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

What’s the cost of infighting?

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

Why look to facilitation?

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

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

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

Who needs this?

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

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

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

  • Get it all out

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

  • Use active listening

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

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

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

  • Focus on commonalitieshidde-rensink-156982-unsplash

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

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

  • Reframe “rightness” and “wrongness”

Is being wrong so bad?

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

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

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

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

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

5) Think like a facilitator

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

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

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

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

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

I say yes.

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples that I have experienced.

Recouping the cost of a bad meeting

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

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

With professional facilitation, you flip that equation.

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

Reap returns from employee engagement

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

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

Time is money – and so is time saved

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do the math:

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

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

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

Harnessing the power of alignment

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

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

The impact of stakeholder buy-in

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

This is an example of going slow to go fast.

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

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

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

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

How to calculate value:

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

Ways to sustain the value:

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

Following up

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

Engaging the next level down

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

The multiplier works both ways

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

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

 

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

Leave the cliffhangers to Hollywood. Here’s how to end your meetings on a satisfying note

Catharsis, the final chapter, the end.

Whatever you call it, humans need closure. Whether it’s reading the last chapter of a good book to find out what happens, hearing the punchline of a joke, or making a decision at the end of a strategic planning or business meeting.

That’s right – even in the boardroom, the rules of human nature apply.

Enter the Decisional level of thinking, the final step to the ORID methodology.

In a sense, this is the easiest step of the process. To complete it, you and your participants don’t need to make a big “D” decision, but you do need to bring the conversation to some kind of resolve or conclusion, what I call a small ‘d’ decision. It is often as simple as planning a single next step – like scheduling a follow-up meeting to determine how to put the day’s work into action, or assigning some takeaway actions.

But as small a thing as those seem, they can be surprisingly easy to overlpencilook, especially because they often come during the final minutes of a long session!

Yet, without a final decision to close the session, you risk provoking a sense of futility, frustration or reluctance among you participants. They feel their time has been wasted, are unsatisfied and may never want to take part in another planning session again if this one doesn’t give them that all-important conclusion.

So, make sure you nail the Decisional phase, and you’ll ensure you win supporters – and generate commitment – throughout the room.

Here’s how to do it.

Leave enough time.

The clock is counting down. People have begun gathering their belongings, packing away their laptops, checking their watches and staring at the door.

Maybe the room you booked is about to be taken over by the next group. Or, perhaps you have out of town participants eager to catch their flights.

You can’t hold them back much longer … do you really need to complete this final phase?

Yes!

The Decisional phase is the conclusion to the long, fruitful hours you’ve already invested. Pay it the attention it deserves.

What to do: Take an extra few minutes if you do run over time. I, myself, won’t let my groups leave until we’ve at least created some sort of decision or next step.

Even if you just agree that the conversation isn’t finished and a follow-up discussion is needed.   Briefly summarize what you hope to achieve and you wil have brought the discussion to conclusion.

You can avoid this problem altogether by ensuring throughout your workshop or session that you are constantly checking the schedule to prevent the hours from getting away from you.

Know what you’re deciding on.

If you don’t know what you want to get out of your session, it will be hard to know what the end should look or feel like. So, ensure you carefully and thoughtfully determine the objectives for this discussion.

What to do: Work with your team to define your intention for the meeting, and what success at the end of the day will look like.  Refer back to these when planning the Decisional steps to ensure you’ve met your intention. Are you:

  • Making a decision? (What is our decision?)
  • Putting forward a recommendation? (What is our recommendation?)
  • Ensuring your group is fully informed? (What is your comfort with this topic?)
  • Seeking feedback on a topic? (What else do we need to know?)

Your objective will tell you what your decisional step needs to be.

Design your process fully.

You’ve run through your entire agenda, thought through some difficult dilemmas and agreed what’s wrong or what solutions might work. But if you haven’t included time in your agenda to make some concrete decisions, you risk your intelligence evaporating into thin air. Clues that this has happened sound like “There’s an hour of my life I’m never getting back!”

