Saturday, May 4, 2019

May the Fourth Be with You

Susan and I attended the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra's season-ending performance this evening, where we enjoyed both a 60-degree evening (don't laugh—that's warm for the first week of May in Duluth) and a program styled Along the Mediterranean. The balmy weather helped put us in the mood for that program.

We enjoyed a set of five up-tempo compositions, concluding with Ravel's Bolero—one of my favorite orchestral pieces. After a boffo crescendo ending and a standing O for all the various soloists, we were ready to head for the exit, when our puckish maestro, Dirk Meyer, took advantage of the calendar, grabbed the mic, and sent us off to summer with a surprise encore, introduced with the semi-cryptic entrée, "May the Fourth be with you." The DSSO then launched into a spirited rendition of John Williams' Star Wars Overture.

It was a delightful way to spend Saturday night.

Especially after having spent eight hours volunteering at St Paul's annual rummage sale earlier in the day, which pretty much took the starch out of Susan and me. The Episcopal Church netted something north of $2000—mostly on sales of items that sold for $5 or less (I counted the cash at the end and we had accumulated a whopping 235 one-dollar bills)—so that was a healthy outcome. 

Email Purgatory
Today's busy schedule helped take my mind off the need to dig out from under the 474 emails that had piled up last week when I was suddenly unable to send or receive email for eight days. For reasons that still baffle me (gremlins?) my email program (Apple Mail) suddenly asked me for my Google password and I had no idea what it was. My computer had been automatically logging me in for years and I was dead in the water.

The problem first surfaced April 21 (which meant I was fully grounded on Earth Day—just not in a good way) and it didn't get resolved until the following Monday. As email is far and away my main connection to the information superhighway, I was in big doo-doo. Sure, I was able to handle the odd bit of business via telephone but mostly I was on hold, hoping that I wasn't missing too many time-sensitive requests.

While I had no trouble with connectivity and therefore had full access to the internet, nothing is more crippling to me than than loss of email. It's how I conduct almost all of my business these days, excepting only the live work I do with clients.

After spending 48 hours monkeying around on my own (trying all manner of possible passwords) it was time to call in reinforcements. So I took my laptop in to George Reindl, my go-to Apple guy at Downtown Computer. Although George needed help from both FIC (the Fellowship controls the domain that I've always used as my primary email address and I first needed to get a new password for my alias) and from Google, he eventually got it sorted out—including correcting the setting mistakes I made in my ham-handed attempts to fix the problem myself.

Now I have four days left to get everything caught up before alighting in Vancouver BC next Thursday for the start of a new two-year facilitation training, which will occupy my entire bandwidth. Because of my penchant to travel by rail, that means two of my remaining four days I'll be on rolling stock. Departing from St Paul's (the city, not the church) Union Depot Monday evening at 10:20 pm, I'm due to get to Vancouver at 11:00 pm Wednesday.

Fortunately, I can be productive on a moving train (I'm not susceptible to motion sickness) and I'll have connectivity en route via the hotspot I can set up on my iPhone. So four days should be enough.

It will have to be. Or the Fourth will not have been with me enough.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Key Facilitative Skills: Projecting Curioisty

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   

• • •
Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement 
One of the most pivotal moments in group dynamics is the point of disagreement—when someone first expresses a significantly different viewpoint than another's, and the outcome matters. Most of us have been conditioned to respond to this as the opening bell of a fight. But it doesn't have to go like that.

You need to keep context in mind. In cooperative culture you want what's best for the group, and the pathway to get there is not the same as in competitive culture—where the survivor of a battle over individual preferences is thought to produce the best outcome. In cooperative culture it shouldn't matter where an idea comes from; it only matters whether it's worthwhile. It shouldn't matter how much others are persuaded by your thinking; only whether we're collectively finding the best solutions.

In competitive culture, we strive to win the debate. The theory is that good ideas will outlast poor ones, and testing ideas against each other is how we expose weaknesses and demonstrate an idea's staying power (if you can't knock it down, it must be good). In competitive culture you're hoping that your idea will prevail. In cooperative culture you turn that on its head—you go into a meeting hoping someone will change your mind—that your thinking can be improved upon. This is a radical shift, and not always easy to access in the dynamic moment.

