Monday, November 12, 2018

Key Facilitative Skills: Semipermeable Membranes

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 

• • •
Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression  
Because groups are composed of humans, there is always an emotional component present at meetings. It may not be ascendant at any given moment and may not need attention, but there will invariably be times when it will. Amazingly enough, most groups never talk about how they want those moments to go. They just hope to survive them.

I think we can do better.

How did we get in this mess? It's not hard to understand. Unless you purposefully stop and think about, meetings in cooperative groups are fairly likely to unconsciously mirror the meeting culture we all grew up with, which is that business will be wholly conducted in the rational realm. 

While there is unquestionably a smattering of exceptions, the predominant way we run meetings in the US is to have everyone offer their best thinking—and if a response originates as a feeling, as a queasy stomach, or as a krick in the back of the neck, the person is expected to politely translate that into ideation before sharing with the group. In actuality, humans absorb information, process it, and "know" things in a complex variety of ways, only one of which is rational thought.

Unstoppering the Emotional Bottle
There is also emotional knowing, intuition, spiritual, and kinestethic. While it's rare that all of these are in play at the same time, why is it smart to force everything into a single language? I believe a better strategy is to widen the playing field and work in the original tongue. In this essay I want to focus on just one of these neglected languages: feelings.

What if groups expressly welcomed members' emotional input? I believe this change has the potential to substantially alter meeting culture for the better. In groups that lack an agreement about handling strong feelings, the most common response is shut down. Work on issues tends to come to a screaming halt in the presence of screaming. For many of us, the emergence of strong feelings is accompanied by aggression and damage to relationship. As no one wants to be the target of someone else's scathing comments, there is often an overwhelming urge to put a lid on it before someone gets hurt. 

While that urge is understandable, I don't think it's the best response. For one thing, it's unsatisfying. For another, it's expensive. You don't make progress on the topic (which is hostage to the distress), you have surfaced strain in the group which has deleterious consequences on trust and relationship if allowed to stand unaddressed, you have missed an opportunity to harness the energy that fuels the upset, and you have missed the chance at the information that undergirds the feelings (they didn't occur in a vacuum). That's a large downside.

If the group gets paralyzed in the presence of strong feelings, it starts to shift a lot of things. Not only does it stall things out in the moment, but people learn to be cautious about what they say if they think it may trigger reactivity. Thus, it distorts the conversation even before reactivity emerges, which impedes progress and contributes to meeting fatigue. Inefficient meetings paired with occasional unproductive outbursts are enough to discourage attendance, which further degrades the ability of plenaries to get the work done (it's damn hard to build solid agreements with voices missing). So not being able to deal authentically with fulminating upset is expensive. I'm not saying it's easy—only that it's costly if you don't.

A Better Idea
Given that emotional responses are normal and relatively common, I believe groups function better if they can treat reactivity as a normal occurrence—rather than as a moment to be feared. I believe you can ask participants to limit emotional expressions in two important ways:

a) It should be related to the topic at hand—the same standard you'd have for any contribution to the conversation; and

b) It's OK to express your feelings, but you should check aggression at the door. That is, no attacks. No negative judgments. Thus, there is a significant difference between these two statements of the same event:

Statement 1: "I'm furious that you walked out of the common house kitchen while you were frying bacon and a grease fire broke out."

Statement 2: "You fucking idiot! How stupid do you have to be to leave the kitchen unattended with bacon frying on the stove? You could have burned down the entire common house!"

Both statements make clear that the speaker is seriously upset with the cook's neglect, but only the second one goes into attack mode, dumping on the cook. While many people my "hear" the judgment of the second statement when only the first is said (feeling the attack implied by tone), the truth is that the first statement is clean, by which I mean the person is owning their feelings and making no demands. It allows room for movement.

This is what I mean by a "semipermeable membrane," allowing a free and full statement of feelings, while objecting to aggression. This is important because the way through this is by starting with a validation of the feelings, and that task is made much more complicated if you first have to navigate an attack, which is likely to generate more reactivity and heighten volatility. This can get very messy in a blink.

Distress as Virtual Earwax
The person in distress often feels isolated and suspects that people may not want to hear what they have to say. Often their heart is racing and their attention is distracted by a busy internal dialog. I think of this as virtual earwax. In the extreme, a person can be so consumed with their distress that no outside information gets through—they hear nothing that others say and are therefore unavailable to collaborate in building workable solutions. And even if their ears are not completely clogged, partial plugging can still result in serious distortion.

In this condition, it is essential that you connect with the person in distress, showing that you want to know what they're feeling and what it means. When done well this is always deescalating, and serves to clean the ears out. Note that this is not a promise that you're taking their position; it's a good faith effort to understand their position. Others may hold similar views, or maybe not. Facilitating an upset person means being their ally to get accurately heard; it does not mean that anyone will agree with them or that they will get their way. That will depend on what others do with the information. By not overreacting to distress it undercuts the tendency to give upset people additional influence on what happens (in the mistaken belief that placating them will create safety—if people get what they want they'll be less likely to lash out). When groups respond this way they encourage people to go into distress as a strategy to control outcomes. It's not pretty.

In the model I've laid out, you connect with the person in distress for the purpose of understanding what the reaction is and how it relates to the topic. Once you've achieved that to the person's satisfaction, you continue the examination of the issue. As I see it, on-topic upset is not a distraction, it's just another way to enrich the conversation. 

The corner you're trying to turn here is accepting the normalcy of reactivity and getting the group to not react to reactivity—to receive it as just another form of input, to be weighed on merit, rather than on decibel level or the amount of tears shed. Those aspects are part of the input and taken into account, but they are not determinant (prove that you love me by giving me what I want). In any event, you certainly don't want to abruptly terminate the discussion just because someone is in reaction. You want the emergence of distress to be a time to lean in, not to shut down.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Dia de los Muertos 2018

In the spirit of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos I am taking time today to reflect on two souls that touched my life and passed from this vale of tears in the last 12 months:

Chad Knepp (Oct 21)
Chad died of cancer of the gall bladder. It was discovered last April and did not respond well to treatment.

Our paths first crossed when he visited Sandhill Farm as a prospective member back in the late '90s. We got along well and he joined the community, but it wasn't long before he grew restless. While he liked what Sanhill has doing, he wanted the freedom to develop homesteading initiatives outside of central planning—because Sandhill was small, about eight adults at the time, our habit was to get full group approval before launching any project, especially if it entailed land use or building construction. Chad had lots of ideas about sustainability that he wanted to try out, and he chafed at being constrained by the need to get group approval every step of the way.

When we talked (at length) about allowing members more freedom to pursue dreams on community property, his request encountered push back from another member who wanted equality of opportunity. They were reluctant to extend to Chad the independence he requested, in part, because they didn't have the same homesteading skills. If they were not be able to make the same use of such freedom, then they didn't feel good about Chad having it—if all couldn't have it, then none of us should have it. Ouch. While I experienced this as the weaponization of equality, and left me both sad and disturbed, Chad's request was turned down.

To his credit, Chad knew better than to push, so he bided his time until he was able to join forces with Alyson Ewald and others to create Red Earth Farms in 2005, which was a community of homesteads, located on 76 acres adjacent to Dancing Rabbit—about three miles from Sandhill. At Red Earth, Chad could get most of what he wanted, experimenting with sustainable agriculture and permaculture systems on his own leasehold, with wide latitude to do things his way, so long as he operated within broadly defined ecological parameters. Even better, Red Earth had much lower expectations about the frequency of group meetings, and that matched well with Chad's predilection. He wanted to do, much more than to talk about doing. As frosting on the cake, Red Earth was close enough to Sandhill to maintain personal ties there.

The thing about Chad that I found most attractive was his creative, entrepreneurial energy. He stirred the pot. While this proved to be too much for the risk averse elements of my community, and thus Sandhill was ultimately not a good fit for him, we did not let that get in the way of enjoying each others' company.

Chad had a strong connection to family—both the one he was born into and the one he developed at Red Earth. One of my fondest memories is a time about 10-12 years back when Chad needed a last-minute ride to Iowa City, in order to rendezvous with a brother to drive to Michigan for a family health emergency. I volunteered to drive him, which meant a six-hour round trip starting at 10 pm and ending at 4 am. Uffda. While the drive home was brutal, it was worth it for the drive up—a rare chance for three hours of wide-ranging conversation with my neighbor. It was an uninterrupted chance to catch each other up on our disparate lives, which intersected in our deep connection to sustainable living.

There weren't that many of those long conversations, but the ones we had were precious.

I'll miss him.

Zeus (Nov 17)
Zeus was my son Ceilee's faithful dog, and a canine I bonded with inordinately. Ceilee carefully selected him from a litter after being impressed by the even temperament of his father, who lived next to him in Columbia MO. That was back in 2006.

