Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pace in a Meeting

Today is the last day of a facilitation training weekend at Dancing Rabbit. One of the recurring challenges that facilitators face is when to depress the accelerator, and when to take your foot off the gas. I want to explore four examples of meeting dynamics where you might be well served to change the pace—two in each direction.

1. Braking for Distress
When you have a topic that stirs up deep feelings—which could be rage, tears, frustration, fear, churning, or a wide range of emotional responses—it's generally prudent to go slower, the better to make sure that the person(s) in distress have been fully heard. 

If you continue blithely at highway speed, there's considerably risk of those folks feeling run over. Distress tends to affect both a person's ability to hear and their processing time. Think of it like the colored flags used in  motor racing. Full speed is fine with green flag. Once non-trivial distress is evident, switch to yellow and slow down. If it gets bad enough, bring out the red flag and stop all work on the topic to attend to the distress.

2. Not Belaboring Non-issues
It's not unusual for there to be uncertainty going into a meeting about where participants stand on a proposal. A diligent facilitator will prepare for a topic by anticipating a range of responses and planning ahead how to deal with that range.

It's important, however, that facilitators not fall in love with their careful plans for handling complex responses to the point where they don't first check to see if they're needed. Sometimes, there's easy agreement on a proposal. If so, identify it early, claim the low hanging fruit, and move on to the next topic. Just because you've reserved meeting time against the possibility of disagreement doesn't you have to beat the bushes looking for it when it isn't in the room.

3. Making Sure Everyone's on the Bus
In most groups, there's a natural, imbalanced distribution of who uses air time. There are many reasons for this: some are more comfortable speaking in group; some are more comfortable speaking about that topic; some are quicker at knowing their mind; some care more about what happens on that topic. 

It's not unusual for there to quickly develop a growing sense of momentum in a certain direction after hearing the first flush of comments on a topic. Even assuming you're accurately reading what's been voiced (not a sure thing), it's dangerous assuming everyone's on board. Silence may be golden, but it's damn awkward to interpret accurately. If there is a significant number of counties who haven't been heard from (participants who have not spoken yet on a topic) it's generally a good idea to slow down and check with the quiet.

4. Testing to Flush
In the previous dynamic I cautioned against assuming that an early direction will carry the day. One way to accelerate the examination is to offer something like, "So far the wind on this topic seems to be blowing in favor of x. I'm wondering if those who haven't spoken so far agree with that direction."

This does a number of good things all at once: 
a) It calls out the quiet, explicitly inviting them to speak up and protecting air time for them to do so.

b) It explicitly asks those who have been talking to sit on their hands for the next stretch.

c) You get the chance to see if you've been accurately hearing the thrust of the comments voiced so far. (If you have it wrong, you may as well know that early.)

d) If there isn't solid support for the early direction, this test can serve to flush out the nuances or concerns that yet need to be addressed, sharpening the conversation and accelerating how quickly you can get to the heart of the consideration.
• • •
If you take a step back and digest the whole of what I've laid out, it should be apparent that skilled facilitators need range if they're going set a pace appropriate to the moment. For the phlegmatic, that means they'll need to find a higher gear; for facilitators who normally operate at the pace of tobacco auctioneers, they'll need to find inspiration from the patience of tobacco farmers.

No comments: