Monday, April 13, 2015

Stumbling on Stage

I recently facilitated a series of meetings for a cooperative group where I fell flat on my face.

We were working an interesting topic: how much, if any, community money ought to go into supporting an initiative that some expected to benefit from a great deal and others weren't that interested in? It was a big ticket item—an outdoor activity center—that most people felt would result in a significant enhancement of community connections.

While the vast majority favored some level of community support (even those who didn't think they'd be likely to use the facility) mixed with some level of contribution from those who could afford it and those likely to use it, there were a couple of members who did not feel comfortable with any level of community contribution to funding. When asked, the core concern for these two boiled down to affordability: one didn't want to pay extra in homeowners dues to finance this project (they lived on a fixed income), and the other was not convinced this was a high enough priority (and spending a lot of money here meant significantly less available for other projects). They preferred that it be funded wholly by private subscription, a mechanism that had been used successfully for other projects.

As we cast the net for proposals that might bridge the gap, someone came up with the idea of offering community funding coupled with a commitment to allow relief for those who couldn't afford the additional expense.

When I turned to the outliers and asked if that would work for them, the wheels came off the wagon. Instead of feeling held respectfully (by an offer that was meant to address their core concern about whether they would be asked to pony up money in support of a project that didn't float their boat), they both felt on the spot, and my asking them for a response came across with the judgment that they ought to say "yes." My persistence was experienced as badgering. Not good.

So what happened?

o  Going against the grain of community habit
The community was used to backing away when someone expressed a strong objection, rather than leaning into it (as I was doing). Thus, I came across as disrespectful as soon as I asked for a response. Never mind that I believed that was the right thing to do; they were already feeling isolated by the way the conversation was flowing (they knew they were outliers), and I wasn't careful enough about reestablishing connection before making a request.

For example, I might have started with asking them how they were doing, and trying to reassure them that the group wasn't going anywhere if they weren't on board. Instead, I asked them to take responsibility for working constructively with others' desire to support the initiative with community funding, which landed for them as pressure to capitulate. Uh oh.

o  Failing to build a robust creative container
I have the view that it's important to separate the Discussion phase of a consideration (where the group identifies the factors that a good response needs to take into account, during which I encourage the expression of passion and advocacy) from the Proposal Generating phase (where I no longer want to hear advocacy; I'm looking for bridging among interests). Although I'd taken time to try to explain that difference (and even been assured by a member of the group that they do that well), in fact only some of the group embraced a creative, bridging attitude. Others—notably including the two outliers—didn't get there.

o  Framing of the request poorly
I approached the outliers directly: asking them if the combination of community support and an affordability safety net could work for them. While there was nothing false or skewed about that, in retrospect I believe it would have worked better to have focused solely on whether the concept of an affordability safety net addressed their bottom line concerns.

That is, I could have simplified what I was asking about (fewer variables to respond to) and placed the emphasis on the safety net, which was intended as an olive branch, not a Trojan horse. While they may not have found it acceptable, it's unlikely that a good faith attempt to reach out to them would have been so triggering, and I might have been able to get deeper into an examination of resistance (if that's what we encountered).

o  Persisting beyond their comfort level
Once I got off on the wrong foot, and the outliers felt the need to defend their position about not wanting community money going to the outdoor initiative, I compounded the problem by simply repeating the request that didn't land well in the first place (working on the premise that I hadn't been heard accurately). Instead of clarifying, the repetition landed as badgering (you gave me the "wrong answer the first time, so I'll keep asking until I get the "right" answer). Understandably, that just made things worse. (I was reminded of the adage: when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to put the shovel down.)

o  Leaking irritation
In addition to everything else, I was frustrated that my exchange landed so badly, and that I achieved no progress on a dynamic that I had been expressly asked to showcase how to deal with differently and productively. This leaked into my energy, making me less safe for the outliers. Oops!

I was trying to demonstrate how to unlink positions (no community funding of the outdoor initiative) from interests (affordability and impact on personal budgets) in an effort to achieve a respectful breakthrough in a logjam, but I didn't get there.

Of course, it never feels good when you stumble on stage, yet, as I tell my students, if you need to succeed every time to feel sustained as a facilitator, quit now. Everyone has off moments, and I had a beauty. Unexpectedly, I got the chance to demonstrate how to pick yourself up off the floor and keep going. While that wasn't what I was hoping to model, it was what was needed in the moment.


Anonymous said...

Laird, I can empathize with you as you recounted your experience of stumbling in the meeting your facilitated. I'm wondering whether you then went in a different direction to try to recover from what you felt was damage done. I can imagine saying something like, "Oops, that wasn't really the direction I meant to take. Let me put it another way..." Might you have asked the outliers whether there was anything that they felt they could use from the rest of the group that might help them gain consensus? Just a thought. ES

Jim said...

Laird, I was there and I think you described what happened well. My community is just at the enthusiastic beginning of reaping all that you sowed at our retreat. We learn both from the stuff that worked well & the stuff that didn't go so well. I deeply appreciate the the community-changing work you do.