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.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Upper Limit Participation

When I was working with a consensus group recently, I asked them what issues they were experiencing, and the strongest response was burnout. Too few people doing too much. They had been hoping that the commitment to consensus would translate into everyone more or less having their oar equally in the water, but that's not what they were getting (which incidentally, is common). What to do?

To be clear, this was not a money issue. It was mostly an energy issue. The context was non-monetary contributions to the community's well-being and maintenance, and they were focusing on contributions in two broad categories: a) physical upkeep and improvements; and b) governance. Although they are apples and oranges (for most people, cleaning the common house toilets or shoveling the sidewalk is not the same as facilitating a plenary, or serving as convener of the Maintenance Committee), yet it all counts.

In addition, almost everyone recognizes that it's a poor idea to be draconian about this and requiring everyone to contribute equally (and what do you mean by everyone: is it every able-bodied adult; is it contributions per household; do renters count?). There needs to be flexibility about capacity and life circumstances. That means factoring in disabilities (both temporary and permanent), family exigencies (sick mother-in-laws, children with broken bones, sudden job loss, and the like), and the limitations of people's skill sets.

[For a fuller treatment of the questions to consider in setting up expectations around Participation, see my blog from Sept 29, 2008, Working with Work.]

In this essay I want to focus on the dynamics of people who are giving above and beyond—those who are burning out. Quite simply, community would not be possible if there weren't some folks willing and able to give extra to the cause. The challenge is how to set this up to succeed. On the one hand you want to encourage volunteerism; on the other it's easy to overdo it.

I think the line you want to draw is that you do not want people contributing to the point where there's resentment. All offers to contribute extra (even presuming you can define it) have to be freely given with no expectation that you will be repaid in power or privileges (or a plum parking space and or an office with a corner window) by virtue of your contributions—that is, no strings attached. (Note: you can always earn power by dint of doing well a job well, but that's not same as claiming power based on having logged extra hours.)

What motivates someone to do extra? I think it's a number of things, many of which may obtain in combination:

•  Opportunity
I have the time and skills, and care about the group, so why not?

•  Satisfaction of service
I get personal satisfaction out of helping and there's a clear need. Further, by doing extra it assuages my anxiety about whether I'm doing enough (don't laugh, this can be a key motivator).

•  Work they enjoy
I get satisfaction out of the specific jobs I do. They are inherently interesting to me, or utilize a skill that I derive pleasure from putting to use.

•  Recognition
This can be tricky, in that people can be all over the map with regard to appreciation—all the way from preferring anonymity to a party once a month (or a $100 Amazon gift card). Sometimes a quiet thank you goes a long way. You need to know the person to get this right, but it can make a major difference when you do.

•  How the work is delivered
While there is a large dose of personal preference here as well, sometimes it matters a good deal how the work is done. While there are some who like to work alone and in their own hours (accounting can be done this way, for example) many are interested in contributions that can be done in groups (think committee work, garden parties, cooking teams, construction projects), so that social needs can be met concurrently.

•  Leader support
Beyond recognition for sheer hours, special consideration should be given to those who fill leadership roles (HOA President, committee convener, or project honchos). If the group has not done a good job of defining what it wants in people who fill leadership positions, there is a marked tendency in cooperative groups to slide into a culture where leaders experience an unhealthy ratio of criticism to appreciation, which undercuts their willingness to do more. This is deadly.

Groups need leadership roles to be filled and therefore need a culture that supports it. If your group suffers from a rampant case of leader bashing, I urge you to take the cure. (See my blog of Feb 5, 2010, Touching the (Leadership) Void for more on this.)

• • •
If you want to enhance the experience (sustaining people in their contributions) here are some suggestions of things to try:

—Help find replacements so they get a break (to step back for a time of renewal) and are not trapped by their competency (ironically, this occasionally means prying people out of their roles—even as they bitch about the workload, offers of help or replacement are never quite good enough, so they stay on the cross).

—Look for ways to make the contributions more satisfying (it can make all the difference when someone serves on a committee with good chemistry and good communication; suddenly what was once a slog becomes joyous and the threat a burnout recedes despite no change in the hours).

