Dialogue, Discussion and Debate: Why you need to know the difference

Amy and Jack were ready to take their small software company to the next level after two years in business, so they set up a meeting with staff to plot strategy.

The meeting was meant to be an exchange of ideas, but the business partners went in with preconceived notions about what should be done. As a result, what should have been a creative open dialogue turned into a debate.

Amy and Jack’s missed opportunity with staff is typical of what can happen in the workplace when we enter into discussions as though we’re trying to win an argument, rather than collaborating towards a solution. When we aim for authentic dialogue, the process may take a little longer, but the results are much more meaningful.

Debate and discussion are common forms of communication in deadline-driven workplaces, but it is dialogue that can often lead to the breakthrough insights that can move your organization ahead.

Let’s define the three Ds:

Discussion: We often use discussion when we are trying to figure out a problem; we take apart a problem and look at all sides of it before making a decision. (Discussion derives from a Latin term that means to strike asunder or break up.) Discussions can become heated, too, and has been referred to as “debate trying to play nice.”

Debate: No surprise that the word debate comes from a Latin term that means to beat down. In debates, there is a winner and a loser. Communication this way is not about really listening to what someone is saying, but rather proving how much we know and denigrating what your opponent has to say.

Dialogue: And now we come to the type of conversation we rarely have in society these days – dialogue. In dialogue we hear viewpoints, understand differences, and find larger and uniting patterns. Here we come in with no judgment, ready to listen without critiquing and without assumptions. The word is rooted in a Greek term that means “flow of meaning.”

This is what Amy and Jack should have done in their strategic planning meeting.

Gotta-get-it-done mindset

While each of the three Ds has their place in communications, dialogue has become nearly non-existent, even a foreign concept to us. Why? I chalk it up, in part, to the fact that we live in a super-urgent world. We want what we want fast and convenient. We prefer cryptic texts to phone call, we ask our staff to bring solutions, not problems, we schedule meetings in 15-minute increments. We are unwilling to invest time to explore an issue in depth.

I see such impatience in my dealings with some clients. I’ve been asked for outcome guarantees at minute four of a three hour workshop. They want a strategic plan, actions, and measurables in six hours. Sure, it can be done, but what have we missed along the way? We miss the chance to really listen to each other, to deeply understand another’s perspective, to see a larger pattern, a more cohesive whole and possibly a different way – the strength of dialogue.

In our haste to be right, we have lost the ability to have dialogue. Instead, we are polarized – me against you. We seem to be more comfortable with openly disagreeing than we do seeking a deeper understanding.

There is often a willingness to want to talk, but not a lot of skills of how to talk.

How did we get here?

We live in a world that is increasingly complex, due in large part to the breathtaking evolution of technology. Our daily intake of information often includes swiping through headlines or breaking news alerts, engaging with people on Twitter in 280 characters or by dashed off text message. Yes, we can go deep on bits and pieces of information, but we are not getting the big picture.

Organizations address complexity by creating units, divisions, functions, department and teams. The lower one goes into an organization the deeper one delves into a piece of the organization.  And so fragmentation – whether in the information we consume or the breadth of exposure we have to the organization is a significant contributor to our inability to have dialogue. To see the whole picture takes time and diligence.

Brain games

We humans have been using our fight or flight response for millennia. The part of the brain that controls that emotional response is called the amygdala and it can hijack our emotions before our thought processes can get to the front of the brain for high order thinking. The polarization that we are seeing today is that emotional response causing us to become stuck in this mode. A psychologist friend of mine calls it ‘threat brain’. A consequence of threat brain is that we vigorously defend our position rather than seek to understand someone else’s viewpoint. When we are defending, we are in debate mode and there are only winners and losers.   

A way out of threat brain is self-awareness. Self-awareness acknowledges that I might have judgments, biases and preconceptions that limit my understanding. This is why we are calling on leaders to be more emotionally intelligent, why we promote self-reflection and meditation. They are ways of uncovering assumptions that contribute to threat brain and constrain dialogue.

Take the dialogue challenge

In my role as a facilitator, part of my process when I work with clients is to create conditions for dialogue. I try to take people through the thinking processes, by starting with what they know. It’s so interesting to see how often we all know something different about the same thing.

Then we spend time exploring their uncertainties, experiences, associations and reflections as it relates to what we know. This might take an hour or even a day, but it is so important in preparing the group to explore options, alternatives, analysis and recommendations. In this stage, we are exchanging meanings so that we can move past ‘threat brain’.

For meaning to flow, we must come into dialogue with the willingness to receive information without judgment. We must be curious. We must be patient enough to hear someone else’s meaning. This is tough for modern humans, because we are always drawing on our own past experiences and memories when we listen people and trying to short cut to the end given our urgency and bias towards action.

It’s interesting to note that humans have had social processes such as listening circles, talking circles and healing circles for millennia which have been dedicated to the flow of meaning. Sadly, they’ve been a casualty of our advancing world.

I challenge you the next time you have a conversation, allow your friend, co-worker, husband, or child to speak for two minutes while you simply listen without saying a word. It’s a tough thing to do and may feel awkward at first, but just like any type of activity you want to excel at you have to work at it. You have to work at listening to be good at listening. It’s like building a muscle.

In our fast-paced, agenda-driven world, to broaden your perspective you need to be a purist about dialogue. Do not have an agenda, unplug, put your phone away and slow down. Be curious about what someone is saying and don’t judge, just receive. I guarantee by doing so you will broaden your perspective on so many things.

Dance like no one’s watching: How to spark creativity in a virtual meeting

alice-dietrich-painted hands (1)In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic swept in, we have become accustomed to WFH (working from home). But can we break our deeply rooted face-to-face mindset, and BFH (brainstorm from home), as well? I’m here to tell you, yes!, if you do a little prep work.

At home, you are surrounded by multiple distractions, such as dashing to throw in a load of laundry or seizing the moment on a sunny afternoon to take the dog for a walk.

I get it. People’s time is precious. Some days, you can get away with logging into your Zoom meeting a second before it begins. But that lack of preparation doesn’t work if the goal of the gathering is to do some serious brainstorming and hash out fresh, creative solutions to a problem or new initiative.

When I’m leading a brainstorming session, my first goal is to shift everyone’s mindset from a very focused: ‘I’ve got six things I need to get done before Friday,’ to a more diffuse mode of thinking on the topic at hand.

Break out of the ordinary

When you convene an online meeting, recognize participants have been in another headspace. They might, for example, be still agitated by meeting they’ve just come from or the coffee they just spilled. My goal is to help them let go and create a space for ideas to come in.

I’m no magician, but I have a few tricks that help ‘get them in the mood’. For example, I’ll ask everyone to pick up something from their desk – a pencil, paperweight, or a day-old muffin. Then I ask them: ‘What are three things you can do with this item?’ I’m having fun with the new zoom filters too.  These are simple and fun way to get them to start thinking more creatively.

The goal is to give everyone time to leave their previous mindset and relax into the meeting. Once you’ve got everyone’s attention, you can get to work.

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Powerful online collaboration tools

Mural – Remote meetings big and small are not likely going away any time soon. Check out my last blog on hosting a large virtual meeting here.  In the past few months, I’ve been using Mural. It’s my new favourite go-to collaboration and co-creation tool.

To level the playing field, I let participants know what online tools I’ll be using (and often run and advance practice session), so they can get comfortable with it beforehand. I really like using Mural because it’s so intuitive and is a helpful visual way to tackle a problem. Even my semi-tech savvy Aunt would get it.

This user-friendly web application is like a digital whiteboard. Everything is stored in the Cloud, so it allows people to reference it whenever they need to. It’s great for following up and keeping everyone working towards next steps. Other tools that I’ve used include Google Jamboard and Miro.

In brainstorming, I use it to post questions and get the group into free-form association. They can respond with words, images and icons. This is one of the fun features of the online tools. You can post the questions or statements in advance of the meeting, too, and have them do some advance work, or simply have more time to think.

Lotus Blossom TechniqueIf your team is working through a problem, this structured, visual technique is invaluable for idea sessions. You will end up with 64 ideas! Here’s how it works: A central problem is posed on the middle box, surrounded by eight boxes where themes or pieces of the problem are written. From there, the individual themes are carried onto the other “blossoms” and so on. It helps everyone to amplify on a central idea or issue and really dig down on a problem.

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SCAMPER Method – In his book ThinkerToys, Michael Michalko says that when you look at the behaviours of creative geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, you will find that creators look at ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’.  They don’t spend time on ‘what is not’.

The SCAMPER method encourages ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’ thinking and has been around since the ’70s, but it still stands up as a brilliant method for problem solving and innovating. Ray Kroc of McDonalds fame used this method to help create one of the world’s largest food retailers.

SCAMPER is an acronym for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Another Use, Eliminate and Reverse. A central challenge is posed, and the team examines the problem using these different perspectives.  The group can focus on some or all of the SCAMPER elements. It can be used for everything from how to cut costs to improving customer service to creating a new product.

Michalko developed a SCAMPER card deck called ThinkPak and I’ll often Then we reconvene and see what everyone’s come up with. In an online meeting, you can post images (take a picture) of the cards on a virtual wall in Mural.

Creativity decks are readily available.  I found 75 Tools for Creative Thinking on Amazon. Sneakerfish is another deck that I’ve used and like.

The point is to offer cues to the group to spur creativity.

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GestaltRemember your Psychology 101 classes? Even if you don’t you’ve likely heard of this idea – an organized whole that is seen as more than the sum of its parts – that’s been kicking around since the early 20th century.

Gestalting is a process whereby ideas are visually posted to a wall and then clustered into patterns based on association. These emergent clusters often point to new patterns, generate new insight, or suggest new ‘wholes’ that can be the source of innovation. It overcomes the limitations of a typically linear approach to thinking.

You’ve seen this technique on every Investigative TV show (Carrie Matheson on Homeland is an absolute pro!) where the lead investigator has a wall of pictures, documents, lines and connections through which the investigation is solved as new insight becomes evident. Once again, a tool like Mural is an enabler for the online meeting.

Pro tip:  When doing a gestalt, allow ideas to associate and avoid the reductionist approach of ‘sorting’ and ‘buckets’. Sorting minimizes the opportunity for innovation.

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Game playing – Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas or problem-solving comes at moments when you’re most relaxed, say in the shower or when you’re daydreaming. In these moments, our overworked brains begin processing subconsciously and we can arrive at an ‘a-ha moment’.

Playing a game or taking a break in the middle of your Zoom meeting takes us out of linear mode. It gives our brains a chance to work out a problem. It’s a great technique. Fellow facilitator Tamara Eberle at Traction Strategy has built her entire practice around game playing and fully gameifies her events.

A guided visualization is another great way to help people transition to a more creativity space. Tell everyone to close their eyes and relax and walk them through the idea of, say, eating a piece of chocolate cake. Get them to be in the moment – smell the aroma, feel the texture and the intense flavours and to think about how they are feeling.

And if you thought that idea was out there, try this one some time – a Zoom dance party. Have your song list at the ready (Happy by Pharrell or Super Freak by Rick James come to mind). Tell everyone ‘Screens off’ and go for it. By song’s end, and screens on, everyone will have that post-dance floor glow.

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Practice creativity. Here’s an interesting idea, creativity is a practice.  It’s not an automatic skill. It is possible to build creative muscle through practice. Have routine brainstorm sessions. Try different techniques. Try different times of day. Apply techniques often and without any kind of judgement.  Actively practice.

Common creativity killers

There are so many things that can quash creativity in a meeting:

  • When people come into a meeting and say, ‘I’m not creative.’ (And people often feel that way). Being creative isn’t wild, it’s just bouncing around ideas to see what else comes up.
  • Very early judgment of an idea. You have to suspend that judgment so people feel comfortable putting forward ideas. Remember, you’re not doing a reality check at the moment, you’re just in a generative mode.
  • Inflexible hierarchies easily inhibit the creative process. That person from another department in the organization with the potentially brilliant comment or idea may feel too intimidated to speak up.
  • When a group isn’t sure they can talk freely. Before brainstorming really takes off, the group needs to know they are free to talk. Room safety needs to be addressed.  For example, I had a client who brought a diverse group together who did not have a relationship with each other. They were not ready to get creative together. Not having this information made my job a lot tougher.
  • The need to come up with a creative idea doesn’t happen in 30 minutes. This will take longer. Make sure you leave plenty of time for the brainstorming process to take hold. As Albert Einstein famously said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
  • And finally, one thing we should all know by now – everyone’s camera MUST be on. A lack of a visual in the virtual world of meetings is a non-starter.

So, go on, get virtually creative. Have that dance party with your remote office mates and dance like nobody’s watching. The screen is off, after all. You’ll be amazed – not at silly you might feel – but at how the creative juices will start flowing.

20 secrets to mastering a large virtual meeting

large virtual meetings - mainVirtual meetings have become a fact of our work lives in the Covid-19 era. As a facilitator, I’m learning so many things about this fairly new-to-me medium and feel I’m really starting to get a handle on it.

