Saturday, October 20, 2018

Where the Rain Falls in Spain

Susan and I are now back from our Iberian adventure, and it seems appropriate to post a postmortem on our trip...

Having Fun Weather or Not
It's the start of the rainy season in Spain (hence the lower prices on accommodations), and that meant we were glad we brought raincoats—the very last thing we crammed into our suitcases. In eight days we donned them thrice, mostly in Madrid, which, as George Bernard Shaw (via the voice of Henry Higgins) has already informed us is susceptible to being located on the plain. Though to be fair, we also caught some raindrops in Barcelona, which is a port and in no way a plain city.

American Incursions 
As you may recall from my previous post, our tour was focused on four cities: Madrid, Toledo, Valencia, and Barcelona. Wherever we went, North American chain restauranteurs had gotten there before us. It was somewhat jarring and dismaying to see billboards for these establishments liberally sprinkled along the highways, followed by the storefronts themselves shoehorned into historical districts and close by ancient churches and other architectural splendors. Sigh. You can run but you can't hide from American enterprise. Though we never patronized any of these shops (I'd have to wear a paper bag over my head), we had our choice of:
Dunkin' Donuts
Steak and Shake
TGI Fridays
Burger King
Tony Roma's
Tim Horton's

Bed and Breakfast
It's is apparently normal in Spain for a complimentary breakfast to be included in hotel accommodations. Because Susan and I had bought a Gate 1 t our package covering the first six days, breakfast was always in the hotel the next day, where there was an ample buffet spread for all guests. While the fresh squeezed orange juice was to die for, and the spread of options was always impressive, it turned out, ironically, that our favorite breakfast was the simple one we enjoyed our last full day in Barcelona, eating in a patisserie around the corner from our Airbnb digs at the end of our trip. Going native we enjoyed:
two cafe con leche
two fresh croissants (the best we'd had in years)
two shots of complimentary fresh squeezed tart orange juice
a bowl of creamy yogurt with granola and fresh fruit

More on Meals 
While Spain is the land of tapas and we were pumped up about the food we'd experience, I was mostly disappointed that it wasn't better. The one standout exception to that generalization was the paella, which was terrific both times I had it (and I think I can prepare it myself now—the key is cooking the rice al dente, a la pasta).

Paella is always made fresh and you must allow 20-25 minutes for that if ordered in a restaurant. While most of us know this as a saffron-infused seafood dish, the traditional recipe is made with rabbit and/or chicken, and there is considerable latitude on what vegetables you include. Some use none. In Valencia (home base for this dish) we enjoyed a version with broad beans, lima beans, and artichoke hearts. It was eye opening for me that you cook a delicious rice medley without onions. Who knew?

While Spaniards tend to eat late (typically lunch starts at 2:30; dinner at 9:30 pm) it was never a problem finding restaurants open. This was good because we walked a lot (often three miles or more daily) and worked up an appetite after digesting our sumptuous breakfasts. It was amusing to realize that I was getting more exercise in Spain than in Duluth, yet satisfying to see that I was able to keep up the pace, which included a fair amount of up and down at churches and on the hilly streets of Toledo.
The Last Supper
We enjoyed this with our new best friends, Libby and Dan, fellow tour group members from Berkeley, who, like Susan and me, lingered for two extra days in Barcelona. We took the advice of our Airbnb hosts to eat at a local place only a five-minute walk from where we were staying.

Though we were way early for dinner at 6 pm (we had the place more or less to ourselves at that hour), there was a good side to that. Our waitress was not busy and took the time to chat with us. When I ordered a Negroni for a before dinner cocktail, it was obvious she'd never heard of it, but she was game. I explained that it was equal parts of Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth (rioja in the vernacular). She memorized that and went back to the bar. Five minutes later she came back with three bottles, just to make sure she had the rights ones (she did), and let me pour the drink. While it was garnished with a lemon wedge instead of an orange peel or maraschino cherry, it was still one of the best Negroni I'd ever had. We were off to a great start.

The entrées were fabulous as well, and we even had room to share a creme brûlée to top it off. A satisfying last supper. By then it was after 8 pm and the restaurant was starting to fill. It was time for us to head back to our rooms to pack for early morning departures.
General Observations
—Spain was clean. The streets, the sidewalks, the sites—even the subways. Why can't we achieve public sanitation like that in the US?

—Public smoking is still part of the culture here, though markedly less so than it was 11 years ago, the last time I was in Europe. Some restaurants have banned smoking inside; some haven't. So if that matters, you have to pay attention. The good news is that nonsmokers now have more options.

—No one in our tour group (or 40) had their pockets picked, despite multiple warnings that it was a possibility, especially in Barcelona. Maybe everyone was simply too diligent, or maybe there is an off-season for pickpockets as well. Anyway, that was one travel complication that thankfully didn't materialize (knock on wood).

—Being tourists, we naturally visited many tourist attractions, and everywhere we went the people (including Susan and me) sorted into more or less equal numbers of those who interacted solely with their eyes (that would be me) and those who interacted largely through their phones (where it as one photo op after another), which category Susan was in. I don't know that one is any more legitimate than the other, but they're different.

—Everywhere we went locals spoke better English than we spoke Spanish. Of course, we were only in cities or tourist-oriented places, where there was bound to be a steady flow of Americans and Brits. Yet it was sobering to speculate on how much trouble a Spanish-speaking person might encounter as a tourist in the US if they were weak in English—even though there are more Spanish speaking people in the world than English speaking. Money talks.
Other Random Highlights 
• Our tour guide's overview of the complex history of Toledo and his concise presentation of art interpreation during a two-hour guided tour of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

• Learning the secrets of cooking paellla in Valencia.

