Thursday, May 5, 2011

Nailing Distress

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This centuries-old proverb cautions about the potentially large consequences of the accumulated effects of small problems left unattended. There is a strong parallel here when working with active distress in groups. It goes like this:

For want of a bridge there is no traffic among the protagonists.
For want of traffic there is no collaborative problem solving.
For want of collaboration there is weak buy-in with agreements about what to do.
For want of buy-in the implementation is crippled.
For want of wholehearted implementation the problem is not solved.
And all for the want of a bridge.

Thus, whenever I'm working with distress—which is probably the single most common dynamic I'm asked to tackle as a process consultant—I've learned that there's little chance of substantive progress until and unless I've built bridge to each player and can successfully maintain it. As a starting place, it's imperative that I'm able to establish to each party's satisfaction that I've understood the gist of their experience and can represent this accurately as the conversation unfolds. That's the foundation for the bridge.

While this may not sound very profound, it's actually tricky.

o This doesn't work unless the person agrees that you've heard them accurately. It's rarely sufficient to just nod your head or assert, "I understand." Often, a person in fulminating distress feels isolated and misunderstood. To counteract this, it's usually necessary to offer a verbal summary that captures the essence of their story and to get their recognition that you did a creditable job. Remember: it's their story and you need to get it on their terms.

o There is an important distinction between content and affect, and you need to get both right. Batting .500 is great is you're a major league baseball player, but not good enough if your facilitating conflict. It's more than parroting the words or weaving together all the threads, you need to connect to the story viscerally.

When establishing affect, it's been my experience that it's often helpful to work with passion. Some facilitators attempt to be even-tempered all the time, in the mistaken belief that their calmness will keep people from being less triggered in a volatile situation. To the contrary, I've found that if you're accurate and even-handed that you can be fully demonstrative and it won't come across as provocative or taking sides.

Don't try to stay in the middle; try to stay connected to both ends (this is a very different strategy). Don't be attached to truth or outcomes; instead be guided by relationship and the need to keep all parties exchanging information that can serve as a salve (rather than as a salvo).

o When you ask conflicted parties for movement (that is, a commitment to an action step that is different than what they've already been doing) keep your eye on the bridge abutments to make sure they're still intact. You can lose an otherwise serviceable connection by making too large a request too soon.

o Sometimes, the way a person expresses distress can itself be triggering, and your first impulse may be to comment on their negative judgments or aggression, which you find offensive and out of line. While you have my sympathy, that rarely works. First build the bridge; then discuss their choice of expression.

Bridge building is an important facilitative skill at all times, yet you'll have to learn to be an engineer in adverse conditions if your going to facilitate conflict. Not everyone has the deftness or the moxie to attempt to quarry foundation blocks and set them in place when the winds pick up and there's furniture flying. Luckily though, there are some who willing to lean into the wind and perform in harm's way. They are the ones who are out there trying to nail distress.

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