Monday, September 29, 2014

Balancing Listening and Speaking

I got in trouble recently when working with a client that had brought me in to help the group understand consensus better. Though they'd been living together for six years—and making decisions by consensus all that time—they'd never done any training in it.

My work with the client began one evening when I listened to a subgroup of about 6-7 folks provide background on the topic they wanted me to use as a demonstration for how to handle a complex and vexing issue. After listening to a round of everyone saying what they thought I ought to know about the topic, I started asking questions about what they had tried or whether they had a committee in place who's job it was to be concerned with certain things bearing on the issue. When the responses were mostly negative, I proceeded to outline some suggestions for different things to try… and that didn't sit well.

At least for one person, I was making suggestions far too soon. She and her partner had put in a tremendous amount of effort over the years to help with the community's various challenges, and was put off by my suggesting initiatives less than an hour into my visit. (I couldn't possibly know all that had been tried, and she felt her family's efforts were being cavalierly dismissed.)

As a process consultant, I'm expected—in a short time—to accomplish five things: find out what's happening in the client group, connect the dots among people's statements about history and the current state of affairs, outline a pathway through stuck dynamics, lead the group down that path, and recommend changes designed to improve group function in the future.

Though I demonstrably have a lot to do under tight time constraints, sometimes I go too fast.

To be clear, my venturing into potential responses in the first hour of my visit did not land poorly with everyone. In fact, most of the others in that initial meeting were intrigued (and hopeful) that I had ideas of different things to try—which was the response I was hoping for. Yet for at least one person, that approach didn't work. While I was able to meet with her later and repair the damage—so that we could work together productively the bulk of the weekend—it would have been better if I had read her more accurately in the first place. While it's good to mend fences, it's better yet to not damage them.

Here's a fuller statement of what I'm typically attempting in a weekend:

I. Find Out What's Happening
This has several components:

o  What happening on this topic today (this includes existing agreements, whether they're being adhered to, and where the tensions lie).
o  What's the relevant history on the topic, leading up to where we are today?
o  How are people relating to the topic emotionally (irritated, bemused, concerned, angry, afraid, bored… )?
o  What, if anything, has already been tried to address this issue, and with what results?
o  How urgent is movement on this topic relative to other challenges the group is wrestling with?
o  Are there any players in the penalty box (by which I mean labeled intractable and badly behaved)?

II. Connect the Dots
On the surface, this means:

o  To what extent do the stories from group members differ? Is it a matter of different emphasis, or are they working from different "facts"?
o  What are themes that will need attention in order to work through the topic? How many strands are there to work?

Below the surface, this means:

o  How volatile does the topic seem to be? To what extent are the players holding unresolved tension that's likely to distort our ability to be productive in problem solving?
o  How are the personalities and styles of some likely to triggering poor reactions in others?
o  How well do people seem to be hearing each other—especially when their input and viewpoints vary?
o  To what extent is the stuckness attributable to poor process, a weak sense of common values, a clash of principles, a clash of personalities, or some combination of the above.

III. Lay out a Pathway Through the Thicket
Based on what I'm hearing and observing, I need to map out a route to guide the group from where they are to something more resolved and more unified. This means not only figuring what to do about the topic we're focusing on, but getting there in such a way that people feel better connected and less tense. In short, I need to attend to both energy and content.

Further, I need to be able to explain the route—both what we'll be doing and why—so that people know what's being asked of them, the sequence in which things will happen, and why I'm asking them to stretch and try something less familiar.

IV. Lead the Group Down the Path
Then, of course, I have to execute the plan. Sometimes this comes across as firewalking (when I ask them to follow me into the scary territory of unpacking emotional distress); sometimes this is experienced as pulling a rabbit out of a hat (when I'm able to see a workable solution to the issue before anyone else); sometimes it's mostly about managing the discussion: keeping people on topic, limiting repetition, summarizing frequently, altering formats to keep people fresh.

I have to walk my talk.

V. Recommend Next Steps
This comes in two flavors:

A. Work remaining to complete the issue
Most of the time groups ask me to tackle an issue that's both complicated (many threads) and volatile (impacted distress), and it's not possible to both teach what I'm doing and complete the work on the issue. Thus, it is common that work remains when the time runs out and it's my job to leave the group with a recommended sequence for how to frame the remaining subtopics and a recommended order in which to address them.

B. Changes in how the group handles issues
To the extent that I've been successful in moving things along on the topic, I've given the group a first-hand taste of why my approach may be worth adopting. In my report, I'll lay out discrete changes they may make in how they do things—a sample of which they'd just experienced—in order to extend that success to future issues.

• • •
With all of this in motion, it can be a strain at times to resist moving onto the next step when I'm ready—to allow adequate time for the client to complete the step that's gone before. Sometimes I get the timing wrong.

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