That's where the facilitator's skill can save the day. It's their job to gently, yet firmly remind people to be open of different viewpoints. If group members feel it's unsafe to voice alternate thinking, they will hesitate to do so, undercutting the foundational premise of cooperative culture—that the group does its best work when all relevant views have been heard and considered.

I'm not saying that everyone will say brilliant things. I'm saying that you want the least possible barriers to members contributing their input on any given topic (because you never know where brilliancy will come from).

So what makes this hard? Partly it's competitive conditioning (feeling threatened and argumentative when someone's ideas diverge from ours), but it's more complicated than that. Sometimes there will be problems with the delivery—which the speaker may or may not be aware of. Even assuming that the speaker is doing the best they can (which isn't always the case) what's comfortable and familiar to the speaker may be irritating and off-putting to the listener. If the delivery is freighted with aggression or sarcasm, it can be very difficult to respond with openness.

And yet, it still serves us best to try.

Working Distress and Disagreement
In the instance where a divergent view is expressed with a froth of attitude (typically the most challenging version of disagreement), it generally works best for the facilitator to start by acknowledging the substance of the speaker's point of view—refraining from commenting on the edge to their delivery until later. Why?

It works like this: when people express themselves aggressively it signals upset. When people are upset they don't listen well. When you can establish that you've heard an upset person's viewpoint and why they're upset, they tend to deescalate (become less upset). Consequently their hearing improves, they become less rigid, and it's easier to have a constructive conversation—all of which are desirable.

To be clear, I am not condoning aggression. Rather, I'm trying to make the case for how to engage with it effectively. You can still hold someone accountable for being aggressive (or sarcastic), just not right away.

Multiple On Ramps
Because meetings are not uniformly accessible to all folks, it's prudent for facilitators to provide a variety of ways to engage. Some people take more time to know their mind and to be ready to speak than others. Some are more comfortable speaking in front of the whole group than others. Some are more articulate in writing; some more eloquent orally. By mixing up formats, and extending to meeting participants a variety of ways to engage, it's much more likely that everyone will have been given something with which they are comfortable. 

Good facilitators think about this and prepare options ahead of time.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

How Experts Can Become Estranged

One of the more poignant patterns that I've observed in community is how the advice of experts—people with skills or knowledge that the community could benefit from—is not always received well, with the sad consequence that they pull back and do not become well-integrated into the group. In effect, their expertise becomes a liability instead of an asset. Yuck. How does this happen?

I've been thinking about this for years and I believe I have some insights into the dynamics of this backward result.

The initial thing to keep in mind is the foundational shift from competitive to cooperative culture (which is a regular theme of this blog). While intentional community living always entails a certain amount of this, there is a nuanced question about how far the group intends to go (it is not just an on/off switch; it is a matter of degrees) and whether newcomers understand that this is part of the deal and how this effects them and their prospects for finding joy in the their new life.

I want to explore this in four flavors, none of which are mutually exclusive:

Version I: Technical Skill
One of the most common ways this surfaces is in the context of a member offering advice about something physical in the community. It could be plumbing, lighting, gardening, fencing, animal husbandry, acoustics, tiling, yoga asanas… you name it. In general the person offering advice has done this before, perhaps professionally, and is used to both having their advice (in their area of knowledge) accepted without reservation and producing decent results (after all, they presumably know what they're talking about).

In community, however, the ground has shifted from the world in which the expertise was developed, producing different and unexpected results. For one thing, their fellow members may not be so convinced of the adviser's credentials (anyone, after all, can talk a good game), and in the spirit of cooperation people naturally want to make room for others' viewpoints before making a decision. While "others' viewpoints" may include all manner of shenanigans (to the exasperation of the expert whose advice has been put on ice while all this is sifted through), it may also include honest dissent (perhaps even from another self-proclaimed expert) and it can take a while to sort it out. When you're used to having your viewpoint be respected and carry the day with minimal delay, this can be tough to swallow.

The other angle on this is the delivery. In cooperative culture the how matters as much as the what. Thus, if the adviser offers up their thinking with a whiff of arrogance (an air of confidence that sells well in mainstream culture can be viewed with a jaundiced eye in community), that will not go down well, independent of the sagacity of the advice. If the adviser is slow on the uptake this shift in preferred communication style can be really awkward.

