Sunday, February 16, 2014

Levels of the Conversation

At breakfast today someone asked me how I learned, as a facilitator, to be able to pull out the essence of a conversation. As I reflected on that, I wasn't sure. While I know it's something I can do, and something I can describe in detail (see below), I'm not at all clear how I got there.

I teach facilitation in cooperative groups. While the curriculum covers many things, the day in and day out skill is working conversations productively. (One of the more dramatic and critical skills is dealing effectively and sensitively with emotional meltdowns, yet that’s only a tiny fraction of your time on duty.) If you think of conversations as onions, let me peel back the layers...

First Layer: What was said? 
It is absolutely necessary for the facilitator to hear what people are saying accurately. While this may seem relatively straight forward, it can get complicated. You will undoubtedly encounter individuals whose style, diction, vocabulary, and/or organization of information are such that you will have to work very hard to understand what the hell they’re saying.
What's more, it's not just the words and their literal meaning, there can also be important nuance in the way things have been said and the energy that infuses statements. Being heard accurately entails working with all of these potentials.
Second Layer: How to restate viewpoints concisely? 
While not always needed, the skilled facilitator should be able to offer on demand a Cliff's Notes version of what a speaker said, such that the speaker is satisfied. Do not fail to note the adverb “concisely.” There is a Mark Twain anecdote that applies here: he is reputed to have once apologized to someone he’d written to about the length of his correspondence by saying he was sorry, but he didn’t have time to write it any shorter. Brevity is not just the soul of wit; it is the heart of attention. 
To handle this well you'll need the ability to sort wheat from chaff (distinguishing between wholesome kernels and non-nutritive fluff) and to strip out redundancy in order to reduce contributions to their essence.
Hint: If you want to get good at this, volunteer to take minutes, which requries the same skill—only you do it in writing instead of orally.
Third Layer: Where are we at?
The facilitator should always know where the group is at in the conversation (what has been said collectively, not just individually) and where it is at in the process. The essential skills here are the ability to summarize accurately and plainly, and the ability to track and make transparent the process.
To some extent, this is a traffic cop function, making sure that contributions are cogent, non-repetitive, and in the right sequence. If people are confused about what's happening you should be able to give a clear, courteous explanation on request.
Fourth Layer: How to connect statements one to another?
As a facilitator you need to be able to see the aspects of commonality (especially when others do not) and weave them into a fabric that can, ultimately, sustain agreement. You need to learn to see the links between comments, especially when they are not identical.
This ability is all the more critical because most people have been deeply conditioned in competitive culture and think first in terms of how their views differ from others, rather than how they are linked. Often, the skilled facilitator will be the first one to see the bridges possible between speakers simply because that person is the one who has trained themselves to look for them.
Fifth Layer: What is not being said?
You need to develop the capacity to step back from what is happening and ask if there are any ghosts in the room—obvious questions that are not being asked or spoken to. Invite these unspoken queries or viewpoints to join the party.
Sixth Layer: Where does the group need to work?
This is a complex question that combines “Where is there confusion?” with “Where is there energy to explore for agreement?” It is the facilitator’s job to steer the group productively, which involves both what to look at and how to look at it. Often it is a matter of posing the right questions, and in the right sequence.
Seventh Layer: Where is the conversation headed?
The skilled facilitator will learn to look ahead of the curve and steer the group away from dead ends and unnecessary dangers. Part of this is time management (don’t go where you cannot gracefully stop or return in the time available), part of it is understanding the pitfalls of the selected path (assessing the potential for burying the axles instead of working out of trouble), and part of it is knowing the capacity of the group (not leading the halt and the lame into heavy traffic, where stamina and agility will be needed to make it through safely). When this skill is practiced well, meetings are experienced as easier and lighter because the facilitator has chosen a better path, and heroic extractions are not needed.
Eighth Layer: What agreement is possible?
All along, the facilitator should be thinking about how the weavings of the Fourth Level can produce a durable fabric that will hold an agreement about what to do with the issue at hand. How can the agreement be framed such that everyone can identify with it and support its moving forward? The skilled facilitator has a broad understanding of what “product” and “agreement” can look like. Sometimes it is a policy; sometimes an action; sometimes a process; sometimes an assignment; sometimes a pause.
Ninth Layer: What remains and where will it land?
Often, the group has not tied up a topic with a ribbon and bow. In those times, the facilitator needs to make sure that the next steps are identified and someone or some committee has been identified as the implementers or shepherds of those steps. You need to think holistically about all the pieces that comprise a safe landing and make sure that none are forgotten.
• • •
OK, that was the onion. Now let's circle back to the original question about how to learn to pull out an accurate summary of a complex conversation. It's the combination of Levels Two, Four, and Eight: what was the essence of the contributions, how can that be inclusively and even-handedly summarized, and how can the factors be woven into a durable solution.
—Part of this is experience. Having seen what has worked in similar situations, you get a feel for what can work here. 
—Part of this is doing the personal work needed to get your own ego out of the way, so that you can hear cleanly what everyone says. 
—Part of this is learning to read the energy of the speakers for clues about what matters most, and where there's give. 
—Part of this is trusting the process, which means you'll see the connections between statements as they appear—rather than insisting on trying to suss out the bridges ahead of time. (A skilled facilitator knows how to read the currents in the room, and doesn't try to fight them.)
There's a part of me that was embarrassed that I wasn't able to give a paint-by-numbers answer to the question this morning. (A good teacher should be able to break down how to learn that essential skill.) But then I remembered, facilitation is more of an art form than a skill. It's not so much learning a formula, as learning to be focused and open, trusting that the floor will appear under your feet after you've committed your weight forward.
Yes, it can be scary. But it can also be magic. And it's learnable.

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