—Make sure everyone has a buddy; a sympathetic ear available to hear about what's hard. They may or may not have suggestions for how to improve things, but just having safe place to unload can help bleed pressure when the needle is starting to rise into the red.

—Offer to help prioritize how they're contributing, retaining the most precious and letting go of the least.

—Encourage them to talk about the strain they're experiencing in the subgroups they're in so everyone knows the picture (sometimes no one has a understands what busy people are juggling when they do their work in stoic silence; or they may know what they're doing in that subgroup but have little sense of the other balls they're keeping in the air.) Paint the picture (without melodrama, please) and trust the group to show up for you. (For some of us, receiving help is actually much harder than extending it.)

Working it from the other end, I have a pair of suggestions for how you might encourage others to step up more (without shaming or guilt tripping):

1) I think it's healthy for the group to periodically (maybe every year or two) gather for a one-topic meeting at which you go around the circle twice asking people to address these questions:

Round One: Without defining it explicitly, do you believe you are contributing: a) your fair share to the labor of maintaining and improving the community; b) less than your fair share; or c) more than your fair share? In addition, please give an overview of what you're currently doing for the community. [It can be helpful here to allow others to add to the list of the speaker's contributions, but this is not the time to voice criticisms.]

Round Two: What, if anything, would you be willing to do for the community beyond what you are now? If there is any support you'd like from others to accomplish this, what would that be (while there's no guarantee that you'll get what you ask for, you might, and if don't ask the answer is "no")? Please be specific about your needs. It may be childcare, partners to work with, a mentor to train them, chocolate, back rubs… whatever.

This sequence has the potential to accomplish a number of good things:
•  It informs everyone all at once about what's happening (or at least a lot of it). In general there tends to be more going on than most people know and this can shift the energy from a feeling of scarcity to one of relative abundance.

•  If a person comes to the meeting with some tension about people perceived to be under-contributing (so called slackers), it can be helpful to hear what these folks are doing, and whether they agree with your assessment of whether they're doing their fair share. Warning: This won't handle all tensions, but it should help with some.

•  It makes it much easier to match make when people reveal what interests they have and what support they need. Often people hesitate to offer assistance when they're confused about need, or are embarrassed to ask for help. This is designed to ease both of those tendencies.

2) Participation Committee
Another possibility is to establish a committee whose job would include periodically visiting every household (maybe once every two years) to ascertain in a non-threatening environment what interests, willingness, and availability they have for contributing to the labor needs of the community. This information can be used to match with needs, based on the same committee gathering that information from committees. 

This kind of behind-the-scenes troubleshooting can be very helpful in pouring oil over troubled waters, reducing the tendency to gnash teeth, twist knickers, and burn out. Give it a try.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Key Facilitation Skills: Working Constructively with Emotions

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 

• • •
Working Constructively with Emotions 
This is a watershed issue. Both whether to do it at all, and then, if so, how. You can, for example, buy well-regarded books on facilitation that don't touch this topic at all. 

(To be kind, I believe the thinking is that emotions are chaotic and many groups do not have any agreements to work emotionally. Further, skill in working with content has almost no overlap in working emotionally, so you can see how something who is a whiz at working with ideas may be tempted to label feelings as Beyond the Pale and therefore out of bounds. Seen through that lens, one of the goals of good facilitation is to steer clear of emotional entanglements—for them, well-run meetings are achieved by containing emotional outbursts or navigating around them.)

The cherry on top of that, is that it's undoubtedly one the hardest skills to master, and it does no good to promise that you can deliver safety that is beyond your capacity.

However, all of that said, you're going to have moments in group dynamics where there are strong emotional currents in play, whether you outlaw them or not. Not having an understanding of how to work with that reality—or even permission to try—is not only crippling, it misses the boat.

Let me explain. I'll start by setting the table. Emotional responses arise in an incredible variety of ways, and with a wide range of strength. It's useful, in my experience, to distinguish between minor irritations and ones that are more serious. I'm not talking about hangnails, or someone making a grammatical error. I think you just have to let the minor stuff go (you can't tilt at every windmill).