Until now, the largest virtual meeting I’ve facilitated has been for around 18 people. Next week, I’m making a big leap, and will be hosting two meeting for about 68 people using Zoom. They are a group of stakeholders in a fledgling industry who are preparing to launch an industry network to share research, learnings and technology. Many of them are strangers to each other.

The purpose of the consultation-style meeting is to get input from the attendees on a draft proposed vision of the network. The organizers have already done a lot of aspirational thinking and had conversations about its goals and purpose. We want to present their ‘first draft thinking’ to the participants and give them opportunity to weigh in during the planned three-hour meetings .

I’m feeling confident that the meeting will go well , because during the past few months I’ve learned what makes a successful virtual meeting, especially one of this size:

  • Getting everyone engaged quickly
  • Inspiring great conversations
  • Optimizing the flow of the meeting
  • Keeping the meeting within the planned time frame
  • Ensuring everyone’s tech is working.

It sounds like a tall order for a virtual meeting room, but I’ve discovered a lot of tips and tricks that I’d like to share with you for when you’re feeling brave enough to host a big group meeting.

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What’s in my toolbox?

  • Ask for help! I’ve decided to up the production quality of the event and so I’ve determined that I will need two co-facilitators, one who is purely technical operating the broadcast components and assist with technical issues, and hybrid helper who will operate the zoom platform,. This is essential!
  • We’ll set up a contingency communication channel that is external to the meeting as well. This is necessary in case a participant is bounced out of a meeting room or is struggling with meeting access. It’s also helpful when participants need something in a breakout rooms because the chat is not persistent between main rooms and breakout rooms. This will be published to participants in advance and again during the meeting.  For help, text xxx xxx xxxx
  • Zoom will be our platform, which has the superpower of breakout chat rooms. It can manage up to 50 chat rooms, more than enough for our 68-person meeting. Everyone will be assigned to a break out room, allowing for smaller group conversations which we will ladder up from 2 to 4 to 8 over the course of the three-hour meeting.
  • We’ll also be using another Zoom superpower, which is the ability to pre-set a countdown timer for how long each of the breakout chats can last. (Find this under the option menu when setting up breakout rooms. Then people will be automatically re-assigned to another breakout room for further discussion with new faces. This was an important experiential objective of our meeting, that stakeholders would have an opportunity to meet peers and make connections.
  • Google slides are your friend. This is an easy-to-use data collection tool because everyone knows how to type on a document. And because I can’t eavesdrop on rooms (dropping into a breakout room is quite disruptive), using Google slides allows me to see the progress of all the groups in real time. We’ll use a Google form for participants to fill out if they’re willing to continue to stay involved with this network.
  • We will also make our client sponsors co-hosts. This will allow them to move between breakout rooms so they can participate in small room conversations according to their preferences.
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Art of virtual engagement

Because we are not face to face, here are some essentials for the meeting to be a success:

  • Cameras must be ON – you need to see faces.
  • Be clear about the purpose of the meeting and realistic about the tangible outcomes.
  • Get people engaging quickly – this is where breakout rooms are so powerful. I encourage people to use chat box, either one to one or one to many. These alternate channels really help, even if I can’t see them all. For example, I’ll be using the online platform, Mentimeter, which has a Iive polling tool. You simply go to the link in a browser, get a six-digit code and can ask participants a question, such as an icebreaker: “What do you like to be called?” which generates a word cloud and is quite fun. (Thanks to Martin Gilbraith for that tip!) This is a simple way to get instant engagement.
  • I will also create in meeting polls to ‘take the temperature’ of the group on the ideas presented.
  • Get a little personal. Because people are working in their homes or apartments, ask them to bring something personal to share with everyone – the kid, the cat or the dog. I’ve done this before, and it really personalizes and livens up the experience. Or, ask them to grab something close by that relates to what we’re talking about.
  • You will not know the technological capabilities of the attendees and though there will be a range, it’s wise to assume lower capability. You’ll no doubt get a few, “I clicked on this link, but it didn’t work!!” (Pro Tip:  Make sure you have a public link for your google docs!)
  • Strip out complexity. I’ve learned that in virtual meetings you need to take it down to the basics. I will replace a lot of ‘large room’ conversations with small-group conversations. This helps with maximum sharing capability.
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Other dos and don’ts

DO – Send meeting reminders with meeting links 1 – 2 hours before a meeting starts.

DO – Open the meeting early so you can test audio and video. We will be opening an hour early to catch any potential problems. It’s also a good idea for the facilitators to do a dry run.

DO – Be fastidious about timing, ensuring the meeting starts and ends on time. Have a timed agenda and be sure to build in transition time between activities and chats. And, be sure to send the meeting link out ahead of time.

DO – Be crisp and clear. Use verbal instructions and screen-sharing written instructions when you are asking people to do something, such as a task or assignment. Copy the instructions into the chat box so they persist into the breakout rooms.

DO – Ensure that you pattern the meeting to build safety and capacity for people to talk with each other. For example, I will say, I’m going to give you something to think about and then pair off people to talk about the topic.

DO – Be thoughtful about the conversations you’ll have in the larger room.

DO –  Be clear with your co-facilitators about exactly who is doing what. Who will share the file link? Who will admit participants? Who will monitor the chat box? Who will share screens? Etc.  It makes for a MUCH smoother meeting experience.

DON’T – Bite off more than you can chew, putting too much process into the stages of the meeting and trying to cram in too much information and expectations.

DON’T – Use new technology you haven’t tried out ahead of time. Nobody needs to experience that.

DON’T – Be in intransigent mode, lecturing for hours. People will just shut down.

DON’T – Forget to give people breaks.

And finally – be sure that you have thought about how you will follow up with participants and that your participants are clear about how they might follow up with you. We plan to send them the documents they generate in the workshop immediately following the workshop. The contact information that we will collect in the Google form is immediately delivered to the client.  We will also collect a bit of meeting feedback too!

Bottom line, conduct your meeting like the professional that you are and you’ll be rewarded with the satisfaction of nailing this new world of workplace meetings.

Virtual meetings and Coronavirus: We need tech know-how but also compassion

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Who would have thought just four short weeks ago, a majority of us would be hunkered down working from home? But in this once-in-100-year pandemic, this is our new normal.

So just how do we navigate this new work world and remain productive? It’s not ‘rocket science.’ We do have the technology, and everyone is learning to roll with it, from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders who are conducting virtual meetings, locally, nationally and internationally.

If your company or organization has little experience with virtual meetings, it will take some keen organizers, a few tech-savvy folks and discipline to keep your workplaces ticking as close to normal as possible.

Most importantly, cut yourself a little slack if you’re new to this.

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Our new reality

I’ve been working from home for five years, so I feel comfortable with it. But now that I have to meet with my clients digitally rather than face to face, I’m experiencing some of the challenges we all face in the coming weeks.

