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Key Facilitation Skills: Projecting Curiosity

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April 22, 2019
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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 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

• • •


Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement 

One of the most pivotal moments in group dynamics is the point of disagreement—when someone first expresses a significantly different viewpoint than another's, and the outcome matters. Most of us have been conditioned to respond to this as the opening bell of a fight. But it doesn't have to go like that.

You need to keep context in mind. In cooperative culture you want what's best for the group, and the pathway to get there is not the same as in competitive culture—where the survivor of a battle over individual preferences is thought to produce the best outcome. In cooperative culture it shouldn't matter where an idea comes from; it only matters whether it's worthwhile. It shouldn't matter how much others are persuaded by your thinking; only whether we're collectively finding the best solutions.

In competitive culture, we strive to win the debate. The theory is that good ideas will outlast poor ones, and testing ideas against each other is how we expose weaknesses and demonstrate an idea's staying power (if you can't knock it down, it must be good). In competitive culture you're hoping that your idea will prevail. In cooperative culture you turn that on its head—you go into a meeting hoping someone will change your mind—that your thinking can be improved upon. This is a radical shift, and not always easy to access in the dynamic moment.

That's where the facilitator's skill can save the day. It's their job to gently, yet firmly remind people to be open of different viewpoints. If group members feel it's unsafe to voice alternate thinking, they will hesitate to do so, undercutting the foundational premise of cooperative culture—that the group does its best work when all relevant views have been heard and considered.

I'm not saying that everyone will say brilliant things. I'm saying that you want the least possible barriers to members contributing their input on any given topic (because you never know where brilliancy will come from).

So what makes this hard? Partly it's competitive conditioning (feeling threatened and argumentative when someone's ideas diverge from ours), but it's more complicated than that. Sometimes there will be problems with the delivery—which the speaker may or may not be aware of. Even assuming that the speaker is doing the best they can (which isn't always the case) what's comfortable and familiar to the speaker may be irritating and off-putting to the listener. If the delivery is freighted with aggression or sarcasm, it can be very difficult to respond with openness.

And yet, it still serves us best to try.

Working Distress and Disagreement

In the instance where a divergent view is expressed with a froth of attitude (typically the most challenging version of disagreement), it generally works best for the facilitator to start by acknowledging the substance of the speaker's point of view—refraining from commenting on the edge to their delivery until later. Why?

It works like this: when people express themselves aggressively it signals upset. When people are upset they don't listen well. When you can establish that you've heard an upset person's viewpoint and why they're upset, they tend to deescalate (become less upset). Consequently their hearing improves, they become less rigid, and it's easier to have a constructive conversation—all of which are desirable.

To be clear, I am not condoning aggression. Rather, I'm trying to make the case for how to engage with it effectively. You can still hold someone accountable for being aggressive (or sarcastic), just not right away.

Multiple On Ramps

Because meetings are not uniformly accessible to all folks, it's prudent for facilitators to provide a variety of ways to engage. Some people take more time to know their mind and to be ready to speak than others. Some are more comfortable speaking in front of the whole group than others. Some are more articulate in writing; some more eloquent orally. By mixing up formats, and extending to meeting participants a variety of ways to engage, it's much more likely that everyone will have been given something with which they are comfortable. 

Good facilitators think about this and prepare options ahead of time.


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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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