Zeus was a pit bull/boxer mix, and Ceilee put in the hours to train him as a puppy—an investment that paid off in 12 years of faithful behavior.

Special memories:
o  I recall visiting Ceilee at his house in Columbia one morning. I'd arrived before he'd gotten up, and when he opened his bedroom door, Zeus boiled out and raced down the hall to where I was standing. I had just enough time to brace my footing before 60 lbs of enthusiastic puppy barreled into me and started licking my face. Good morning!

o  When Ceilee and Tosca moved to Las Vegas in 2007, they first lived in an apartment, and there were slobber marks all along the street-facing window in back of the couch in the living room, because Zeus would sit there all day, patiently watching to see when "Daddy" would come home.

o  Early in their tenure in Las Vegas, Ceilee and Tosca took Zeus with them on a visit to Tosca's grandparents (Juanita and Bob), for a party they were hosting at their well-appointed home in Henderson (a Vegas suburb). As the weather outside was hard on Zeus, Ceilee asked if the dog could sit quietly on the welcome mat inside the door, in the same room with the party. Juanita was skeptical about how that was going to work out but gave it a chance. When Zeus sat patiently for 60 minutes without moving—because Ceilee had not released him—Juanita went up to Ceilee and told him Zeus was welcome in her house any time. She'd never seen a dog with that degree of self-control.

o  One day Ceilee and Zeus visited Sandhill and we were eating lunch on the front porch. Ceilee gave Zeus a cow thigh bone to chew on while we ate. At the end of the meal we discovered that Zeus had systematically devoured the entire bone, even as we humans demolished our sandwiches. When I contemplated the power in his jaw muscles to accomplish that it occurred to me how easily Zeus could take off someone's finger—which he never did. He was always in control, and had an incredibly soft mouth. When children poked his face, he just backed away. He was never aggressive. I'm not sure I know any humans with that degree of self control.

For the last dozen years it had been a special ritual for me to greet Zeus as the first thing whenever I visited Ceilee, and we spent untold hours huddled together on the couch awaiting Ceilee's return at the end of his work day.

My life is a little emptier without Zeus, and his unconditional love.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Where the Rain Falls in Spain

Susan and I are now back from our Iberian adventure, and it seems appropriate to post a postmortem on our trip...

Having Fun Weather or Not
It's the start of the rainy season in Spain (hence the lower prices on accommodations), and that meant we were glad we brought raincoats—the very last thing we crammed into our suitcases. In eight days we donned them thrice, mostly in Madrid, which, as George Bernard Shaw (via the voice of Henry Higgins) has already informed us is susceptible to being located on the plain. Though to be fair, we also caught some raindrops in Barcelona, which is a port and in no way a plain city.

American Incursions 
As you may recall from my previous post, our tour was focused on four cities: Madrid, Toledo, Valencia, and Barcelona. Wherever we went, North American chain restauranteurs had gotten there before us. It was somewhat jarring and dismaying to see billboards for these establishments liberally sprinkled along the highways, followed by the storefronts themselves shoehorned into historical districts and close by ancient churches and other architectural splendors. Sigh. You can run but you can't hide from American enterprise. Though we never patronized any of these shops (I'd have to wear a paper bag over my head), we had our choice of:
Dunkin' Donuts
Steak and Shake
TGI Fridays
Burger King
Tony Roma's
Tim Horton's

Bed and Breakfast
It's is apparently normal in Spain for a complimentary breakfast to be included in hotel accommodations. Because Susan and I had bought a Gate 1 t our package covering the first six days, breakfast was always in the hotel the next day, where there was an ample buffet spread for all guests. While the fresh squeezed orange juice was to die for, and the spread of options was always impressive, it turned out, ironically, that our favorite breakfast was the simple one we enjoyed our last full day in Barcelona, eating in a patisserie around the corner from our Airbnb digs at the end of our trip. Going native we enjoyed:
two cafe con leche
two fresh croissants (the best we'd had in years)
two shots of complimentary fresh squeezed tart orange juice
a bowl of creamy yogurt with granola and fresh fruit

More on Meals 
While Spain is the land of tapas and we were pumped up about the food we'd experience, I was mostly disappointed that it wasn't better. The one standout exception to that generalization was the paella, which was terrific both times I had it (and I think I can prepare it myself now—the key is cooking the rice al dente, a la pasta).

