Key Facilitation Skills: Durable Containers for Hard Conversations

Laird Schaub

cross-posted from Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus

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  

 

Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations 

Fortunately, healthy groups do not need much active facilitation. By "healthy" I mean there is a well-defined agenda, participants come prepared, they speak on topic, they respect air time for others, they are willing to voice their views (even if they expect they may be unpopular), they listen well to others, disagreements are expected and worked with compassion and curiosity, the group gets a lot done (respecting the preciousness of meeting time), and the group conducts its business in such a way that relationships are enhanced.

Unfortunately, all groups are not at that level of functionality, with the consequence that facilitators have to be more active, helping the group understand what kinds of contributions are wanted from different phases of engagement. In this blog I want to highlight three different kinds of containers—the need for which occur relatively frequently in plenary dynamics. In my experience, few groups are solid about the need for these nuances or how to set them up.
 

A. Clearing the Air

In all groups there will be times when there are unresolved nontrivial tensions that impact a topic. When this occurs, it's necessary to address the tensions before you tackle the issue. Why? Because unresolved tension is associated with distortion (and the greater the tension, the greater the distortion). In fact, at the extreme, if the upset is great enough it can be all consuming and that person is not capable of hearing accurately what anyone says. In short, they are not able to listen well, nor can they usefully participate in the constructive give and take of ideas. 

And it's worse than that. Depending on the level of upset, if the people around the upset person are aware of fulminating distress they are likely to distracted by it and the possibility of imminent eruption (perhaps they are worried about the upset person getting support; perhaps they are worried about getting caught in the lava flow as collateral damage).

Thus, it's generally a poor plan to attempt to solve problems with upset people. Groups often do it anyway because: a) they don't know what else to do; b) have no confidence in their ability to contain an examination of feelings (even if they know that's the right thing to do); c) do not have a history of productive results from such an examination; or d) don't have permission to work emotionally. Yuck.

Where the group is unused to working with strong feelings (I am talking mainly about fear and anger, rather than unbridled joy or ennui) it can be scary to go there and the facilitator will need to be courageous. In most groups, a majority of members will be conflict averse and will not typically meet a request to examine raw feelings with enthusiasm. There will, however, be times when you'll need to do it anyway and it behooves a group to: a) lay out ahead of time the conditions under which it's appropriate to clear the air (for more of my thinking on this see When Groups Should Address Conflict in Plenary); b) how you will do that (so that people know what they've signed up for); and c) what authority is being given the facilitator to run this phase of a meeting.

OK, so it's hard. How do you clear the air effectively? First of all, I think it's important to separate this completely from fact finding, problem solving, determining truth, or assigning blame. Your priority in this phase is relationship repair. Nothing more. While the possibilities can be profound (I've experienced some amazing breakthroughs over the years), at a minimum you want to get to the point where the protagonists can function together in a group setting, rather than be constantly triggered by each other. Thus, clearing the air may not result in the their signing together in next year's Christmas choir, but maybe they can serve productively on the same committee. That's victory enough.

While there are multiple ways to accomplish this, an approach that works well for me is to work in dyads. Even when there are several people involved (a multi-car accident) it's productive to keep the conversation focused on two exemplars of the dynamic and see what you can accomplish there before opening it up to others. I've found that witnessing others unpacking and moving past hurt can often be just as helpful as being in the middle yourself. And if it isn't, you can always work more dyads as needed. 

If you allow every stakeholder to participate in one conversation there is a tendency to have too many worms on the floor at one time, and it can be the very devil getting them all back in the can. Too often, different people have different points of stress and different reactions. With everyone striving to get their piece out it on the table, listening often suffers and no corners are turned.

The method I use for examining conflict is a series of four questions:
1. What are the feelings?
2. What's the story (what triggered the feelings)?
3. Why does this matter (what's at stake)?
4. What are you willing to do about it (in the interest of repairing damage to relationship without changing personalities or values, or even admitting that you did anything wrong)?

[Details about this were laid out in a previous blog in this series: Working Constructively with Emotions.]

The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:

•  Redirecting any attempt to problem solve (that will come later).

•  Resisting any plea to take sides. There is a deeply ingrained tendency for people in tension to try to convince others that there's is the "real" truth, and the other person is either confused or purposefully misleading. Don't go there! What really happened isn't the point; it's understanding how each person's actions make sense when seen through the lens of their perceptions.

•  Making sure that people speak fully about their feelings. Some are uncomfortable doing so, yet that's where the heart of the stuckness resides and it's very difficult to move past it until it's been expressed and acknowledged.

•  Being scrupulously honest about what you've heard. It's OK (even helpful) to point out legitimate places of agreement or similarity, yet you also want to point out where stories or motivations do not align. While you want to be optimistic, don't sugar coat disagreement.

