Thursday, May 2, 2013

Playing the Cards You're Dealt

I was recently asked to facilitate a community meeting where there had been a considerable build up of unresolved tension with a long-term member who wasn't living on campus. This member had been asked on short notice to attend a rare mid-week meeting to make some progress on the tensions (with my assistance) and the wheels were put in motion based on his acceptance.
Less than 24 hours before the start of the meeting, however, it was discovered that there had been a major misunderstanding about this person's availability and he couldn't come after all. Oops. I had prepped for a meeting at which we could work on unpacking the backlog of distress based on the expectation that all the key players would be in the room. Suddenly, that meeting was not longer going to be possible. Now what?

• • •
One of my recreational passions is duplicate bridge. While contract bridge is a beautiful and complex card game in its own right, the genius of duplicate is that you score points based on how well you play hands compared with how others play the exact same hands, thus eliminating the vagaries of being dealt good cards. While it's typically more fun to hands with strong cards, there is no inherent disadvantage to picking up a weak hand—because everyone you'll be scored against will play that hand as well.

Thus, to be good at duplicate bridge, you need to excel at playing whatever hand you've been dealt. Interestingly, skill at duplicate bridge is reasonably analogous to skill in facilitation, where, over time, you will be dealt a mixture of strong and weak hands, and the real test is how well you do with what you have—rather than how well you can avoid surprises.

To be sure, when you have a facilitation assignment, it behooves you to do your homework and to create a plan that you think will give the group its best chance for a dynamic and productive meeting. (Sticking with the bridge analogy, planning allows you to stack the deck in favor of a good meeting, and you certainly want to take advantage of that.) That said, it's a myth that you're totally in control, or that good planning is destiny. As happened to me in the opening story, sometimes you get a meeting that's fairly far removed from the one you'd planned for. In such instances, you can complain about your rotten luck… or you can deal with it.

In the situation that inspired this blog, I asked the group what it wanted to do at the start of the session. While clearing up tensions is far and away better done with everyone in the pool, there's still good that can be accomplished with a crucial participant missing.

When there's significant distress associated with an issue, I've learned that it's almost always salutary to try to lean into it rather than away from it as a prelude to problem solving. Here's why:

a) Distress distorts
When you're in the grip of a reaction, there's a strong tendency to filter whatever is said in relation to the triggering events through a negative story that assigns bad intent to the speaking person. Rather than looking for the value in what they said, you look for a nefarious, duplicitous, or divisive motivation. Worse, once you find a way to accomplish that you then use your projection as further evidence to justify the original story. Yuck. This is a poisonous environment that greatly complicates constructive problem solving.  

b) Unresolved tension undermines trust
Responses to group issues depend on trust among members to produce satisfactory results. Brittle decisions (which is what you get when you push ahead without resolving tensions first) tend to lead to lukewarm implementation at best, and sabotaged follow through at worst. While you may think it's quicker to bypass dealing with distress, it's a poor bargain if the problem remains unsolved and you have to come back and do it again. In the end, damage to trust (being confident in everyone acting from good intent and meaning what they say) is very expensive.

c) A guarded attitude kills creativity
In order for collaborative decision-making to blossom, you need to create and maintain an environment of ease and curiosity. That's damn hard to manifest with people simmering, on edge, and suspicious. Instead of out-of-the-box breakthroughs, you stuck-in-the-box tug-of-war dynamics where each side of an issue keeps trying (unsuccessfully) to pull the unconverted over to their side of the line. (Has anyone ever seen that lead to a happy ending?)

[Note that this principle obtains whether you're using consensus or a ouija board, so long as you're intending inclusive and spirit-lifting results.]

For all of these reasons, it's better to tackle the tensions before the issue, and half a loaf is better than none. Thus, at the outset of the meeting, I laid out a summary of the places where the unresolved tensions were adhering and invited the group to spend the first half of the session voicing what's been hard for them about these dynamics—expressly not attempting any problem solving. For the first hour we were simply trying to clear the air. 

While this was intended to be done with the lightning rod person in the room, we went ahead anyway with my having laid out four important caveats at the beginning:
o  I had already sent to the missing member the same summary of the tension points, so he knew what we might be speaking to.

o  I insisted that the group commit to sending to the missing member a summary of what was said, so that people knew that before they spoke, and the  missing person wouldn't be hung out to dry in the agony of imagining the awful things that might have been said out of his hearing.

o  I made it clear that the missing person would undoubtedly have his own things to say about these same dynamics and that it was crucial for everyone to understand that what was said in the meeting would not be the full picture and that there needed to be another opportunity set up for an exchange with the missing person present, if at all possible. 

o  The point of proceeding (even though a key person was missing) was to ease tensions among those present for the purpose of moving into a less charged or spring-loaded environment for sorting out how to respond. It was expressly not for the purpose of faction building or coalescing condemnation of the missing person.

I was pleased that everyone spoke at least once during the opening hour, and we were able to use the second half of the meeting for a productive sorting out of the various threads of the presenting challenge. The quality of the listening was solid throughout (which outcome was significantly enhanced by starting with heart statements rather than head statements) and we were able to end the meeting with having laid out the essential factors that need to be bridged in order to moving forward with all on board: 
—The ways in which the missing member had inadvertently been placed in a role vis-a-vis the group for which he was ill-suited and that wasn't working well for anyone—including the missing person.
—How financial stress, and the disparity of personal finances within the group, both increased pressure on the dynamic and complicated how to navigate a safe passage through the issue.
—What constituted acceptable risk.
—A delineation of the opportunities available if the risk was accepted.
—A counterbalancing enumeration of the ways things could go south if the risk was accepted.
—The impact on the group (& relations with the missing person) if the risk was not accepted.
My fondest hope is that we were able to turn the corner on advocacy at the meeting and be in a sustained environment of moving forward with the sense that all of these considerations are legitimate, and that the prime directive from this point forward is making suggestions that people think could work for everyone.

While it remains to be seen how well that was accomplished, I felt pretty good about our chances to still make a three no trump contract after discovering that we were missing the ace of our longest suit. In meetings, as in life, there are always chances. The challenge is making the best of the ones you have, rather than lamenting that you don't have more.

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