  What would others think? What would be different about how we might do this now, versus what we have done before?  What could we do to make sure it works this time?”
Not getting different perspectives

 

If the same person is doing the talking for the group, or the same opinions are shared without a wider view, ask for other perspectives. “Is there another perspective” or “I’d like to hear from someone else” or “Put yourself in a different stakeholder’s shoes, what might they think about this and how might the issue be perceived?”
Allowing the loudest voice to provide only one alternative

 

Often the person who is most forceful with their assertations will win an argument, or dominate a discussion without much challenge. This makes the meeting feel more like an announcement (where a decision has already been made) rather than a true debate.

As above, consider it your duty to speak up and offer a counterpoint to this single perspective. Ask for other views in a round robin format – ask each person to share their viewpoint. “What do you think?”

Break the group into smaller groups, ask small groups to share their thinking with each other. Then ask the groups to share what they discussed as a small group. This will help get other voices into the conversation.

 

How do you know your Interpretive level of thinking is going well?
You know you’ve arrived at effective Interpretive thinking when you find people on your team:

  • Discussing implications, impacts, alternatives, consequences of a decision or project
  • Having spirited discussions about these lines of inquiry
  • Pushing into the depths of the topic, the “what ifs” and “what’s next”
  • Thinking about how others are affected
  • Discovering what the broader story means to the group or organization

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When “I level” of thinking is fully explored, people feel like they are looking at the topic comprehensively and really understanding what it means now and what it could mean in the future.

The group feels they have been meaningfully engaged in the conversation, have had opportunity to share their views and feel fully heard. Then, once you move on to the decisional phase, each and every participant is much more likely to support the group’s final outcome.

Good luck with your discussion!

 

 

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

I spent my holidays doing the mundane…

I spent my holidays doing the mundane and am better for it. I’d love to share some deeply philosophical reflection of inner discovery, but so many other people do that so much better than I do.

Instead – let me share the virtue of the mundane.

I did not:

  • go on a hot tropical vacation – since we were having what I called ‘Winnipeg’ Christmas temperatures, that may have been a miss.
  • go skiing – given our “frickin’ freezin'” weather (see above) – that seemed like a smart choice.
  • go to the mall – my teenager daughter successfully covered that base on my behalf (several times).

What I did do…

  1. Read a really enjoyable book.  I dedicated more than one day to couch surfing, eating Christmas treats and reading my book. I read Ken Follet’s “Column of Fire” and thoroughly enjoyed the dive into Elizabethan England religious / political affairs.
  2. I did not get out my pyjamas before noon for the better part of 10 days.  When you are dedicated to a book, it is difficult to see why pyjamas are not part of the picture.
  3. I built an infuriatingly difficult puzzle. Who knew the silly little pug puzzle would be damn difficult? I literally could not move on to anything constructive until I had conquered that ridiculous set of coloured cardboard pieces.
  4. I hosted parties. I love bringing together old friends and new friends, family and interesting people.  So – I hosted a couple of parties – both formal and informal.  I am endlessly grateful to those who trust me enough to show up for my food experiments.
  5. I made beef wellington! I’m not sure if that qualifies as mundane. Butchering a $120 piece of meat to prepare it for it’s to be ‘wellington state’ was angst provoking. Ultimately – delicious and rewarding.
  6. I sent Christmas emails to my friends and family (you know – those people you only connect with 1 or 2 times a year). And in return, I received such wonderful messages back. Sometimes we forget about the real intent and purpose of the holidays.
  7. I finished my Certified ToP Facilitator portfolio.  This was a HUGE amount of work and while not really in the spirit of book and puzzle, could definitely be done in my pyjamas. My assessment will happen very soon and then I will be acknowledged as skilled in the Technology of Participation facilitation methods… my go to method for its ability to enable clear thought.
  8. I cooked new recipes from a new cook book.  Really one of the most fun things to do. Worst case scenario – never cook it again, or put differently, this too shall pass.

And so the point of all this … I had my personal time, my downtime, my regeneration time, and my family and friend times. Honestly – 2017 was just so interesting, unexpected and challenging that a good bout of the mundane was utterly necessary.

And now… I am pretty jazzed about 2018

… and therein lies the virtue of the mundane.

Respect as an Imperative

I have decided to use my Audible account to listen to books that I typically would not read, but would like to read. Audible is a great way to consume those books that can be a challenge for ‘before bed’ readers such as myself. I just finished Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Written in 1936, this book has been a best seller for 80 years. Dale Carnegie courses continue to be widely available.