So where to draw the line? My answer is when the distress is starting to cause non-trivial distortion—by which I mean the ability to hear accurately what others are saying. Distress acts as a kind of virtual earwax; the more you have the more you're distracted by internal dialog and less accurately you take in what others are saying. When it's really bad, you may be hearing nothing. If you plow ahead anyway it's the same as deciding that you don't need that person's active involvement to make good decisions. It's OK to leave them by the side of the road and move on. That's a hell of a decision. And one that can often bite you in the butt later, perhaps when the marginalized person sabotages the implementation.

The problem may be further compounded by secondary reactions in those tracking the person in distress, who may be focusing on the symptoms of distress instead of what's being said about the issue that the group has agreed to examine. So unaddressed reactivity can get pretty expensive.

In my view, once you're observing non-trivial distortion (yes, it's a judgment call) then I think it's worth addressing (I'll discuss how below).

Next let's look of how distress manifests. While feelings can be wide range of things, the two that tend to be the most troublesome are rage (accompanied by aggression and attack) and fear or sadness (characterized by shutdown or uncontrolled weeping). Off the chart joy or unremitting boredom don't tend to be so hard to cope with.

•  Case 1
Sometimes it's tangential to the issue at hand (the speaker is wearing a red shirt; the person in reaction had a fight with their partner that morning and the partner was wearing a red shirt; the distress has nothing to do with the speaker or the issue, it's simply a transference). As soon as you can get that sorted out you can return to the regularly scheduled program with clean ears and everyone on board. This one usually isn't that hard.

•  Case 2
Sometimes it's about the speaker and not the issue. There may be some unresolved history between the two and that's distorting the conversation, rather than the current issue. While not germane to the present issue, it's nonetheless a problem. Fortunately, this can often be handled expeditiously—if the person in reaction is aware of what's happening and owns it. If however, the person in reaction is perfectly willing to use the current issue as a battleground, then you have a problem. 

Perhaps attempts to reconcile failed; perhaps the person in reaction has given up on having a decent relationship with the speaker, and believes they have nothing to lose; perhaps the person in reaction believes the speaker is selfish and has no regard for the group; perhaps the person in reaction just likes a good fight. This can go south for a number of reasons.

However, even when it's sticky, you have a powerful point of leverage: the core issue (a damaged relationship and low trust between the speaker and the person in reaction) is not what's on the table, but the damage is leaking into the conversation. Once that's established, the group faces a choice about whether to suspend the agenda to support examination of the damaged relationship, or find a suitable safe haven elsewhere (specifying time, place, and acceptable third party assistance) to pursue this so the group can return the topic at hand. To be clear, it is the group's choice not the protagonists' choice about how to use group time. The protagonists have input on that but not control.

If someone is perceived to go into reactivity as a strategy (perhaps because the group tends to get passive in the presence of rage or tears and defers to the person in distress), rather than as an honest, spontaneous response to events, it is dangerous to let that go unnamed, as it's abusing the group. That said, tread carefully here. Accusing someone of being abusive is a heavy step and there may not be universal agreement that that's happened. This can get very chaotic very quickly.

•  Case 3
Finally, there is the case where the reaction to is related to the issue at hand. That is, the emotional response is relevant. Now what?

Luckily, once you assess that the distress is resulting in non-trivial distortion, you can treat all three of these cases the same way:

Suspend the conversation about the issue and check out what's happening for the person in distress (probably a number of others were watching this unfold, too; not just you—so you're carrying water for the group). Try to be direct and nonjudgmental ("Your body language—a frown and crossed arms—tells me you're upset about something; did you have a reaction to what Dale just said?" or "I noticed that you flinched when Chris spoke; did the views expressed strike a nerve in you?")

You are trying to through a set of four questions:
Question 1: What was the feeling?
You may have to be insistent here if the person wants to tell stories and shy away from a statement of feelings. Don't let them off the hook.