I know of cases where even a single incidence of this can result in the adviser pulling back from engagement (once burned, twice shy). However, even if they're willing to try again, it won't take too many repetitions to teach them to do something differently. That could mean the way they engage; or it may mean whether to engage at all. It could go either way.

Version II: Group Process Experience
This dynamic also surfaces in the arena of group process. Most often this occurs when members have prior experience with consensus and/or collaborative decision-making. When they enthusiastically share their expertise with the group (which can either be in the form of things to embrace or things to avoid), they can be surprised when it is met with less than wholehearted acceptance. Why does this happen?

Consensus is practiced in a wide variety of ways, many of which aren't that functional. If the group is aware of that possibility, it behooves them to be careful about building their process agreements on the foundation of another group's practice.

Further, it is not that rare for me to encounter folks who rave about their prior consensus experience (which may be the best thing since pockets on shirts for all they've seen), but which does not strike me as that advanced. After all, producing meetings and decisions that are superior to what's considered normal in the wider culture is a spectacularly low bar.

For the "expert," this can play out exactly the same as in the previous version above. It hurts. You thought you were being helpful and it didn't go anywhere. Worse, it may have been actively resisted, depending on how far the advice has strayed from where the group is otherwise headed. Instead of being a hero, you're perceived as a pain in the butt. Ouch!

Version III: Community Experience
A third way this surfaces is more subtle. I know a number of community veterans who have asked me about groups they might move to after living by themselves or with a romantic partner for a stretch. While it isn't that hard to match their strengths and values with the inventory of community's extant, the bigger issue is how they'll integrate into an existing community.

Both because they're experienced in community living and older (and therefore richer in life experience), this category of folks is susceptible to bringing with them an expectation that they'll immediately be able to improve things wherever they go. While it's almost certainly true that their understanding of community living may offer their new host valuable possibilities, these offerings may be tainted by being delivered with a lack of humility (or even entitlement).

Worse, it is all the more likely that new member offerings will be perceived as pushy when the community has not done sufficient work to drain the swamp of sulfuric dynamics around how power is used in the group, or developed a model of healthy leadership—which, unfortunately, most groups haven't gotten around to. (Do you see the pattern here about how group issues tend to interweave?)

Version IV: Partner Dilemma
Lastly, I want touch on how disparities in partner enthusiasm can gum up the works. As any observer of community living knows, partners generally join groups together, yet the ardor for the attempt may not be equally shared between the two. It is not at all unusual for one member of the partnership to be all in, while the other is all lukewarm, or even downright skeptical.

As members are encouraged to get involved in community life, this can put strain on the partnership. In some cases, the active member tries to contribute double, so that the household is pulling its weight. Sometimes it's understood that the less interested partner will just be a ghost on work days or cleaning up after potluck, and the community more or less accepts that having the enthusiastic partner is a reasonable trade-off.

In other cases, the less enthused member may make an attempt at helping out, yet they are likely to have a weaker understanding about the dynamics of cooperative culture (to which they have made no commitment) and a weaker set of communication skills. In consequence they are more likely to run afoul of having any offering of expert help land poorly, and are more easily discouraged from figuring it out or trying again. (Why bother? This weird community living thing is my partner's trip, not mine.)

• • •
As always, I offer this analysis in the hopes that it's easier to navigate tricky dynamics if you can understand better how they happen. At the end of the day, the way out looks a lot like the way in; you just have walk it in reverse.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

When am I Cooperative Enough?

This past week I was in Durham NC doing a bunch of teaching, when a curious student posed a question I'd never fielded before.

I had just finished making the case for why people who want to create and sustain cooperative culture need to do personal work to unlearn competitive conditioning if they want to avoid being drained by an endless swirl of combative dynamics when people disagree. Persuaded by my thinking, this woman was (reasonably) wondering how much work did she need to do before putting her oar in the water.

What a good question! In some ways it's just another version of an age-old dilemma about when do you have enough information to take action. After all, you never know everything. When does the value of waiting to gather additional data drop below the cost of delaying a response? Sometimes this is clear cut; other times it can be excruciatingly obscure.

Still, on the question of being "cooperative enough," I think it's useful to identify some markers. Here are some things to think about. Progress against these markers are positive signs. To the extent you struggle with these skills, it means you have more work to do.

