Monday, March 12, 2012

Open Discussion ≠ Open Range

Today is the second installment of a series of three blogs on the topic of meeting facilitation, covering:

Managing Open Discussions
—Selecting Formats

• • •
Years ago I was asked to work with a community over a weekend, facilitating their annual retreat. I started by observing a session on the thorny topic of how to address tensions related to the phenomenon that members were contributing unevenly to the work of the community. A pair of the group's regular facilitators handled the opening two-hour session and I was fascinated to see what unfolded: the entire time was taken up with two activities: a whole-group brainstorm about how people perceived the issue; followed by small group breakouts where people discussed ideas about how to address the issues named in the brainstorm, the results of which were dutifully reported back to the whole group as the final activity.

In the entire two hours, no attempt had been made to labor with differences (about what was problematic, about what mattered in trying to work toward a solution, about whether some concerns were a higher priority than others, about which solutions seemed most hopeful). The facilitators were afraid to go there!

While there was nothing wrong per se with brainstorming the issues or having people work on potential responses in small groups, the heavy lifting is done in the sorting, weighing, and balancing of input—and that wasn't happening. In the session I observed, the facilitators were using formats to avoid engagement, because they were not confident they could contain it or ensure that it would be constructive.
• • •
While there are a wide variety of meeting format choices (an examination of which will be the focus of my final offering in this series), far and away the most common choice is simply opening up the topic to whatever anyone has to say following the presentation of the issue and fielding any clarifying questions. Frankly, this is often the most efficient way to tackle an issue, as only those ready to speak and who believe they have something germane to contribute raise their hand. When done well, this can be incredibly direct and efficient.

While it may be trivial to set this up (it's often nothing more sophisticated than turning everyone loose with, "Who has something to say on this?"), there can be considerable skill needed to manage this well, and that's the focus of today's blog. It's important that facilitators have an understanding of the lay of the land when making this choice.

1. Problems With Open Discussion
While meetings in cooperative groups are meant as a level playing field, they aren't. Not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in group; not everyone is equally articulate; not everyone is equally quick to organize their thoughts; not everyone is in the same state of health; not everyone identifies as an equal stakeholder on this issue at hand; not everyone is equally emotionally centered (maybe their kid is sick, or they're distracted by a problem at work); not everyone equally understands the group's process; not everyone has equal energy or quality of attention at that time of day. In short, there are many complicating factors that produce potholes and moguls in the meeting playing field.

What's more, in open discussion these imbalances tend to be highlighted. Those who are more comfortable and/or energetic in any given setting tend to dominate, unless the group (or at least the facilitator) is aware of the tendencies and can compensate. As comfort and energy are good things, the strategy for addressing inequities is not to equally hobble everyone; rather it's to make choices that enhance everyone's accessibility to the conversation. While some of this can be addressed in format choices, there's a lot that can be done even in the context of open discussion.

With that in mind, it's relevant to assess
how capable the meeting participants are of:
—staying on topic (open discussion is not open mic—people are expected to limit their contributions to comments apropos the topic at hand)
—not repeating
—creating openings for those whose voices are heard less
—hearing the ideas that others contribute
—hearing the heart of what others contribute (think of it as emotional hearing)
—understanding how comments relate to group values (as distinct from personal preferences)
—shifting perspectives to see an issue from other frames of reference (the better to understand the relevance and potency of what others say)
—articulating their reactions cleanly (as opposed to speaking from a reactive/defensive place)
—working constructively with strong feelings
—bridging between divergent opinions

While no one intends to do any of these things poorly, most of us are not quite as evolved as we'd like and we tend to regress—especially on topics that matter a good deal to us, or ones that are complex and heard to follow. In my view, it's one of the facilitator's principal jobs to gently, yet firmly remind participants of their good intentions, providing folks with graceful ways to correct or reframe problematic contributions.

There are two things that groups can put in place that will greatly augment this effort:
a) An articulation of good meeting behavior (so that everyone has a clear idea of what you expect from one another once the bell rings).
b) Ground Rules that spell out the facilitator's authority to rein people in when they behave inappropriately (the boundaries of which have been defined in the previous answer) and to guide the conversation along the cooperative and inclusive lines the group intends to employ in how it proceeds.

2. Inhaling Versus Exhaling
Whenever the group tackles an issue, there will be two main parts of the consideration: a) a full delineation of what the issue is, and identification of the factors that a good response needs to take into account; followed by b) problem solving (discerning which action best balances the factors named in the previous step).

These two steps have different flavors, and it can be terribly confusing if you allow both to proceed simultaneously. If the group lacks an understanding about the distinction between these phases it will commonly happen that someone will offer an idea about how to address a concern as their first response to its articulation. If you allow that to happen the group can easily get lost: should it be focusing on the continued identification of factors (inhaling), or should it be responding to the merits of the proposed response (exhaling)?

Unless you're teaching people the arcane art of mastering the didgeridoo, expecting groups to both inhale and exhale at the same time leads to pulmonary distress and does not promote clear thinking.

Thus, it's important for the facilitator to be able to articulate this distinction and be able to remind the group which phase it is in. This will make open discussion much more productive.

3. Divide and Conquer
If a topic is complex (many of the most interesting ones are) it can often be a boon to the group if the facilitator (in consultation with the presenter) offers a structured approach: a sequence of questions calculated to focus the consideration such that the answers will be stepping stones on the way to the promised land (a solid agreement about what to do). Mind you, this is not meant to steer the group toward a particular solution; it's meant as a way to build a solid foundation for a comprehensive response.

While each of the focusing questions can still be addressed in open discussion, you've (hopefully) narrowed the range of appropriate responses to a more manageable number of variables—the better to hold them all, and the better to figure out how to balance them.

Even if it's not obvious what the right set of questions is, or in what sequence to tackle them, it can nonetheless be useful to ask the group start with putting less food in their mouth at a time, just to minimize the risk of indigestion.
• • •
Now let's return to the group that only attempted brainstorming and small group breakouts during their retreat. Employing the metaphor I just developed above, they were afraid to chew in plenary.

In their case, the group had not given its facilitators a clear license to run meetings, and got push back from individuals when they attempted to curtail repetition or to redirect off-topic comments ("Why are you picking on me?") Not feeling backed up, they backed off, and were at the mercy of each participant's uneven ability to self discipline. The predictable result was a lot of time lost in poorly focused comments (which, of course, was part of their motivation to ask a consultant to work with them).

Beyond that, the group was uncertain how to work emotionally, and the facilitators were unsure of their capacity to do so, even if there had been clarity about what was wanted. Understandably, that led to avoidance. While a group can get away with a certain amount of that, eventually the bill comes due and the distortion and blockage that attends to unaddressed feelings leads to complete paralysis and relationship damage. Yuck!

Finally, the group needed to exercise its bridging muscles, the skills needed to hear divergent viewpoints and then successfully labor collectively to craft a respond that everyone feels connected with.

In the weekend evaluation, I got feedback from the group that they would have preferred more done in alternate formats. In response, I freely admitted that I had slanted things toward open discussion, and affirmed the appropriateness of their instinct to want variety. At the same time, I pointed out that my instinct (as a consultant) was to focus on what they were avoiding. It's my view that groups need to be able to handle open discussions well as one of their options. I thought it would be a disservice if I showcased alternate formats, only to enable them to get increasingly creative on how to avoid doing the hard work with everyone in the room.

While I'm a great fan of variety and attractive presentation, that does not obviate the baseline need to know how to create a balanced diet, appropriately prepare the food, chew it, and swallow it—all without engendering gastrointestinal distress. A good facilitator needs to know how to work with all the basic food groups.

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