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Key Facilitation Skills: Working Constructively with Emotions

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September 14, 2018
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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 


Working Constructively with Emotions 

This is a watershed issue. Both whether to do it at all, and then, if so, how. You can, for example, buy well-regarded books on facilitation that don't touch this topic at all. 

(To be kind, I believe the thinking is that emotions are chaotic and many groups do not have any agreements to work emotionally. Further, skill in working with content has almost no overlap in working emotionally, so you can see how someone who is a whiz at working with ideas may be tempted to label feelings as Beyond the Pale and therefore out of bounds. Seen through that lens, one of the goals of good facilitation is to steer clear of emotional entanglements—for them, well-run meetings are achieved by containing emotional outbursts or navigating around them.)

The cherry on top of that, is that it's undoubtedly one the hardest skills to master, and it does no good to promise that you can deliver safety that is beyond your capacity.

However, all of that said, you're going to have moments in group dynamics where there are strong emotional currents in play, whether you outlaw them or not. Not having an understanding of how to work with that reality—or even permission to try—is not only crippling, it misses the boat.

Let me explain. I'll start by setting the table. Emotional responses arise in an incredible variety of ways, and with a wide range of strength. It's useful, in my experience, to distinguish between minor irritations and ones that are more serious. I'm not talking about hangnails, or someone making a grammatical error. I think you just have to let the minor stuff go (you can't tilt at every windmill).

So where to draw the line? My answer is when the distress is starting to cause non-trivial distortion—by which I mean the ability to hear accurately what others are saying. Distress acts as a kind of virtual earwax; the more you have the more you're distracted by internal dialog and less accurately you take in what others are saying. When it's really bad, you may be hearing nothing. If you plow ahead anyway it's the same as deciding that you don't need that person's active involvement to make good decisions. It's OK to leave them by the side of the road and move on. That's a hell of a decision. And one that can often bite you in the butt later, perhaps when the marginalized person sabotages the implementation.

The problem may be further compounded by secondary reactions in those tracking the person in distress, who may be focusing on the symptoms of distress instead of what's being said about the issue that the group has agreed to examine. So unaddressed reactivity can get pretty expensive.

In my view, once you're observing non-trivial distortion (yes, it's a judgment call) then I think it's worth addressing (I'll discuss how below).

Next let's look of how distress manifests. While feelings can be wide range of things, the two that tend to be the most troublesome are rage (accompanied by aggression and attack) and fear or sadness (characterized by shutdown or uncontrolled weeping). Off the chart joy or unremitting boredom don't tend to be so hard to cope with.

•  Case 1
Sometimes it's tangential to the issue at hand (the speaker is wearing a red shirt; the person in reaction had a fight with their partner that morning and the partner was wearing a red shirt; the distress has nothing to do with the speaker or the issue, it's simply a transference). As soon as you can get that sorted out you can return to the regularly scheduled program with clean ears and everyone on board. This one usually isn't that hard.

•  Case 2
Sometimes it's about the speaker and not the issue. There may be some unresolved history between the two and that's distorting the conversation, rather than the current issue. While not germane to the present issue, it's nonetheless a problem. Fortunately, this can often be handled expeditiously—if the person in reaction is aware of what's happening and owns it. If however, the person in reaction is perfectly willing to use the current issue as a battleground, then you have a problem. 

Perhaps attempts to reconcile failed; perhaps the person in reaction has given up on having a decent relationship with the speaker, and believes they have nothing to lose; perhaps the person in reaction believes the speaker is selfish and has no regard for the group; perhaps the person in reaction just likes a good fight. This can go south for a number of reasons.

However, even when it's sticky, you have a powerful point of leverage: the core issue (a damaged relationship and low trust between the speaker and the person in reaction) is not what's on the table, but the damage is leaking into the conversation. Once that's established, the group faces a choice about whether to suspend the agenda to support examination of the damaged relationship, or find a suitable safe haven elsewhere (specifying time, place, and acceptable third party assistance) to pursue this so the group can return the topic at hand. To be clear, it is the group's choice not the protagonists' choice about how to use group time. The protagonists have input on that but not control.

If someone is perceived to go into reactivity as a strategy (perhaps because the group tends to get passive in the presence of rage or tears and defers to the person in distress), rather than as an honest, spontaneous response to events, it is dangerous to let that go unnamed, as it's abusing the group. That said, tread carefully here. Accusing someone of being abusive is a heavy step and there may not be universal agreement that that's happened. This can get very chaotic very quickly.

•  Case 3
Finally, there is the case where the reaction to is related to the issue at hand. That is, the emotional response is relevant. Now what? 

Luckily, once you assess that the distress is resulting in non-trivial distortion, you can treat all three of these cases the same way:

Suspend the conversation about the issue and check out what's happening for the person in distress (probably a number of others were watching this unfold, too; not just you—so you're carrying water for the group). Try to be direct and nonjudgmental ("Your body language—a frown and crossed arms—tells me you're upset about something; did you have a reaction to what Dale just said?" or "I noticed that you flinched when Chris spoke; did the views expressed strike a nerve in you?")

You are trying to through a set of four questions:

Question 1: What was the feeling?
You may have to be insistent here if the person wants to tell stories and shy away from a statement of feelings. Don't let them off the hook.

