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.

emojis

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.

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!

 

 

 

The space between tribes

I am beginning to wonder if people are unavoidably tribal?  

In spite of our big brains, incredible technology, massive quantities of literature, and bazillions of hours spent in learning, and training and development environments, we often behave in a mindset of  I’m great … and you’re not. 

Caution!  Approaching tribe!

According to David Rock’s SCARF model, our primitive brain values status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness above all else. When any of these five states is threatened, we retreat to defensive and protective postures.

In the workplace, this occurs with distressing frequency.

David Logan, author of Tribal Leadership, says we live in and operate within tribes. We may be a member of many tribes, but inherently organize in a tribal fashion. Logan says there are 5 levels of tribes and each level behaves and performs very differently. Tribes at the lowest level are often a destructive form of tribalism as their mindset is that ‘life sucks’. Tribes at level 4 are hugely productive and innovative with a ‘we’re great mindset’ and at level 5, can be history making with a ‘life is great’ mindset.  Management structures in most organizations are at level 3 which operates in an ‘I’m great, you’re not’ frame.

The level 3 type of mindset shows up many ways in an organizations. A facilities group treats all inquiries by a development group as spurious because they know their business better. Marketing is sure that sales has sandbagged their numbers (because they know better). Executive Directors bristle under the direction of boards as it challenges their autonomy (their ‘greatness’). Mid-level managers never get over their outrage of not being consulted (because they’re great), trampling their sense of relatedness. It goes on and on.

If you’re not part of the tribe you can’t be trusted.

As facilitators, we are often called into the ‘spaces between tribes’. The places where suspicion and misunderstanding have the potential to flourish, have already taken root or have left their legacy. In short, between the level 3 and lower tribes.

We are asked to engage in consultations to pre-emptively ward of the ‘you didn’t ask me’ conflict; we are asked to lead conversations because groups are polarized and don’t know how to resolve their conflict; or we are asked to address unresolved conflict and figure out how to go forward.

Today’s problems are complex and our cultural landscape is more diverse than ever. Is there anytime in history where we have been more cross-culturally and globally connected than now? It simply isn’t viable to consider just one tribe, when we make decisions.

Tackling complex problems requires the wisdom of many. The participative environments familiar to younger workers are going to be essential for harnessing diversity and channeling it towards problem solving. I believe that newer generations of workforces are ‘wired’ for collaboration having spent their entire educational experience in a collaborative space. Leaders who fail to tap into this energy will find their organizations left behind.

Low level tribal leadership can not handle complexity.

The level 3 and lower tribal leader are notable for what they do not do. Level 3 and lower leaders do not build relationships between tribes, leaving their organizations vulnerable to the challenges of complexity. Level 3 and lower can become preoccupied with protecting turf, elevating themselves or undermining others.

The functional leader who defends his boundaries rather than forging bridges with other functions reduces his organization’s capacity for problem solving. The back room decision makers will struggle to enrol a collaboratively minded workforce.

A facilitator closes the space between tribes. 

The facilitator approach to addressing this tension is about making sure that the intentions of approaching tribes are transparent; that all points of view are on the table and that tribes are actively listening to each other.

Ultimately, a facilitator helps build relationships across tribes, between tribes and within tribes. This approach ensures that the expertise in the room is acknowledged and leveraged; that diversity of perspective is harnessed and that everyone is heard. In this manner, larger challenges can be tackled.

Most importantly, however, facilitator lead approaches can teach tribes how to how to incorporate a facilitative style in order to move up the scale of tribal behaviour in the organization, on an ongoing basis.

Talk to a facilitator about closing the space between your tribes.  

 

 

 

 

When groups struggle to decide

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

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

Step 1: Observe

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

When groups are struggling to decide, you may see:

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Self reflection

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

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

Step 3: Diagnosis

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

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

Intervention can be simple.

Step 4:  Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask the group what it needs. 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I believe to be true…

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

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

Image governs behaviour

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

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

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

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

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

 I think this would spark a far more interesting conversation.  

