Friday, January 18, 2019

Key Facilitative Skills: Durable Containers for Hard Conversations

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   

• • •
Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations 
Fortunately, healthy groups do not need much active facilitation. By "healthy" I mean there is a well-defined agenda, participants come prepared, they speak on topic, they respect air time for others, they are willing to voice their views (even if they expect they may be unpopular), they listen well to others, disagreements are expected and worked with compassion and curiosity, the group gets a lot done (respecting the preciousness of meeting time), and the group conducts its business in such a way that relationships are enhanced.

Unfortunately, all groups are not at that level of functionality, with the consequence that facilitators have to be more active, helping the group understand what kinds of contributions are wanted from different phases of engagement. In this blog I want to highlight three different kinds of containers—the need for which occur relatively frequently in plenary dynamics. In my experience, few groups are solid about the need for these nuances or how to set them up.

A. Clearing the Air
In all groups there will be times when there are unresolved nontrivial tensions that impact a topic. When this occurs, it's necessary to address the tensions before you tackle the issue. Why? Because unresolved tension is associated with distortion (and the greater the tension, the greater the distortion). In fact, at the extreme, if the upset is great enough it can be all consuming and that person is not capable of hearing accurately what anyone says. In short, they are not able to listen well, nor can they usefully participate in the constructive give and take of ideas. 

And it's worse than that. Depending on the level of upset, if the people around the upset person are aware of fulminating distress they are likely to distracted by it and the possibility of imminent eruption (perhaps they are worried about the upset person getting support; perhaps they are worried about getting caught in the lava flow as collateral damage).

Thus, it's generally a poor plan to attempt to solve problems with upset people. Groups often do it anyway because: a) they don't know what else to do; b) have no confidence in their ability to contain an examination of feelings (even if they know that's the right thing to do); c) do not have a history of productive results from such an examination; or d) don't have permission to work emotionally. Yuck.

Where the group is unused to working with strong feelings (I am talking mainly about fear and anger, rather than unbridled joy or ennui) it can be scary to go there and the facilitator will need to be courageous. In most groups, a majority of members will be conflict averse and will not typically meet a request to examine raw feelings with enthusiasm. There will, however, be times when you'll need to do it anyway and it behooves a group to: a) lay out ahead of time the conditions under which it's appropriate to clear the air (for more of my thinking on this see When Groups Should Address Conflict in Plenary); b) how you will do that (so that people know what they've signed up for); and c) what authority is being given the facilitator to run this phase of a meeting.

OK, so it's hard. How do you clear the air effectively? First of all, I think it's important to separate this completely from fact finding, problem solving, determining truth, or assigning blame. Your priority in this phase is relationship repair. Nothing more. While the possibilities can be profound (I've experienced some amazing breakthroughs over the years), at a minimum you want to get to the point where the protagonists can function together in a group setting, rather be constantly triggered by each other. Thus, clearing the air may not result in the their signing together in next year's Christmas choir, but maybe they can serve productively on the same committee. That's victory enough.

While there are multiple ways to accomplish this, an approach that works well for me is to work in dyads. Even when there are several people involved (a multi-car accident) it's productive to keep the conversation focused on two exemplars of the dynamic and see what you can accomplish there before opening it up to others. I've found that witnessing others unpacking and moving past hurt can often be just as helpful as being in the middle yourself. And if it isn't, you can always work more dyads as needed. 

If you allow every stakeholder to participate in one conversation there is a tendency to have too many worms on the floor at one time, and it can be the very devil getting them all back in the can. Too often, different people have different points of stress and different reactions. With everyone striving to get their piece out it on the table, listening often suffers and no corners are turned.

The method I use for examining conflict is a series of four questions:
1. What are the feelings?
2. What's the story (what triggered the feelings)?
3. Why does this matter (what's at stake)?
4. What are you willing to do about it (in the interest of repairing damage to relationship without changing personalities or values, or even admitting that you did anything wrong)?

[Details about this were laid out in a previous blog in this series: Working Constructively with Emotions.]

The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:

•  Redirecting any attempt to problem solve (that will come later).

•  Resisting any plea to take sides. There is a deeply ingrained tendency for people in tension to try to convince others that there's is the "real" truth, and the other person is either confused or purposefully misleading. Don't go there! What really happened isn't the point; it's understanding how each person's actions make sense when seen through the lens of their perceptions.