About once a week, on LinkedIn I see someone reference the research Google conducted which revealed the Five keys to a successful Google team. Item #1 on the list –  psychological safety. Successful groups feel they can take risks without fear of feeling insecure or embarrassment.

A six year study that was released by Harvard Business Review cites the ability to manage conflicting tensions as the most critical predictor of top-team performance. This study showed that teams that debate their ideas have 25% more ideas altogether;  healthy debate is a vital part of their performance.

Recently, I read another HBR article discussing the turnaround at Campell’s (as in soup) due in large part to focusing on a culture which embraced civility and respect.

I found myself thinking about what unites these stories?  What are the underlying connections? I wondered, how did civility and respect become value that needed to be re-discovered?

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While the language at times, in Carnegie’s book makes me cringe (like when he uses the terms housewives and cripples), there are core principles that resonate strongly and feel timeless:

  • Give honest and sincere appreciation
  • Be genuinely interested in others
  • Be a good listener
  • Try honestly to see things from the other’s viewpoint
  • If you’re wrong, admit it

What impact would Carnegie’s principles have on increasing psychological safety, as per Googles findings? If you bring a risky new idea forward and your group is both positive on your work and genuinely interested in what you’ve done – will it enhance psychological safety?

If you describe an intriguing new idea to your colleagues who listens carefully and ask curious questions, will you feel more comfortable bringing new ideas forward? Does it create a climate to generate more, creative new ideas? Will it help you explore your dilemma?

If you are in a disagreement with a colleague but feel that they are genuinely trying to see your viewpoint, will you be more likely to be patient, and curious in return?  Will you be more likely to admit you’re wrong, if you decide that you are? Will you find it easier to seek a mutually beneficial solution?

For me, the answer was yes and that Carnegie’s principles would underly healthy, psychologically safe, group dynamics and that they would enable a successful group dynamic that can exploit conflict for greater creativity.

On election day, lineups at the polls were surprisingly lengthy. A gentleman behind me started grumbling about how the feds and the city couldn’t figure out how to run an election, etc. etc.. My first instinct was to offer the civil but disinterested ‘hmmm’ response. However, since I was fresh off a listen to Carnegie, I decided to engage him.  For thirty minutes I asked genuinely curious questions and listened carefully. I confirmed my understandings and offered him positive affirmation. This seemingly grumpy, former municipal worker, told me with enthusiasm about his work with autistic youth, helping these young people build skills to participate in the workforce. Not an easy job but one that energized him. There was so much more to him than first impressions offered and I found myself deeply admiring this man’s work. 

What is the deeper pattern?  What else unites these stories?

As a facilitator, I operate on a set of working assumptions when I work with groups that look something like this:

  • Everyone has wisdom
  • We need everyone’s wisdom for the wisest results
  • There are no wrong answers
  • Everyone will hear and be heard
  • The whole is greater than the sum of the parts 

I start most workshops with these assumptions. I explain the assumptions to the room in a context that says each of you brings importance, perspective and value to the room that is essential for us to accomplish our goals today.  Without your contributions, we will be less successful.

In this manner, I demonstrate my profound respect for the group.

And there it is… the underlying pattern in these stories – the practice of respect. There was my ‘a ha’ moment.  The dictionary defines respect as: “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”.  It is our ability to withhold judgement and be open to the qualities of others, which in turn creates a different set of opportunities.

Former Campbell’s CEO, Doug Conant says:

“we’ve observed that the best way to truly win the hearts and minds of people, and generate huge returns for the organization and its stakeholders, is by leading with civility.  This means spending a considerable amount of effort acknowledging people’s contributions, listening better, respecting others’, and making people feel valued.

In a worldwide poll of over 20,000 employees, Christine Porath, co-author with Doug Conanof Campbell’s article found that employees who felt respected by their leaders reported 56% better health and well-being, 89% greater enjoyment and satisfaction, 92% greater focus and prioritization, 26% more meaning and significance, and 55% more engagement.

Individuals offer profound diversity, opportunity is presented by their diversity and possibilities are available to us through dissemination and aggregation of diversity. And it is available to us when we create a climate of respect.

It seems that respect is a bit of a secret sauce.

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So I like that – respect as secret sauce.  And I am still left with the question of why do we need to re-discover respect as a value? Why has it become harder to find, a bit more shadowy, and a bit more of surprise when we experience it? Why are we excited to state that employees are happier, more productive and healthier in a respectful climate? Why is it news? The questions feels particularly acute in our current digital, social and political climate.

