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Key Facilitation Skills: Not Leaving Product on the Table

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August 27, 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 

• • •

Not Leaving Product on the Table

In this monograph I'm going to focus on the last 10 minutes of a meeting. In my experience groups often squander opportunities by not understanding what's possible in those moments.

In a meeting where the topic has been well explored, everyone has had a decent chance to express their views and concerns, and the energy is fluid—pay attention to these caveats; they're important—it is often possible to bring the group to a reasonable agreement, or at least a partial agreement, that will likely evaporate if not captured right then and there. It's use it or lose it.

The interesting case is not when you're testing a specific proposal for buy-in—that's relatively easy—but when you're in a dynamic conversation and not clear where you'll end up. Leaving aside for the moment whether the facilitator can create and hold the group in a listening, non-combative place (no small thing when the stakes are high), a good facilitator should be able feel into the possibilities about what agreement could hold the whole.

Here are the elements needed to put yourself in a position to harvest something valuable in the last 10 minutes—to bring the train into the station on time with as full a load as possible.



—Seeing the Glass Half Full
What ungirds this skill is understanding the power of being agreement oriented (seeing the glass half full). While this may seem a minor matter, it isn't. We come out of a wider culture that emphasizes individuality, to the point where we have been deeply conditioned to be aware at all times about how we are distinct from others—not how we are aligned with others. Thus, we have learned from an early age to identify and focus on how we disagree with others, because that's how we know we're unique. Developing the skill of seeing the potential connections among disparate viewpoints requires unlearning our default response to differences.

I experienced a dramatic example of this last winter when I was facilitating a community meeting where the group was discussing cat policy. One couple held a strong position about limiting the range of cats outdoors because of their predation of songbirds. While the cat owners in the group weren't willing to accept an outright ban on cats being allowed outdoors (excepting on a leash—which no cat owner thought was workable) there was considerable sympathy with the couple's concern about songbirds, and a number of suggestions emerged about what could be done to support songbirds short of banning outdoor cats. Where I saw a a lot of common ground among the suggestions, the couple only saw failure because they weren't getting buy-in with their proposed ban. For the couple, if they weren't getting everything, they were getting nothing. Where I saw possibility; they experienced rejection.
Another way this shows up is in the summary of the meeting. Left to their own inclinations, participants will often dwell on what didn't accomplish, rather than on what did. While both may be true, there is a completely different energy around a summary that points out how differences got narrowed, partial agreements were reached (perhaps pinning down subtopics), and people were assigned to research unclear points. All of that is movement and has a completely different feel to it than a simple statement such as, "We didn't complete the topic today and will have to return to it at the next meeting."



Often, skilled facilitators will be able to read what's possible better than anyone else in the room—not because they're magicians (adept at sleight of hand), but because they have trained themselves to see connections and possibilities ahead of differences and obstacles. They should also be able to deftly read the energy in the room and tell the extent to which it's gelling, rather than getting brittle.

—Allowing Time to Breathe
In the interest of efficiency, a number of groups shoot themselves in the foot by scheduling plenaries too tightly, not allowing sufficient time to explore issues in depth. In general, groups would be better off delegating more and giving greater time to the remaining topics—the ones that should be handled by the plenary. If a topic is worthy of full-group attention, then give it enough time to be explored in depth. To be sure, considerations should be well-focused and not repetitive, yet neither should they be raced through or cursory. When you ask groups to swallow food that has been insufficiently chewed, you should not be surprised that the result is indigestion.
—Establishing and Maintaining the Right Energy for Problem Solving
Good facilitators know how to manage energy. Not by strong-arming participants but by establishing the right tone for the right kind of consideration. If at all possible, you want to confine advocacy to an earlier phase of the consideration—when you are identifying what should be taken into account in evaluating proposals. Essentially, this earlier phase is getting clear about what common values are in play and their relative priority. 
It is much easier to hear how strongly someone feels about environmental impact, then it is to hear how strongly they support a particular solution (we must release capital reserve funds to finance solar panels on the roof of the common house). If you assiduously separate identification of factors from problem solving, then you can restrict advocacy to the earlier phase, which is expansive, while insisting that the latter phase be characterized by bridging and coalescence (how do we best connect the dots, since we're all in this together). When done well, problem solving is not characterized by tug-of-war energy. There should be a soft, creative feel to it, in which the seed of solutions can sprout in the fertility of the final minutes.
—Working the Edges
When a topic elicits non-trivial differences (hint: most of the interesting ones do), it's often worthwhile to pay special attention to the edges of the conversation, making sure that outliers have been able to fully express their concerns and at the same time understand that they have not been particularly persuasive in drawing others toward them.
If you've been careful to establish that outliers have been heard, you are in a much stronger position to ask them to move toward the middle, where agreement tends to dwells.
Header image by VMasrour. CC BY-SA 4.0

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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