What to do: Careful planning, again, makes the difference here. Paying attention to the ORID structure (what are the facts, what are the internal/emotional responses, what are the  insights and finally, what next?) makes a tremendous difference. Intentionally planning the part of the meeting where you ask for closure, resolve, what the group has decided, or the next step matters.

This will help you solidify the idea that, after all the brainstorming, ideation and discussion, you are committed to coming away with a result (or perhaps even just a plan on how to create that move the result forward).

Flesh out each preceding stage.

If participants in the room aren’t on the same page, can’t seem to agree on facts, or are stuck in endless ideation, you may have gaps in the Objective, Reflective or Interpretive stages of the discussion.

What to do: If you find yourselves stuck when you go to make a binding decision or agree on a future step, consider returning to a previous stage to make sure you’ve completely explored it. It may be necessary to obtain additional facts, or explore past experiences more, or consider additional alternatives. A clue that this might be the case is when you hear “ I just don’t know enough to make a decision”.

Include the right people in the room.

I’ve been in a situation where groups reached the Decisional stage, and only at that point realized that no one present had actual decision-making power (or, in some cases, budget) to implement any changes.

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Source: Institute of Cultural Affairs Canada

What to do: Planning, again, at the outset can prevent this problem to ensure your end state is in line with your group’s influence level. If you’ve come too far, rather than letting your work go to waste, consider creating a recommendations report that you can present to the decision-makers, with the supporting rationale. Determining which recommendations you intend to put forward is decisional-level of thinking or identifying the right people that need to be included. That clarity is also decisional level of thinking, which in this case informs your next step.

There is a theory called the “Ladder of Involvement”, which defines what kind of input a group is actually being asked to provide. Be sure at the outset that you’re honest with stakeholders which level of decision making the meeting is asking for.

 

Deciding to decide

People have committed time, ideas, efforts opinions and have worked hard to understand their fellow participants. Ensure that if you’re organizing, or moderating, a strategic planning or feedback session that you’ve included all the important ingredients, from the O to the R to the I and crucially, the D, so that everyone goes home happy. Both your group and your organization will then be able to benefit from real action – not just hours stolen from their busy schedules.

Strategic planning got you spooked?

What’s holding you back? Here are the most common barriers to corporate road-mapping — and how to instantly banish them from your boardroom.

Part 1 – Chaos, crowds and cobwebs – oh my!

Does the thought of undertaking strategic planning give you chills? Are you worried that something might go wrong, or you’re not doing it right?

Don’t worry — you’re not alone.

In fact, I’ve been facilitating strategic planning sessions for more than 10 years and I continue to be surprised by how much hesitancy, fear and dread I encounter around this process.

It seems a poorly run or poorly organized strategic planning is like a bad horror movie that people just can’t get out of their heads.

But, when I hear about some of the sessions that my participants have been part of, this lingering bad taste in their mouth makes perfect sense. Sometimes sessions can go sideways. Sometimes they go nowhere. Or, most damaging of all, sometimes they lead to personal insult to and disengagement among stakeholders.

But that doesn’t mean the participants or the subject matter is to blame – it’s usually the process itself.

Here are a few common strategic planning bugaboos you may recognize – and some easy steps on how to fight back.

Fear 1: You’re scared to include a variety of people

The problem: I often hear from clients that they’re worried if they have a room full of participants representing multiple different business units and roles, the team will end up with too many ideas competing for limited airtime, leading to inefficient and exhausting debate.

Here’s what I say when I hear that: GREAT! The more diversity of thought, the better.

When it comes to strategic planning, thorough discussions are essential. To achieve this, you need more – not fewer – perspectives!

The solution: So how do you prevent a multitude of voices from descending into chaos? The difference is the design of the process, the way the session is run.

A properly trained facilitator (whether internal or third-party), uses consensus-driven methodologies that ensure a clear understanding emerges, that everyone stays on track, and that the outcome works for the participants – and the business.

Remember: everyone has intelligent input to offer when you ask the right questions.

Fear 2: You’re scared that, once complete, the plan will sit on the shelf, never to be referenced again.

The problem: Oftentimes, a group will complete a highly successful strategic planning dusty booksession, and emerge bursting with bright ideas, innovative solutions and ambitious commitments. Yet, when the plan is completed, it quickly gets buried under a pile of urgent paperwork, and is slowly relegated to the bottom drawer of the boss’s desk, never to see the light of day again.

So, the problems you set out to solve, the patterns you wanted to break, and the new way forward you envisioned, never gets off the ground.

There is nothing more disappointing than seeing good work go to waste. But, the good news is, you can easily prevent this frustration with just two simple clicks of your calendar.

The solution: First, choose the first initiative identified in the plan, and schedule it to be planned right away. In fact, try to schedule that kick-off meeting before you even leave the room where the planning has taken place.

Next, schedule one more meeting: a 90-day review. Include all people involved in the initial planning session. Here, ensure participants are prepared to report on what has been accomplished in the past six weeks since the planning ended. This will help reinforce that the work completed is being measured, that it’s important, and that each outcome matters.

It’s even better if this session is facilitated by the same person who led the strategic planning session, so you can bring everyone back into the same atmosphere, energy and mindset as the first.

Fear 3: You’re scared that people will just agree with whoever is leading the meeting.

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The problem: It is very difficult to be a subject matter expert, a leader and a facilitator all at the same time.

The solution: When planning a strategic planning session, give the leaders a break. Consider hiring a third-party to take the reins of the session. This will take the pressure off internal stakeholders or meeting leader to act as neutral observers (which can often be nearly impossible!). Bringing in a neutral facilitator also removes the risk of and perception that any one person’s voice gets more weight than another’s. It also  minimizes the chance that participants feel ‘railroaded’ into supporting a certain point of view.  Plus, leaders can listen, fully participate and contribute their wisdom – rather than running the show or feeling like they’re in a room full of .

Fear 4: You’re scared that not everyone ‘gets’ the business (e.g. some people are just too junior to take part).

The problem: Sometimes highly trained or experienced people just don’t think those in other roles “get” what the discussion is about. So, they’re reluctant to bring in people who hold junior positions or have less experience. Yet even though these  different voices and viewpoints may seem unsophisticated or uninformed to one, they’re actually very much important contributors.

The solution: I firmly believe that only by collecting everyone’s wisdom can you get the wisest result.

A trained facilitator can design process which incorporates diversity to create a richer result. The benefit then becomes the enhanced perspective of the participants, the greater commitment to the results from more parts of the organization by involving more voices.

A tool that we often use is a “journey wall” which helps illuminate the history that has come before the current situation, where the group stands today, and what the ideal future state looks like. It can be really helpful to bring in a graphic illustrator to support this process; they can help create an illustration that captures this context and information in a way that’s easy to understand and actually see. As a bonus, then you have a permanent image you can use again and again.

These are just a taste of the common worries that hold people back from conducting a productive and valuable strategic planning session. Stay tuned for more tips coming soon. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a facilitator to help lead you through these, and other, thorny questions, reach out any time.

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

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.

_______________________________

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

 

Purpose matters!

It’s interesting how often I am called into lead a conversation about work plans, roles and responsibilities or team building and when I dig deeper, the issue that emerges is clarity of purpose, or more specifically the need to define purpose. A group is struggling because purpose is not clear. Humans need purpose. Without clear purpose it is difficult to achieve focus, it’s hard to set direction and even more difficult to realize results.

What does it look like when it’s missing?  What happens when its discovered?

Group 1:  Help us with a work plan

A cross functional group of leaders was tasked with a project. The team had put a good deal of energy into defining terms of reference which included the model for how they would manage themselves, make decisions and hold themselves accountable. Their deadline for producing a work plan was approaching and they could not see a path to that outcome.

As I listened to the client share their journey, share concerns about timelines and mention personalities (everyone mentions personalities). They were going in circles. They couldn’t get agreement on what needed to happen and in what order things should happen. There were competing views around what was important.

