Monday, May 18, 2015

Facilitation That's Neutral Enough

Today's blog comes from the mailbag. A reader wrote:

I've been struggling quite a bit living in the housing cooperative that I've been a part of for the last five years. While the group means a lot to me—I have been shaped by and have shaped it in big ways over the years—I've been experiencing a cornucopia of feelings that sum up in, "I just can't live here anymore." It's not good for my mental health. That said, I'm a process and co-op junkie. I want to fix everything and save the world through co-ops and awesome meetings, and I think I'm one of the better facilitators in the group. Because my community is struggling through a cultural shift and turnover of members and important officer positions, I feel I need to be there to help.

While working through my own internal conflicts a friend said to me yesterday: "You can't put on your skills hat when you're trying to deal with all your emotions hats." While I initially wanted to correct that to, "It's hard to put on the skills hat and emotions hats at the same time," I suspect I might just be pushing myself too hard or neglecting self care.

I was hoping you might be able to help me out by talking about navigating those times when our co-op badassery is overlapping with our psychological and emotional needs. Can a person honestly try to be the leader/facilitator of an issue that is so very close to home and possibly directly triggering to them?

I want to answer this differently for someone engaging as a leader and someone engaging as a facilitator. While there is overlap, they are not the same thing.

How Leaders Relate to Cooperative Group Issues
Leadership comes in many flavors, some of which include advocacy (for what you think is in the group's best interest) and transparency (demonstrating that you—just like everyone else—are a human being with feelings that you are willing to express and own).

That said, good leaders are able to both articulate their views and their reactions (if they have any) and then make room for the views and reactions of others. To be sure, this calls for a considerable degree of self-awareness, and may call for the leader, on their own, to find their center again if reactivity has knocked them off it (which is no small skill).

Beyond that (safeguarding the full and open expression of all relevant viewpoints on a topic—especially if those views diverge from theirs), leaders are also expected to help the group find solutions that balance all the input.

In short, leaders are expected to simultaneously care about the direction of the conversation (what the group decides) and the quality of the conversation (how the group decides). At any given time, one of those two concerns may claim more of the leader's attention than the other, yet both may be in play.

How Facilitators Relate to Cooperative Group Issues
While no doubt you can "honestly try" anything, I dis-recommend attempting to facilitate any issue where you identify as a major stakeholder or know you are likely to be triggered by what comes up in the examination. That's because it's important for the facilitator to be acting from a content-neutral and participant-neutral place, the better to be everyone's ally in speaking their truth. In addition, the facilitator needs to be present and connecting to people when they are in distress in a meeting, and it's damn hard to reach out to others when you are in distress.

The facilitator's role is all about how the group does its work, and they need to be as egoless as possible in service to that objective. That does not mean being passive, but it does mean being scrupulous about being even-handed and careful not to exceed their authority when being firm.

In the ideal, the facilitator is disinterested in the outcome of an issue, and their work is wholly focused on efficiency, inclusivity, completeness, and connection—all of which may be compromised if an issue is "very close to home and possibly triggering."

If Superman Doesn't Live in Your House
Now let's take this another step. What is neutral enough when assigning a facilitator to a particular agenda? After all, it rarely happens that a candidate is completely neutral. Essentially, the test is in the performance. Do meeting participants feel that the facilitator is manipulating the conversation in a certain direction, steering things toward a viewpoint favored by the facilitator (and perhaps undisclosed)? Do participants experience the facilitator misreading the group by virtue of being in reaction?

Fortunately, some modest amount of preference or reactivity related to an issue can often be acknowledged and set aside, allowing the person to be a fair and effective facilitator. So it's a judgment call when bias is acceptable and when it isn't.

Now let's add an additional complexity. What if you recognize that you're not neutral on an issue yet don't think there's anyone else sufficiently skilled or neutral that's a better choice than you? 

Here are three options for how you might proceed:

a) Get an outside facilitator, perhaps someone from a neighboring cooperative (where they do a meeting for you and then one of your facilitators does a meeting for them).

b) Facilitate with a buddy who is not a stakeholder on the issue and is poised to take over the reins if they sense you're drifting towrad advocacy or going into reaction.

c) Volunteer to facilitate, owning your bias up-front, asking if the group is willing to try it. If they decline the offer, step back gracefully. If they accept, you've at least alerted them to the slant and will help you watch for signs of slippage (because you're coming across as biased against people with views that differ from yours) or misreading the situation (because you're distracted by your reaction).

Remember: the prime directive here is not that the facilitator be superman (or superwoman), where they do it all themselves and never make a mistake; it's that you have a good meeting.

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