Whereas I once had space to myself, I suddenly have more company in my home office with the kids out of school. I find myself asking my 16-year-old son to vacate our shared space (“ Mooommm!!!”) when I’m about to go into a Zoom meeting or a video conference call.

From a client’s perspective, this will certainly change how I work with them for the foreseeable future. What does that look like? We’ll meet online in shorter, more frequent, chunks and there will be more takeaway work for participants.

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“The more you adapt, the more interesting you are.” – Martha Stewart

We will all have to learn how to adapt and we will evolve as we do so. I’m finding myself doing that every day. This will force us to elevate our remote working game, that’s for sure.

On March 12, I began the first of a four-part series of discussions with a client. On that day, everyone was in the room. It was business as usual.  By March 17, 40% of the group was remote. By the third meeting a few days later, 75% of participants were remote. The final two meetings were larger groups and 100% remote participation.

What were some takeaways?

  1. Virtual meetings require more planning: In addition to typical process planning (establishing objectives, building supporting process), we also need to think about how technology supports and disables.  What tools do we use for co-creation? How will we create breakout groups work when people are both inside and outside of the room? How will groups capture their content?
  2. It takes (at least) 2: It is really important to have someone running the technology – addressing microphone issues, feedback challenges, video cameras, screen shares, poll launches, and breakout rooms.  The other person is managing process, conversation, the chat box and capturing notes. It’s overwhelming for one person to try to everything.
  3. Arrive early: Let participants know the room is open 15 minutes early so you have time to troubleshoot technical issues.  The most common phrase we hear in a virtual meeting is …“can you hear me?”
  4. Use a common platform: In the third meeting, I had voice participation, video participation, and in-room participation. Managing sound and creating breakout rooms is much more complex. I tweeted a comment “hybrid meetings are almost more difficult” and had a flood of responses from facilitators who said, “almost?? no ALWAYS”.
  5. Level the playing field: To balance participation, ask everyone to use the same mode of participation. Everyone is on a conference call, or everyone is on a video call, or everyone is in the room. In my last set of meetings I had a few folks gather in a meeting room to participate as a group. I sent them to their individual work spaces (totally not what I would normally do) to join the call individually to ensure the same experience for all.
  6. Leverage breakout rooms: Breakout rooms create intimate discussion spaces where participants have more opportunities to share. Decide how you will capture their input. If you are in a hybrid scenario, match people in the room with people outside of the room to balance participation.  In my second meeting (conference call participation), I had my in-room people fire up a Skype meeting with the remote people so they could conduct their break out session.
  7. Consider co-creation tools carefully: To the extent possible, use platforms that your group is familiar with. For example – if they are accustomed to working in Powerpoint, asking them to shift to Google Slides will create some discomfort and cost you time.  If you are using a platform for creating content that is new, build in time for the group to learn it.  It often takes longer than you expect.

I admit that I am finding it a bit exhausting, never mind my tech helper who had a tiny meltdown after our third meeting where we had so much complexity. But I’m determined to make this work.

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For those of whom working from home is relatively new, we are all on a huge learning curve, so how do we need to be?

For one, we all need to have compassion for one another. We all have different home setups. Some people may be working from a cluttered kitchen table with an older computer, while others have an aspirational, eye candy office and impeccable tech. (Jealous!) Pro tip: If you’re working with the popular Zoom online tool, the virtual background feature (Click on the up arrow beside the camera icon in lower left hand corner, select virtual background, choose your background) allows you to have a bucolic background like the Golden Gate Bridge. Thought you might appreciate that!

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Meanwhile, here are some tips for making your routine virtual meetings go smoothly.

  • Be patient with each other, we’re all in the same boat.
  • WiFi connections are often unreliable. If you can plug your computer into a router, in many cases you’ll get a more reliable connection.
  • If you’re trying new tools, don’t be afraid to experiment. There are an infinite number of tools online. (See the list below)
  • Ask experts at your workplace for help.
  • Try to be in a place that is distraction-free and let the people in your home know, so your husband doesn’t walk into the room in his underwear. (My family has learned to wave at me from behind the laptop to avoid being in my video meetings).
  • For better lighting, have windows in front of you rather than behind.
  • Buy a webcam if you can.
  • A good headset goes a long way and blocks out background noises.
  • If you’re using Zoom, like so many people are, it has a “touch up my appearance” function in its help centre, which incorporates a soft focus that evens out your skin tone. Yes, for real.
  • Use the mute button as your default to minimize background noise and for those moments when your dog decides to bark, or your kids are getting a bit loud.
  • Shut down email and other notifications to keep distractions to a minimum.
  • Have a Plan B for when technology goes sideways. You can always go back to the dependable conference call.
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Break the ice and acknowledge everyone

Just because you’re not all together in one room, doesn’t mean you can’t set a positive tone, encourage meaningful conversations and establish a sense of cohesiveness.

Because online meetings are asynchronous deliberate attention to connecting conversations is really helpful. Here are a few things you can do to achieve this:

  • Ask each participant their name and a simple question, like how the weather is where they are. I was recently in a video conference with 60 people from around the world, and this technique worked quite well because everyone in the group felt acknowledged.
  • Use a poll tool, like Zoom’s or Mentimeter , and ask a variety of questions of participants on the subject matter. It’s super easy to use. In fact, Zoom has a whole suite of cool functions. (See below)
  • Use a shared document for taking meeting minutes (e.g. Google Docs, Word now allows co-creation). That way, everyone can work on the same document to get better results.
  • Record the meeting if people can’t make it: Zoom also has a record meeting function.
  • Even if you’re a bit camera-phobic or haven’t showered yet today, it’s always helpful to see faces, so please put your video function on, (you can always use the “touch up my appearance” function!)
  • Do something fun, like ‘virtual lunch’ or ‘virtual coffee break’. Schedule a time when everyone gathers just to each lunch, share a coffee and talk about their day. No shop talk.
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Look at the bright side – no commuting!

Working from home is not terrible. Think of all the advantages – no commuting, staying in your pajama bottoms (though you may want to have a decent top for video meetings), and the ability to throw in a load of laundry in the middle of the day and take your dog for a walk.

There’s a simplicity and fluidity that can be beneficial to working from home, even if virtual meetings are on the agenda. There’s a new intimacy to the way we have to work now, and we may just have to be more deliberate in creating cohesiveness, documenting our work and communicating with intention.

Helpful resources

There are infinite online resources for virtual meetings. Here are a few I’ve found helpful

Officeless: This site represents a movement that started in Brasilia. They posted a particularly good guideline for working remotely in our current circumstances.

This CNET article has a long list of Zoom tips, tricks and hidden features.