Facilitation for image shift

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

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

Facilitation is an enabling process. 

Training & facilitation: similar but different

Oct 7, 2015

“Is there a difference between a facilitator and a trainer?”  

During a break, in a recent facilitation, a participant began to describe to me, the challenges her organization had experienced delivering a training program. The trainer that was hired didn’t seem to hit the mark for the organization. The participant told me that the trainer did too much talking; didn’t draw out the people in the training session and didn’t create enough dialogue. So I asked the question: “Did you hire a facilitator, or a trainer?”

___

There is much common ground between facilitators and trainers. Many facilitators train and many trainers facilitate. They share over-lapping skills sets. and perform similar activities. Some common traits for both trainers and facilitators include:

  • thoughtful, articulate and responsive to questions
  • able to adapt to the needs of people in the room
  • able to keep participants engaged and interacting
  • able to manage to an agenda 

Trainers are additionally responsible for

  • delivering a specific learning objective 
  • designing and controlling a process
  • managing room dynamics 
  • and bringing content expertise to the discussion

The last point is important – trainers are generally content experts. Their criticality stems from their ability to illuminate content, to aid comprehension of a subject, and to help participants engage with the concepts. This is important and makes them persuasive in their delivery. A trainer will generally be at the centre of any discussion in the room.

Facilitators, like trainers, are responsible for: 

  • designing and controlling a process 
  • managing room dynamics

The roles begin to diverge in how an event unfolds. Facilitators are also responsible for:  

  • tapping into the knowledge of the room to generate the necessary content 
  • listening carefully in order to ask the next question 
  • gaining commitment to action and follow through to achieve a desired outcome
  • remaining steadfastly neutral

A facilitator listens more than they speak. They ask carefully considered questions, aimed at provoking ever more thoughtful responses; allowing the room to discover its wisdom. 

According to ICA Associates, the focus for facilitators is on enabling groups to process their experiences, think things through, form consensus and make plans and decisions. The facilitator’s energy is dedicated to developing process and tools to assist people in achieving their objectives.  

In short – a trainer owns content; a facilitator owns process.

Michael Wilkinson of Leadership Strategies sums up his conversation with a trainer who also facilitates: “I like facilitation, but I love training. Because when you’re facilitating, you really have to listen to them. And that’s work!”

After our discussion, the individual that I was talking with indicated that there was a strong desire in their training program to have the participants share their knowledge; build community and network; and learn from each other. At the conclusion of our discussion, she thought that a facilitator might have been a better choice. They just hadn’t understood the difference.

Too much left brain?

July 21, 2015

In modern society we have highly valued a certain type of person and a certain type of mind – people such as engineers who can analyze data, computer programmers who write code, MBA’s who can crunch numbers. 

This type of individual draws heavily from the left side of the brain – that part of our mind that we understand to be rational, analytic, and logical. The left side of our brain reasons sequentially, excels at analysis and handles words. A person with these strengths is definitely the kind of person you want doing your taxes.   

In contrast, those we have considered ‘right’ brained may be artists who express themselves non verbally, writers who create beautiful images, futurists who see patterns and suggest trends. This type of person draws more heavily on the right side of the brain which is nonlinear, instinctive, it reasons holistically, recognizes patterns and interprets emotions and non verbal expressions. This is someone we want as a coach or counsellor.

In A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pinkhe summarizes 3 decades of research on the brain’s hemispheres to 4 key differences:

  1. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; the right hemisphere control the left side of the body. 
  2. The left hemisphere is sequential; the right hemisphere is simultaneous. 
  3. The left hemisphere specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context.
  4. The left hemisphere analyses details; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture.

I have recently facilitated strategic planning meetings with two management teams that had a heavy weighting of technical skills, or what we’d call left brain skills. Our meetings included an workshop where we identify barriers to achieving our desired future state. The process of brainstorming options went well – many ideas were generated. The process of organizing the ideas into clusters went quickly, albeit with a more linear approach to organizing ideas.

