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
Sis Boom Bang
It's relatively common for people to hold an ideal of the facilitator as someone who is unflappable and emotionally contained. Someone who invariably radiates cool blue light and is always on an even keel, inspiring centeredness and steady-as-she-goes energy in those around them.
I suspect it's because many are uncomfortable in the presence of passion—not because it's bad per se, but because it engenders chaos that is difficult to follow, hard to corral, and fosters unbridled statements. There is worry that if the facilitator gets too emotionally engaged that their neutrality may be compromised and it might be interpreted as permission for participants to ramp it up as well.
While I get the concern (who wants to go to a meeting that operates at an exhausting pace and feels unsafe?), I don't buy the conclusion. Facilitators are human, every bit as much as those they are facilitating, and everyone will do their best work, in my experience, if they bring their entire, authentic selves to the task. That means their heart as well as their head. Meetings need to work for diverse styles of communication: both for those who want a slower, more deliberate pace (the default mode in most groups), and for those who prefer something more up-tempo and less controlled.
For my money, meetings should be alive, not shackled. To be sure, there are still boundaries around appropriate behavior when engaging emotionally. I am not advocating for anything goes. For example, I think all contributions should be on topic and it's fair to redirect comments that aren't, regardless of whether they are thoughts or feelings. In addition, I think is important to object to aggression, by which I mean deliveries that come with barbs or judgments (I'm fine with knowing that you're angry; I am not fine with your calling someone an asshole.)
Facilitators can—and I believe should—be emotionally authentic and expressive without sacrificing neutrality or taking sides. What I'm talking about is recognizing and naming the energy in the group with affect, as distinct from expressing personal enthusiasm for the merits of a specific contribution. Connecting the dots, this means that the skilled facilitator needs to do able to accurately capture and work with input that surfaces in the context of meetings in which passion is invited. Don't license a pace that swamps you intake valves! You have to work within your range. I'm just making the case for why it may be in the group's interest to expand your range.
When the group experiences a success, why not take a moment to celebrate, with the facilitator leading the cheers? If that energy is in the room, do it. When the group is stuck, it's generally helpful to name the frustration in the room (whistling past the cemetery is not that great a strategy). When someone leaks a sarcastic comment, it's OK to yell, "Ouch!" Be real. I teach that facilitators should bring a cool head and a warm heart, as both are needed.
Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe
While most facilitators know to project optimism and a welcoming demeanor, a sterner test comes when someone injects a discordant thought or concern into a conversation that was otherwise proceeding smoothly. I'm not talking about off topic; I'm talking about a different viewpoint. Now what?
At this moment the facilitator needs to lean in and immediately set the tone. While eyeballs may be rolling on the other side of the room ("we were doing fine until you spoke") the facilitator needs to welcome this fresh voice, so long as the input is on topic. "OK this is different. So-and-so has another view on what needs to be taken into account. Do others share this concern?"
You are trying to accomplish a number of important things in this moment:
—Legitimizing the input (so long as it's reasonably tied to a group value). This is not taking sides; it's making sure the windows and doors are open.
—Encouraging minority concerns to get expressed by promptly validating their being stated (making it that much easier for the next person to be courageous).
—Jumping in right away to set a tone of curiosity, not allowing the naysayers (who were happy with the way the conversation had been going) to respond with disagreement, or worse, scorn. To be sure, they will have their chance to weigh in, but not right away.
Tone here is very important. It is hard to be creative and build cohesive solutions when the tone is combative and the energy is fractured. (When you reflect on the current paucity of curiosity in contemporary political discourse for the viewpoints expressed by those sitting across the aisle, it's no wonder we experience broad-based gridlock in DC. Dialog is stillborn.)
Up and Out
Last, it's valuable for facilitators to wrap up meetings with a concise summary (one to two minutes) of what was accomplished at a meeting, so that the last taste in participants' mouths is what got done. Why? Left to their own inclinations, people will tend to focus on what didn't happen, or work still left to do, generating a feeling of discouragement and exhuastion. While both approaches are legitimate (that is, both may be accurate assessments) the energy of focusing on product is night-and-day different than dwelling on what didn't happen. You want people leaving a meeting glad that they attended and hungry for more.
This is not about faking it. Don't claim success that didn't happen, or paper over serious concerns that still need work. You have to be real, but it's important to accentuate the positive. Product, for instance can include a sharpening of differences, where there is more clarity about what needs to be balanced and you have a plan about how to tackle it; it is not limited to what what got tied up with a ribbon and bow.
The skilled facilitator will consistently project positivity, thereby eliciting positive responses from participants in return, bringing out their best—all the while naming the product achieved en route.
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