• Getting the hang of the Barcelona subway system.

• Experiencing Gaudi's incredible masterpiece: the Sagrada Familia, an architectural tour de force that has to be seen to be believed. And you must go inside. As amazing as the outside is, it gives no hint to what you'll experience inside. This is organic architecture at its finest and on a scale that is hard to fathom.

Gaudi spent the last 43 years of his life working on this church before he was killed in a tram accident in 1926. Still under construction, they are hoping to complete the project by 2026, for the centennial of his death. Here is a photo view of one of the four facades, taken last year:


Sunday, October 7, 2018


In a few hours, Susan and I will depart Duluth for the start of a 10-day adventure on the Iberian peninsula, and we're psyched.

This is a vacation we've been pointing toward for two years, ever since I started recovering from my stem cell transplant for treating multiple myeloma, and it looked like I'd have some extended play after experiencing very dodgy health the front half of 2016.

Being near death helps bring life sharply into focus. Upon reflection, I liked most of what I'd been doing before cancer revealed itself in my bone marrow, but there were nonetheless a few adjustments I was determined to make, principal of which was more time spent enjoying relationships. (I also read more and am less reactive, but in this essay I want to stick with the main line: placing relationships more squarely in the center.)

Some of that is friendships and some of that is family, both of which are scattered all over North America—after nearly 40 years of community networking and process consulting, and the diaspora pattern that characterizes the typical modern family. Thus, when I travel for work (continuing my career as an itinerant process consultant) I try to take the time to visit area friends along the edges of my time with clients—which process is made easier by having a number of clients as friends—double dipping, as it were. And now, after nearly three years in Duluth, I'm developing local relationships as well, notably in the Chester Park neighborhood where we live and among the players at the duplicate bridge club in town. 

Yet foremost among my important relationships is the partnership I'm forging with Susan. That's the one I really want to focus on. She was there for me immediately when I stumbled sick into her home at New Year's of 2016, and almost didn't have the energy or wisdom to make it to St Luke's emergency room at the end of January, where I finally discovered how sick I was.

For the first few months it was nip and tuck whether her relationship to me would more accurately be portrayed as hospice nurse than partner, but now that I've come back from that precipice, we have a chance to create a relationship with room to breathe and laugh and play. For two years now we have been holding onto our upcoming trip to Spain as a marker for where we wanted out relationship to go: I worked on recovering my energy and containing my cancer, and she got ready to retire as the church lady at St Paul's Episcopal, where she had been running the office since 2010.

With both of those objectives accomplished here we are—finally ready for our first major trip together, where we both have the time and energy to enjoy it. To help contain expenses, we're participating in a loosely organized tour through Gate 1 Travel, that provides air transportation, rooms each night, breakfast each morning, a few dinners, and a few tours (think Prado, Escorial, and Gaudi architecture). The rest is free time as we explore Madrid, Toledo, Valencia, and Barcelona. We're thinking about tapas, riojas, and seafood, as well as off-season Mediterranean vistas. Yum.

And this adventure, we hope, is just the start. We also have designs on trips to other places as energy, enthusiasm, and money intersect—Mesa Verde, Quebec, Iceland, New Orleans, and Argentina are at the top of the list. 

It's great to be alive, and have one's consciousness focused on the wonder of it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Key Facilitative Skills: Developing Range

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest.

Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.

Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
II. Working Constructively with Emotions 
III. Managing the Obstreperous
IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
VIII. Sis Boom Bang
IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
XV. Trusting the Force 

• • •
Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
The basic theme of this essay is that group members can exhibit a rather wide range of meeting behavior and the facilitator, in the ideal, needs a range that's appropriate to span the entire gamut. Thus, when the group is operating smoothly (is engaged, listening well, and staying on topic), the facilitator can sit back and stay out of the way. Alternately, when the group is misbehaving, the facilitator needs to step in and redirect—sometimes firmly.

Ground Rules
This is the facilitator's license to act, and should be explicitly established at the front end of a meeting.

Lacking authority to run the meeting, the facilitator may not be able (or even allowed) to redirect  inappropriate comments. In groups where this happens the facilitator devolves into someone whose role is diminished to deciding who will talk next—which is just a shell of what it should be.

This is the list I usually work with when hired as an outside facilitator:

• Emotional expression is OK; aggression is not
• If confused about what's happening, ask
• Raise your hand to speak
• I'll try to call on people in the order in which they raise their hands, but may alter that based on who has not spoken recently or to follow a thread
• Silence means assent (at least on procedural matters)
• If the group is undecided about what to do, the facilitator will make the call
• I'm here for everyone
• I’ll interrupt perceived repetition

• I'll keep people on topic
• I'm agreement oriented
• Assume good intent
• Please silence all electronic devices (we don't want to be interrupted by the clever jingle on your cell phone)

While these can be phrased differently and additional ground rules can be added (don't be shy), this set has served me well.

From this list, I want to shine the spotlight on three in particular:

Emotional expression is OK; aggression is not
This is a fork in the road. Many groups never even have a conversation about what to do with emotions, much less what permission they give the facilitator to work with them. For the most part, the default position of most groups is to discourage people from expressing their feelings (treating it as a loss of control), and then hoping for the best.