Co-creation tools

Google slides / Google docs – really great for co-creation. Google was the first to create co-edit docs and they are an easy to use, easily accessible tool.  It’s always fun to correct someone else’s typos as they make them.

Liniot is a free, sticky and canvas service that requires nothing but a Web browser. This is a simple tool for a brainstorm / cluster process. A bit ‘old school’ looking – it covers off a basic brainstorm session.

Miro.com is an online collaborative whiteboarding platform.  Use it for brainstorming, clustering, mapping and diagramming.  I have not used it, but have heard some good reviews from others.

Mural.co has come to my attention.  It is also an online collaborative whiteboarding platform. It seems to support a larger canvas and offers many templates.

Hardware tools:

Jamboard is an interactive style of whiteboard that supports cloud-based collaboration.  From Google, it’s got lots to offer and requires some investment dollars.

What I’m reading

Collaborating with the Enemy, How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, Adam Kahane

Adam Kahane works on complex problems and has discovered that the conventional collaborative scenario where all are aligned to a common vision, harmonious relations and that clarity about who does what is not always possible. Collaboration, in these scenarios must embrace discord, experimentation and genuine co-creation to emerge in conflicted situations.  This book is about his experiences and the model he has evolved.

Meeting rooms: The good, the bad and the just plain ugly

bored-employees-in-presentation

I need to get something off my chest. As a facilitator, one of my biggest pet peeves is walking into an inappropriate meeting room. It can sabotage the group before I even get down to starting the job I’ve been hired to do.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into a room and uttered, “Oh, ?&*%!, how am I going to make this work?!”

Meeting rooms are a fact of working life, but we can’t seem to find a happy balance between aesthetics and functionality. Picture your meeting room for a minute. Is it the classic setup? Long, rectangular table, with chairs placed around? Maybe some art on the wall, an AV screen at one end, a sad, dusty plant in the corner, and a credenza for coffee/food at the other end? There may even be the smell of stale pizza and coffee lingering in the air.

Meeting rooms, no matter what’s up for discussion, have a huge impact on the experience of everyone in the room. When I ask for the ‘what worked well’ and ‘what would have improved the experience’ at the end of a meeting, this is what I end up hearing: The pluses are, everyone shared, there was respect in the room, we accomplished a lot, and we disagreed and found a way to agreement. The ‘improve’ are, there was no food or drink, (or beer) and yes, it could have been so much better if we had more (better) space.

But the space itself is never the No. 1 priority.

architecture-building-business-ceiling-lamp-260931

Pretty does not = functional

I’ve walked into rooms that had the aura of power and prestige – and even plush chairs. Often those rooms don’t work because they are filled with a too large table, isolating people away from each other and ultimately inhibiting conversation and creativity. Then there are those rooms that, in the name of technology, sport 82-inch screens on every wall. There’s no usable wall space and it creates a disconnected atmosphere.

I’ve seen it all. In my memory is a long list of sometimes beautiful but unworkable rooms (fantastic artwork, exposed brick walls), or just plain ugly spaces (basement room, beat up linoleum and mediocre lighting) where I’ve had to lead groups for a day or more. Here are some examples of meeting places that sound good – until you get there and find they’re not. Here are some examples.

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Sounds good in theory…

  • Golf course: Sounds delightful. But my experiences have been sub-par, for an unexpected reason: too many windows. Yes, that view of the 18th hole was lovely, but it didn’t help that we didn’t have any wall space and anything on the windows was so backlit it couldn’t be read. People were backlit and couldn’t see each other’s faces too. And all that sunshine made the room a sweatbox.
  • Wine cellar: Sounds great, right? Wrong. Think about it, what are on the walls of a wine cellar? Wine bottles, leaving no space to hang charts and other material.
  • A library: Should be good!  But wasn’t. See wine cellar.
  • A tent: Sounds interesting, but it totally does not work.
  • An old school: Fascinating historic artwork on one wall, closely spaced windows on the other 2 walls with deep windowsills and heavy blinds. Again, no place for a work product. The wainscoting on the lower half of the walls became my useable space – not exactly easy on the neck for attendees.
  • Hotels: Are often guilty of jamming too many people into a room, maximizing room capacity, minimizing comfort. Between doors, credenzas, windows, retractable walls and artwork – they often lack usable wall space.
  • Wrong shape: L-shaped rooms are unworkable because some of the attendees can’t see each other, making it much harder to absorb what others are saying.
  • A lounge: deep, comfy lounge chairs seem like a great idea until people need to write things down and talk as a group.
  • Too small: A recent meeting I led had should have had a 25-person maximum, but they squeezed in 45. The tension in the air was already thick, and this only made everyone even more hot under the collar. It also created mini-silos of people, unable to move, completely unravelling the important discussions.
  • Too techy: Giant screens everywhere creates an isolating feel in a room (and eliminates wall space).
  • Whiteboard walls blocked by furniture: Love the whiteboard wall; makes me crazy when they are obstructed by credenzas, benches and tables.

Does it have the air of possibility?

So now that I’ve blown off steam about what doesn’t work, let me tell you about the things that make a room an inviting space. Don’t forget people may be spending entire days, sometimes wrestling with difficult or important topics. You want to create a mood that brings people up, not down.

Overall, a room should evoke an air of excitement and the sense that something different is about to happen. The room should welcome you enough to make you say, ‘I could spend a couple of days here. This is nice. It’s different than my daily life.’

Going offsite for meetings is an excellent idea, but you have to choose the space wisely. Not only because it can help people break some bad habits (yes, I’m talking to you, the person who always sits in the same spot at every meeting, but that’s a whole other conversation), but also because it invites the possibility of change.

white board

7 things that make a meeting space special

  • A room should be big enough to be comfortable, but not so enormous that it overwhelms attendees or creates an environment where it’s hard to have conversations. As a rule of thumb – if a hotel says the room max is 15 people on round tables, double the amount of space and you’ll have about the right amount of space of a full day or 2-day meeting.
  • Good lighting. Natural lighting is nice but good lighting, such as LED fixtures and/or flexible lighting makes my job easier. Appropriate lighting is important, so people don’t feel like they’ve been shuttered in a cellar. It’s also much easier on the eyes, helping people stay alert.
  • Flexible furniture. Tables and chairs that can move, to accommodate break-out groups.
  • Wall space. It should be plentiful enough for lots of paperwork. Remember that a workshop is about producing results together and that means they must be visible. Glass walls are also a great feature, because it allows for nice lighting, and you can often write on them.
  • Adjustable windows coverings. Though windows are nice to have, they can make it hard to take photos, make it hard for people to see and reduce wall space. Being able to adjust windows coverings is helpful.
  • Please be sure you have markers that work and accompanying erasers. And for heaven’s sake, get rid of the obstructive benches and tables.
  • Refreshment counter: This is in the category of nice-to-have, but making food and drink accessible is important, especially for day-long meetings.

