Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Fine Line Between Driving and Navigating

One of the trickiest parts about learning to facilitate at a high level is understanding the dangers of surreptitiously inserting your agenda into the group's issues. It's the difference between steering the ship according to a map that only you are looking at, and guiding the ship in accordance with a map provided by the group.

Done well, it's actively illuminating a productive path for the group based on accurate listening, modulated by breadth of experience (both about cooperative groups in general, and about this group in specific). Done dangerously, it's about subtly steering (or even outright pushing if the facilitator is more bold or less sophisticated) the group toward the solution the facilitator thinks is best—not because the facilitator is evil, but because they think it's in the group's best interest and expedient to give the group a shove in the right direction.

When less experienced people watch a skilled facilitator in action, it can often look like the facilitator is steering the boat, when in reality they are merely identifying a safe anchorage that meets the group's criteria. The problem is that a good facilitator will often see possibilities (as well as shoal waters) before others and to the casual observer it may seem that they are using their power to impose their will on the group—much in the way committee chairs are able to orchestrate sessions under Roberts Rules of Order.

There can be a fine line between safeguarding how the group does its work, and influencing inappropriately what conclusions the group reaches.

Sometimes people are drawn to the facilitator role because they want to wield the power of that position and believe they may be more effective in directing the course of the group in that capacity than as a designated administrator or manager. This happens, in part, because of a failure to understand the primacy of making a commitment to cultural change. If one views cooperative meeting dynamics through a competitive lens, then the focus will be about who has leverage and control, rather than about how the group can share all the information collectively available to it, so that problem solving can be as broadly based as possible.

Some people believe that governance is too important to be entrusted to the people and should be left in the hands of those most competent to make decisions. Following this line of thought, the role of facilitator is that of a priest (or priestess) who interprets proper decision making in cooperative society. Some people are drawn to this interpretation like a moth to a flame.

To be clear, the role of facilitator is a position of power. The choices that a facilitator makes can have a profound influence on the energy and focus of the conversation. Aware of this, some people choose to facilitate timidly or passively—thus avoiding the risk of being labeled too directive, or too controlling. However, not wielding power does not guarantee that you are in right relationship to it. You can also be judged critically for not employing your power for the good of the group when it was sorely needed.

Here are two ways in which that commonly plays out:

1. Facilitator Neutrality
While the ideal is to have the person (or team) running the meeting be as content neutral as possible, on a practical level this is damn near impossible. Realistically, you are looking for facilitation that is neutral enough. If as a facilitator, you are aware of a viewpoint missing from the conversation—especially an opinion you would probably express if you were simply a participant (and not the facilitator)—then it's almost always better for the group if you find a way to get that expressed. To keep silent in service to the ideal of neutrality is rarely the best choice.

There are a number of ways you can handle this:
a) Tell everyone that you are calling on yourself to contribute content on the topic as a member of the group and not as the facilitator. When you are done, resume your role as facilitator.

b) If you cannot state your viewpoint and return to neutrality, ask for someone else in the group to replace you—at least for the duration of that agenda topic.

c) Call for a break and ask someone else in the group (someone you think suitably sympathetic to your concern) to voice your views after the meeting reconvenes.

d) Raise your concern in the form of a question: "I've been listening to this discussion for the last 30 minutes and I'm surprised that no one has raised a concern about affordability. Is that on anyone's mind?"

2. Floating Proposals
One of the hardest things to shift in making the transition to cooperative culture is the tendency to fight when people disagree and the stakes are high. The overwhelming majority of us have been raised in competitive culture, where we were heavily conditioned to battle for what matters the most to us. In cooperative culture, whenever we encounter resistance, we try to engender a response of curiosity instead. ("How did that person come to a significantly different conclusion than I did?")

In a cooperative environment, all ideas are valued and we look for ways to bridge differences, and creatively synthesize disparate views. In a competitive environment, ideas are encouraged to clash, with the idea that the fittest will survive. Weak ideas (or poorly articulated ones) will be vanquished.

Because most of us were raised in competitive culture, and because our society places a high value on individuation, we have been conditioned to focus foremost on differences and the ways in which our views distinguish us from those of others. As a facilitation trainer, I try to make the case for unlearning this conditioning, replacing it with an emphasis on agreement-seeking, and looking for common ground.

To the extent that facilitators are successful in effecting this change, it's not unusual for them to see potential solutions ahead of others (essentially because you tend to find what you're looking for, and people who have learned to look first for similarities will find the building blocks of sturdy solutions ahead of those more focused on differences).

There is a tendency among less experienced facilitators to stay strictly clear of suggesting proposals, for fear of being perceived as violating their commitment to content neutrality. While understandable, this is not clear thinking. I figure if anyone in the room has a good idea about how to put things together in an elegant way, let's have it on the table! If it's truly a good solution, who cares if it was first voiced by the facilitator?

The trick to handling this well is that the facilitator should offer draft proposals as a gift, and to back out gracefully in the presence of push back. That is, if a facilitator starts jawboning on behalf of their proposal, this may come across as arm twisting and then you've crossed the line. If there's balking, the facilitator should stop talking. ("OK, that didn't work. Does anyone have a different idea about how to put things together in a way that will better balance all the factors?")
A good facilitator will be obsessed with the question of how the group does its work, trusting that the group will find good answers if the stage has been properly set. The facilitator should be focusing on what questions to ask (and in what sequence), and how to promote deep listening to the responses that emerge. In a healthy process, good answers are uncovered because the group is working in a productive mind set, not because the facilitator cleverly salted the field with Easter eggs before the meeting.

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