Better, I think, is anticipating that feelings are going to be in the room (whether they're expressly welcome or not), and that you're ahead of the curve to anticipate those moments. Necessarily, that means authorizing the facilitator to recognize and engage with feelings, which means, at a minimum, connecting with the person who is triggered. 

Thus, facilitators need to be able to work accurately at an energetic level (trust me, people who are upset will be able to tell in a blink whether they are being heard or managed, and bullshit won't cut it) and that's a question of range.

I’ll interrupt perceived repetition
While it's usually not that hard to tell when someone is going around the mulberry bush for the second or third time, it can take some courage to interrupt the speaker to point that out. While the recipient of this feedback may be gracious about it (whew); they may instead be outraged to have been called out. (I've had plenty of unpleasant moments when the speaker did not appreciate my cutting short their repetition.) So it calls for range to be the traffic cop, knowing that you might be the object of some icy stares or barbed retorts for pulling someone over for driving too slow and holding up traffic.

I'll keep people on topic
This one can be tough to discern. When a speaker has an unusual way of organizing their thoughts it isn't always obvious whether they're getting to their point by first circling Pluto (in which case you need to throw them some more line) or whether Pluto is their point (in which case you need to redirect). To be sure, this is basically another version of traffic cop, writing people up for leaving the scheduled route without permission. 

When you're aware of tendencies in the group to indulge in indiscretions, sometimes the facilitator operates with a tight rein—so there is minimal room to misbehave. In the extreme, I've seen facilitators take up half the air time, offering up a more or less constant stream of guidance about where the group stands and what kind of comments are welcome. That's going too far in the other direction.

Taking on the persona of traffic cop (essentially being a disciplinarian) does not necessarily come easily to every facilitator and thus is another example of range.

When things are going well, the facilitator needs neither a loud voice nor a big stick. Unfortunately, meetings don't always proceed in laminar flow, and there may be moments when you need to project firmness in order to maintain or reestablish control.

Alternately, there may be times when you need to get softer to sustain a container suitable for tenderness and vulnerability. 

Taken together, you need range to handle both.

In addition to volume and demeanor, it's an advantage to be aware of pace and how adjustments to it can impact the group. In general, there will be variety among group members as to the time it takes them to  absorb information, to process it, and to organize their response. (Caution: there is no correlation between how quickly a person processes and the quality of their contributions.) 

While it's probably not a good idea to always go slowly—at the pace preferred by the slowest thinker in the group (bo-o-oring!), you also need to be mindful of the dangers of leaving people behind at the ticket window when the train pulls out of the station (Oops!). One strategy for handling this is to work complex topics in discrete chunks, which allow the folks who need more time the chance to complete chewing and swallowing all the food in their mouth before more is offered. Meanwhile, those who don't need the extra time can be doing something else.

Further, certain kinds of engagement predictably benefit from a slower pace. For example, you'd ordinarily run a brainstorm at much faster pace than a grieving circle. A good facilitator will understand that and have the range to set a pace appropriate to the need.

Formats and Learning Styles
It's useful to take into account that people have decided preferences in how information is presented. Generally speaking, there are three primary styles: aural, visual, and kinesthetic. In a typical group of 20+ people all three will be present.

For the aural, meetings comprised of folks just sitting round talking works just fine, so long as they can hear. However, if you're primary intake is visual, then it helps considerably to have key points scribed on an easel or whiteboard, or to have graphics that illuminate concepts. The style that tends to be least well served is the kinesthetic learners. Sitting for long stretches can be hard for them and thus, formats that include physical movement can make a big difference in engaging this group.

If you want to be an inclusive facilitator your repertoire of needs to include a range of presentation and engagement styles that services all three learning types.

Road Mapping 
A good facilitator always knows where we are in the conversation and where we're headed (not the outcome; but the sequence by which we'll get there). The better you can see around the curve, the more productively you can align the work in the present moment to serve where you expect to go.

Standing or Sitting
How the facilitator positions themselves in relation to the group impacts proceedings as well as their words. Understanding the language of positioning is yet another example of range. When sitting, the facilitator is either holding the reins loosely or reinforcing a request for a slower pace (perhaps for doing heart work). When standing, the facilitator has a stronger presence and tends to command greater respect. 

Thus, standing up will get everyone's attention—highly useful when the group needs to be reined in. Sitting down indicates that all is well, or it's time to drop down into a softer, more reflective space. Walking toward a speaker sends the wordless message that it's time to wrap up, or they otherwise have the facilitator's undivided attention—perhaps because they're in distress; perhaps because they haven't responded to a more gentle attempt at redirection.
 • • •
Every facilitator will have a natural style—the way they'll conduct business unconsciously. The main point of this essay is that there's considerable potential for enhancing your effectiveness if you consciously develop your understanding of how adjustments to style will impact proceedings and your ability to alter your style to fit the moment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Key Facilitation Skills: Managing the Obstreperous

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest.

Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.

Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
II. Working Constructively with Emotions 
III. Managing the Obstreperous
IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
VIII. Sis Boom Bang
IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
XV. Trusting the Force 

• • •
Managing the Obstreperous
Although not inevitable, it’s relatively common for groups to struggle with the patterned behavior of one or more members that most others in the group find disruptive or challenging. Maybe the person is regularly irritable (or at least uncharitable); maybe they lash out at those who disagree with them (after all, we have a President who does that); maybe they regularly leak sarcasm. Once I witnessed a group struggle with a member who had an abrupt, staccato laugh that set people on edge. Pretty much anything out of the ordinary can be experienced as "a problem."

