Friday, July 19, 2019


As both a writer and a professional facilitator I am often asked to look over draft proposals, articles, or other communications where the authors want to get the wording right and are open to additional eyes on their efforts. This is more than copy editing (though I do that, too); it's assessing writing and making suggestions for clarity, concision, and anticipation of impact. Sometimes I am asked to review minutes for completeness, depth, and tone.

It's a wide ranging art form revolving around the use of words.

Recently, I was facilitating a board meeting at which members were going to discuss the sudden resignation of a key member, informed by tension that this person experienced with the executive director. Most of the board had no idea that tension had been brewing until it was too late to do anything about saving the working relationship between the two, and that was understandably frustrating.

This was the first board meeting where this was to be discussed and important decisions would be made about how to respond. As the person setting up the sequence in which this dynamic would be examined I asked the departed board member to write a summary of events leading up to their resignation (they were unable to attend the meeting in person). It arrived less than 24 hours before the meeting and it occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to massage the message (shades of Marshall McLuhan), with the author's permission, to do what I style "defanging."

I spent a concentrated hour reworking their 900-word account to preserve intent and enhance clarity, while at the same time removing some subtle barbs and provocative characterizations that would only serve to goad their counterpart in the troubled tango.

Happily, the author was fine with my changes, and the reward came in the meeting when there was no disagreement about the basic sequence of events. To be sure, there were some major disagreement about whether the actions taken were good ones—there were real questions to discuss—but it is far easier to see clearly into the depths of an issue when the water hasn't been roiled by gratuitous inklings of innuendo or eddies of exaggeration.

Mostly this entails reworking the statement to strip out any interpretation of the other person's intent (which not only fans the flames, but stands a good chance of being wrong). The guiding principle is simple: stick to what was observed, how it felt, and why it matters. That's plenty. It's not about being nice or sugar coating; it's about resisting the temptation to fuel your hurt by assigning bad intent or nefarious motives to the other party. While it may feel good in the moment, it never helps repair the damage to the relationship. It just makes it worse.

• • •
In this particular instance, the presenting issue revolved around risk tolerance and how much detail the executive director should be providing the board about the organization's tight finances. Once we unpacked it, there were several elements that contributed to the tension.

1. Although the nonprofit has a commitment to functioning cooperatively, there was nothing in place organizationally to help people who were struggling with interpersonal tension, and too much was being asked of too few. Thus, when the two people that everyone was relying on were in tension with each other, there was nowhere to turn.

2. The board had never discussed what level of risk it was willing to accept in carrying out its program. Thus, there was no risk lanes painted on the organizational roadway, such that the two most active people in the nonprofit could check their positions against.

3. The board had never articulated what level of financial information it needed to carry out its role of fiduciary oversight. It's hard to fault someone for not having provided enough details in financial reports when those details were never requested.

4. Even though the organization was known to be under financial strain, the treasurer role had been vacant for months. So no one had their eyes on the financial dials at the board level, alerting people that the needle was inching into the red.

5. Historically the organization has had a passive board. So there was no precedent for board members to step up and place a firm hand on the wheel once the weather turned stormy.  There was minimal information flow and the board was confused about how to respond.

The good news is that the board hung in there as all of this was revealed. Everyone took a deep breath and there was a positive response. Though I can't prove it, I believe that defanging played a small, yet significant role in our being able to set and maintain a constructive tone all day—keeping the sails trimmed close to the wind with minimal luffing.

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