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Key Facilitation Skills: Becoming Multi-tongued

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June 4, 2020
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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

I've been a process consultant and teacher since 1987. In all that time every meeting I've attended, observed, or facilitated has been conducted in English—my native tongue. By degrees though, I've discovered that that's not the only language being spoken.
There is also the language of process, body language, and the lingua franca of emotions. If you aspire to become a skilled facilitator it behooves you to develop a facility with all four.

1. English

Leaving aside the challenge of learning English as a second language (which is a torture I've never been subjected to), the challenge here is much more than mastering parts of speech, vocabulary, and diction. There are, for example, the nuances of regional dialects. And all of these aspects enjoy a longer half-life than the evanescent meanings of metaphors, colloquialisms, idioms, and humor. What you learned as au courant a decade ago may now be passé. It is, as they say, complicated.
New words (or meanings) are constantly being forged in the ever-changing crucible of contemporary discourse. So you have to pay attention, or you'll never be woke to all that people are saying.


And that's just the easy part.

2. Process Language

In cooperative culture the how matters as much as the what. The promise of cooperative culture is that decisions will be made collectively—rather than by the strong, the quick, the rich, the loud, the privileged, or the clever. Doing that well means creating and sustaining openings for the input of all interested parties to be heard and taken into account. When you factor in the wide variance that exists among people's articulateness (see the prior point) and their relative comfort speaking in front of a group, quite a bit of care needs to be taken to insure a reasonably equal opportunity for all.


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

Words, tone, volume, and pace are all part of how we communicate, yet we also covey meaning without sound—in the way we hold our bodies, facial expressions, and hand gestures. While much of this happens without conscious focus, it is this element that is greatly compromised in making the switch to Zoom when everyone cannot be in the same room (for reasons of expense, time, or pandemic). Most of us rely heavily on body language to corroborate the meaning we extract from words.


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.


I’ve lived in intentional community for 41 years: 39 years at Sandhill Farm (a small, income-sharing community I helped found in 1974 in northeast Missouri), followed by 20 months at nearby Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage started in 1997 with a core mission of modeling how to live a great life on a resource budget that’s only 10% of the US average. Today I live in Chapel Hill NC, where I’m trying to pioneer a new community with close friends. For the last 28 years I’ve also been integrally involved with the Fellowship for Intentional Community—a North American network dedicated to providing the information and inspiration of cooperative living to the widest possible audience. Recognizing the value of what is being learned in intentional communities about how to solve problems collaboratively and work constructively with conflict, I started a part-time career as a process consultant in 1987. Today, I’m on the road half the time conducting trainings, working with groups, and attending events all over the country. Recreationally, my passions include celebration cooking, duplicate bridge, wilderness canoeing, and the New York Times Sunday crossword.

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