•  Making sure that people speak fully about their feelings. Some are uncomfortable doing so, yet that's where the heart of the stuckness resides and it's very difficult to move past it until it's been expressed and acknowledged.

•  Being scrupulously honest about what you've heard. It's OK (even helpful) to point out legitimate places of agreement or similarity, yet you also want to point out where stories or motivations do not align. While you want to be optimistic, don't sugar coat disagreement.

•  On a more sophisticated level, I've found that it helps if the facilitator gets the affect right (not just the words) when reflecting back what a person has said, and it is often useful to probe if something doesn't hang together. Protagonists we permit quite a bit of directiveness from a facilitator so long as they are perceived as neutral and even-handed.

B. Discussion—Identifying the Factors
Once you've determined that an issue is worthy of plenary attention [see Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas for more on this] it's useful to diligently separate what needs to be taken into account (an expansive step) from what to do about it (a contractive step). Most groups are not aware of this distinction and allow the conversation to dance back and forth between the two, with the result that the group gets confused about what kinds of comments are appropriate, and often has to back track on elements of the solution because they were advanced prematurely. This is a major contributor to meeting fatigue.

Better, I think, is making room at the front of the consideration to identify all the factors that a good response to the issue needs to take into account, and completing this step before moving on to problem solving. In general this is about identifying what common values are in play, and whether or not some values should be weighed more heavily than others.

Here is a serviceable way to work through this in three relatively quick bites:

1.  Brainstorm (a free form, unevaluated collecting of ideas about what should be taken into account)
Because you don't get extra credit for saying a thing twice, it doesn't take that long to run out of new things to say. A key element of this step is allowing speakers to make an impassioned pitch for the factor they have named (say 60 seconds on the soap box).

2.  Vet
At this stage you review the brainstormed list and see if anything comes off, presumably because it was a personal preference (or possibly a joke) instead of a group value. If the group was fairly disciplined about the brainstorm perhaps nothing comes off. In any event, the end product is a group-approved list, which is far different than a brainstormed list.

3.  Prioritize
In this last step you make a cursory pass at whether all factors have equal weight or do some trump others. In my experience you only need to identify two levels: either everything has equal value, or there may be some factors that are "musts" while lesser priorities are merely desirables. This can be important guidance for the problem solving phase.

The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:

•  Not allowing evaluative comments during the brainstorm. This is a free-flowing, creative process and negativity is sand in the ointment. You have not bought anything yet; these are only suggestions at this stage.

•  Making sure that participants understand the soap box option for selling their brainstorm ideas. This may be their only chance to cut loose and you don't want anyone to misunderstand that.

•  Allowing the brainstorm to go through at least one cycle of slowing down and reviving before ending it. Often the first surge of ideas are the obvious ones, with the more creative (and often more valuable) ideas surfacing in the second surge.

•  Deflecting solutions (they come later). You want to be adamant about completing the Discussion phase before entertaining solutions.

•  Vetting can be tricky if the group is not conversant in its common values. Fortunately, the more you invoke them the more the group will be familiar with them, and they will be alive in your work, creating a solid foundation for building solutions.

•  Be careful about getting bogged down in prioritizing. This only needs to be one simple sort, and shouldn't take too long. The heavy lifting is not here, but in the balancing of the values that occurs under problem solving.

C. Proposal Generating
This is the contractive phase that follows Discussion (the prior container). Notably, this has a completely different energy than Discussion, which can be fast-paced and somewhat raucous. In this phase you are done with advocacy. We have already determined what needs to be taken into account. Now you want bridging statements. Who has ideas about how the various factors can be balanced in proposed agreements or actions? Now we are putting together and everyone is on the same team.

The energy here should be softer and more gentle. It is a creative process. It is coming home.

The test here is how well a suggestion addresses the various factors that were the output of the prior step. There is no need to hurry. Silence can be productive here.

The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:

•  Not allowing people to repeat why a factor means a lot to them (that boat already sailed). The soap box is no longer available.

•  Not allowing the energy to devolve into a tug of war, with winners and losers. You will not have a good solution unless everyone feels their input was respectfully worked with—this is not the same as everyone getting their way, but neither do you want anyone feeling like they've been run over or bullied.

•  It is better to go slowly and accurately, than to hurry and regret it later. Sometimes an idea needs to incubate for a while before its wisdom is evident.