Let’s label the person with the triggering behavior Person X.

Essentially you have three choices in how you respond:

a) You can ignore them, hoping they'll go away (or at least the behavior will go away) if it doesn't get attention. 

Depending on how much Person X cares about how others respond to them, and understands that a change in behavior might produce a better connection, this might work. Mostly though, I think this strategy hinges on a level of subtlety that Person X won't possess, and the essential trade-off is that it's acceptable to lose Person X as a contributing member of the group in exchange for relief from their difficult behavior. And they may well continue to do the thing that bothers you even after they've been marginalized, so this is an iffy approach.

b) You can ostracize them or try to contain them—essentially putting them in the penalty box for being too weird. Maybe this means they're never picked to serve on key committees. Maybe their input is systematically ignored or undervalued. Maybe no one asks how they're doing. There is nothing in writing, but everyone knows the drill, and they're treated as a second class citizen (or maybe third class, depending on how stratified your group is).

c) You can try to understand them, adjusting how the group responds to their behavior.
I think the most fruitful way to think about this dynamic is as a diversity issue. How far is the group willing to go to embrace a range of styles? This is a nontrivial question that groups are often resentful having thrust upon them.

To be clear, I am not taking a position on the answer to this question (no group can be all things to all people, and there are always limits to how far a group can stretch to embrace "other"), yet I've witnessed plenty of examples where a group has given up on Person X because it's far more comfortable to label them "the problem" and to pull a full Pontius Pilate, than to look in the mirror and do the personal work needed to expand beyond one's comfort zone to bridge to Person X with all their warts.

As a facilitator, my default is to throw the obstreperous a life ring—rather than to shackle them with the psychic equivalent of a horse collar or an electronic ankle bracelet (pick your metaphor). If you can set aside, at least temporarily, the group's reactivity to Person X's delivery, and focus on the meaning of what they're saying, I've found there's a good chance that Person X will start to behave better—which is a good deal all around. Though I am not guaranteeing this result, I've enjoyed considerable success with this approach.
Challenging deliveries, I think, are best understood as ill-conceived strategies for getting heard. What's more, in most instances Person X is following a lifelong pattern rather than choosing to be difficult. They're just doing what they always do. (One of the ways this breaks down is that others can't imagine that Person X is oblivious to how much the group struggles with their behavior and therefore posit that it's purposefully chosen, and then they're outraged about that, too. It can get pretty messy.)

Thus, when the obstreperous get heard (mission accomplished), they tend to calm down and their behavior improves. If groups focus first on Person X's awkward or provocative delivery and insist on dealing with that as a precondition to working with Person X's point of view ("I'll be damned if we'll let Person X get away with that disrespectful shit") it rarely works. You push; they push back. (The applicable adage here is what you resist persists.)

I know this sounds counterintuitive (leaning into the punch) but it's the main approach I employ in working with so-called difficult people.

Notes Along the Way
•  Have you defined what kind of meeting behavior you are asking from members? (It’s not particularly fair or effective to hold people accountable to norms or standards that have never been articulated.)

•  Has a good faith effort been made to discuss with Person X what’s been difficult about their behavior?
Note that this should include what alternate behavior is being requested.

•  What is problematic to some may be a breath of fresh air to others—don’t assume a uniform analysis.

•  It's sometimes useful to drill down on what exactly is being problematic. Here are some possibilities: 
Is the behavior experienced as aggressive and bullying (comes across as intimidating)? Does making room for Person X mean losing others, who no longer feel safe if Person X is allowed to behave in a challenging way?

—Is it manipulative? If the group has no agreements (or skills) in working with strong feelings then the emergence of distress can derail the conversation. If people think that's being done strategically—rather than as an honest emotional reaction—there can be hell to pay.

—Is it indirect? If Person X injects snide comments into the conversation, perhaps through sarcasm, biting humor, or negative side conversations that are quickly disavowed if asked what's going on, it can cast a pall over the group.

•  Does Person X care that their behavior is perceived as disruptive? You have more options for remediation available to you when they do, than when they don't.

•  The goal is to protect the right of Person X to have their views expressed and taken into account while at the same time not allowing their behavior to get in the way of the same right being extended to others. It's not a one-way street, and sometimes you have to rub their nose in it, after you have heard what they have to say.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Two Faces of Jargon

I love working and playing with words. And while, yes, that includes doing the NYT crossword puzzle as a daily partnership ritual with Susan, it's way more than that.

Last week I listened to someone give an impassioned plea for eschewing jargon, and it got me thinking. The speaker acknowledged that there was a place for specialized language (inside of specialties) but it was, in his view, a clear mistake to let that leak out into public where people just get confused about obscure meanings. His point—which was a good one— was that the purpose of communication was to be clear, not to obfuscate or to impress people with arcane, insider knowledge.

But I was not willing to swallow his point whole hog. How is jargon (words with a specialty meaning) useful and how is it distancing? That's what I'm going to explore in this essay.

While I agree that the overall context is communication and that the objective is passing along ideas and meaning as accurately as possible, we need to appreciate that everyone's understanding of "normal" vocabulary (even assuming we could define it) is not uniform, so the line between standard definitions and jargon is not quite as crisp as the speaker posits. Where does one draw the line, and why?