Paella is always made fresh and you must allow 20-25 minutes for that if ordered in a restaurant. While most of us know this as a saffron-infused seafood dish, the traditional recipe is made with rabbit and/or chicken, and there is considerable latitude on what vegetables you include. Some use none. In Valencia (home base for this dish) we enjoyed a version with broad beans, lima beans, and artichoke hearts. It was eye opening for me that you cook a delicious rice medley without onions. Who knew?

While Spaniards tend to eat late (typically lunch starts at 2:30; dinner at 9:30 pm) it was never a problem finding restaurants open. This was good because we walked a lot (often three miles or more daily) and worked up an appetite after digesting our sumptuous breakfasts. It was amusing to realize that I was getting more exercise in Spain than in Duluth, yet satisfying to see that I was able to keep up the pace, which included a fair amount of up and down at churches and on the hilly streets of Toledo.
The Last Supper
We enjoyed this with our new best friends, Libby and Dan, fellow tour group members from Berkeley, who, like Susan and me, lingered for two extra days in Barcelona. We took the advice of our Airbnb hosts to eat at a local place only a five-minute walk from where we were staying.

Though we were way early for dinner at 6 pm (we had the place more or less to ourselves at that hour), there was a good side to that. Our waitress was not busy and took the time to chat with us. When I ordered a Negroni for a before dinner cocktail, it was obvious she'd never heard of it, but she was game. I explained that it was equal parts of Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth (rioja in the vernacular). She memorized that and went back to the bar. Five minutes later she came back with three bottles, just to make sure she had the rights ones (she did), and let me pour the drink. While it was garnished with a lemon wedge instead of an orange peel or maraschino cherry, it was still one of the best Negroni I'd ever had. We were off to a great start.

The entrées were fabulous as well, and we even had room to share a creme brûlée to top it off. A satisfying last supper. By then it was after 8 pm and the restaurant was starting to fill. It was time for us to head back to our rooms to pack for early morning departures.
General Observations
—Spain was clean. The streets, the sidewalks, the sites—even the subways. Why can't we achieve public sanitation like that in the US?

—Public smoking is still part of the culture here, though markedly less so than it was 11 years ago, the last time I was in Europe. Some restaurants have banned smoking inside; some haven't. So if that matters, you have to pay attention. The good news is that nonsmokers now have more options.

—No one in our tour group (or 40) had their pockets picked, despite multiple warnings that it was a possibility, especially in Barcelona. Maybe everyone was simply too diligent, or maybe there is an off-season for pickpockets as well. Anyway, that was one travel complication that thankfully didn't materialize (knock on wood).

—Being tourists, we naturally visited many tourist attractions, and everywhere we went the people (including Susan and me) sorted into more or less equal numbers of those who interacted solely with their eyes (that would be me) and those who interacted largely through their phones (where it as one photo op after another), which category Susan was in. I don't know that one is any more legitimate than the other, but they're different.

—Everywhere we went locals spoke better English than we spoke Spanish. Of course, we were only in cities or tourist-oriented places, where there was bound to be a steady flow of Americans and Brits. Yet it was sobering to speculate on how much trouble a Spanish-speaking person might encounter as a tourist in the US if they were weak in English—even though there are more Spanish speaking people in the world than English speaking. Money talks.
Other Random Highlights 
• Our tour guide's overview of the complex history of Toledo and his concise presentation of art interpreation during a two-hour guided tour of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

• Learning the secrets of cooking paellla in Valencia.

• Getting the hang of the Barcelona subway system.

• Experiencing Gaudi's incredible masterpiece: the Sagrada Familia, an architectural tour de force that has to be seen to be believed. And you must go inside. As amazing as the outside is, it gives no hint to what you'll experience inside. This is organic architecture at its finest and on a scale that is hard to fathom.

Gaudi spent the last 43 years of his life working on this church before he was killed in a tram accident in 1926. Still under construction, they are hoping to complete the project by 2026, for the centennial of his death. Here is a photo view of one of the four facades, taken last year:


Sunday, October 7, 2018


In a few hours, Susan and I will depart Duluth for the start of a 10-day adventure on the Iberian peninsula, and we're psyched.

This is a vacation we've been pointing toward for two years, ever since I started recovering from my stem cell transplant for treating multiple myeloma, and it looked like I'd have some extended play after experiencing very dodgy health the front half of 2016.