I finally asked the question, “Is there a shared understanding of the group’s purpose? Do you know why you exist?” The client stopped and after a short pause, said No. We really don’t.

I proposed a 2 hour purpose discussion where we talked about the needed outcomes, the problems to solve, the ‘solution’ that the organization would buy from them, and the improvements that would happen as a result of the initiative. When we got to the end of the discussion, the group had coalesced around a shared understanding of their purpose.

There was great relief and a whole lot of clarity in the room after that discussion. With purpose, it was much easier to determine what the work plan needed to be. 

We refined their purpose at a subsequent meeting and then dug into the elements of a project charter including defining “Who”, “Won” and “Done”.  At the end of five 90 minute meetings , we had defined Purpose, Who, Won, Done, Risks, Dependencies, and the Work Plan.

Group 2:  Help us decide on our focus for the next year

A sales organization wanted to define their key focus areas for the next fiscal year. The organization had experienced a trifecta of change in the previous two years: rapid, wide spread economic downturn, dramatic changes in senior leadership, layoffs due to downsizing. The group was not going to hit their sales targets this year and they were very real about the importance of turning that situation around.

In my discussions with the client, we talked about culture, the change in market conditions, the evolution of technology and the impacts. We talked about leadership and personalities and long term loyalties and competing interests and market positioning. And then my client realized that what he really wanted for his group was focus.  I asked the question, “What is the core purpose of this group?”  “Do you know why you exist?” 

Again, the answer was “I think we’ve lost sight of it given all the change and upheaval in our organization”.

We took a day and started by looking backwards at their history and then forward to identify their needed purpose. Once defined, this group realized that their purpose statement was the missing link that bridged their past and their desired future state. They defined their purpose in a way that was true to their history and culture yet strongly grounded in their market realities.

We continued the planning process by discussing barriers and identifying the focus strategies that would help them realize their purpose. The group is integrating their focus strategies into their account planning and is holding themselves accountable for change.

Group 3:  Help me win hearts and minds

A procurement organization is engaged in a transformational change that affects their roles, expectations and responsibilities. Workloads seem overwhelming. The status quo is no longer, there is pressure to change, and their future state a function of yet to be complete initiatives.  They were caught between the no longer and the not yet.

Thirty-five people gathered for a day to review status of major transformational initiatives and the leader felt strongly that he needed to “engage hearts and minds” so that this group could embrace and weather the challenges of this significant transformation.

In our discussions, I asked him how much involvement the group had in defining the future state. Did the group have a uniform understanding of their intended state? Could they articulate it? The leader agreed that so much was happening so fast that this hadn’t been done yet.

I led the group through a half day workshop that defined their purpose, their Why? We answered the question of why this group was important to the organization. Why did they exist?  What was missing without them? The group arrived at its purpose and felt such a strong commitment to it that they decided that we should hold a subsequent session to enrol the entire group of 55 people in the purpose statement. 

Group 4:  Help me with my resume

An individual contacted me asking for help with their resume. They needed to update it; they felt they were on the edge of a career event. After some discussion with the client, and the explanation that I was a facilitator, not a resume writer and asked “Do you need to discovery your story? or write a resume?” We embarked on a the discovery.

The client did an individual brainstorm and we worked together to find the patterns and the insight. At the end of the workshop, the client was able to articulate her personal purpose and value statement in a compelling and authentic manner.

I find the purpose discussion with individuals particularly interesting because it unearths a series of unconnected but very present ideas. The end result is deeply satisfying for an individual. 

Humans crave purpose. Groups are comprised of humans.
Groups need purpose.

Purpose creates context for defining problems and articulating solutions. Purpose matters!

 

 

 

When groups struggle to decide

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

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

Step 1: Observe

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

When groups are struggling to decide, you may see:

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Self reflection

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

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

Step 3: Diagnosis

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

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

Intervention can be simple.

Step 4:  Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask the group what it needs. 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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