Question 2: What was the trigger? 
The feelings emerged form something that someone did or didn't do; something they said or didn't say. Strong feelings don't emerge from nowhere. If a specific person or persons were the trigger and they're present, set up a dialog between the person in reaction one of the triggers (with their permission and conduct a back and forth between them, walking them both through the sequence of questions until each is satisfied that the other has heard what they said. If the person in reaction is upset with the whole group ask for a volunteer to stand in for the group in a dyad with the person who is upset, and proceed that way.

In either case, it sometimes happens that the other person in the dyad is not reactive to the person in reaction and what they say, and sometimes they are. If they aren't, things tend to move quickly. If they are, progress can be more piecemeal and slower to come by, but it's achievable nonetheless. You just have to be patient.

Question 3: What is the meaning (why was there a strong reaction)? 

Question 4: What are you willing to do about it?
Now that you've been heard and have heard the other person's answers to the same set of questions, what unilateral, observable step are you willing to take (that you are not currently doing) that is in line with your values and beliefs yet represents a good faith effort to repair damage to the relationship? You are not  asking anyone to change stripes, sell out their viewpoint, or alter their personality. Stay with that until you get an offer from both sides that is accepted by the other person.

By this point ears should have been cleared sufficiently that you can return to the issue at hand and be productive. Note: After questions 1) and 2), there may have been enough progress made that questions 3) and 4) can happen at a later setting and you can return to the issue at hand more quickly. You always need to be thinking of what focus will be best for the plenary: sometimes it's further work on the tensions that have been opened up; sometimes it's returning as quickly as possible to the issue on the agenda.

You are not taking sides; you are simply making sure you understand what happened. Invariably, if you have done this accurately, three good things will happen: i) the person's distress will deescalate, and their ears will tend be more open—because you have undercut the tendency to feel isolated in distress; ii) you have made it easier for the group to understand what point the person was trying to make (and was probably poorly understood because of the overwhelming tendency for others to be reactive to reactivity); and iii) you will have accomplished this without marginalizing or pathologizing the person in distress, and at the same time you will have held them accountable for working with the group to understand what has happened, and cleaning up any damage that may have occurred as part of their expressing their distress (no free swings).

The ultimate goal here is to get the group to not be reactive to the emergence of reactivity, by virtue of having a solid idea about how to handle it. The method I have outlined above is one I have developed personally and used with considerable success. But there are others out there. Notably Nonviolent Communication and Restorative Circles. The most important thing is that you have something in place that facilitators can use and that the group has confidence in.
• • •
So what will it take to get the group's permission to work emotionally (as opposed to rogue actions by an inspired facilitator)?

The first hurdle to cross is the dangers people perceive in working with feelings. Done poorly, it can make things worse; it provides a platform for nasty exchanges that can cause lasting damage to relationships, even to the point of splitting the group apart. (And it can be excruciating to sit through to boot.) Why take the chance?

There are a number of reasons:
•  Unaddressed, distress has way of going anaerobic (rather than healing in isolation) and becoming stronger and nastier, making it that much harder to deal with the next time. 

•  Suppressed distress tends to leak elsewhere, either inappropriately in future meetings, or by unenthusiastic (if not hostile) implementation.

•  By quashing distress, it sends the signal that relationship damage takes a back seat to problem solving; is that what you mean to be conveying?

• Not working with feelings reinforces the prejudice that meetings will be conducted only in the realm of rational thought. Is that smart? (See the Key Facilitation Skills: Riding Two Horses for more on this.)

But it's more than that. The second hurdle is the advantages of working emotionally. There are two main ones:

a) Strong feelings—which are essentially a form of passion—are a source of energy. Wouldn't it be better to harness that energy, rather than turn it off? I liken passion as the stream of water in a fire hose. Left unattended (with no agreement about how to handle it) it can be downright dangerous to be trapped in a room with a loose fire hose under pressure. Not only can you get hit be stream of high pressure water if it comes your way (as the target of the person in distress), but you can also get conked on the head by a wild swinging nozzle. It's scary.

