Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Key Facilitation Skills: Managing the Obstreperous

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest.

Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.

Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
II. Working Constructively with Emotions 
III. Managing the Obstreperous
IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
VIII. Sis Boom Bang
IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
XV. Trusting the Force 

• • •
Managing the Obstreperous
Although not inevitable, it’s relatively common for groups to struggle with the patterned behavior of one or more members that most others in the group find disruptive or challenging. Maybe the person is regularly irritable (or at least uncharitable); maybe they lash out at those who disagree with them (after all, we have a President who does that); maybe they regularly leak sarcasm. Once I witnessed a group struggle with a member who had an abrupt, staccato laugh that set people on edge. Pretty much anything out of the ordinary can be experienced as "a problem."

Let’s label the person with the triggering behavior Person X.

Essentially you have three choices in how you respond:

a) You can ignore them, hoping they'll go away (or at least the behavior will go away) if it doesn't get attention. 

Depending on how much Person X cares about how others respond to them, and understands that a change in behavior might produce a better connection, this might work. Mostly though, I think this strategy hinges on a level of subtlety that Person X won't possess, and the essential trade-off is that it's acceptable to lose Person X as a contributing member of the group in exchange for relief from their difficult behavior. And they may well continue to do the thing that bothers you even after they've been marginalized, so this is an iffy approach.

b) You can ostracize them or try to contain them—essentially putting them in the penalty box for being too weird. Maybe this means they're never picked to serve on key committees. Maybe their input is systematically ignored or undervalued. Maybe no one asks how they're doing. There is nothing in writing, but everyone knows the drill, and they're treated as a second class citizen (or maybe third class, depending on how stratified your group is).

c) You can try to understand them, adjusting how the group responds to their behavior.
I think the most fruitful way to think about this dynamic is as a diversity issue. How far is the group willing to go to embrace a range of styles? This is a nontrivial question that groups are often resentful having thrust upon them.

To be clear, I am not taking a position on the answer to this question (no group can be all things to all people, and there are always limits to how far a group can stretch to embrace "other"), yet I've witnessed plenty of examples where a group has given up on Person X because it's far more comfortable to label them "the problem" and to pull a full Pontius Pilate, than to look in the mirror and do the personal work needed to expand beyond one's comfort zone to bridge to Person X with all their warts.

As a facilitator, my default is to throw the obstreperous a life ring—rather than to shackle them with the psychic equivalent of a horse collar or an electronic ankle bracelet (pick your metaphor). If you can set aside, at least temporarily, the group's reactivity to Person X's delivery, and focus on the meaning of what they're saying, I've found there's a good chance that Person X will start to behave better—which is a good deal all around. Though I am not guaranteeing this result, I've enjoyed considerable success with this approach.
Challenging deliveries, I think, are best understood as ill-conceived strategies for getting heard. What's more, in most instances Person X is following a lifelong pattern rather than choosing to be difficult. They're just doing what they always do. (One of the ways this breaks down is that others can't imagine that Person X is oblivious to how much the group struggles with their behavior and therefore posit that it's purposefully chosen, and then they're outraged about that, too. It can get pretty messy.)

Thus, when the obstreperous get heard (mission accomplished), they tend to calm down and their behavior improves. If groups focus first on Person X's awkward or provocative delivery and insist on dealing with that as a precondition to working with Person X's point of view ("I'll be damned if we'll let Person X get away with that disrespectful shit") it rarely works. You push; they push back. (The applicable adage here is what you resist persists.)

I know this sounds counterintuitive (leaning into the punch) but it's the main approach I employ in working with so-called difficult people.

Notes Along the Way
•  Have you defined what kind of meeting behavior you are asking from members? (It’s not particularly fair or effective to hold people accountable to norms or standards that have never been articulated.)

•  Has a good faith effort been made to discuss with Person X what’s been difficult about their behavior?
Note that this should include what alternate behavior is being requested.

•  What is problematic to some may be a breath of fresh air to others—don’t assume a uniform analysis.

•  It's sometimes useful to drill down on what exactly is being problematic. Here are some possibilities: 
Is the behavior experienced as aggressive and bullying (comes across as intimidating)? Does making room for Person X mean losing others, who no longer feel safe if Person X is allowed to behave in a challenging way?

—Is it manipulative? If the group has no agreements (or skills) in working with strong feelings then the emergence of distress can derail the conversation. If people think that's being done strategically—rather than as an honest emotional reaction—there can be hell to pay.

—Is it indirect? If Person X injects snide comments into the conversation, perhaps through sarcasm, biting humor, or negative side conversations that are quickly disavowed if asked what's going on, it can cast a pall over the group.

•  Does Person X care that their behavior is perceived as disruptive? You have more options for remediation available to you when they do, than when they don't.

•  The goal is to protect the right of Person X to have their views expressed and taken into account while at the same time not allowing their behavior to get in the way of the same right being extended to others. It's not a one-way street, and sometimes you have to rub their nose in it, after you have heard what they have to say.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Two Faces of Jargon

I love working and playing with words. And while, yes, that includes doing the NYT crossword puzzle as a daily partnership ritual with Susan, it's way more than that.