I don’t really have a answer for this – but I happened to listen to a podcast by Farnam Street with Susan Cain author of “Quiet, the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.”

Cain mentioned that in the course of her research she discovered that self help books in the 19th century focused on character, virtue and integrity and in the 20th century – charisma, likability and magnetism. It seems that the criticality of character gave way to the importance of likability.

I am hypothesizing that in the 20th century we lowered the importance of how we interact with people in favour of how we look like we might interact with people.  The ‘appearance of‘ became more valued than the ‘behaviour of‘. Perhaps it was more camera friendly. Perhaps it was marketable. I’m sure it was far sexier. I’ve heard it said that many of our most venerated leaders would never have made it through the grinder of the modern media circus as they wouldn’t have been ‘charismatic’ enough.

I’d be curious about the perspectives of others and I think it merits a deeper dive.

In the meantime, I am compelled by the imperative of respect and the need to grow respect always, everywhere – to increase civility, our ability to handle conflict, our ability to embrace diversity and our ability to discover creativity…. and ever more humbly, to increase the enjoyability of lining up at the next election.

 

 

 

Bad acts of facilitation

In the last few weeks I have spoken with several people who have shared recent experiences working with a facilitator. In all cases they have said “the facilitator was not very good”. That catches my attention – what are they referring to?  What is happening when the facilitator isn’t very good? 

Complaint #1:  The facilitator had their own agenda. 

The group believed that the facilitator had an agenda and was maneuvering the group towards an already determined outcome. They felt manipulated, that their input was being selectively considered to match a previously determined outcome.

An essential rule – the facilitator must be neutral. The facilitator can not have a pre-defined ‘answer’. The facilitator may speculate on where the group will go for design purposes, but does not know ‘the answer’. Otherwise, the facilitator is perceived to be in collusion with the organizer and the group will not support the result.

Complaint #2:  We didn’t get anything done.

Two days of gruelling meetings coming to a conclusion with no substantive result. The group’s frustration is boiling over due to the inconsiderate waste of their time.

A facilitator must clearly define the outcome for the meeting. To be clear, it is an outcome such as a decision (we will select an option), not a description of the decision to be made (we will decide if option b is right). Facilitators are responsible for getting crystal clear on the desired outcome for the  meeting. This means detailed discovery discussions with the client. Poor discovery leads to poorly defined outcomes and dissatisfied participants.

Complain #3:  The facilitator talked too much.

The facilitator engaged with the discussion, shared opinions and took space away from participants. Participants were frustrated by the inability of the facilitator to ‘stay out of it’.

This is a common complaint when a subject matter expert is asked to lead a meeting. They have expertise, they want to share. A facilitator is content neutral. They do not have a role in content. Their role is to create the conditions for the people in the room to share their wisdom. Instead of hiring the subject matter expert to facilitate, invite them to participate and hire a content neutral facilitator.

Complaint #4:  The process was convoluted.

The facilitator didn’t have a process that was clear or well understood. Participants didn’t know where they were headed, the discussion seemed random.

This might be the most telling indicator of a non-facilitator. Good process is based on an understanding of group dynamics and how people think. The most involved part of event preparation is planning the appropriate group process. A good facilitator designs conversations to keep a group on track and to avoid random acts of dialogue.

Complaint #5: The facilitator was winging it.

The facilitator seemed to be adjusting their plan on the fly and didn’t really seem to know what was to be accomplished.

A good facilitation has iceberg qualities. Only about 10% of the effort it takes to create a good facilitated event is visible. The ‘submerged’ part of the event is the time taken to discover needs and prepare the right process for the group. It is not to say that a facilitator never changes plans mid-event, because that does happen. When course change is needed, a good facilitator discusses the situation with the group and makes change with the input and the consent of the group.

Remember that a facilitator, as defined by Roger Schwarz the leading academic on the subject, is  “a person who is acceptable to all members of the group, substantively neutral and has no decision-making authority, intervenes to help a group improve the way it defines and solves problems in order to increase the group’s effectiveness.”

I feel physical pain when I hear such complaints. To be an excellent facilitator is to embrace the mindset of a facilitator, to deeply understand the role, to have invested in training, to be expert in core methods and to constantly hone skills. Some people have natural talent for facilitation. All talented facilitators have invested in their skills.

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Are you engaging in acts of bad facilitation?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may be guilty of bad facilitation:

  1. Weigh in on content
  2. Offer your opinion on the result
  3. Drive a group towards a specific answer
  4. Love being the centre of attention
  5. Wing it (process, schmocess!)
  6. Can’t explain the underlying methods that you’re using

Are you a thoughtful facilitator?