•  Maintaining enthusiasm in the face of disagreement. Some people despair at the first sign of discord, and you need to model curiosity and interest in that moment, reminding people viscerally about how differences ultimately create a broader base (surer footing) on which to build durable solutions. Often it is helpful to highlight differences and draw the group's attention to the specifics that are not resolved, asking them to drill down on the question of how to resolve this apparent impasse. Don't be afraid or intimidated by differences.

•  There can be delicacy about deciding when a solution is good enough to go with. You have to have had enough examination to identify flaws or reservations about a proposal to generate a feel for whether the concerns are fatal, or further work is likely to bring improvement. Keep in view the option to employ a sunset clause if people are worried about being trapped in a flawed agreement.
• • •
While the above three containers are by no means the only ones that facilitators will be called upon to use in the pursuit of their craft, if you only become adept at these three, it will make a huge difference in productivity and meeting satisfaction.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Convener Role in Coopoerative Groups

One of the challenges that cooperative groups face is developing governance structures that are appropriate for the culture they are trying to create. When all the models we've been exposed to growing up are derived from a competitive Roberts-Rules-of-Order voting culture, it may not be obvious how to accomplish this.

In this blog I want to drill down on a specific instance of this phenomenon—one that I encounter frequently as a group process consultant—the role of the committee convener. In most cases this is never explicitly defined and people filling that role are often given the latitude to handle it as they see fit (under the dubious principle that if a person is willing to accept responsibility then we won't look too closely at how they do their job).

In the absence of group guidance about what's wanted, I see behavior from conveners that ranges from the iron-fisted control exemplified by Mitch McConnell—who has sole power to decide what gets discussed on the floor of the US Senate (never mind what the other 99 senators want)—to I-don't-know-what-do-you-want-to-talk-about laissez faire passivity, where the committee members collectively bumble their way through the question of what to discuss as the meeting progresses.

I think we can do better. If nothing else, isn't it an improvement to lay out what's expected before asking people to fill a role?

With that in mind, here is what I suggest be used as a template:   

Generic Description of the Committee Convener Role

—This is mainly an administrative, coordinating role, not a decision-making or power position. In pursuit of this the convener's essential duty is to mediate a healthy relationship between the plenary and the committee, with maximum grace and transparency. This is about greasing the skids, not creating a fiefdom.

—The convener is the point person for fielding questions about the committee, such as:
• what is the committee’s mandate
• what authority does the committee have, if any, to make decisions that are binding on the full group
• what is the committee’s budget (and how much has been spent or committed to date)
• when and where the committee meets
• what’s the draft agenda for the next meeting
• how to access the public minutes
• whether a particular issue falls within the committee’s purview
• whether the committee has established policy regarding something that falls within its bailiwick
• how does one join the committee
• what are the expectations of people who serve on the committee
• how does the committee make decisions

—The convener notifies committee members of upcoming meetings and communicates the draft agenda and background material for that meeting in a timely way.

—The convener makes sure that the committee has process agreements and functions in accordance with them. Examples include:
• How people get on the committee.
• The circumstances under which a committee member may be asked to step down.
• Expectations of committee members to attend meetings, and do the prep work needed to be ready to go.
• How frequently the committee will self evaluate (this may be specified in the authorizing mandate).
• When the committee meets, for how long, and where.
• Standards for notifying committee members about the draft agenda and passing along background materials.
• Standards for notifying group members who are not on the committee about upcoming meetings and their opportunity for contributing timely input on issues to be examined.
• Standards for how minutes will be taken, how they will be reviewed for accuracy, and how they will archived and accessed.
• Whether meetings will be facilitated, and, if so, how facilitators will be selected, and what is expected/authorized for people serving in that capacity.
• The conditions under which the committee has the right to close a meeting, if any.
• Expectations about how the committee will work with emotional input.
• How will committee decisions be made (this may be spelled out in the committee mandate).
• Expectations for how the committee will work through interpersonal tensions.

—The convener makes sure that meetings have been adequately planned for:
• that an agenda has been drafted (or suggests that a scheduled meeting be cancelled because there’s no work to do)
• that an appropriate facilitator is lined up (if you use one)
• that a minute-taker is lined up ahead, and that minutes get reviewed and posted in a timely way afterwards
• that the meeting space has been reserved
• that visual aids are secured (such as flip chart, markers, and an easel; or a laptop, projector, and screen)
• that notice of the meeting to the full group (if the meeting is open) has been posted ahead of time, according to standards set by the group

—The convener makes sure that coordination happens when issues require two or more subgroups or managers to collaborate.