One choice is to turn off the water. But what about learning to hold the hose? In control, a fire hose is beneficial tool that can be used to put out fires and solve problems. You lose that option if you turn off the water. Rather than being afraid of passion, let's figure out how to work with it! (I find flat line meetings to be dull.)

b) Distress is also a source of information. For some, emotional knowing is more accurate and more sensitive than rational knowing. Why eliminate that consideration, forcing people to translate feelings into thought in order to gain legitimacy? In my experience it's better to assume relevancy (until you learn otherwise) and go from there. For a more complete treatment of how to work distress see Closing Contact with the Third Rail of Distress, Getting a Feeling for Working Conflict, When Groups Should Address Conflict in Plenary, The Anaerobic Hazard of Unaddressed Distress, What It Takes for Groups to Be Less Conflicted about Conflict, and To Ask or Not Ask; That Is the Question.

This accomplishes a number of good things:
—It enriches the conversation, making for better decisions.
—It sends the signal that we'll take relevant input any way we can get it; gives us what you got and we'll figure out together how it fits in. This reduces nervousness in members about whether or not to speak.
—It puts muscle behind your commitment to diversity.
—By shining a light on distress as it emerges it undercuts the tendency to become anaerobic later if unaddressed. Think of it as a preemptive strike.
• • •
Finally, there is a personal question for facilitators. Can you function in the chaotic moment? Have you done sufficient personal work to not be reactive in the presence of other people's reactivity. If you are not sure, keep working at it. This is not simple work, but there is a large reward once you get there and you can do your group a great service if you can deliver at need. Hang in there!

Friday, August 17, 2018

Key Facilitation Skills: Riding Two Horses

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

• • •
Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy

In order to do great work, facilitators need to be able two master two core skills:

You have to be able to manage content, and you have to be able to manage energy. Let's examine them one at a time.

At the most basic level this means hearing accurately what people are saying, and discerning what matters to them and why. It's a skill set that most would think of of right away when asked what facilitators do. That said, there are levels of subtleties. Not only should the facilitator always know where the group is at, but they should have a damn good idea about where the conversation is headed—and whether it will be a good thing to go there.

On a more subtle level, it is rarely sufficient to simply open up a topic for discussion and expect that natural conversation will be safe enough and inviting enough to draw out all the relevant input (not because meetings are inherently unsafe, but because not everyone processes ideas and is ready to articulate their thinking at the same pace, and because not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in front of the whole group). The skilled facilitator needs to offer a variety of ways to elicit input from participants.

(Coincidentally, mixing up formats has the synergistic benefit of keeping the energy up as well, as groups are typically energized by doing something new, rather than slogging through the same old same old.)

When working content, the facilitator's bread and butter skills are not hard to imagine: 

• Contact statements
This is the ability to distill down to its essence what the speaker just said, both so that others in the room  can hold the Cliffs Notes version of the input, and so that the speaker will be affirmed (among other things, this is an effective preemptive strike on those who are prone to repetition). While this tool needs to be applied judiciously (if the speaker was clear and the group is tracking well there's no need for a contact statement), it can be amazingly effective at keeping the ball rolling.

• Paraphrasing
Some of the time the speaker's point has not been well understood. When that occurs, it useful to be able to restate the speaker's point(s) in such a way that the input is the same (in the eyes of the speaker) yet the frame of reference has been shifted such that the audience now gets it. The fog lifts. Simply repeating the original statement (perhaps a bit louder) rarely succeeds.

• Summarizing
The skilled facilitator knows when the group is approaching the limit of how many worms it can tolerate crawling around the floor before anxiety starts to build (because it's getting too hard to recall where all the worms have gotten off to). In a complex conversation where many viewpoints are expressed, it is quite helpful for the facilitator to periodically offer up a summary of what been heard so far. The summary both separates signal from noise and clumps like opinions, creating ease for the group and helping them maintain focus.

• Fishing
A good facilitator is agreement oriented. While you might not think that's remarkable, it is. In a dominant competitive culture (which is unquestionably what we have in the US), people are conditioned to think first in terms of differences; not similarities—because there is ingrained in us a psychological imperative to identify how we are unique as individuals and you can only be sure of that when you distinguish yourself from others; not when you agree. 