If you answer yes to these questions, you may be a thoughtful facilitator:

  1. Deep respect for the wisdom of the group
  2. Conscientiously neutral and ensuring there is space for all opinions in the room
  3. Keeper and driver of process
  4. Concerned with achieving desired outcomes
  5. Can discuss with you the details of their process and rationale behind them
  6. Have discuss client needs, group dynamics, needed outputs and event objectives, at length

Need to hire a facilitator?

If you’re hiring one for the first time, look for the following:

  1. Professional certification (through IAF, INIFAC or other)
  2. Have formal training  (Technology of Participation, The Art of Hosting, The Skilled Facilitator, Leadership Strategies)
  3. Adhere to professional ethics (see IAF’s code of ethics)
  4. Engage in continuous professional development

 

Our deepest Self, is a verb

“The Self is a relation, which in relating to itself and willing itself to be itself, is grounded transparently in the power that posits it.”  – Soren Kierkegaard

I have been asked to preview some chapters in a book that a facilitator colleague of mine is writing. She is digging deep into the philosophies underlying the Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methodologies to preserve them for future practitioners and facilitators.

While I am delighted to be asked to take a look at her first draft, I confess to being a bit overwhelmed by their depth and more than a bit intimidated by the intellectual breadth of the philosophers, such as Kierkegaard from whose ideals, ToP methodologies have been developed.

The founding philosophies of ToP point to the intentionality of being self, and the attentionality of examining self. They say that we exist as a being; but our acts of examining ourselves; relating to ourselves and making intentional choices about ourselves are the essential components of being. To be, to examine our being, allows for growth, discovery and evolution.

What this really means is being ourselves is dynamic – our Self is a verb.

To quote the author, “When I reflect on myself, I am standing outside my self-in-the-world looking at myself as I am in the world. I can observe my activities, characteristics and experience and the ways I have been with others. I can see what is happening around me and I can sense my own reactions to the events in my life.” 

As complex as these ideas are, they allowed me to fully understand why we do things the way we do, when we use the ToP facilitation methods. One of our go to techniques is the brainstorm, where we ask people to generate ideas, and then we put those ideas, one by one, on a wall. Next we examine the ideas, individually and in relationship to other ideas.

Individual brainstorm ideas

This act of removing an idea from its origins and examining it relation to other ideas allows us to step away from our assumptions around that idea which creates space for something new to emerge. We have actively related our ideas to themselves.

In so doing, we end up with new relationships, new interpretations and an evolved understanding. Our initial idea became a verb and turned into something else.

New interpretation of existing ideas

On a more practical level, if, while I am in the middle of a heated discussion with a colleague, I am able to observe my behaviour and understand my feelings, and I can create a new understanding of my actions (my self, relating to itself) and recognize that I don’t want to antagonize my colleague, I can choose a different approach (and willing itself to be itself). In this manner, I can find a new interpretation of my colleague’s actions which will lead me to a different outcome.

A current term for self reflection is mindfulness, the movement, appropriated from ancient Buddhist roots. The practice of mindfulness involves being aware moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective. In other words, relating self to itself. Mindfulness has gained popularity as a method to handle emotions, by observing and becoming aware of those emotions.

According to Wikipedia “…studies have shown that mindfulness meditation contributes to a more coherent and healthy sense of self and identity”.

Mindfulness also has a relationship to emotional intelligence which says our emotions are part of our social operating system and our first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent is to be aware of our emotions and our relationship with those emotions. Once we have some awareness we can start to work our emotional skills and become more emotionally intelligent.

I’m certainly not an expert on the subject of mindfulness or emotional intelligence, but the relationship between the philosophies which underpin ToP facilitation methods and what we call mindfulness and emotional intelligence appear strongly related to me.

All of this is a long way to say, without this deeper understanding of the underlying philosophy or why the ToP method requires a specific process, it is easy to write the methods off as overly process centric. It is also easy for anyone to think they can run with them after a brief exposure. The reality is that ToP methods require study, practice and reflection in order for a practitioner or facilitator to become highly effective.

Experienced ToP practitioners will tell you that ToP facilitation methods are their go to methods, that very little rivals their effectiveness. Now that I have a deeper understanding of the philosophies, I am ever more committed to my go to methods.

Full disclosure, I am trained by ICA Associates in Canada on ToP methods and find myself wholly absorbed by their depth.  ICA Associates is Canada’s only trainer of ToP methods

 

 

 

 

 

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.