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Key Facilitation Skills: Eliciting Proposals That Sing

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February 27, 2020
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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.

[I launched this series August 17, 2018, but lost momentum last summer—my previous entry was July 4, 2019—more than eight months ago. Now I'm back in the saddle.]

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 

• • •

XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing  

Laws are like sausages, it is better to not see them being made.
        —Otto von Bismarck

For many, crafting agreements by consensus is an awkward grind, just as Otto suggests. However, Otto (I'm reasonably sure) never operated in a cooperative environment and that's the water I swim in. When done well (I'll explain how in a minute) there is an elegance about good agreements that transforms wieners into winners.


Believe in the Force (not in the forcing)

What you get is largely influenced by what you believe is possible. If you expect a slog, you may as well get the hip waders out. So the first order of business is to be able to imagine elegance—to trust the process. If you don't believe in magic, there won't be any.

Then you need to know how to invoke it. I take the view that there is always sufficient wisdom in the group to solve any problem. The facilitative challenge is creating a container in which the wisdom can emerge. That requires entering into problem solving with soft edges, where participants are confident that no one will be left behind; that no one will be pressured into saying "yes" when they are not peace with the proposed solution. 

Note that I am not promising that everyone will get everything they want—only that their input will be taken into account; that they will not be run over. This is not about being nice, or steering clear of saying hard things. There should be a known and accessible pathway for everyone to offer their input on topic.

[This almost certainly means multiple pathways, as one-size-fits-all approaches unwittingly favor some at the expense of others. For example, the default mode of engagement in most groups is open discussion. While this can be a powerful and efficient tool, it favors quick thinkers over slow thinkers and those who are comfortable speaking in front of large groups (say 8+) over those who would rather clean toilets or sort rotten potatoes. Thus, if you only offer open discussion, some voices will be lost will others are getting more air time than they should, skewing the results.]

Facilitators don't need to know the answer, they just need to be available for it. They need to listen well and encourage that in others. Crackerjack facilitators can accurately and concisely reflect back what's been said on a given topic. They strip out redundancies and boil it down to its essence, sharpening the conversation.

There are three main challenges to achieving elegance:

a) Navigating strong emotional input

As human beings we bring our emotions with us wherever we go. Even if feelings are expressly proscribed (or at least discouraged) they emerge anyway and if groups are not clear about how they'll work with them, groups tend to founder and lose their way in the presence of strong emotions. It doesn't feel safe and people tend to be distracted by the person in reaction, losing sight of the topic at hand and how the emotional response might illuminate the issue.

Further, when feelings are ignored, the group is left with one of two unsatisfactory choices: plowing ahead as if the feelings didn't emerge; or suspending the topic because it feels too chaotic, unsafe, or disrespectful to continue. In the former case, the atmosphere suddenly becomes more tense—the very opposite of the "soft edges" I spoke about earlier. In the latter, the topic is held hostage to the distress and it puts tremendous pressure on the person who expressed upset ("we were making progress until you lost your shit; now we have to wait").

Making a commitment to work with whatever feelings emerge on topic is a fork in the road. While it's not a simple skill to learn, and probably requires a fair amount of stretching for group members, the simple truth is that not doing so is crippling, and groups will never reach their potential for depth and authenticity without it. Oh they can still function—it is, after all, the norm in mainstream competitive, win/lose culture—but meetings will forever be susceptible to the slog that Otto predicted if you don't take that path. It's that foundational.

b) Navigating strong differences of opinion

Similar, but not the same as the prior point, is how groups respond when significant differences emerge about how to respond to significant issues—even when strong feelings are not part of the landscape. If you are a stakeholder on this issue (by which I mean you care about the outcome) you have been conditioned to fight to win. To be sure, this can look like many things: from manipulation to outright verbal combat; from cajoling and wheedling to emotional blackmail. What these techniques have in common is they are all combative and calculated to prevail over opposition. We have been taught this at an early age—it's either that or roll over and cede the role of alpha dog to others (which some do simply because being a combatant is too odious).