Thus, if the facilitator has done sufficient personal work to unlearn competitive conditioning, they can replace it with an agreement orientation which seeks first to identify similarities. And because people tend to find what they're looking for, it's not unusual for the facilitator to be among the first to see how a proposal could hold the whole (while others are obsessed with differences) . When that happens, the facilitator should offer it to the group as a possibility. If it works, great (maybe you can get done early). If the group balks, just back out gracefully and let the conversation continue to mature. Maybe you missed something and you don't want to sacrifice your neutrality on the altar of your insight.

The point is that it's OK for the facilitator to offer possibilities (rather than sureties) if they think it might lead to a breakthrough. Don't withhold in deference to group ownership (the mistaken notion that the solution somehow won't count unless it bubbles up from the rank and file). If the group likes your brilliancy, they'll own it soon enough. If they don't buy it, oh well, you tried. Let it go and move on.

Another version of fishing is when the facilitator is unsure what someone said or is uncertain of the motivation underneath it. Starting with the assumption that everyone is trying to be helpful, sometimes it pays for the facilitator to take a stab at what they think might have been intended, in the hopes of forestalling less friendly comments from others who are confused. This is the facilitator jumping into the breach, in service to maintaining an attitude of cooperation and curiosity. If the facilitator gets it right, all manner of mischief may have been sidestepped; if the facilitator gets it wrong, the facilitator can gracefully accept corrective comments from the speaker and on we go.

• Weaving
This is a more advanced skill, whereby the facilitator connects the dots between what was just said with what had been said before (either by the same person or someone else). It is all the more impressive (and often more helpful) when the time gap between the two is large (perhaps not even the same day). This simultaneously accomplishes a number of good things: a) the group tends to relax because your tracking  what what's being said longitudinally and able to access it at need (in IT-speak it's extremely handy for facilitators to have a large RAM—random access memory)—the group will feel safer in your hands; b) it tends to comfort the earlier speaker, as they will be touched that you've been holding their input and weaving it appropriately—which serendipitously undercuts the motivation for the prior speaker to repeat their input (hurray!); and c) it reduces the number of variables in play, bringing the group that much closer to resolution.

Note that weaving could either work in support of the current statement or in contrast to it. The key is that you are bringing up the connection to sharpen the conversation, to get the group to focus in the right place, either on a potential point of agreement or on a potential pitfall that needs to resolved. Either can advance the ball.
• Partial agreements
When a topic is complex (most of the juicy ones are) it is often beneficial to break it into digestible chunks and tackle them one bite at a time, rather than cramming your mouth full and trying to swallow the solution whole, as this often results in choking down food that is insufficiently chewed and you get indigestion. Yuck. A skilled facilitator will develop a sense of how large a bite the group can masticate, develop a sequence for tackling the various tidbits of the topic, and then methodically guide the group through the multi-course (and perhaps multi-meeting) meal.

• Knowing when to delegate
It is a common error for cooperative groups to start in the right place and end in the wrong place. Plenaries need to be diligent about only working topics at the plenary level, and then showing awareness and discipline about handing details off to a manager or committee once the plenary work has been completed. All too often groups are seduced by the good feeling of making progress and slide right past the correct stopping place to extend the high—essentially jumping a fence and micromanaging a subgroup. This can result in the subgroup feeling stepped upon (why bother to do the work if the plenary is just going to override us?) resulting in demoralization. With an eye out toward this possibility, the facilitator needs to be on their toes, to ensure that the plenary is not on the subgroup's toes. 

On occasion, the skilled facilitator needs to ask the group, "Are we done working this topic at the plenary level; is it time to hand over final details and implementation to the subgroup?" thereby gently reminding the group of how it intended to operate.

Now let's cross the aisle and focus on the second horse.
• • •
Is the engagement bringing everyone into the conversation? Is it deepening an understanding of one another, or is the energy fractured and brittle? Are people reactive or curious when divergent views are expressed? Is the group energized or drained? Are there undercurrents swirling in the room that aren't surfacing? Are distracting side conversations starting to pop up? Is there sarcastic humor being dripped into the room like dark ink tainting clear water? Are people getting bored? Do participants need more oxygen or a bio break?

All of these are energy questions, and a skilled facilitator will regularly scan the group for signs that any of these conditions obtain, and then have an internal conversation about which horse to be riding at any given moment: is it more productive to focus on content or energy right now?

Unfortunately the skills needed to ride these two horses are almost completely unrelated. A person could be good at both, good at neither, or proficient at one and not the other. 

In general, the most difficult horse to ride well is the one with unbridled reactivity (which will be the subject of the next blog in this series), and it's important (even crucial) that the facilitator not promise an ability that they do not possess. Thus, even if you're convinced that working emotionally is a needed skill, you can't fake it. You have to be able to do more than explain the theory of working emotionally; you have to be able to deliver in the dynamic moment, most of which will be unscripted and chaotic.

While content work is largely cognitive, energy work relies heavily on intuition and relational skills—which expressly includes reading nonverbal cues (pace, tone, volume, eye contact, body language, facial coloring, etc) and understanding cultural context. (For example, people talking over each other may indicate indignation in some groups; in others, the same behavior only signifies interest. You have to understand what you're experiencing in context.)

While a good deal of content work can be reasonably anticipated; with energy you have to be ready for anything. Thus, facilitators need to be centered, open, and light on their feet. You have be able to hit the curve ball, not just the fastballs down the middle.

One of the challenges of working with energy (which is invariably a factor whether it's recognized or not) is that many groups have not made a commitment to go there, and thus the way may be complicated by resistance to certain concepts and vocabulary ("We're here to solve problems, not navel gaze") if the facilitator attempts to bring the group's attention to an energetic concern. So packaging may be an issue.

Many groups steer clear of energy as a focus because they're not sure they can contain it and are afraid of its potential for enabling wild behavior that may turn destructive. (If people are allowed to get excited who knows what will happen—it might lead to dancing) But even if you banned passion from the room (which I don't advocate), it'll creep in anyway and you'll have to deal. Ignoring it or bad vibing it are not particularly effective strategies. [I'll develop this theme more fully in my blog about Semipermeable Membranes—coming soon.]

If you buy what I'm selling about needing to ride both horses, you may wonder about how to manage that in real time. Physiologists will tell you that it's not possible to hold more than one thing in your  consciousness at a given moment, so the skilled facilitator learns to regularly toggle between a focus on content and a focus on energy, so that there is a steady flow of fresh data about what's happening in each regard. Over time, the facilitator learns patterns and relies on them as an alert that something may be off. (I have a good friend who refers to this kind of sensory input as "niggles," which she's learned to deeply respect.)
• • •
In short, if you aspire to be a reliable, stable facilitator, I recommend that you build a reliable stable—large enough to house, feed, and exercise both horses.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Dark Clouds in the Queen City

I'm sitting in a Greyhound bus in Cincinnati in the pouring rain. And that's the good news… because the skies didn't open up until after I'd boarded.

I got up at 1:00 am this morning to start an all-day odyssey to southeastern Ohio to attend tomorrow's board meeting of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. 

After Susan dropped me off at the Duluth Holiday gas station at 27th Ave in the dead of night, I caught the Groome shuttle to Minneapolis. From there I took a pair of Southwest Airlines puddle jumpers: first to Chicago Midway and then to Cincinnati. From there I rode the TANK (Transportation Authority of Northern Kentucky), an hourly shuttle into downtown. I walked from there to the Greyhound station (before the rain) where I was lined up to take a 75-minute bus ride up I-75 to Dayton, where Kat Walter (AMICS Board President) is ready to collect me and whisk me off to Yellow Springs—where the board meeting will happen.

Kat's still waiting.

While I had been more or less running on time until I got to the bus depot (I'm typing this at 4:15 pm and we were scheduled to depart two hours ago), we're stalled out at the loading dock, with no end in sight. (Remember the movie, The Truman Show, with Jim Carrey and Ed Harris? Those buses never left either.)