•  In cooperative culture, how things are done matters as much as what gets done. Thus, being cooperatively sensitive implies a consciousness and facility with process. You should know that this matters and have a pretty clear sense of how to do things well.

•  The ability to consistently think in terms of what's best for the group, distinguishing that from personal preference.
•  The ability to see an issue through another's eyes (rather than only through your own).

•  A solid understanding of what it means to be a productive, disciplined, and courageous meeting participant (I'll give you a hint: meetings are not open mic). This means a lot of things, including, knowing what the topic is at any given moment, having done your homework on the topic, knowing what kind of contribution is called for at any given moment, supporting the facilitator if some participants are misbehaving, looking for ways to bridge between people who are struggling to hear each other, owning your stuff if you've having a reaction, reining in any impulse to be aggressive and attacking, and speaking your truth—even when you doubt it will be a viewpoint that will be popular.

•  Developing emotional literacy—the ability to articulate clearly what you're feeling and to hear accurately what other's are reporting about their feelings. A deeper nuance here is the ability to function well in the presence of another's distress.

•  Being open to hearing critical feedback about your statements and actions as a member of the group. Can you do this with minimal armoring or defensiveness?

•  How open are you to the perception that you are oblivious to your privilege?

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Dogleg Left to Mobile

Yesterday Susan and I crossed the midpoint of our fortnight vacation in the Southeast. While we won't be Marching through Georgia (shades of Sherman), by the time we're done with our maneuvers will have had boots on the ground (or at least sandals) in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana.

We celebrated Pi Day by wrapping up our Florida visit, and renting a one-way Elantra from Alamo for a one-day run from Tampa to Mobile, about 530 miles. Today's entry is an amalgam of our observations en route.

—We awoke Thursday morning in Sarasota, where we had been graciously hosted by Susan's brother and sister-in-law—Chuck and Lana—since the southbound Silver Meteor deposited us in state March 8. They live more-or-less in the midst of the retirement stretch from Tarpon Springs to Fort Myers. According to Chuck the Gulf Coast specializes in Midwesterners, while the Atlantic side draws more Easterners. (What do I know, they all look alike.)

In any event, our visit coincided with spring break, so the age profile at the beaches and tiki bars was seriously leavened by an infusion of youth.

—After Chuck delivered us to the Alamo lot in downtown Tampa and we executed the paperwork, it didn't take us long to get of town and leave retirement Florida behind. The first third of our trip was up the spine of the state on I-75. I was curious to see what we'd see away from glamor of the coast…

There were occasional wetlands, woods, agricultural fields, and then, increasingly as we wound north, horse paddocks. We saw signs for bags of oranges and pecans at welcome centers, but did not see a single live example of the Sunshine State's iconic fruit producer: an orange tree. This was a disappointment both from a visual and odiferous perspective, and contrasted sharply with my olfactory memories of a family trip in 1967 at the same time of year—from which I recall the magic of driving through acre after acre of orange tress in bloom. Fifty-two years later there were no trees. (Where is Florida growing all its citrus these days—oranges are still reported to be its top export?)

—Right around the point where I-10 intersected I-75 (the site of our dogleg lefthand turn, near Lake City) the terrain changed. Instead of continuing on to Valdosta GA, the drive west through the panhandle was characterized by pine trees left and right.

—At the turn there were a couple of billboards that got our attention, advertising how firing automatic weapons was "fun for the whole family, so come on down to Guns America!" Eh? 

Invariably these ads (I've seen their ilk at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas also) feature a buxom woman cradling an automatic weapon. I reckon those NRA dues have to go somewhere (other than directly into the pockets of legislators), in their desperate rearguard attempt to slow the groundswell for gun control. Sigh.

—While the pine pollen season was just ending (for which we were thankful), we were sobered driving through miles and miles of damaged trees and twisted billboards, the devastating after effects of Hurricane Michael, that roared through here last October. Road crews were still cleaning up downed trees five months later, and there were untold numbers of standing trees that had been snapped off halfway up their trunk. It will take a long time for the panhandle to fully recover.

—For some reason, we saw almost no motorcycles in Florida, but we encountered plenty as soon as we crossed the line into 'Bama. I have no idea what that means.