Once ideas are clustered, we look for the larger pattern of causation and the deeper meaning. We’re seeking the root of the issue to assign a name to the cluster. This name, then represents the obstacle that requires future attention.  

What a challenge for these left brain-centric teams. 

They struggled to see a larger pattern; they struggled to see context and they struggled to assign larger meaning. The left brain was struggling and there wasn’t enough right brain thinking in the room to offer balance. A certain level of frustration began to arise. Soon the groups began taking a name from one cluster and assigning to another cluster with a small modification, to get the job done – the root of the issue may have been missed.

I happened to read Daniel Pink’s book a week or so later and had a giant eureka moment; to get a left brain crowd to do right brain work was going to require much more instruction, direction and example from the facilitator. The group won’t automatically jump into the more holistic, pattern identification work. It’s not that the group doesn’t have these capabilities, it’s that for these groups, the right brain skills were under developed, in part because we have valued these skills less in our ‘Information Age’. It will be necessary to ‘wake up’ their right brain thinking prior to such an exercise. 

Our brain has two halves that work together, not independently. The left side of the brain hears the words that someone says, the right side creates meaning. Damage to one side of the brain impacts our entire being. We aren’t ‘half brained’ even if we pull on skills associated with one side of the brain more – both sides of our brain work together. 

So, this leaves me asking questions: what are the implications for businesses stacked with left brain thinking? What are the risks for organizations that value sequential thinking over the holistic and pattern thinking? What are the potential impacts to long term success if organizations dissect the problem without synthesizing the bigger picture?

Can a business that values both its ‘right’ and ‘left’ brain be more successful?

… I’d love to hear what you think.   

All fun is not superficial

July 7, 2015

“All fun is not superficial, not everything serious is profound”, says Chris Whitnall from Talkforce.  

Words to live by when you’re a facilitator preparing for a meeting.

Why do facilitators prepare ‘fun’ activities at a meeting?  Why do they make you fly airplanes or play with building blocks? Why does this happen at offsite meetings? Serious money is spent on offsite meetings, shouldn’t we be focused on serious things? 

Neuroscience tells us that our brains easily traverse old neural network paths. These well traveled paths keep us safe; warn us of threats and are in part the reason why we drive to work ‘in a fog’ and get there safely. The neural connections are deeply embedded and regularly traveled. This is also why we are good at post-mortem analysis, forensic examinations, and deductive reasoning – because our brains have been there before.

Solving new problems, creating new ideas, delving into long term visioning, or imaging future states is much harder work for our brains. Our brains need to create new pathways or connect old pathways in new ways which takes a great deal of energy and requires a different catalyst.  

Have you every had a ‘eureka’ moment during your morning shower?  or during a run? Have you woken up part way through the night with a brilliant idea. Have you been talking about something and suddenly experienced a flash of insight on an unrelated matter?  How often have you woken up in the morning with the distinct sensation that you have a solution just below the surface that you can’t quite access… but you know its there. If you can find a way to re-enter that state of semi consciousness you might find it again.  

We’re all familiar with the movie cliche where the brilliant inventor has a massive aha moment, doing something quite fun, or completely unrelated to the problem to be solved. (There’s a great moment in a bar scene in The Imitation Game). 

What you are experiencing or witnessing is examples of new connections being made in your brain; the catalyst has been something that had nothing to do with the subject at hand. A common scenario is that the brain is in a relaxed or calm state and is free to expel energy on new connections.  

Generally, work environments are not very calm. Humour and fun at work allow us to relax, thereby reducing our defensive instincts. When we are less defensive and more relaxed, there is space and opportunity for new connections to be made, for eureka moments to be had, or even more simply, to be open to an new perspective.

Facilitators know this and work ‘creative space’ into meeting planning. There is method in our madness when we ask you to make a paper airplane or build a duck from building blocks. A single exercise may have multiple purposes. 

Offsite meetings are serious money and serious outcomes do need to happen.  A bit of fun can create a climate for serious ideas to emerge.