Monday, March 10, 2014

How Facilitators Get from Good to Great

Ma'iwke and I were conducting a facilitation training in North Carolina last weekend. One of the key features of our trainings is hands-on work for the students, where they facilitate live meetings for the host community. While Ma'ikwe and I sit in the back of the room taking notes—and on call as a safety net—the students learn through trial by fire. So far, in the 11 years I've being doing this, no one has died.

Saturday afternoon the class was facilitating a three-hour business meeting, the key components of which were trying to reach agreement about two proposals that had been generated at a community retreat the previous weekend that had been characterized by high enthusiasm and low attendance. After notifying the whole group of the proposals in the intervening days, the group was poised to try to reach agreement and continue the forward momentum of the retreat. [Aside: does anyone else think it odd that groups typical rely on "retreats" to generate forward momentum?]

After securing passage of the first proposal in less time than allotted, there was optimism about wrapping up the second with similar ease. Alas, it was not to be.

The first proposal was deceptively easy in that it relied mainly on concepts with which the group was already familiar. The second one ventured into virgin territory: a complex package of agreements about hiring community members when voluntary efforts proved insufficient to cover critical tasks. Previously there were no agreements about this and the community considered it a hot potato.

On the one hand, it would be nice to give paid opportunities to community members, with whom there was obviously more loyalty and caring than with outside strangers. On the other hand, it was awkward holding fellow members accountable if there was a problem with their performance (such as with the quality or timeliness of their delivery). Nervous about whether the community could manage community members well, the community had shied away from the question of hiring internally for many years. Now, by golly, they were taking it on.

As we got into the conversation there were two aspects of the proposal that the plenary mostly wanted to chew on:

a) Whether they wanted to give preferential treatment to community members (over outside contractors), equal treatment to community members, or steer clear of hiring community members.

b) Whether people were satisfied that requiring a written contract and a designated contract manager through which all communication about job performance needed to be channeled were sufficient to give hiring internally a try.

As the time slipped away without resolution of these two sticking points, there was looming doubt about whether agreement could be reached. Several factors were in play:

o  The challenge of keeping the group focused on one question at a time
When comments danced back and forth among various aspects of the proposal it was hard for everyone to follow the bouncing ball, resulting in strained energy and requests that views be repeated.

o  Unease about surfacing the challenge of managing fellow members
It isn't easy to talk in plenary about problems with community members—there's danger of reactivity if they're in the room, and danger of the comments being labeled malicious gossip if they aren't. Yuck.

o  General discomfort with imposing too much structure
Some prefer extending considerable trust and leeway to committees and managers to act appropriately, without the complication of written contracts, due diligence, and feedback protocols. But informal methods were not resulting in community members getting hired and that was distressing in another way. How should those two factors be balanced?

o  The primacy of member relationships
While everyone agreed that that should held as paramount, did that mean inside hiring should be avoided (to steer clear of the rats nest of managing fellow members) or embraced (to extend a financial safety net to those needing the income?

o  The desire to get something back from the investment of two meetings
For those members who had attended both the retreat and Saturday's business meeting, there was increasing anxiety about the possibility that there would be no agreement on the question of hiring community members, and that felt highly discouraging.

With time running out, it was apparent that the student facilitator did not see a way to untangle all of these knotted threads and weave them into a cohesive proposal that the group could support. But I could. In the closing minutes I offered the community a modified proposal that included the encouragement (but not the requirement) that committees post job openings to community members, and that the proposal would be adopted for one year with a sunset clause (which means that the agreement expires March 31, 2015 unless it's expressly continued or replaced by something else).

This had something for everyone and no one dissented. It also completely changed the energy at the end of the meeting—the process equivalent of the sun unexpectedly coming out for a glorious sunset after an afternoon of increasing cloudiness.

• • •
I told you that story to set the stage for what I really wanted to talk about: how to teach the skill I was able to access in the last five minutes of that meeting.

While the class knows that I can do that (they've seen it before and believe in my ability) how could I break down and make available the elements of what I'm doing in that moment that will lead them to be able to do it?

The obvious answer is lots of time in the saddle (I've been there before and I don't wilt under pressure). There is, after all, a reason people invoke the aphorism practice make perfect, and thus there is truth to the notion that the gap between a student's ability and mine will only be closed through experience and repetition. However, upon reflection, I realized that I had a richer, more nuanced answer as well.

A) Ability to focus attention
Sometimes this is referred to as "free attention" and I'm really good at it. In meetings and purposeful conversations (as opposed to chit chat), I rarely space out or allow my attention to drift. While I don't know how I started disciplining myself in this way, Ma'ikwe has helped me understand that you can expressly work to develop your capacity in this regard, just like pumping iron will give you bigger biceps.

B) Large RAM
I have an unusually large random access memory. While I suspect that some aspect of this was factory installed (that is, I was born with it), I suspect that it's possible to think of after market enhancements—that is, that it's possible through practice to get better at how many threads you can hold at once before you start losing them.

This is valuable because pulling together threads is how you weave durable proposals. If your RAM is small, then you need to compensate with aids (notes?) to keep threads available.

C) Pattern library
In addition to having a great deal of experience (I've been to a lot of meetings), my memories are organized, which allows me to easily access what's relevant about something I've seen before vis-a-vis what's in front of me. I suppose the IT metaphor is that I've worked to place meta tags on my experiences that facilitate my ability to pull up the ones that bear on the situation at hand.

Thus, when someone hires me, they not only get my skill, they get access to my pattern library and my personal Dewey Decimal System for finding the right volume at need. I am very quick to see how one statement relates to a prior one, sometimes days, weeks, and even years before.

Having grokked the potency of this, I now tag my experiences as they come with the key concepts that I think I'll want to remember them for later. Having accomplished that, I can then call up a prior experience either rationally (observing that X is like Y) or intuitively (noting that X evokes Y, without necessarily being able to tell why—at least not right away). See E below for more on intuition.

D) Centering
While I have my own version of performance anxiety, or stage fright, it's not paralyzing and mostly it evaporates after a few minutes in action. In fact, when I'm really "on," my ego ceases to exist and I'm a clear channel. Before going on stage I protect time to myself to center; to set aside any ruffled energy I'm carrying, or concerns about personal needs.

Another way to think of this is that I intentionally try to clear my RAM before going on stage, to boost my free attention.

E) Trusting intuition
I'm convinced you cannot reach your full potential as a facilitator unless you're working intuitively as well as rationally. To be clear, I am not anti-rational; I'm pro-intuitive. I think of this as "belly knowing" and developing your ability to sense the right path in a given moment even when you cannot puts words to why.

One of the ways this manifests is not being too attached to my road map for the meeting and being open to surprise (Loki can show up in many guises: sometimes destructively; sometimes distractedly; sometimes playfully; sometimes with confusion; and sometimes even helpfully—the point is you never know!) Open to the unknown, I am less thrown off by it and adjust more gracefully on the fly.

f) Interlocking reinforcement
Note how the skills above are not independent qualities so much as reinforcing qualities, where strength on one enhances another.
• • •
For years I've been quipping, "The difference between a good facilitator and great one is about 10 seconds." That is, don't expect me to be that impressed with an insightful analysis of what you should have done; I want to know what you did in the dynamic moment.

One way to see my efforts to teach facilitation is that I'm constantly working to shave seconds off that gap.

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