—While we didn't see any oranges on our trip, we saw plenty of large billboards for personal injury lawyers. Three firms in particular advertised the entire length of our journey, even into Alabama. It struck me that all of these firms must be wildly successful if their business income compensates them for such outrageous advertising budgets. Undoubtedly there's more money in lawyering than orcharding.

—Right at the FL/AL border we noticed a billboard advertising the Lambert Cafe in Foley, located just south of Fairhope, where Guy & Elaine (my brother and sister-in-law, and our hosts for the next couple days) have lived happily since 2010. 

Lambert's is home of Home of the Throwed Rolls, and is a phenomenon I'm familiar with as an experienced Missourian. The mothership for this modest three-restaurant chain is in Sikeston MO and I've stopped there a couple times over the course of my years in the Show-Me State. It's a family style restaurant where, for a fixed price, you have access to servings of all the predictable components of southern cuisine (mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, overcooked green beans, hush puppies, cole slaw, ham slices, fried chicken, etc.). While there is nothing exceptional about the food, their gimmick is that when the roll guy comes around, he doesn't deliver to your table, he tosses you rolls from across the room—and you better be ready.

—The directions for our trip were relatively straight forward but we fumbled the ball at the end relying on the GPS on Susan' iPhone to bring us safely to the Mobile Regional Airport, and we lost about an hour wandering around the northwest quadrant of Mobile in search of a small airport. (Who know they could hide like that?)

Back in Tampa we made a deal with Alamo to buy the gas in the car, freeing us up from needing to leave any in it at end. In order to "win" our gamble we wanted to come in on fumes. Without intending to cut it that close, our unintended meandering meant we had exhausted our cushion such that the "get gas" idiot light was flashing at us as we finally eased into the Alamo car return parking slot at the airport. Whew.

—Guy & Elaine collected us there and we repaired to a nearby Winchell's Restaurant for a much-deserved round of cold adult beverages, up-tempo conversation, and a dozen raw, juicy gulf oysters. I satisfying ending to a long, yet informative day.

Friday, March 1, 2019

My Misadventure on the Road

I have been a process consultant and teacher for 32 years. I've been a cancer survivor for three. Last weekend the two intersected in an awkward way.

As you might imagine, most of my work with clients is on location—I travel to be with the group, anywhere in North America. For most of my life that's worked fine. I like traveling, I eat anything, and I could sleep restfully in a wide variety of conditions.

As I've aged, I have gradually became more picky about room accommodations but it has hardly ever been a problem. That reality was seriously challenged, however, when I started experiencing serious back pain in late 2014, which ultimately led to the discovery of cancer (multiple myeloma) in January 2016. No more Mr. Indestructible. I went 28 years as a consultant without canceling a single job due to illness, but my iron man streak ended dramatically when I couldn't get out of bed for a month, nearly died, and it took months of treatment to recover as I battled cancer and its side effects. That was sobering.

Eventually I was able to return to my career (albeit cautiously at first) in September 2016 following a stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic, and I have more or less been regaining strength, stamina, and flexibility ever since—all of which is a good story. These days I do not book more than 1-2 jobs a month and allow plenty of time to recover between jobs. I also have a policy of not departing for a trip if I am feeling sick (note, however, that this is not the same a guaranteeing that I will arrive well, as this story points out).

While I thought I was being prudent. Maybe not so much.

You see, I still have cancer. While it's being contained by a carefully chosen chemotherapy protocol that I tolerate well, I am not cured. There are changes to my constitution that I sometimes fail to take properly into account. 

•  My back is permanently weakened (I have three fractured vertebrae) and should no longer lift more than 25 pounds (I'll never build another cistern).

•  I am prone to edema and need to remember to get up regularly and move around to minimize swollen ankles (how many hours should anyone sit in front of a computer screen anyway?).

•  The weakest system in my body is my lungs. Whenever I catch a cold, it takes me weeks to shake the cough. Last winter I was twice briefly hospitalized to get professional help shaking respiratory distress: pneumonia and RSV.

