Sharpening the Conversation

Recently I was conducting a facilitation training with co-trainer María Stawsky The weekends run from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon and are a mix of presenting material, answering questions, conducting practice exercises, and facilitating live meetings. That said, we emphasize the last approach above all others: devoting three-fourths of every weekend to having students prepare for, deliver, and evaluate the facilitation of real meetings—on the pedagogical theory that people tend to learn faster and more deeply if they're facing live ammunition.

As teachers, María and I face the challenge of identifying a teaching moment as it develops and figuring out what intervention (if any) might be both effective and elucidating. Here are the elements of this:

o Because the teachers are experiencing the situation as it unfolds in real time—the same as the student facilitator—it means we have only a short time to recognize that there's a problem with how things are going.

o Immediately after we identify that something is off, the next question is whether we have a solid idea about what would correct it. While María and I are experienced facilitators (which means we have access to personal memories of untold numbers of prior meetings to draw on) each situation is unique and thus considerable discernment must be used in choosing an alternative path.

o In the context of training weekends, we have to put our ideas through two screens before acting on them:

a) Will our idea be more effective than what the student is doing? Will it help the meeting be more productive?

b) Will it help the student learn how to be a better facilitator (presumably the prime directive for a training weekend)?

o Less obvious perhaps, yet still a factor, is how to get in and out quickly so that we are minimally disruptive to the meeting's flow (we're trying to bolster students; not pull their pants down). That means we have to be able to execute (or explain) our idea with precision, so that the reins can be returned to the student as quickly and as seamlessly as possible.

Let me give you a recent example. In the context of a training weekend, a student was facilitating a meeting of the host community that was focused on how the group should proceed in the face of a recent decision by their developer to end their relationship, leaving the community high and dry in their attempt to find suitable property and get their dream homes built. There were a handful of ideas in the room about where to focus energy, one of which was to make sure that the community had learned whatever lessons they could before jumping ahead (and being at risk of repeating mistakes).

While no one was against the idea of learning from mistakes, there was push back about how much that was needed at that time; about how much that should be a priority (what is being prudent, and what is being timid?).

When the dissent was first voiced it wasn't clear whether the speaker's point was that taking time to focus on lessons was a waste, or whether that had already happened sufficiently to move on. When the facilitator allowed others to contribute to this topic (a good instinct) you could tell that the group was uncomfortable being in a conflicted dynamic and was trying to find middle ground (perhaps by seeing to it that all ideas about what to do next—there were four main ones—were honored and supported). After a few minutes of spinning their wheels (spreading oil on troubled waters takes time), it appeared to me that the facilitator was unsure how to handle it.

To be clear, this was not a disaster; it was just ineffective. It was a loss of momentum, a shying away from the dynamic moment. It was also a teaching moment, where I could simultaneously accelerate the consideration and showcase for the student how to do it.

In this instance it was by doing something that many consider counter-intuitive: leaning into the differences for the purpose of trying to bridge the gap. The principle I used to guide me was a simple one: if you can identify who holds the ends of the conversation (the people with the positions that are furthest apart) it can often be effective to focus especially on them, with the idea that if you can find a way forward with those folks on board then it's highly likely that everyone else will be carried along as well.

There are two reasons that this flies in the face of traditional approaches to facilitation (and therefore is not employed much):

a) In cooperative culture, groups tend to move away from tension, not toward it. If you direct attention toward the people on the edge there is the sense that you risk fanning the flames—an undesirable result.

b) In cooperative culture, there is a core value of inclusivity and trying to equalize voices. Giving extra attention to a few people (and less to everyone else) is directly counter to that idea. (Won't you be rewarding people with extreme positions by giving them extra air time?)

The key to this working is that the facilitator needs to be able to work accurately with each player, establishing both that their position is understood and what it means to them. If this is done well, each player relaxes (they won't be left behind) and it's possible to negotiate a way forward that everyone can get behind. In this case, I first found out that the person who was leery of looking for lessons felt that that had already been done (the juice had been sucked out of those bones) and was worried that supporting more of that at this point was diluting group energy when it was most needed to be laser-focused on essentials.

Turning to the person who advocated for more analysis I asked specifically what they wanted. The response: two hours of committee time, leading to a report to the plenary. I then turned back to the objector: "Can you swallow that?" Answer: "Yes." I then announced: "OK, we're done." Looking over to the student in the facilitator's chair, I offered: "Back to you," and sat down.

It only took about two minutes to run through the whole sequence. Along the way I was able to give the facilitation class an excellent example of what can be gained by sharpening the conversation, and by focusing on the outliers in service to the goal of efficiency without leaving anyone behind.