Question 2: What was the trigger? 
The feelings emerged form something that someone did or didn't do; something they said or didn't say. Strong feelings don't emerge from nowhere. If a specific person or persons were the trigger and they're present, set up a dialog between the person in reaction one of the triggers (with their permission and conduct a back and forth between them, walking them both through the sequence of questions until each is satisfied that the other has heard what they said. If the person in reaction is upset with the whole group ask for a volunteer to stand in for the group in a dyad with the person who is upset, and proceed that way.

In either case, it sometimes happens that the other person in the dyad is not reactive to the person in reaction and what they say, and sometimes they are. If they aren't, things tend to move quickly. If they are, progress can be more piecemeal and slower to come by, but it's achievable nonetheless. You just have to be patient.

Question 3: What is the meaning (why was there a strong reaction)? 

Question 4: What are you willing to do about it?
Now that you've been heard and have heard the other person's answers to the same set of questions, what unilateral, observable step are you willing to take (that you are not currently doing) that is in line with your values and beliefs yet represents a good faith effort to repair damage to the relationship? You are not  asking anyone to change stripes, sell out their viewpoint, or alter their personality. Stay with that until you get an offer from both sides that is accepted by the other person.

By this point ears should have been cleared sufficiently that you can return to the issue at hand and be productive. Note: After questions 1) and 2), there may have been enough progress made that questions 3) and 4) can happen at a later setting and you can return to the issue at hand more quickly. You always need to be thinking of what focus will be best for the plenary: sometimes it's further work on the tensions that have been opened up; sometimes it's returning as quickly as possible to the issue on the agenda.

This is not simple work, but there is a large reward once you get there

You are not taking sides; you are simply making sure you understand what happened. Invariably, if you have done this accurately, three good things will happen: i) the person's distress will deescalate, and their ears will tend be more open—because you have undercut the tendency to feel isolated in distress; ii) you have made it easier for the group to understand what point the person was trying to make (and was probably poorly understood because of the overwhelming tendency for others to be reactive to reactivity); and iii) you will have accomplished this without marginalizing or pathologizing the person in distress, and at the same time you will have held them accountable for working with the group to understand what has happened, and cleaning up any damage that may have occurred as part of their expressing their distress (no free swings).

The ultimate goal here is to get the group to not be reactive to the emergence of reactivity, by virtue of having a solid idea about how to handle it. The method I have outlined above is one I have developed personally and used with considerable success. But there are others out there. Notably Nonviolent Communication and Restorative Circles. The most important thing is that you have something in place that facilitators can use and that the group has confidence in.

• • •

So what will it take to get the group's permission to work emotionally (as opposed to rogue actions by an inspired facilitator)? 

The first hurdle to cross is the dangers people perceive in working with feelings. Done poorly, it can make things worse; it provides a platform for nasty exchanges that can cause lasting damage to relationships, even to the point of splitting the group apart. (And it can be excruciating to sit through to boot.) Why take the chance?

There are a number of reasons:
•  Unaddressed, distress has way of going anaerobic (rather than healing in isolation) and becoming stronger and nastier, making it that much harder to deal with the next time. 

•  Suppressed distress tends to leak elsewhere, either inappropriately in future meetings, or by unenthusiastic (if not hostile) implementation.

•  By quashing distress, it sends the signal that relationship damage takes a back seat to problem solving; is that what you mean to be conveying?

• Not working with feelings reinforces the prejudice that meetings will be conducted only in the realm of rational thought. Is that smart? (See the Key Facilitation Skills: Riding Two Horses for more on this.)

But it's more than that. The second hurdle is theadvantages of working emotionally. There are two main ones:

a) Strong feelings—which are essentially a form of passion—are a source of energy. Wouldn't it be better to harness that energy, rather than turn it off? I liken passion as the stream of water in a fire hose. Left unattended (with no agreement about how to handle it) it can be downright dangerous to be trapped in a room with a loose fire hose under pressure. Not only can you get hit be stream of high pressure water if it comes your way (as the target of the person in distress), but you can also get conked on the head by a wild swinging nozzle. It's scary. 

One choice is to turn off the water. But what about learning to hold the hose? In control, a fire hose is beneficial tool that can be used to put out fires and solve problems. You lose that option if you turn off the water. Rather than being afraid of passion, let's figure out how to work with it! (I find flat line meetings to be dull.)

b) Distress is also a source of information. For some, emotional knowing is more accurate and more sensitive than rational knowing. Why eliminate that consideration, forcing people to translate feelings into thought in order to gain legitimacy? In my experience it's better to assume relevancy (until you learn otherwise) and go from there. For a more complete treatment of how to work distress see Closing Contact with the Third Rail of DistressGetting a Feeling for Working ConflictWhen Groups Should Address Conflict in PlenaryThe Anaerobic Hazard of Unaddressed DistressWhat It Takes for Groups to Be Less Conflicted about Conflict, and To Ask or Not Ask; That Is the Question.

This accomplishes a number of good things:
—It enriches the conversation, making for better decisions.
—It sends the signal that we'll take relevant input any way we can get it; gives us what you got and we'll figure out together how it fits in. This reduces nervousness in members about whether or not to speak.
—It puts muscle behind your commitment to diversity.
—By shining a light on distress as it emerges it undercuts the tendency to become anaerobic later if unaddressed. Think of it as a preemptive strike.

• • •

Finally, there is a personal question for facilitators. Can you function in the chaotic moment? Have you done sufficient personal work to not be reactive in the presence of other people's reactivity. If you are not sure, keep working at it. This is not simple work, but there is a large reward once you get there and you can do your group a great service if you can deliver at need. Hang in there!


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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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