—The convener makes sure that committee issues requiring plenary input are passed along to those responsible for setting plenary agendas.

—While the convener may be involved in committee agenda setting, they need not be, and they have no special power in setting the agenda. Their bottom line is that it happens in a timely way; not that they do it.

—While the convener may facilitate committee meetings, that is not automatic. Facilitators (if used) should be selected because they have the skills needed to do that well, not because they are the convener.

—The convener is expected to have a working grasp of all work being done by the committee (why the committee is handling the work on its plate, what the committee is expect to accomplish, who is doing the work, when the work is due, and what progress has been made on completing the work). This is independent of whether the convener is personally involved with the work. In line with this responsibility the convener is expected to monitor the progress of all tasks taken on by the committee, troubleshooting as appropriate.

—The convener is expected to respond promptly, cordially, and accurately to inquires about the committee, regardless of whether those inquiries come from committee members or group members who are not on the committee.

—If interpersonal tensions arise within the committee that do not resolve easily, the convener is expected to be proactive in getting the protagonists help. That may come from the convener but it could be from another person (or group of people) if they are more skilled, more acceptably neutral, or more available to the protagonists. In casting about for suitable help, the convener is expressly not limited to members of the committee in seeking the best choice.

—The convener is responsible for maintaining accessibility and good relations with the conveners of other committees, as well as with all other group members.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Bedlam 2018

After taking a year off, I'm reviving an annual tradition I started in 2011—taking a moment at the turning of the calendar to summarize where I slept during the past year.

I refer to this as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental imbalance (and I don't want to deprive them of data); and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.
So here are the highlights of where I was when the lights went out each night. Because I didn't post about this last year and 2016 was anomalous for health reasons, I'll compare my 2018 stats with 2015 as I sift for trends.

o  It's always good to start with home. In 2018 I slept in my own bed (the one I share with Susan) 216 nights, or 59% of the time, which is about average.

o  I stayed with clients 67 nights, which continues an upward trend in that regard (it was only 51 nights three years back, and that was an increase from 2014).

o  I was with family 27 nights, down slightly from three years ago.

o  I visited friends overnight a meager six nights, which was down dramatically from 42 nights in 2015. (I'm scratching my head over this one as I don't have the sense that I'm visiting friends less—maybe I'm just not spending the night like I used to?)

o  As a cancer survivor I live with a compromised immune system and I was reminded of that last winter when I spent two brief stints in the hospital battling respiratory illnesses, trimming my total at home by five nights. 

o  Coincident with my retiring as FIC administrator at the end of 2015, I only attended one set of meetings (as a Board member of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions) and one event (the Canadian Cohousing Conference in Vancouver last spring) in 2018. 

o  As an inveterate train traveler I slept on the choo choo 30 nights, plus an additional three nights as Amtrak's guest in a hotel when I missed a connection. (Incidentally, those were my only nights in a hotel, for which I am thankful.) This was about average for nights on a train. I also spent one short night on a plane, winging my way from Atlanta to Madrid, where dawn and I arrived simultaneously.

o  As an artifact of my battle with multiple myeloma, I have three collapsed vertebrae at the top of my lumbar section. While I've been able to adjust to this with minimal residual pain, I can assure you that I thoroughly enjoy lying down at the of the day on a nice mattress and letting my back unwind. As such, I'm happy to report that my days of sleeping on floors are completely behind me (as opposed to beneath me), and I was only on a couch or air mattress 10 nights. Whew. Sleep is important.

o  Over the course of the year I slept and schlepped (my luggage) in 16 states, one province, and three cities in Spain (where Susan and I vacationed for nine days in October).

o  It's amazing to reflect on my ability to resurface as an active consultant and teacher after my cancer was discovered three years ago. I was one sick puppy at the time, but responded well to treatments and here I am. Since then I have experienced full cognitive recovery, and my constitution has rebounded sufficiently that I can work an intensive four-day stretch with no loss in function. (Fortunately, faciltating and teaching are not aerobically demanding vocations.) Three years after dancing on the brink of checking out, I'm not only still getting up each morning, but have good things to do and good people to do them with. In all, I've got a pretty good deal.

So that's my bedlam synopsis for last year. Here's wishing you and yours happy days and gratifying opportunities in the year ahead.