If your meeting space has some or all of these things, I’m a happy facilitator. I can dream, can’t I?

Some of my favourite meeting spaces in Calgary:

  • Repsol: I’ve done quite a bit of work in these offices and hats off to their office designers! The rooms are great, with flexible furniture and rooms that can be reconfigured, AV space and natural lighting.
  • Millennium Tower, +15 conference rooms: While they lack the natural light, the rooms are incredibly functional with flexible furniture, whiteboard walls, unobstructed wall space and recessed counters for food and drink.
  • Downtown Public Library: The basement meeting space is decently designed for larger groups, including some rooms with glass walls.
  • Mount Royal University: MRU classrooms make great meeting rooms. Designed with both natural light, flexible furniture, lots of whiteboard and wall space. I can do great work here.
  • U of C Downtown Campus: (with reservations), I’ve worked in one room that had nothing but windows, pillars in the middle of the room and AV walls. On the other hand, I’ve attended workshops in rooms with flexible furniture, whiteboard space, and lots of wall space.

Drop me a note and let me know some of you favourite spaces to work in.

Update:  Since I wrote this, the folks at CPHR in Calgary invited me to their offices to see their training room space. It ticks all the boxes, natural light, lots of whiteboard space, flexible furniture, well lit, refreshment counter.  They are located in the Kahanoff  Centre and their space is for rent! 

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt explores politics through the lens of human behaviour.  He identifies intuition and reasoning as key drivers of decision making. His research suggests that we make intuitive decisions and reason catches up. Our intuitive decision making is grounded in a set of moral codes. If you like political science (like I do) and find human behaviour endlessly fascinating (like I do), you’ll enjoy this book.

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

upintheairmagnum -clooney

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.

armour

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).

no-judging

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.

listening - deer

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 a facilitator can set your business on a new course

compass - Supushpitha Atapattu

Francine has had a successful Calgary-based gourmet ice cream company for 10 years. It’s grown to 100 employees and her products are sold at hundreds of Alberta grocery stores and restaurants. As we head into the new year and a new decade, she’s planning to expand into British Columbia over the next five years. That will mean finding an office location in that province, hiring employees and prepping her team for exciting, but demanding, growth.

She describes her senior managers as her “dream team,” but when asked about the mood of her staff, she admits they are skittish about the company’s plans, and some people already feeling frustrated with their workload. How will they ever push through and handle the company’s ambitions?

Francine thinks she may need outside help to take the company to the next level. A good friend of hers, also a successful businesswoman, suggested she hire a third-party facilitator to help the team with discussions about the expansion. Her friend, after all, had a positive experience that helped her company in ways she knows she couldn’t do herself.

First, Francine is eager to have her questions answered: How can a third-party help my organization grow, make some changes to the culture and ultimately and get my employees on board and excited about my growth plans?

captain - Photo by Daniel Xavier from Pexels

Maybe it’s time for a course correction 

That’s where a facilitator comes in. When I go into an organization, my role is not to be an expert on the business’s service or product (although I do love my ice cream). My role is to provide the process so that the group can have the right discussions and make decisions about how to achieve the company’s goals and, in the process, change how they work together. The company or organization can be any size – as small as five or six employees or as big as 200.

You could think of a facilitator as a bit like a ship’s captain. All hands need to be on deck, and everyone needs to understand and agree on how the vessel should operate and the best route to its destination. The captain’s role is to make sure the crew has all of the tools and resources to avoid rough waters and not get lost along the way.

The first step when meeting my client is to conduct a thorough discovery. Some of the topics explored in this fact-finding stage are:

  • Why is the group coming together?
  • What does the meeting sponsor want to achieve?
  • What does the group want to achieve?
  • What is success coming out of a facilitated discussion?
  • What are the critical issues? topics?
  • What is the mood of the group; what kind of headspace are they in?
  • What is the change that we need to see in the group?
  • What will happen after the meeting?
  • How are results carried forward?

Leadership through participation

Leaders realize that in the midst of big changes they can’t simply manage from the top down, but rather need to be a participant in the transition. That’s where a facilitator can help. The initial thought is, “I’ve got something I need the group to do, or I need to get something out of the group. So, I need everyone’s involvement. And, I need to be a participant in this, not lead this.”

Typically, the decision to hire a facilitator is made by an owner or a mid- to senior-level manager who has a budget to work with. They realize they need to solve a problem, need to have a series of difficult conversations, or want to explore an opportunity. The self-aware leader realizes they need to be a part of the process, right alongside staff. Making decisions together helps achieve the goal of buy-in from everyone. After all, people need to be participants in the decisions that affect their day-to-day work lives.

My role as a facilitator can span a range of scenarios: business planning; optimizing a process; establishing organizational values; exploring challenges; building solutions; exploring difficult topics; making decisions; and, helping those routine meetings go more smoothly so that everyone gets a chance to speak. This (hopefully!) leads to follow-up and accountability.

think about things differently - ivan bertolazzi

A facilitator is an enabler of change

Once I’ve completed interviews with the client and any other relevant individuals, I draft a proposal, with the opportunity to go back and forth over the details. Then the real work begins. An agenda is drawn up for the group, getting feedback along the way about objectives. Once I’m clear on meeting objectives, then the detailed process development begins. When that is done – it’s time to meet and get the ball rolling.

Of course, there are expectations on both sides. There’s an onus on the facilitator – as an enabler of change – to help the group get to tangible results. Often, employees’ expectations are high. In those first meetings, the facilitator needs to create the conditions so that people will share freely and listen to each other, which from my experience can also be a teachable moment. I’ve been in meetings where co-workers have a habit of cutting each other off mid-sentence. In this case, I introduce exercises to help people not only to hear each other but also learn to really listen.

magic

Change doesn’t happen by magic 

At these first meetings, everyone needs to be in a I’m-willing-to-hear-what-you-have-to-say mode. Biases need to examined and hold space for new ideas. The elephant in the room can be that you may or may not succeed. The facilitator’s job is to help you get there, but it may take more one session.

One experience I had involved five or six meetings over five months, just to shift the way people were thinking and how they related to each other. At the end of the process, they had defined mission, values, strategy and milestones. The leader of the organization recognized that her goal to foster change in the culture through the planning process also meant assigning an ownership team for each strategy. She chose several stewards who were made responsible for moving the changes forward each step of the way, so it was a continuous process.

I never suggest that one session can change culture, but it can scratch an itch and start to build momentum towards something exciting and rewarding.

