Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Virtual Earwax

After 20 years as a process consultant, I’ve become convinced that one of the important skills a facilitator can learn is how to discern when someone in the room is sufficiently reactive that they’re ability to work accurately with the information around them is serious compromised. I call this virtual earwax.

When the upset is great enough, literally nothing gets through. The person in distress hears and remembers nothing of what others said. They only recall their upset (and likely their sense of feeling isolated and misunderstood). In consequence their ability to contribute to problem solving is totally skewed. If you want their thinking —and their commitment to any agreements the group makes—you’ll have to give them an opportunity to deescalate, or clean their ears.

This moment is delicate for several reasons.

First, you may misdiagnose what’s happening. There’s a knee-jerk tendency to project your symptoms of distress onto others and that can lead to all manner of mischief. Just because their behavior would indicate distress if it were your behavior doesn’t mean they’re upset! Where a raised voice and waving of hands are solid signs of distress for some, it may only indicate engagement for others. Is that person’s sullenness and tense expression in response to what people are saying, or are they just constipated? You have to know the individual’s range. And if you’re not sure, ask.

Second, The most common response to the emergence of upset is fear (bad things happen when people get upset—there’s likely to be name calling, blaming, and outright attacks—so I better lay low and get out of the line of fire) or upset in return (you’re upset with what just happened, and I’m upset that you’re upset—the conversation had been productive until you got triggered). Distress in response to distress does not tend to add up to good things, and it can be tricky getting off the emotional merry-go-round.

Third, there is often a negative response to how a person expresses their distress (it can be a particularly difficult moment to remember one’s commitment to I-statements), never mind the distress itself. Unfortunately, when a person is seriously triggered, observations about their behavior—no matter how out of line—tend to only fuel the reaction, not calm it. For most of it's counter-intuitive to reach out to someone who is attacking someone else, rather than first trying to come to the aid of the person under attack.

OK, let’s suppose you’ve accurately diagnosed that someone is upset, you’ve established that major distortion is under way, and you know you need to get that earwax out. How to proceed? While deescalating can follow a number of paths, in my experience the best first step is to describe the distress in words that the upset person acknowledges are accurate. That means showing the upset person that you get their feelings and what triggered them. It doesn’t mean you have the same reaction, or that you agree with them. It only means that you understand and acknowledge their experience. This is essential to interrupting their tendency to feel isolated and misunderstood in that moment. People don’t tend to stay as upset when they are accurately heard.

Hint: You’ll tend to be much more successful at this if you pay as much attention to the person’s affect as to their words. You are trying to show that you get them in both your head and your gut.

What happens next can look like a lot of things. It depends on a number of factors, such as:
—How bad the distortion is (how much earwax has built up)
—The skill of people in the room to work with distress without getting triggered themselves
—What works for the distressed person
—How badly you need to get back to the conversation
—How much trust the distressed person has in the group
—What support exists for the distressed person outside of group

If you are unsure what to do next, ask the distressed person what they’d like. In the end, it’s all about what works, not about reinforcing an orthodoxy about how to clean ears.

No comments: