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.