Saturday, July 3, 2010

You Thought I Said What?

This past week I submitted a report to a client and the front end of it was a lengthy summary of background that I had captured over a couple days with the group, setting the stage for my summary of the issues we wrestled with and my recommendations for how to proceed. This is a normal feature of my reports, and generally clients like what they read under the Findings section. Not this time, however.

I was knocked off stride when this comment came back from the client: “In the history section especially, I am surprised at the information, since I think you must have gotten all or most of it from me, and so many things are quite far off.
Gulp. And this was from someone who liked what I’d done with the group and had no ax to grind—she just didn’t care for how I’d captured her story. I author a lot of reports and edit a lot of minutes (on average, I crank one out about once a week). While there’s no doubt I occasionally miss things, or jumble facts (luckily, most of my work is reviewed by careful eyes and the mistakes are caught early), I can’t recall the last time I got the feedback “most things are quite far off.” What happened? 
The first message was followed by this amplification of how she experienced me in our time together. She reported thinking to herself at the time, “He really doesn't seem to be asking the right question or listening well to facts.” Yikes! And I didn’t even think I was having an off weekend. To be fair, the client also reported that she felt I’d done an excellent job of listening emotionally, so I reckon I got partial credit. As a professional facilitator though, it’s my job to listen carefully to both the story and the feelings. Half a loaf really doesn’t cut it.
Groping for an explanation, it’s not hard to believe that the client and I could disagree about what aspects of a story we thought were important, so it’s relatively easy to picture moments when I wanted to follow a different track than the speaker and that may not have landed well. However, regardless of the strength of my insights about what threads to follow, it can’t have been a good result that the client felt I was missing her. So this is important feedback, albeit embarrassing.
Fortunately, the client has offered to give me specific feedback on the things I botched, so I’ll have a clearer picture about where (and how often) I went off the rails. The exchange is fresh enough that I haven’t received the specifics yet, so my comments today are about receiving critical feedback in general. Even though I know I need it, that doesn’t mean I don’t squirm when I get it. It’s my ego that’s struggling. (And thus I get to be further embarrassed that I’m still so susceptible to the anguish of bruised pride. Why haven’t I evolved to the point where I’m more adept at sidestepping this elemental trap after 60 years? Shit.) 
OK, enough wallowing in it. I’ll devote the remainder of this blog to laying out why taking accurate histories is important. There are a number of reasons:
—It helps the client feel heard, and is often a key step in developing trust with the facilitator. Whenever you’re working a stuck dynamic, the facilitator knows the point is coming when they’ll ask the players to take steps outside their comfort zone, and this request is much less apt to go well if sufficient trust has not yet been established with each protagonist. 
—Knowing the history helps the facilitator see patterns of behavior among the players (such as how they respond under duress and what their trigger points are).  
—Understanding the history reveals what’s at stake for each player and provides important clues about how to weave a solution that holds their truth and their core interests. (Hint: it rarely works to suggest a course of action that requires anyone, from their perspective, to violate a core value, admit to acting with bad intent, or to change their personality.) It’s enormously helpful to understand how each person defines “integrity,” and what signals to them that another is acting outside of it. 
—Histories often reveal the tender spots, where the unresolved hurts occurred. While (fortunately) it’s rarely necessary to visit all the hurts when trying to repair a damaged relationship, it’s probably necessary to visit some of the hurts and it’s important to select one or more that are representatively awful—so that healing achieved there can reasonably be projected as a balm onto the other hurts, affording the players a graceful and honorable way to let go and move on. 
—Finally, histories offer insights into what movement is possible for each player, so that the facilitator can make good choices about what behavior shifts to request—no matter how valuable or sensible a request may seem to others, at the end of the day it will not help a lick if that action is deemed inaccessible (not doable) by the person you’re making the request of. You've got to be real, and histories give you a good idea about you how each person defines reality.

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