Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Fish That Got Away

Ma'ikwe and I just launched a two-year facilitation training in the Mid-Atlantic States this past weekend, and mostly it went well. At the outset there were a handful of participants unsure whether they wanted to commit to the full two years, and most of them converted after experiencing a dynamic opening weekend. Note however that I said "most" and not "all." There was one person sampling the training who came to the opposite conclusion, and I want to write today about her, about how my work can fall short even when it's mostly landing long.

Style Clash
Partly our misfit was a matter of communication styles. Where I tend to be more orderly and disciplined about how I work with topics (image a honeybee systematically working a patch of white clover), this woman was more comfortable with a meandering and non-linear way of exchanging information (think butterfly flitting among the blossoms in a random pattern), where an agreed upon topic was more a point of departure than a destination.

After repeatedly experiencing my redirecting her comments to the topic at hand, she felt hemmed in and disrespected. I was reining in her enthusiasm and undercutting much of what she found pleasurable about meaningful discourse.

In addition, there was tension between us around pace. While I work purposefully with groups on how to speak on topic and as non-repetitively as possible (to respect time and preserve the opportunities for others to contribute to the conversation), this woman preferred spaciousness when it was her turn, so that she could present her ideas and relate her experiences in her own style and in multiple ways. Where I saw redundancy, she saw richness and nuance. Where I thought I was protecting the group (emphasizing balance and focus), she thought I was needing to be in control.

The reason this is an important topic is because neither of us is wrong. Both us wanted movement, and both of us wanted everyone to have a turn at contributing. Most poignantly of all, both of us thought the other was indulging in behavior that was truncating this common goal. Ouch!

While I can accept that some people are turned off by how I work with groups (though the number is thankfully small, it's greater than zero), it never feels good. Further, it makes sense for me to pause when this happens and see what I can learn about what went wrong. I've gleaned two lessons from last weekend:

1. I need to be more diligent about first making sure that I've established a solid connection with a person before suggesting that they consider modifying their style in order to communicate more easily with the group—even when the person is a student, and enters into the exchange with me predisposed to give serious consideration to my ideas about possible behavior changes. In the case of this woman, I moved too quickly and she felt unseen and disrespected. That's on me.

I think that if I had been more careful, there was ample room for me to fully connect with this woman and still introduce my ideas about the value of staying focused and concise. I was sloppy, and I squandered the gift of her initial interest.

2. The point about our different styles also carries with it a deep lesson about how we can unwittingly fall into the trap of creating meeting culture that works well for people with similar styles, while repelling folks with different strokes. Who am I to say that a more free-form, and open-ended communication style cannot produce insights and linkages that aren't every bit as valuable as what emerges from the more focused and disciplined approach that I prefer? [See my May 17 blog Taking Pot Shots at Consensus for more on the importance of protecting a forum where all voices are welcome.]

I need to take my work to another level, where I simultaneously protect the widest possible range of styles and keep the group on task. It's simply too expensive to tolerate people being pushed off the dance floor simply because they don't know the steps to my music.

1 comment:

bketeyian said...

I admire your frank self-critique. As a student of different communication styles, I very much appreciate your recognition of the friction caused by these differences. It's really common and causes confusion in so many relationships. I hope this doesn't seem presumptuous, but...I've developed a framework for working with these communication style differences. If you are interested, visit:
www.communicationstyles.us. I really enjoyed your post. Thanks,Bob