Language, I believe, needs to resist change but not be immutable. It has to breathe, and cannot be a done deal. It has to be possible for new terms to become "normal" as the culture evolves. Thus, some of what starts out as jargon gets elevated to standard, and it's often difficult to tell at first what will endure and what will fade. If jargon is banished or never used, there will be no cream to rise to the top, available to be lovingly skimmed off from time to time and added to sweeten and enrich our speech.

Consider, for example, this small batch of recent additions that are now solidly accepted (but were unheard of 35 years ago), all in the genre of emerging technology: email, social media, and tweeting.
 Here are some edgier examples: terms coming into general usage that I believe are likely candidates to become normalized (though it's probably too early to be sure):

•  crowdfunding to describe a broad-based appeal to potential benefactors where you try to raise money from a large number of small donations, typically via an electronic platform (the prime examples of which are Indiegogo, Go Fund Me, and Kickstarter).

•  mansplaining to describe the phenomenon where a man explains something (especially to a woman) in a condescending way in the mistaken belief that he knows more about the topic than she does.

•  cisgender (often shortened to "cis") to indicate people who identify with the gender they were biologically born with (in contrast with transgender).

The thing all these newer terms have in common is that they were developed to meet an emerging need. Because our culture isn't static (thank god), our vocabulary has to be protean enough to keep up. That means jargon needs to tested periodically to see if it's ready for prime time—not carefully restricted to the specialty closet or only invoked in dark corners sotto voce.

And there's more. Consider Donald Trump, who uses a very limited vocabulary, and, in consequence, many trite phrases (for what else is left?). It's often hard to know exactly what he's saying, which is further complicated by his contradicting his staff and his disconcerting habit of disavowing a thing he says in the morning with a follow-up statement later the same day. He's pretty good at conveying a clear energy (disdain being his forte), but discerning meaning from his statements is like trying to follow a drunk home—he's all over the place. (Admittedly, in his case it's hard to tell if he values consistency at all and it's difficult to distinguish whether he's being purposefully obscure, or simply cannot communicate any better.)

I bring him up as an example both because he's readily available and because it seems to me that he's embraced what my friend was advocating: no jargon. He speaks only in simple terms. How well is that working? 

Generalizing from Trump, I believe limited vocabulary correlates with the incidence of hackneyed phrasing. While that may not be inevitable, it's common and it isn't a good thing. Overused phrases typically have a dull edge. They cut poorly and are imprecise at conveying meaning (just as poorly oxygenated blood has trouble invigorating cells). Going the other way, jargon is energizing (if sometimes confusing). Think of it like a pond turning over, stirring up nutrients. 

Do all uses of jargon succeed in conveying meaning? Absolutely not. The more nuanced question is whether the incidence of failure indicates that we should never try, because everyday use of jargon sometimes confuses instead of inspires? For me it doesn't, though the decision to judiciously interlard one's speech with jargon calls for discernment in word choice—and a commitment to patient explanations when you overreach.

What is the value in stretching the language? While there were many aspects of my relationship with my father that I've struggled with, his love of words was something I readily embraced and for which I am grateful. Among other things that seed ultimately grew into my becoming an author and a public speaker, because I love the medium. It's an art form (rather than a mine field). 

I have made the strategic choice to regularly employ less commonly used words in my speech and writing because they have the meaning I want and I rebel against dumbing down the language (and the Orwellian concept of word elimination to control dissent through reducing the vocabulary to express it—a central feature of 1984—which was offered as dystopian fiction in 1949, yet expresses perfectly the horror of what this process can lead to—a version of mind control.

Besides, at the end of the day, I'm just having too much fun playing with the words. And who wants less fun in their life? 

In closing I'm going to ask that you indulge me on a pet peeve. "Enormity" is often used these days to mean large, but it didn't use to. It means evil. Will the language expand to embrace the misuse? Maybe (even though it makes me want to puke). There are plenty of other words to convey large (immensity, for example). On the other hand, Kleenex has now come to mean any facial tissue, not a particular brand, and I think that's probably OK, so enormity is likely to become acceptable as a synonym for large, despite my dyspepsia. Such is life, and my lack of ability to control it.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Upper Limit Participation

When I was working with a consensus group recently, I asked them what issues they were experiencing, and the strongest response was burnout. Too few people doing too much. They had been hoping that the commitment to consensus would translate into everyone more or less having their oar equally in the water, but that's not what they were getting (which incidentally, is common). What to do?

To be clear, this was not a money issue. It was mostly an energy issue. The context was non-monetary contributions to the community's well-being and maintenance, and they were focusing on contributions in two broad categories: a) physical upkeep and improvements; and b) governance. Although they are apples and oranges (for most people, cleaning the common house toilets or shoveling the sidewalk is not the same as facilitating a plenary, or serving as convener of the Maintenance Committee), yet it all counts.

In addition, almost everyone recognizes that it's a poor idea to be draconian about this and requiring everyone to contribute equally (and what do you mean by everyone: is it every able-bodied adult; is it contributions per household; do renters count?). There needs to be flexibility about capacity and life circumstances. That means factoring in disabilities (both temporary and permanent), family exigencies (sick mother-in-laws, children with broken bones, sudden job loss, and the like), and the limitations of people's skill sets.

[For a fuller treatment of the questions to consider in setting up expectations around Participation, see my blog from Sept 29, 2008, Working with Work.]

In this essay I want to focus on the dynamics of people who are giving above and beyond—those who are burning out. Quite simply, community would not be possible if there weren't some folks willing and able to give extra to the cause. The challenge is how to set this up to succeed. On the one hand you want to encourage volunteerism; on the other it's easy to overdo it.