This last point became poignantly apparent a week ago when I was traveling to Vancouver BC to consult with a cohousing group. It took two-and-a-half days to arrive by train, and I noticed I was developing a cough as I arrived. Uh oh. The truth is, I'm immune compromised, and am now more susceptible to catching whatever is in the air around me, and traveling puts me at risk. If I'm going to continue to work as a consultant (which I am) it goes with the territory.

When I awoke Friday (after arriving on site exhausted at 1:30 am the night before) my energy was still pretty good and I was able to connect right away with the other two members of my team (whew). We mapped out who would do what and scheduled a relatively easy opening session for Friday night—our first plenary. My energy continued to be good enough to run a meeting with local facilitators that afternoon, and I presented a summary of findings (based on 15 hours of phone interviews with group members) during the plenary. Otherwise I turned matters over to my colleagues, and was very happy to collapse into bed right after the plenary ended. I was going downhill.

I awoke Saturday morning feeling worse. Despite that I felt compelled to answer the bell. We had a key moment queued for the first thing where we would work an example of a stuck conflict in the group and it was important that I take the lead on that. My team had hired us, in part, expressly because they believed I could successfully handle this dynamic and I didn't want to let them down.

I did the work, and it went well. I stayed to oversee the group's reflections on what happened, and then, on the mid-morning break, I went back to bed and turned everything over to my teammates. I simply couldn't do any more.

I slept for 22 hours, and felt somewhat better Sunday morning. Though weak (I hadn't been eating solid food) I jumped back in. Fortunately the work with the client proceeded well without me so we were in good shape (thank the goddess for competent teammates!). People were happy to have me back and I was able to be present and contributing the full time Sunday (seven-and-a-half hours). 

Members of the client group who were sitting near me kept coming up to me on break to tell me how amazed they were that I was functioning so well (given how poorly I looked and sounded). I thought they were being overly solicitous until 5 pm hit, we closed the weekend, and I completely ran out of gas. I had no idea how much I had been running on fumes, elevating my energy to meet the needs of the moment. I was one sick puppy.

Again I went gratefully to bed and didn't arise until 5:30 am, when it was time to be driven to the Canadian Pacific Depot and the start of my trip home. Traveling puts extra strain on me in that I have to schlep my luggage everywhere, plus I learned that my train home from Seattle was cancelled that day due to heavy snowfall in the Midwest, so I had cope with that logistical curve ball. That meant buying a last-minute plane ticket, and negotiating the following transportation legs:
—car to the train station in Vancouver
—light rail from King St Station in Seattle to SeaTac
—internal light rail at the airport
—one gate change at the airport necessitating that I redo the light rail to get to a different terminal
—flight from SEA to MSP
—van from MSP to Duluth
—car ride home

All of this took 20 hours and it was all I could do to climb the stairs, brush my teeth, and drop into bed when I arrived home at 3:30 am local time.

After listening to me wheeze at home for a day, Susan gently (though firmly) recommended that I call my primary care physician and get looked at. When I went in Wed it didn't take them long to determine that I might be fairly sick and was admitted to the hospital. Within a couple hours, tests revealed that I'd hit the daily double: I had both pneumonia and influenza A. Yeehah! That diagnosis got me promptly promoted to my own room, and they got me started on a course of tamiflu, an antiviral.

Before going to bed that night I sent an email to the client and my teammates, warning them of what exposure to me might mean, and then I drifted off.

Fortunately I bounce back well and I expect to be released from the hospital today, or tomorrow at the latest.

This is a damn good thing, because Susan and I have a major two-week vacation queued up starting next Tuesday where we'll visit Sarasota Fl, Clearwater FL, Mobile AL, and New Orleans—something we've been pointing toward for months, and I need to be well enough to make that trip. This turns out to be brilliantly timed after setting an all-time record for snowfall in Duluth for the month of February, and I do not want a lingering cough to monkey wrench our plans.

I tell you, this getting older stuff is not for sissies.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Key Facilitative Skills: Sis Boom Bang

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 

• • •
Sis Boom Bang 
It's relatively common for people to hold an ideal of the facilitator as someone who is unflappable and emotionally contained. Someone who invariably radiates cool blue light and is always on an even keel, inspiring centeredness and steady-as-she-goes energy in those around them. 