•  On a more sophisticated level, I've found that it helps if the facilitator gets the affect right (not just the words) when reflecting back what a person has said, and it is often useful to probe if something doesn't hang together. Protagonists we permit quite a bit of directiveness from a facilitator so long as they are perceived as neutral and even-handed.
 

B. Discussion—Identifying the Factors

Once you've determined that an issue is worthy of plenary attention [see Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas for more on this] it's useful to diligently separate what needs to be taken into account (an expansive step) from what to do about it (a contractive step). Most groups are not aware of this distinction and allow the conversation to dance back and forth between the two, with the result that the group gets confused about what kinds of comments are appropriate, and often has to back track on elements of the solution because they were advanced prematurely. This is a major contributor to meeting fatigue.

Better, I think, is making room at the front of the consideration to identify all the factors that a good response to the issue needs to take into account, and completing this step before moving on to problem solving. In general this is about identifying what common values are in play, and whether or not some values should be weighed more heavily than others.

Here is a serviceable way to work through this in three relatively quick bites:

1.  Brainstorm (a free form, unevaluated collecting of ideas about what should be taken into account)
Because you don't get extra credit for saying a thing twice, it doesn't take that long to run out of new things to say. A key element of this step is allowing speakers to make an impassioned pitch for the factor they have named (say 60 seconds on the soap box).

2.  Vet
At this stage you review the brainstormed list and see if anything comes off, presumably because it was a personal preference (or possibly a joke) instead of a group value. If the group was fairly disciplined about the brainstorm perhaps nothing comes off. In any event, the end product is a group-approved list, which is far different than a brainstormed list.

3.  Prioritize
In this last step you make a cursory pass at whether all factors have equal weight or do some trump others. In my experience you only need to identify two levels: either everything has equal value, or there may be some factors that are "musts" while lesser priorities are merely desirables. This can be important guidance for the problem solving phase.

The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:

•  Not allowing evaluative comments during the brainstorm. This is a free-flowing, creative process and negativity is sand in the ointment. You have not bought anything yet; these are only suggestions at this stage.

•  Making sure that participants understand the soap box option for selling their brainstorm ideas. This may be their only chance to cut loose and you don't want anyone to misunderstand that.

•  Allowing the brainstorm to go through at least one cycle of slowing down and reviving before ending it. Often the first surge of ideas are the obvious ones, with the more creative (and often more valuable) ideas surfacing in the second surge.

•  Deflecting solutions (they come later). You want to be adamant about completing the Discussion phase before entertaining solutions.

•  Vetting can be tricky if the group is not conversant in its common values. Fortunately, the more you invoke them the more the group will be familiar with them, and they will be alive in your work, creating a solid foundation for building solutions.

•  Be careful about getting bogged down in prioritizing. This only needs to be one simple sort, and shouldn't take too long. The heavy lifting is not here, but in the balancing of the values that occurs under problem solving.
 

C. Proposal Generating

This is the contractive phase that follows Discussion (the prior container). Notably, this has a completely different energy than Discussion, which can be fast-paced and somewhat raucous. In this phase you are done with advocacy. We have already determined what needs to be taken into account. Now you want bridging statements. Who has ideas about how the various factors can be balanced in proposed agreements or actions? Now we are putting together and everyone is on the same team.

The energy here should be softer and more gentle. It is a creative process. It is coming home.

The test here is how well a suggestion addresses the various factors that were the output of the prior step. There is no need to hurry. Silence can be productive here.

The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:

•  Not allowing people to repeat why a factor means a lot to them (that boat already sailed). The soap box is no longer available.

•  Not allowing the energy to devolve into a tug of war, with winners and losers. You will not have a good solution unless everyone feels their input was respectfully worked with—this is not the same as everyone getting their way, but neither do you want anyone feeling like they've been run over or bullied.

•  It is better to go slowly and accurately, than to hurry and regret it later. Sometimes an idea needs to incubate for a while before its wisdom is evident.

•  Maintaining enthusiasm in the face of disagreement. Some people despair at the first sign of discord, and you need to model curiosity and interest in that moment, reminding people viscerally about how differences ultimately create a broader base (surer footing) on which to build durable solutions. Often it is helpful to highlight differences and draw the group's attention to the specifics that are not resolved, asking them to drill down on the question of how to resolve this apparent impasse. Don't be afraid or intimidated by differences.

•  There can be delicacy about deciding when a solution is good enough to go with. You have to have had enough examination to identify flaws or reservations about a proposal to generate a feel for whether the concerns are fatal, or further work is likely to bring improvement. Keep in view the option to employ a sunset clause if people are worried about being trapped in a flawed agreement.

• • •

While the above three containers are by no means the only ones that facilitators will be called upon to use in the pursuit of their craft, if you only become adept at these three, it will make a huge difference in productivity and meeting satisfaction.

 

Go to the GEO front page

Publication Date: 
Friday, January 25, 2019