I think the line you want to draw is that you do not want people contributing to the point where there's resentment. All offers to contribute extra (even presuming you can define it) have to be freely given with no expectation that you will be repaid in power or privileges (or a plum parking space and or an office with a corner window) by virtue of your contributions—that is, no strings attached. (Note: you can always earn power by dint of doing well a job well, but that's not same as claiming power based on having logged extra hours.)

What motivates someone to do extra? I think it's a number of things, many of which may obtain in combination:

•  Opportunity
I have the time and skills, and care about the group, so why not?

•  Satisfaction of service
I get personal satisfaction out of helping and there's a clear need. Further, by doing extra it assuages my anxiety about whether I'm doing enough (don't laugh, this can be a key motivator).

•  Work they enjoy
I get satisfaction out of the specific jobs I do. They are inherently interesting to me, or utilize a skill that I derive pleasure from putting to use.

•  Recognition
This can be tricky, in that people can be all over the map with regard to appreciation—all the way from preferring anonymity to a party once a month (or a $100 Amazon gift card). Sometimes a quiet thank you goes a long way. You need to know the person to get this right, but it can make a major difference when you do.

•  How the work is delivered
While there is a large dose of personal preference here as well, sometimes it matters a good deal how the work is done. While there are some who like to work alone and in their own hours (accounting can be done this way, for example) many are interested in contributions that can be done in groups (think committee work, garden parties, cooking teams, construction projects), so that social needs can be met concurrently.

•  Leader support
Beyond recognition for sheer hours, special consideration should be given to those who fill leadership roles (HOA President, committee convener, or project honchos). If the group has not done a good job of defining what it wants in people who fill leadership positions, there is a marked tendency in cooperative groups to slide into a culture where leaders experience an unhealthy ratio of criticism to appreciation, which undercuts their willingness to do more. This is deadly.

Groups need leadership roles to be filled and therefore need a culture that supports it. If your group suffers from a rampant case of leader bashing, I urge you to take the cure. (See my blog of Feb 5, 2010, Touching the (Leadership) Void for more on this.)

• • •
If you want to enhance the experience (sustaining people in their contributions) here are some suggestions of things to try:

—Help find replacements so they get a break (to step back for a time of renewal) and are not trapped by their competency (ironically, this occasionally means prying people out of their roles—even as they bitch about the workload, offers of help or replacement are never quite good enough, so they stay on the cross).

—Look for ways to make the contributions more satisfying (it can make all the difference when someone serves on a committee with good chemistry and good communication; suddenly what was once a slog becomes joyous and the threat a burnout recedes despite no change in the hours).

—Make sure everyone has a buddy; a sympathetic ear available to hear about what's hard. They may or may not have suggestions for how to improve things, but just having safe place to unload can help bleed pressure when the needle is starting to rise into the red.

—Offer to help prioritize how they're contributing, retaining the most precious and letting go of the least.

—Encourage them to talk about the strain they're experiencing in the subgroups they're in so everyone knows the picture (sometimes no one has a understands what busy people are juggling when they do their work in stoic silence; or they may know what they're doing in that subgroup but have little sense of the other balls they're keeping in the air.) Paint the picture (without melodrama, please) and trust the group to show up for you. (For some of us, receiving help is actually much harder than extending it.)

Working it from the other end, I have a pair of suggestions for how you might encourage others to step up more (without shaming or guilt tripping):

1) I think it's healthy for the group to periodically (maybe every year or two) gather for a one-topic meeting at which you go around the circle twice asking people to address these questions:

Round One: Without defining it explicitly, do you believe you are contributing: a) your fair share to the labor of maintaining and improving the community; b) less than your fair share; or c) more than your fair share? In addition, please give an overview of what you're currently doing for the community. [It can be helpful here to allow others to add to the list of the speaker's contributions, but this is not the time to voice criticisms.]

Round Two: What, if anything, would you be willing to do for the community beyond what you are now? If there is any support you'd like from others to accomplish this, what would that be (while there's no guarantee that you'll get what you ask for, you might, and if don't ask the answer is "no")? Please be specific about your needs. It may be childcare, partners to work with, a mentor to train them, chocolate, back rubs… whatever.

This sequence has the potential to accomplish a number of good things:
•  It informs everyone all at once about what's happening (or at least a lot of it). In general there tends to be more going on than most people know and this can shift the energy from a feeling of scarcity to one of relative abundance.

•  If a person comes to the meeting with some tension about people perceived to be under-contributing (so called slackers), it can be helpful to hear what these folks are doing, and whether they agree with your assessment of whether they're doing their fair share. Warning: This won't handle all tensions, but it should help with some.

•  It makes it much easier to match make when people reveal what interests they have and what support they need. Often people hesitate to offer assistance when they're confused about need, or are embarrassed to ask for help. This is designed to ease both of those tendencies.

2) Participation Committee
Another possibility is to establish a committee whose job would include periodically visiting every household (maybe once every two years) to ascertain in a non-threatening environment what interests, willingness, and availability they have for contributing to the labor needs of the community. This information can be used to match with needs, based on the same committee gathering that information from committees. 

This kind of behind-the-scenes troubleshooting can be very helpful in pouring oil over troubled waters, reducing the tendency to gnash teeth, twist knickers, and burn out. Give it a try.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Key Facilitation Skills: Working Constructively with Emotions

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest.

Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.

Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
II. Working Constructively with Emotions
III. Managing the Obstreperous
IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
VIII. Sis Boom Bang
IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
XV. Trusting the Force 

• • •
Working Constructively with Emotions 
This is a watershed issue. Both whether to do it at all, and then, if so, how. You can, for example, buy well-regarded books on facilitation that don't touch this topic at all. 

(To be kind, I believe the thinking is that emotions are chaotic and many groups do not have any agreements to work emotionally. Further, skill in working with content has almost no overlap in working emotionally, so you can see how something who is a whiz at working with ideas may be tempted to label feelings as Beyond the Pale and therefore out of bounds. Seen through that lens, one of the goals of good facilitation is to steer clear of emotional entanglements—for them, well-run meetings are achieved by containing emotional outbursts or navigating around them.)

The cherry on top of that, is that it's undoubtedly one the hardest skills to master, and it does no good to promise that you can deliver safety that is beyond your capacity.

However, all of that said, you're going to have moments in group dynamics where there are strong emotional currents in play, whether you outlaw them or not. Not having an understanding of how to work with that reality—or even permission to try—is not only crippling, it misses the boat.

Let me explain. I'll start by setting the table. Emotional responses arise in an incredible variety of ways, and with a wide range of strength. It's useful, in my experience, to distinguish between minor irritations and ones that are more serious. I'm not talking about hangnails, or someone making a grammatical error. I think you just have to let the minor stuff go (you can't tilt at every windmill).

So where to draw the line? My answer is when the distress is starting to cause non-trivial distortion—by which I mean the ability to hear accurately what others are saying. Distress acts as a kind of virtual earwax; the more you have the more you're distracted by internal dialog and less accurately you take in what others are saying. When it's really bad, you may be hearing nothing. If you plow ahead anyway it's the same as deciding that you don't need that person's active involvement to make good decisions. It's OK to leave them by the side of the road and move on. That's a hell of a decision. And one that can often bite you in the butt later, perhaps when the marginalized person sabotages the implementation.

The problem may be further compounded by secondary reactions in those tracking the person in distress, who may be focusing on the symptoms of distress instead of what's being said about the issue that the group has agreed to examine. So unaddressed reactivity can get pretty expensive.

In my view, once you're observing non-trivial distortion (yes, it's a judgment call) then I think it's worth addressing (I'll discuss how below).

Next let's look of how distress manifests. While feelings can be wide range of things, the two that tend to be the most troublesome are rage (accompanied by aggression and attack) and fear or sadness (characterized by shutdown or uncontrolled weeping). Off the chart joy or unremitting boredom don't tend to be so hard to cope with.

•  Case 1
Sometimes it's tangential to the issue at hand (the speaker is wearing a red shirt; the person in reaction had a fight with their partner that morning and the partner was wearing a red shirt; the distress has nothing to do with the speaker or the issue, it's simply a transference). As soon as you can get that sorted out you can return to the regularly scheduled program with clean ears and everyone on board. This one usually isn't that hard.

•  Case 2
Sometimes it's about the speaker and not the issue. There may be some unresolved history between the two and that's distorting the conversation, rather than the current issue. While not germane to the present issue, it's nonetheless a problem. Fortunately, this can often be handled expeditiously—if the person in reaction is aware of what's happening and owns it. If however, the person in reaction is perfectly willing to use the current issue as a battleground, then you have a problem. 

Perhaps attempts to reconcile failed; perhaps the person in reaction has given up on having a decent relationship with the speaker, and believes they have nothing to lose; perhaps the person in reaction believes the speaker is selfish and has no regard for the group; perhaps the person in reaction just likes a good fight. This can go south for a number of reasons.

However, even when it's sticky, you have a powerful point of leverage: the core issue (a damaged relationship and low trust between the speaker and the person in reaction) is not what's on the table, but the damage is leaking into the conversation. Once that's established, the group faces a choice about whether to suspend the agenda to support examination of the damaged relationship, or find a suitable safe haven elsewhere (specifying time, place, and acceptable third party assistance) to pursue this so the group can return the topic at hand. To be clear, it is the group's choice not the protagonists' choice about how to use group time. The protagonists have input on that but not control.

If someone is perceived to go into reactivity as a strategy (perhaps because the group tends to get passive in the presence of rage or tears and defers to the person in distress), rather than as an honest, spontaneous response to events, it is dangerous to let that go unnamed, as it's abusing the group. That said, tread carefully here. Accusing someone of being abusive is a heavy step and there may not be universal agreement that that's happened. This can get very chaotic very quickly.

•  Case 3
Finally, there is the case where the reaction to is related to the issue at hand. That is, the emotional response is relevant. Now what?

Luckily, once you assess that the distress is resulting in non-trivial distortion, you can treat all three of these cases the same way:

Suspend the conversation about the issue and check out what's happening for the person in distress (probably a number of others were watching this unfold, too; not just you—so you're carrying water for the group). Try to be direct and nonjudgmental ("Your body language—a frown and crossed arms—tells me you're upset about something; did you have a reaction to what Dale just said?" or "I noticed that you flinched when Chris spoke; did the views expressed strike a nerve in you?")

You are trying to through a set of four questions:
Question 1: What was the feeling?
You may have to be insistent here if the person wants to tell stories and shy away from a statement of feelings. Don't let them off the hook.