What I’m reading this month

Blog: Leadership Development – it’s about capacity not just competencies

This is a really interesting discussion about stages of ‘adult development.’ We understand there are stages in child development, so why do we assume that development stops at adulthood? This thoughtful exploration connects leadership development with stages of adult development. Lengthy – and worth the time.

Being Wrong – Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz

Being wrong is an inescapable part of being alive. And yet we go through life tacitly assuming (or loudly insisting) that we are right about nearly everything — from our political beliefs to our private memories, from our grasp of scientific fact to the merits of our favourite team. Being Wrong looks at why this conviction has such a powerful grip on us, what happens when this conviction is shaken, and how we interpret the moral, political and psychological significance of being wrong. Drawing on philosophies old and new and cutting-edge neuroscience, Schulz offers an exploration of the allure of certainty and the necessity of fallibility in four main areas: religion (when the end of the world fails to be nigh); politics (where were those WMD?); memory (where are my keys?); and love (when Mr. or Ms. Right becomes Mr. or Ms. Wrong).

Mapping Dialogue, Marianne Mille Bojer, Heiko Roehl, Knuth Marianne

In a world of increasing complexity, answers have a short life-span and people have a growing desire to solve their own problems. Sustainable social change is increasingly depending on successful dialogue. This book provides a closer look at transformative dialogue tools and processes for social change. It profiles 10 dialogue methods in depth, and another 15 more briefly. The methods covered conceptually and in case studies include Deep Democracy, Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology, Scenario Planning, World Cafe, the Israeli-Palestinian School for Peace and many more. The book gives insight into the foundations of practical dialogue work, a dictionary to distinguish dialogue from other forms of conversation, and inspiration from traditional African approaches to dialogue.

See my list for other favourites.

Fresh thinking: Challenging our assumptions – yes, we all have them

Here’s your challenge for the week. Try to go about your business – let’s start small – for just one day without making one assumption about someone or something. It could be that neighbour kid with the blue mohawk walking down your street, your perpetually late co-worker, the meeting you’re about to walk into.

Your potential assumptions: He’d probably break into my car; she’s been out partying again; everyone in that meeting already has their mind made up.

Sound familiar?

None of us are immune from making assumptions, generalizations, biases or having blind spots – call them what you like – in just about everything we do. We come by them honestly, collecting them like burrs on a hiking trail. They can be rooted in where we grew up, how we were raised and our life experiences. We all have them and they motivate us to make the wrong or negative decisions or simply lead us down the wrong path.

How do I even begin?

A year ago, I had the chance to visit a safe drug consumption site to see how the facility operated. It was way out of my comfort zone because I don’t know that world. Drawing on my facilitator mindset, my goal was to be non-judgmental, listen and only ask questions. Over the course of the visit, I heard things like: “I come to this place because they treat me like a person,” and “I can speak my truth here.” I left looking at the clients as human beings and my assumptions about how and why these folks were here got completely blown up. That was a powerful moment for me.

Yes, it’s not easy to get to a place where we challenge our own assumptions. I bet you’re thinking, how do I even begin?

The first step is acknowledging we have assumptions. We all come into a conversation with them. They are a product of experiences, the information we consume, education, the social context we exist in and our culture. Our assumptions enable us in our day-to-day experiences. And it’s also how we shortcut our thinking. Step 1 is asking yourself: Where might I be holding assumptions?

fresh thinking - #3 reflect -andre mouton

The Unconscious Bias course I recently took helped me take an inventory of my own biases. We were asked to look at ourselves and then consider our underlying assumptions. When I’m working with clients, we often have a conversation about assumptions. We explore questions like:

  • What do we know to be true?
  • What assumptions are we holding?
  • What can be challenged and changed?
  • What cannot be challenged or changed?

These questions are helpful for any workplace looking at making decisions or reassessing a process they may have been wedded to for a long time and now want to change.

How do we make our assumptions, anyway?

Behavioural psychologist Chris Argyris came up with something called the Ladder of Inference, which identified how we “ladder up” from observable data to assumptions to action and the risks of not challenging assumptions. In other words, how 2 + 2 = 5.

Typically, this is how we make our assumptions and what we do with them, in a series of steps.

  • I observe many pieces of data and select specific pieces of data.
  • I interpret the ‘facts’ and add meaning – now I have an assumption.
  • I draw conclusions; I tell a story around that conclusion.
  • Then I take actions based on my belief.

That’s the kind of laddering up we do every day. But to diffuse that, we need to be aware that we’ve formed an assumption, but then challenge ourselves and ask: what data supports or contradicts my story?

I was recently teaching a facilitation skills class and a student left the room, and then came back quite late. From that point on, the student seemed quite distracted and disconnected. I found myself becoming focused on her seemingly distressed state and was sure that something bad had happened. This made me approach her and ask if everything was alright.

I interpreted her late arrival as an indication that a problem had happened and then assumed that she was in a state of distress, which contributed to her distraction.  Fortunately, my behaviour to ask if she was OK also tested my assumptions and I discovered that nothing of the sort had happened – she had simply lost track of time.

laddering up

Source:  Panorama Education

Put on your active listening ears

The downside of making assumptions is that it can create conflict with people who have another set of assumptions. Positions get entrenched and prevent us from genuinely listening to another perspective. That stops us from finding shared solutions and being creative. It also puts up a ton of barriers between ourselves, and our colleagues, which stops us from talking to people in a meaningful way.

By the way, I am guilty as charged on every count.

fresh thinking #4 active listening

One technique that I use to challenge assumptions is a listening process that allows someone to present a perspective for three to five minutes without interrupting. Then I ask everyone:

  • What did you hear that was new?
  • What did you hear that surprised you?
  • What did you hear that might have challenged something you already believed?

Then we start unpacking this by asking:

  • What would make something you are hearing true or not true, as a way to get someone to look at both sides of a subject.
  • What else do you know about this subject?

Then we’d repeat the process with another perspective on the same issue. In this manner, we start to surface and challenge the many assumptions that exist within a topic.

Getting to a productive dialogue

I’ll give you an example of a positive outcome after using a contradictions workshop. There was tension between a head office and a regional office over the adoption of a process. Each felt the other was dumb. We talked about the things that were stopping them from adopting the process. What emerged was that the parent company had bought the sub-company when they were financially stressed, concluding the company was not that smart and therefore they needed to be micromanaged. The reaction from the sub-company was acute frustration while the head office maintained they needed to get with the bigger picture.

fresh thinking - frustration

This is what happens when groups get siloed, giving them an excuse to keep doing things the same way. I’ve seen that happen a lot. But when we were able to identify the problem, they admitted that yes, they were each holding assumptions of ‘competence’ or lack there-of. It was a starting point for moving to a more productive dialogue.