The delay was precipitated by an argument between the dispatcher and driver. The dispatcher wanted the driver to make a special stop in Lima OH (package express?) and the driver (already 30 minutes behind because of a snafu in Louisville earlier in the day) refused. Now they’re pulling the driver off the bus (insubordination?) and we are awaiting the arrival of a replacement. 

I don't think I ever seen so many unhappy people on a bus, some of whom have already been en route for more than 24 hours and were plenty road weary before being victimized by this pissing contest between Greyhound employees.

Stepping back, I'm wondering, how much this is an echo of the tone set by the Donald. Civility appears to be in short supply in more places than Washington DC these days. What good comes from these assertions of power? About the only thing I can think of is that perhaps southeastern Ohio farmers need the rain.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Celebrating Without Sound

Yesterday Susan and I celebrated the third anniversary of our getting together. On a balmy day in Duluth, our Saturday began by heading over to Vanilla Bean, a restaurant in the Mount Royal neighborhood to catch the Argentina-France game—the opening match among the survivors of group play in the quadrennial madness known as World Cup soccer. We knew it might be Leo Messi's last World Cup game and we didn't want to miss him and his magic left foot.

We were the only ones in the restaurant interested in that particular form of entertainment to accompany breakfast—in my case, corned beef hash and a Bloody Mary (start the day off right, I say). I could tell right away that the poor bartender had no idea where to find World Cup amongst the plethora of cable TV options. He dutifully clicked through all the obscure music channels in the 1900s before finally finding the game on channel 11: Fox Sports. (Who knows why he didn't start with the low numbers?)

It was an exciting game with several goals and several lead changes. Although Messi didn't score he set up two of Argentina's three goals, and it was fun to watch. Not wanting to push any of the locals off their feed, we watched with the sound off, as often happens at bars and restaurants.

Next it was on to Home Depot, where we scored some light bulbs and a couple of foam paint brushes to apply polyurethane to the quarter round we're installing in the living room and dining room, accompanying our newly refinished hardwood floors. Although the house is still outgassing VOCs from the poly varnish, the odors are dispersing and we'll start moving everything back tomorrow.

For our evening entertainment we started by catching the 7:00 pm showing of Won't You Be My Neighbor at Zinema, Duluth's indie movie house. It was a biopic of Fred Rogers (Mr Roger's Neighborhood). It's hard to imagine anyone who lived their life in a less Trumpian manner, and it was a refreshing antidote to the incivility and boorish behavior of our President.

We had thought we might enjoy an anniversary dinner one block further down Superior St at Sound, a restaurant that was featured in the Taste Section of last Thursday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune. We were excited to try out the small plate specialties of their creative chef. Imagine our confusion, however, when we got to the restaurant and it didn't appear to be open. Instead, there was a sign indicating that would-be patrons might walk down a block and enter on Michigan St. 

Following the instructions, we found ourselves in the basement, where the Rathskeller operated as a bar and bistro, with well-upholstered chairs sitting comfortably underneath brick arches and low lighting. When we asked about Sound, the waitress told us it had recently closed. Oops! I guess the newspaper review was a little out of date (but at least it explained why we were having trouble making a reservation).

Now what? Well, the basement ambience was appealing on a muggy night so we decided to have a drink. The shelves lining the back wall were obviously well stocked and the gregarious bartender looked like he enjoyed a challenge so Susan requested a Canton (two parts bourbon, one part ginger liqueur, and the juice of half a lemon) and I asked for a Boulevardier. I earned a bit of street cred by pointing out where the bartender could find his bottle of ginger liqueur (two to the left of the Galliano), and then walking him through how to make my drink (a Negroni, substituting Woodford Reserve bourbon for Bombay Sapphire gin). When he garnished my drink with a maraschino cherry, I commented that it looked like he was using Luxardo cherries—at which point he queried, "Who are you?"

After a pause I said, "Someone who likes to drink"—to which everyone at the bar broke out in cheers. We knew were in the right place. 

Who needed Sound? We were making our own music in the catacombs of Duluth.