Question 2: What was the trigger? 
The feelings emerged form something that someone did or didn't do; something they said or didn't say. Strong feelings don't emerge from nowhere. If a specific person or persons were the trigger and they're present, set up a dialog between the person in reaction one of the triggers (with their permission and conduct a back and forth between them, walking them both through the sequence of questions until each is satisfied that the other has heard what they said. If the person in reaction is upset with the whole group ask for a volunteer to stand in for the group in a dyad with the person who is upset, and proceed that way.

In either case, it sometimes happens that the other person in the dyad is not reactive to the person in reaction and what they say, and sometimes they are. If they aren't, things tend to move quickly. If they are, progress can be more piecemeal and slower to come by, but it's achievable nonetheless. You just have to be patient.

Question 3: What is the meaning (why was there a strong reaction)? 

Question 4: What are you willing to do about it?
Now that you've been heard and have heard the other person's answers to the same set of questions, what unilateral, observable step are you willing to take (that you are not currently doing) that is in line with your values and beliefs yet represents a good faith effort to repair damage to the relationship? You are not  asking anyone to change stripes, sell out their viewpoint, or alter their personality. Stay with that until you get an offer from both sides that is accepted by the other person.

By this point ears should have been cleared sufficiently that you can return to the issue at hand and be productive. Note: After questions 1) and 2), there may have been enough progress made that questions 3) and 4) can happen at a later setting and you can return to the issue at hand more quickly. You always need to be thinking of what focus will be best for the plenary: sometimes it's further work on the tensions that have been opened up; sometimes it's returning as quickly as possible to the issue on the agenda.

You are not taking sides; you are simply making sure you understand what happened. Invariably, if you have done this accurately, three good things will happen: i) the person's distress will deescalate, and their ears will tend be more open—because you have undercut the tendency to feel isolated in distress; ii) you have made it easier for the group to understand what point the person was trying to make (and was probably poorly understood because of the overwhelming tendency for others to be reactive to reactivity); and iii) you will have accomplished this without marginalizing or pathologizing the person in distress, and at the same time you will have held them accountable for working with the group to understand what has happened, and cleaning up any damage that may have occurred as part of their expressing their distress (no free swings).

The ultimate goal here is to get the group to not be reactive to the emergence of reactivity, by virtue of having a solid idea about how to handle it. The method I have outlined above is one I have developed personally and used with considerable success. But there are others out there. Notably Nonviolent Communication and Restorative Circles. The most important thing is that you have something in place that facilitators can use and that the group has confidence in.
• • •
So what will it take to get the group's permission to work emotionally (as opposed to rogue actions by an inspired facilitator)?

The first hurdle to cross is the dangers people perceive in working with feelings. Done poorly, it can make things worse; it provides a platform for nasty exchanges that can cause lasting damage to relationships, even to the point of splitting the group apart. (And it can be excruciating to sit through to boot.) Why take the chance?

There are a number of reasons:
•  Unaddressed, distress has way of going anaerobic (rather than healing in isolation) and becoming stronger and nastier, making it that much harder to deal with the next time. 

•  Suppressed distress tends to leak elsewhere, either inappropriately in future meetings, or by unenthusiastic (if not hostile) implementation.

•  By quashing distress, it sends the signal that relationship damage takes a back seat to problem solving; is that what you mean to be conveying?

• Not working with feelings reinforces the prejudice that meetings will be conducted only in the realm of rational thought. Is that smart? (See the Key Facilitation Skills: Riding Two Horses for more on this.)

But it's more than that. The second hurdle is the advantages of working emotionally. There are two main ones:

a) Strong feelings—which are essentially a form of passion—are a source of energy. Wouldn't it be better to harness that energy, rather than turn it off? I liken passion as the stream of water in a fire hose. Left unattended (with no agreement about how to handle it) it can be downright dangerous to be trapped in a room with a loose fire hose under pressure. Not only can you get hit be stream of high pressure water if it comes your way (as the target of the person in distress), but you can also get conked on the head by a wild swinging nozzle. It's scary.

One choice is to turn off the water. But what about learning to hold the hose? In control, a fire hose is beneficial tool that can be used to put out fires and solve problems. You lose that option if you turn off the water. Rather than being afraid of passion, let's figure out how to work with it! (I find flat line meetings to be dull.)

b) Distress is also a source of information. For some, emotional knowing is more accurate and more sensitive than rational knowing. Why eliminate that consideration, forcing people to translate feelings into thought in order to gain legitimacy? In my experience it's better to assume relevancy (until you learn otherwise) and go from there. For a more complete treatment of how to work distress see Closing Contact with the Third Rail of Distress, Getting a Feeling for Working Conflict, When Groups Should Address Conflict in Plenary, The Anaerobic Hazard of Unaddressed Distress, What It Takes for Groups to Be Less Conflicted about Conflict, and To Ask or Not Ask; That Is the Question.

This accomplishes a number of good things:
—It enriches the conversation, making for better decisions.
—It sends the signal that we'll take relevant input any way we can get it; gives us what you got and we'll figure out together how it fits in. This reduces nervousness in members about whether or not to speak.
—It puts muscle behind your commitment to diversity.
—By shining a light on distress as it emerges it undercuts the tendency to become anaerobic later if unaddressed. Think of it as a preemptive strike.
• • •
Finally, there is a personal question for facilitators. Can you function in the chaotic moment? Have you done sufficient personal work to not be reactive in the presence of other people's reactivity. If you are not sure, keep working at it. This is not simple work, but there is a large reward once you get there and you can do your group a great service if you can deliver at need. Hang in there!