Yes, there can be a downside to challenging assumptions. I know someone who has the ability to challenge every idea but then can’t make a decision. The assumption-challenging skill is on hyperdrive and paradoxically generates a whole new set of assumptions. You can hold yourself in an endless cycle of inertia. At some point, you have to say I’ve done enough. If you’re forever cycling through challenging assumptions, it’s useful but only until you stop making advances and taking the next steps. Be open and aware, but don’t get stuck.

Five ways to kickstart your action plan

  1. Awareness. Become aware that we hold assumptions, therefore they exist.
  2. Examine what assumption you might be holding.
  3. Get information about your assumption. Then explore and seek diverse input.
  4. Decide what your new position or assumption will be and how it will evolve to meet your purpose.
  5. Test your new assumption. You can do that by asking, “Am I off on this?” “Do you see it differently” “Am I missing something?” Be open to the idea that you might be wrong or need further input. Don’ be absolute. Form your position but be open to the idea that it might evolve. It creates the possibility of being wrong, which helps you be more right.

What I’m reading

Interested in more on this topic? Here are three books that helped me tackle the assumption trap.

Talking with Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell explores the concept of why we misread each other so often and how the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people fail us. He uses fascinating examples to illustrate. He talks about our “default to truth” (we believe someone tells the truth until we just can’t), our belief in transparency (that we can know what someone is thinking by their behaviours) and coupling (the proximity of circumstance that leads to outcomes).

Insight, Tasha Eurich

Tasha Eurich explores self-awareness and suggests that we are not nearly as self-aware as we think we are. She goes on to offer suggestions and practices that help us see ourselves more clearly in order to help us be more successful at work and in life. I liked the set of exercises in the book and the robust examples from her own coaching experiences.

The Skilled Facilitator, Roger Schwarz

Roger is one of the leading academics in the realm of facilitation and his approach to facilitation is fully informed by the ladder of inference. I have also spent five days training with Roger and pull his principles into my practice. I’d recommend Roger’s materials and course in a heartbeat.

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.

Mythbusting: What facilitation IS and ISN’T

So what do you do, exactly?

It’s a question all facilitators get – from friends, from family, from new connections at networking events … There’s not an easy way to describe group process facilitation – especially if someone has never worked with someone like me. But here’s a closer look of what my job is and isn’t.

What’s your organization looking for? This quick list might help get you closer.

  • For facilitators

If you’re a facilitator, I invite you to take a look and see if you find it to be true in your own experience (are there any I missed that you encounter?).

  • For prospective clients

If you’ve been told your group might benefit from facilitation, but aren’t quite familiar with the process, I’m hoping these descriptions help give a better picture of what we do, what we don’t do, and the value we can ultimately bring to your group.

A quick note

Please keep in mind, it’s never a bad thing to ask a question. So, even if you got it wrong – don’t let that stop you from asking a different one! Keep asking away.

I’m happy to share and curious to hear what you think and always happy to explain more about what I do. Here we go.

Facilitation is NOT…

Counselling

I get this question a lot. People ask me often whether I feel like an Oprah or Dr. Phil when groups are sharing difficult truths, grievances, frustrations and the like.

paolo-nicolello-1127477-unsplashAnd it’s true, many of the exercises I lead participants through can feel therapeutic, simply because it gives a space and a process for people to talk about topics or opinions that perhaps aren’t often sought – or as openly received as they are during a facilitated workshop.

Yet, here’s the big difference between my work and those professionals who offer professional counselling advice: I do not deliver feedback.

Through careful questions, I open the floor for people to speak and act as a neutral observer, repeating back what I’ve heard to make sure I’ve understood.  Sometimes I’ll ask the group to repeat back what was said to ensure the group understands.  At no point am I weighing in with my opinion or in judgement of what has been said.

In this way, facilitation is a bit more like coaching, encouraging a group to work together to arrive at their own unique solutions or end points.

Consulting

I’ve written before about the differences between what I offer and the services a consultant can bring to an organization.

Consultants are hired for their knowledge and expertise in a particular field. The consultant often goes into an organization to discover the organization’s circumstances and then offers their assessment of the situation and skills to address. Instead, I’m hired to help teams discover their own thinking.

Crowd management

If there are a few “strong personalities”, that round out a team and seem to be paralyzing progress, I’m often asked  to help bring the naysayers on-side.

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Oh, dear! What a responsibility, to transform a vocal dissenter into a compliant team-player. Unfortunately, no, I cannot offer this service.

But. (Don’t worry, there is a “but.”)

Instead, I create processes that create space for everybody else. So those loud, scene-stealing, types aren’t erased or transformed, but rather, come into context, as everyone else (even the shy, quiet types) are given a time to speak, and have their chance to own the conversation.

When you create this type of situation, everybody else gets louder and the “loud voice” becomes noticeably quieter simply for lack of airtime.

Interestingly, the so called “loud voice” are often loud because they don’t feel heard.  So really demonstrating that I have heard them goes a long way as well.

Bringing a group to a pre-decided endpoint

Similar to the above point, I’m not a wrangler. Sometimes a client will approach me to let me know s/he has already made a decision and needs someone to help bring all others on-side, to bridge the understanding and pave the way for a new world.

This is awkward.  If the decision is already made and we’re pretending that it’s a participative decision, then it is better if I walk away. It goes against my ethics to run a manipulative event.

nathan-shively-57964-unsplashIf, however, the decision is not fully made and there is genuinely a role for the group in making the decision, then I create process that allows the group to participate within the defined boundaries, acting as the neutral process support to get there.

Another alternative, if the decision is made and we need to group to understand the decision, why it was made and explore implications and impacts or perhaps begin planning for implementation – then this is also a great role for a facilitator.  What we aren’t doing is “forcing compliance”.

Training

This is a bit of a fine line. Yes, you can use a facilitated process to help people discover a new topic or subject area, and there is definitely such a thing as a facilitative trainer,  but no, I myself am not an expert in a subject or here to help others learn how to perform a new task.

(Unless the topic is facilitation – in that area I am qualified as a formal trainer!).

I remain neutral on all content. If there is a subject matter expert present, who needs help leading a group through a certain type of process, I can aid in that journey, but the content will never be a facilitator’s to own or pass along.

The bottom line

Ultimately, I can help groups come to a resolution around a problem, area of tension, or difficult question. But I’m not counselling, training, executing crowd management skills or manipulating a group to do it.  Facilitation is about offering good process that taps the wisdom of the group, enables the group to discover its thinking, and lets the group itself discover that they had the answers all along. And honestly? I can’t think of a more rewarding job than that.