I suspect it's because many are uncomfortable in the presence of passion—not because it's bad per se, but because it engenders chaos that is difficult to follow, hard to corral, and fosters unbridled statements. There is worry that if the facilitator gets too emotionally engaged that their neutrality may be compromised and it might be interpreted as permission for participants to ramp it up as well.

While I get the concern (who wants to go to a meeting that operates at an exhausting pace and feels unsafe?), I don't buy the conclusion. Facilitators are human, every bit as much as those they are facilitating, and everyone will do their best work, in my experience, if they bring their entire, authentic selves to the task. That means their heart as well as their head. Meetings need to work for diverse styles of communication: both for those who want a slower, more deliberate pace (the default mode in most groups), and for those who prefer something more up-tempo and less controlled.

For my money, meetings should be alive, not shackled. To be sure, there are still boundaries around appropriate behavior when engaging emotionally. I am not advocating for anything goes. For example, I think all contributions should be on topic and it's fair to redirect comments that aren't, regardless of whether they are thoughts or feelings. In addition, I think is important to object to aggression, by which I mean deliveries that come with barbs or judgments (I'm fine with knowing that you're angry; I am not fine with your calling someone an asshole.)

Facilitators can—and I believe should—be emotionally authentic and expressive without sacrificing neutrality or taking sides. What I'm talking about is recognizing and naming the energy in the group with affect, as distinct from expressing personal enthusiasm for the merits of a specific contribution. Connecting the dots, this means that the skilled facilitator needs to do able to accurately capture and work with input that surfaces in the context of meetings in which passion is invited. Don't license a pace that swamps you intake valves! You have to work within your range. I'm just making the case for why it may be in the group's interest to expand your range.

When the group experiences a success, why not take a moment to celebrate, with the facilitator leading the cheers? If that energy is in the room, do it. When the group is stuck, it's generally helpful to name the frustration in the room (whistling past the cemetery is not that great a strategy). When someone leaks a sarcastic comment, it's OK to yell, "Ouch!" Be real. I teach that facilitators should bring a cool head and a warm heart, as both are needed.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe
While most facilitators know to project optimism and a welcoming demeanor, a sterner test comes when someone injects a discordant thought or concern into a conversation that was otherwise proceeding smoothly. I'm not talking about off topic; I'm talking about a different viewpoint. Now what? 

At this moment the facilitator needs to lean in and immediately set the tone. While eyeballs may be rolling on the other side of the room ("we were doing fine until you spoke") the facilitator needs to welcome this fresh voice, so long as the input is on topic. "OK this is different. So-and-so has another view on what needs to be taken into account. Do others share this concern?"

You are trying to accomplish a number of important things in this moment:

—Legitimizing the input (so long as it's reasonably tied to a group value). This is not taking sides; it's making sure the windows and doors are open.

—Encouraging minority concerns to get expressed by promptly validating their being stated (making it that much easier for the next person to be courageous).

—Jumping in right away to set a tone of curiosity, not allowing the naysayers (who were happy with the way the conversation had been going) to respond with disagreement, or worse, scorn. To be sure, they will have their chance to weigh in, but not right away.

Tone here is very important. It is hard to be creative and build cohesive solutions when the tone is combative and the energy is fractured. (When you reflect on the current paucity of curiosity in contemporary political discourse for the viewpoints expressed by those sitting across the aisle, it's no wonder we experience broad-based gridlock in DC. Dialog is stillborn.)

Up and Out
Last, it's valuable for facilitators to wrap up meetings with a concise summary (one to two minutes) of what was accomplished at a meeting, so that the last taste in participants' mouths is what got done. Why? Left to their own inclinations, people will tend to focus on what didn't happen, or work still left to do, generating a feeling of discouragement and exhuastion. While both approaches are legitimate (that is, both may be accurate assessments) the energy of focusing on product is night-and-day different than dwelling on what didn't happen. You want people leaving a meeting glad that they attended and hungry for more.

This is not about faking it. Don't claim success that didn't happen, or paper over serious concerns that still need work. You have to be real, but it's important to accentuate the positive. Product, for instance can include a sharpening of differences, where there is more clarity about what needs to be balanced and you have a plan about how to tackle it; it is not limited to what what got tied up with a ribbon and bow.

The skilled facilitator will consistently project positivity, thereby eliciting positive responses from participants in return, bringing out their best—all the while naming the product achieved en route.