Being near death helps bring life sharply into focus. Upon reflection, I liked most of what I'd been doing before cancer revealed itself in my bone marrow, but there were nonetheless a few adjustments I was determined to make, principal of which was more time spent enjoying relationships. (I also read more and am less reactive, but in this essay I want to stick with the main line: placing relationships more squarely in the center.)

Some of that is friendships and some of that is family, both of which are scattered all over North America—after nearly 40 years of community networking and process consulting, and the diaspora pattern that characterizes the typical modern family. Thus, when I travel for work (continuing my career as an itinerant process consultant) I try to take the time to visit area friends along the edges of my time with clients—which process is made easier by having a number of clients as friends—double dipping, as it were. And now, after nearly three years in Duluth, I'm developing local relationships as well, notably in the Chester Park neighborhood where we live and among the players at the duplicate bridge club in town. 

Yet foremost among my important relationships is the partnership I'm forging with Susan. That's the one I really want to focus on. She was there for me immediately when I stumbled sick into her home at New Year's of 2016, and almost didn't have the energy or wisdom to make it to St Luke's emergency room at the end of January, where I finally discovered how sick I was.

For the first few months it was nip and tuck whether her relationship to me would more accurately be portrayed as hospice nurse than partner, but now that I've come back from that precipice, we have a chance to create a relationship with room to breathe and laugh and play. For two years now we have been holding onto our upcoming trip to Spain as a marker for where we wanted out relationship to go: I worked on recovering my energy and containing my cancer, and she got ready to retire as the church lady at St Paul's Episcopal, where she had been running the office since 2010.

With both of those objectives accomplished here we are—finally ready for our first major trip together, where we both have the time and energy to enjoy it. To help contain expenses, we're participating in a loosely organized tour through Gate 1 Travel, that provides air transportation, rooms each night, breakfast each morning, a few dinners, and a few tours (think Prado, Escorial, and Gaudi architecture). The rest is free time as we explore Madrid, Toledo, Valencia, and Barcelona. We're thinking about tapas, riojas, and seafood, as well as off-season Mediterranean vistas. Yum.

And this adventure, we hope, is just the start. We also have designs on trips to other places as energy, enthusiasm, and money intersect—Mesa Verde, Quebec, Iceland, New Orleans, and Argentina are at the top of the list. 

It's great to be alive, and have one's consciousness focused on the wonder of it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Key Facilitative Skills: Developing Range

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 

• • •
Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
The basic theme of this essay is that group members can exhibit a rather wide range of meeting behavior and the facilitator, in the ideal, needs a range that's appropriate to span the entire gamut. Thus, when the group is operating smoothly (is engaged, listening well, and staying on topic), the facilitator can sit back and stay out of the way. Alternately, when the group is misbehaving, the facilitator needs to step in and redirect—sometimes firmly.

Ground Rules
This is the facilitator's license to act, and should be explicitly established at the front end of a meeting.

Lacking authority to run the meeting, the facilitator may not be able (or even allowed) to redirect  inappropriate comments. In groups where this happens the facilitator devolves into someone whose role is diminished to deciding who will talk next—which is just a shell of what it should be.

This is the list I usually work with when hired as an outside facilitator:

• Emotional expression is OK; aggression is not
• If confused about what's happening, ask
• Raise your hand to speak
• I'll try to call on people in the order in which they raise their hands, but may alter that based on who has not spoken recently or to follow a thread
• Silence means assent (at least on procedural matters)
• If the group is undecided about what to do, the facilitator will make the call
• I'm here for everyone
• I’ll interrupt perceived repetition

• I'll keep people on topic
• I'm agreement oriented
• Assume good intent
• Please silence all electronic devices (we don't want to be interrupted by the clever jingle on your cell phone)

While these can be phrased differently and additional ground rules can be added (don't be shy), this set has served me well.

From this list, I want to shine the spotlight on three in particular:

Emotional expression is OK; aggression is not
This is a fork in the road. Many groups never even have a conversation about what to do with emotions, much less what permission they give the facilitator to work with them. For the most part, the default position of most groups is to discourage people from expressing their feelings (treating it as a loss of control), and then hoping for the best.

Better, I think, is anticipating that feelings are going to be in the room (whether they're expressly welcome or not), and that you're ahead of the curve to anticipate those moments. Necessarily, that means authorizing the facilitator to recognize and engage with feelings, which means, at a minimum, connecting with the person who is triggered. 

Thus, facilitators need to be able to work accurately at an energetic level (trust me, people who are upset will be able to tell in a blink whether they are being heard or managed, and bullshit won't cut it) and that's a question of range.