Last week I listened to someone give an impassioned plea for eschewing jargon, and it got me thinking. The speaker acknowledged that there was a place for specialized language (inside of specialties) but it was, in his view, a clear mistake to let that leak out into public where people just get confused about obscure meanings. His point—which was a good one— was that the purpose of communication was to be clear, not to obfuscate or to impress people with arcane, insider knowledge.

But I was not willing to swallow his point whole hog. How is jargon (words with a specialty meaning) useful and how is it distancing? That's what I'm going to explore in this essay.

While I agree that the overall context is communication and that the objective is passing along ideas and meaning as accurately as possible, we need to appreciate that everyone's understanding of "normal" vocabulary (even assuming we could define it) is not uniform, so the line between standard definitions and jargon is not quite as crisp as the speaker posits. Where does one draw the line, and why?

Language, I believe, needs to resist change but not be immutable. It has to breathe, and cannot be a done deal. It has to be possible for new terms to become "normal" as the culture evolves. Thus, some of what starts out as jargon gets elevated to standard, and it's often difficult to tell at first what will endure and what will fade. If jargon is banished or never used, there will be no cream to rise to the top, available to be lovingly skimmed off from time to time and added to sweeten and enrich our speech.

Consider, for example, this small batch of recent additions that are now solidly accepted (but were unheard of 35 years ago), all in the genre of emerging technology: email, social media, and tweeting.
 Here are some edgier examples: terms coming into general usage that I believe are likely candidates to become normalized (though it's probably too early to be sure):

•  crowdfunding to describe a broad-based appeal to potential benefactors where you try to raise money from a large number of small donations, typically via an electronic platform (the prime examples of which are Indiegogo, Go Fund Me, and Kickstarter).

•  mansplaining to describe the phenomenon where a man explains something (especially to a woman) in a condescending way in the mistaken belief that he knows more about the topic than she does.

•  cisgender (often shortened to "cis") to indicate people who identify with the gender they were biologically born with (in contrast with transgender).

The thing all these newer terms have in common is that they were developed to meet an emerging need. Because our culture isn't static (thank god), our vocabulary has to be protean enough to keep up. That means jargon needs to tested periodically to see if it's ready for prime time—not carefully restricted to the specialty closet or only invoked in dark corners sotto voce.

And there's more. Consider Donald Trump, who uses a very limited vocabulary, and, in consequence, many trite phrases (for what else is left?). It's often hard to know exactly what he's saying, which is further complicated by his contradicting his staff and his disconcerting habit of disavowing a thing he says in the morning with a follow-up statement later the same day. He's pretty good at conveying a clear energy (disdain being his forte), but discerning meaning from his statements is like trying to follow a drunk home—he's all over the place. (Admittedly, in his case it's hard to tell if he values consistency at all and it's difficult to distinguish whether he's being purposefully obscure, or simply cannot communicate any better.)

I bring him up as an example both because he's readily available and because it seems to me that he's embraced what my friend was advocating: no jargon. He speaks only in simple terms. How well is that working? 

Generalizing from Trump, I believe limited vocabulary correlates with the incidence of hackneyed phrasing. While that may not be inevitable, it's common and it isn't a good thing. Overused phrases typically have a dull edge. They cut poorly and are imprecise at conveying meaning (just as poorly oxygenated blood has trouble invigorating cells). Going the other way, jargon is energizing (if sometimes confusing). Think of it like a pond turning over, stirring up nutrients. 

Do all uses of jargon succeed in conveying meaning? Absolutely not. The more nuanced question is whether the incidence of failure indicates that we should never try, because everyday use of jargon sometimes confuses instead of inspires? For me it doesn't, though the decision to judiciously interlard one's speech with jargon calls for discernment in word choice—and a commitment to patient explanations when you overreach.

What is the value in stretching the language? While there were many aspects of my relationship with my father that I've struggled with, his love of words was something I readily embraced and for which I am grateful. Among other things that seed ultimately grew into my becoming an author and a public speaker, because I love the medium. It's an art form (rather than a mine field). 

I have made the strategic choice to regularly employ less commonly used words in my speech and writing because they have the meaning I want and I rebel against dumbing down the language (and the Orwellian concept of word elimination to control dissent through reducing the vocabulary to express it—a central feature of 1984—which was offered as dystopian fiction in 1949, yet expresses perfectly the horror of what this process can lead to—a version of mind control.

Besides, at the end of the day, I'm just having too much fun playing with the words. And who wants less fun in their life? 

In closing I'm going to ask that you indulge me on a pet peeve. "Enormity" is often used these days to mean large, but it didn't use to. It means evil. Will the language expand to embrace the misuse? Maybe (even though it makes me want to puke). There are plenty of other words to convey large (immensity, for example). On the other hand, Kleenex has now come to mean any facial tissue, not a particular brand, and I think that's probably OK, so enormity is likely to become acceptable as a synonym for large, despite my dyspepsia. Such is life, and my lack of ability to control it.