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 Horse 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
• • •
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
And that's just the easy part.
2. Process Language
It is no small matter learning how to read what someone needs as an accessible onramp to the conversation; what acknowledgment someone needs to feel heard; how to offer a variety of ways to engage on a topic such that everyone has at least one format that works for them; how to bridge between people who are not hearing each other; how to accurately and concisely summarize disparate input. Skilled facilitators need to be able to do all of these things.
3. Body Language
When we're missing body language—say, with email—there is considerable risk of misinterpreting intent and meaning. Confusion that might have been cleared up in a matter of seconds if you had sight lines to a speaker can persist for weeks when all you have are the words to go by. When we lack information in an exchange, most of us tend to fill in the blanks with guesses and projections, rather than ask for clarification. When you indulge in that, all manner of mischief can ensue. Thus, Zoom (video-conferencing) helps because it supplies tone, volume, pace, and facial expressions of the speaker, which substantially cuts down on the misinterpretation that email is vulnerable to. You just have to be careful to remember that you are generally not able to get a clear read of the body language of the listeners, and you may be missing important clues about how the speaker's offering is landing.
Aside: because reading non-verbal cues is important, it's generally a poor idea for facilitators to self-scribe (in those times when it's deemed valuable to record what's happening on flip chart paper or a white board). You have to have your eyes on the group, not just your ears.
4. Emotional Language
In my experience, most cooperative groups do not have any agreements about how they'll work with emotional input. Not because members don't have feelings, or don't bring them into the room during meetings—but because welcoming feelings, especially strong ones, tends to be scary and chaotic. Lacking agreements about how to work with feelings there is marked tendency for groups to try to put a lid on them as soon as they arise. Most of us only have bad experiences when strong feelings are expressed (people are attacked or things are said in the heat of the moment that are later regretted), and have learned to be afraid of the damage to relationship that can occur.
Central to what I believe is a more productive approach is to have facilitators develop the ability to work deftly with emotions and to be able to harness feelings as a source of information and energy. I am suggesting that you'll be better off if you can view strong feelings as an indication that something important is happening, rather than as a sign of something dangerous happening. I understand that for many this may require undoing a considerable amount of conditioning, but it's worth it.
• • •
Of course, some of these languages overlap (for example, conveying emotional pain through tone and facial expressions as well as words), yet I've separated them out in this monograph to make clear that they are distinctive forms of communication and that skilled facilitators should strive to become fluent in all four, as well as the ability to translate from one to another. Think of it as fourplay.