I’ll interrupt perceived repetition
While it's usually not that hard to tell when someone is going around the mulberry bush for the second or third time, it can take some courage to interrupt the speaker to point that out. While the recipient of this feedback may be gracious about it (whew); they may instead be outraged to have been called out. (I've had plenty of unpleasant moments when the speaker did not appreciate my cutting short their repetition.) So it calls for range to be the traffic cop, knowing that you might be the object of some icy stares or barbed retorts for pulling someone over for driving too slow and holding up traffic.

I'll keep people on topic
This one can be tough to discern. When a speaker has an unusual way of organizing their thoughts it isn't always obvious whether they're getting to their point by first circling Pluto (in which case you need to throw them some more line) or whether Pluto is their point (in which case you need to redirect). To be sure, this is basically another version of traffic cop, writing people up for leaving the scheduled route without permission. 

When you're aware of tendencies in the group to indulge in indiscretions, sometimes the facilitator operates with a tight rein—so there is minimal room to misbehave. In the extreme, I've seen facilitators take up half the air time, offering up a more or less constant stream of guidance about where the group stands and what kind of comments are welcome. That's going too far in the other direction.

Taking on the persona of traffic cop (essentially being a disciplinarian) does not necessarily come easily to every facilitator and thus is another example of range.

When things are going well, the facilitator needs neither a loud voice nor a big stick. Unfortunately, meetings don't always proceed in laminar flow, and there may be moments when you need to project firmness in order to maintain or reestablish control.

Alternately, there may be times when you need to get softer to sustain a container suitable for tenderness and vulnerability. 

Taken together, you need range to handle both.

In addition to volume and demeanor, it's an advantage to be aware of pace and how adjustments to it can impact the group. In general, there will be variety among group members as to the time it takes them to  absorb information, to process it, and to organize their response. (Caution: there is no correlation between how quickly a person processes and the quality of their contributions.) 

While it's probably not a good idea to always go slowly—at the pace preferred by the slowest thinker in the group (bo-o-oring!), you also need to be mindful of the dangers of leaving people behind at the ticket window when the train pulls out of the station (Oops!). One strategy for handling this is to work complex topics in discrete chunks, which allow the folks who need more time the chance to complete chewing and swallowing all the food in their mouth before more is offered. Meanwhile, those who don't need the extra time can be doing something else.

Further, certain kinds of engagement predictably benefit from a slower pace. For example, you'd ordinarily run a brainstorm at much faster pace than a grieving circle. A good facilitator will understand that and have the range to set a pace appropriate to the need.

Formats and Learning Styles
It's useful to take into account that people have decided preferences in how information is presented. Generally speaking, there are three primary styles: aural, visual, and kinesthetic. In a typical group of 20+ people all three will be present.

For the aural, meetings comprised of folks just sitting round talking works just fine, so long as they can hear. However, if you're primary intake is visual, then it helps considerably to have key points scribed on an easel or whiteboard, or to have graphics that illuminate concepts. The style that tends to be least well served is the kinesthetic learners. Sitting for long stretches can be hard for them and thus, formats that include physical movement can make a big difference in engaging this group.

If you want to be an inclusive facilitator your repertoire of needs to include a range of presentation and engagement styles that services all three learning types.

Road Mapping 
A good facilitator always knows where we are in the conversation and where we're headed (not the outcome; but the sequence by which we'll get there). The better you can see around the curve, the more productively you can align the work in the present moment to serve where you expect to go.

Standing or Sitting
How the facilitator positions themselves in relation to the group impacts proceedings as well as their words. Understanding the language of positioning is yet another example of range. When sitting, the facilitator is either holding the reins loosely or reinforcing a request for a slower pace (perhaps for doing heart work). When standing, the facilitator has a stronger presence and tends to command greater respect. 

Thus, standing up will get everyone's attention—highly useful when the group needs to be reined in. Sitting down indicates that all is well, or it's time to drop down into a softer, more reflective space. Walking toward a speaker sends the wordless message that it's time to wrap up, or they otherwise have the facilitator's undivided attention—perhaps because they're in distress; perhaps because they haven't responded to a more gentle attempt at redirection.
 • • •
Every facilitator will have a natural style—the way they'll conduct business unconsciously. The main point of this essay is that there's considerable potential for enhancing your effectiveness if you consciously develop your understanding of how adjustments to style will impact proceedings and your ability to alter your style to fit the moment.

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.