While some have learned to love the fight, mostly this energy leads to misery. Losers—and there are losers if it plays out in any of the forms I've described above—do not have a good time. They enjoy neither how they acted, nor the outcome. Those in the group who are not stakeholders (it's a rare topic where everyone is stakeholder) are dismayed that the group has been become fractured by the consideration, rather than unified, or drawn closer together. This not the experience they signed up for.

So the challenge for the facilitator is how be both authentic in eliciting the full breadth of preferences, while not allowing that to be fractioning. While few groups are so naive as to think that disagreements will never surface (what, after all, did you think diversity would yield?), that doesn't mean they have the skills to work with it deftly. It is the facilitator's job to receive disparate input with grace and curiosity, modeling for others an attitude they temporarily forgot they committed to in the heat of the moment.

There is typically a time early on when it's important to show to everyone's satisfaction that all viewpoints are tied to a reasonable interpretation of a common value—establishing legitimacy for taking that perspective to account. After that, it's a matter of exploring the group's best thinking about how to balance things. This is not about compromise (which is more or less an attempt to equalize loss); it's about finding the proposal that sings.

c) Advocacy creeping into problem solving

One of the most valuable insights I've gleaned from my decades of working with cooperative groups is the advantage of assiduously separating what I style Discussion phase from Problem-solving phase when working an issue. In the former, you are trying to flush out what a good response to the issue needs to take into account. In general, this entails explicitly identifying the common values in play. It is often useful to coarsely prioritize the list (which things do you have to have reflected in the solution, and which do you prefer to have there but there is some wiggle room around about how much you get). 

In this model, the group does not proceed to Problem-solving (the subsequent phase) until the Discussion is complete. You may think this is obvious, but it isn't. Most groups conflate these two phases—to their detriment. The Discussion phase is an expansive step. You are casting the net in search of a robust delineation of what should be taken into account. If someone feels compelled to make a passionate plea for they think is essential this is the place they can get a few minutes on the soap box making their pitch—where they can share with the group what they really think. Bring it on! To be clear, they only get to do this once, but this is the place for it. 

If the group (and by extension, the facilitator) is not disciplined about keeping potential solutions out of the Discussion, factors and proposed solutions get commingled and chaos obtains. How many times have you been in a meeting where someone mentions a concern—appropriate for Discussion—and it's immediately followed by a well-intended idea for coping with that concern—a proposed solution? When that happens you have one foot in Discussion and the other in Problem-solving. Are you inhaling or exhaling? Who knows? What kind of comments are you looking for now? You are wandering in the forest. That can be a lovely place to take a nature walk, but it's not good approach to tackling an issue. You want to be on a path, not lost in the trees.

In the latter, you are trying to figure out how best to balance the factors. This is a contractive phase. Your job here is to find the best balance point; the solution that bridges to all the factors. It is no longer appropriate to entertain advocacy. You do not benefit from hearing again why a factor matters. That ship has sailed and we already have it on the list. When done well, the facilitator has wrighted a new ship and invited everyone to board, where the group is asked to pull together in the search for elegance. If you have tug-of-war energy in this phase, you are failed to achieve the state of mind I'm talking about (in essence, everyone is not on the same ship). There should be soft edges now, where creativity can flourish. Where the magic can happen.


No Hot Dogs

As I head for the barn, here is a quote from a different statesman that offers an important insight:

Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals.
        —George Washington

Roughly translated, this means no grandstanding. No power plays.

The right to be heard (on topic) is directly tied to the responsibility to listen to and work respectfully with the input of others. All too often, outliers who are determined that their views be taking into account (which, unfortunately, tends to be confused with agreed with) conveniently sidestep this part of the equation. Savvy facilitators can't let them get away with such shenanigans. Proposal generating is a two-way street.

Repetition of personal preferences is rarely persuasive; it just ratchets up the tension, and inhibits creativity. To be sure, stubbornness can wear people down and ultimately result in capitulation, but that is by no means building elegance. There is no singing. When you find the sweet spot, there is a satisfying exhalation and a sense of grace. If you have a headache or your shoulder blades are tense, you're not there yet.


Header photo by U.S. Embassy London. CC BY-ND 2.0.


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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