Thursday, October 28, 2021

Key Facilitative Skills: Trusting the Force

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 since 2003, I've also collected plenty of data about which lessons are the most challenging for students to digest. Taken all together, I've assembled 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 Facilitative Skills and will be a distillation of where the heavy lifting is done.

This is the final segment in the series. 

Here are the headlines of what covered 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 Work Productively

XV. Trusting the Force

• • •

One the most important skills that a facilitator can develop is their intuition—the sense of what to do in a given situation, even when the rational pathway to that choice is obscure. I tell my students (with tongue only partially in cheek) that the difference between a good facilitator and great one is about 10 seconds. Don't tell me later what you should have done; you need to be able to find it in the dynamic moment.

Part of this, of course, is simply facilitating a lot of meetings, so that you have a large pattern library to draw from (when have I seen this before; what does this remind me of; what worked then; how is this the same and how is it different?).

It's also about opening yourself up to the unknown. You have to simultaneously do all you can to be prepared for the meeting, and then be willing go off script (which I style off-roading) when something emerges that you didn't anticipate—which happens, on average, 2-3 times a meeting. It requires being able to develop your spidey sense that alerts you that something important just happened, or is about to.

This can be subtle (not just a matter of someone jumping up and down and shouting, or sobbing in the corner). Perhaps it's a change in voice tone, body language, or pace that signals stress or vulnerability. It generally means it's time to slow things down and recognize that someone dropped into a deeper or more tender place that warrants attention. Often you won't know the meaning until the moment is explored. That is, you'll have to trust your sense that something potentially important has occurred and hold the group's focus to it without knowing where it will lead or whether it's even germane to the topic at hand. This is hard to do without the benefit of prior positive experiences reinforcing one's courage to do it again.

The metaphor I use is that you want to trust your intuition to the point where you're willing to step into the unknown without knowing where the floor is—believing that it will be there when your weight comes down, because you trust the Force.

This is, of course, not a beginner's skill. Newbies tend to hold onto their meeting plans like a lifeline, fearful of off-roading because there be dragons or sea monsters (or giant spiders—think of Tolkien's band of dwarves trying to navigate Mirkwood Forest on their way to the Lonely Mountain). On the journey to becoming a skilled facilitator, you need to make friends with your intuition, as an augment to your brain, not a substitute.

Fortunately, this is something you can practice when you're not the facilitator (and the stakes are lower). For example, any time you're in an informal conversation. Does something feel off, or missing? Is the energy discordant with the words? Is the conversation in laminar flow or turbulent? Those are all indicators that there is something roiling below the surface.

To be clear, even if your intuition is correct, that does not guarantee that the person you are asking to go deeper will be happy with the invitation. They may be invested in maintaining a boundary about what they share and reluctant to disclose more honestly. So you can knock on the door, but it may not open.

For that matter, the group may not welcome going off script on what may appear to be a side issue or a fishing expedition. The test will be whether it yields insights into the issue at hand and/or enhanced relationships among members. Unfortunately, you have to commit to the examination before you know whether the output will be deemed valuable.

Despite these impediments, I purposefully reserved this facilitative skill for last in my list of 15 because it has been my experience that a well-developed intuition—and the courage to act on it—is perhaps the most potent tool in the box. Virtually all of the breakthrough moments I have helped midwife as a facilitator the last four decades have come from my acting on intuition about what to do in a pivotal moment.

The obverse of embracing intuition is what I style paint-by-number facilitation, where the person (and group) develops rules and meeting structures which are strictly adhered to (if A happens, then do B), in the hope that there will be safety and reliability in walling off from the chaotic elements of emotions and intuition. While this is more accessible (and requires less personal growth work), I find this approach brittle and poorly adapted to emergent energy, and the messy, complex reality of who we are as humans.

Don't get me wrong. I think meetings should have structure, I think it's appropriate to define acceptable meeting behavior, and I think there are better ways to sequence how we work with issues. I also think getting stellar results requires being open to surprises and engaging with whatever is in the room—never mind how it got there, or the awkward way it may have been broached.

One of the most short-sighted concepts in facilitative thinking is the idea that information doesn't "count" or is in some sense illegitimate if it isn't delivered in a respectful or polite way. While I get it that it's easier to hear and work with opinions offered gently and with compassion, can you really afford to put someone (and their views) in the penalty box if the presentation was raw? I don't think so. You have to be willing to play with the dragons, rather than avoid them and hope you don't get burned. To accomplish that, you have to learn to trust the Force.

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