Within organizations, it’s more like being sled dogs. They’re all pulling in the same direction (or at least we hope they are). We might even rotate the lead dog depending on the project we’re working on. If we’re working on budget kinds of things, hopefully, there are some experts in money and budget we can ask to be the lead on that issue. And if we’re working on service delivery or customer service, we’ve got some people who are experts at customer success and customer support, and they can be the leaders when we’re working on those things. It’s about honoring the expertise we bring and being humble enough to know that not one of us is good at it at all. It’s not always up to the person who’s been in the company the longest. It’s the mindset that everybody has a superpower and then bringing that to the table with the confidence of the gift you’re giving the group and the humility of knowing that other people’s gifts need to be factored in. When we’re under stress, or when we’re in conflict, it’s hard to remember to do that because we get in defensive mode, and we listen only to respond instead of listening to understand. We need each other’s knowledge. When we’re under stress we get threatened and stop listening a lot faster.
What are the common mistakes and pitfalls?
I once worked for the federal government in a very large organization as the internal facilitator. Any department could call and say, “We’re having a meeting. Would you help us out?” I had a team of facilitators that I could deploy to help people facilitate good meetings. The first question I would ask is: “Why do you want a facilitator?” I could always see their brains going, “Wait a minute, I just called the facilitation office. Why on earth would she ask, why do you want a facilitator? Of course, I want a facilitator!” The purpose of the question was to identify their expectations for a facilitator.
What do you want the role of a facilitator to be? Do you want a mediator? Because you know there’s going to be conflict. Do you want a Master of Ceremonies, an MC? Just somebody to keep time and make people feel good and move the thing along? Do you want somebody to help design a meeting and not just create an agenda but design a meeting so the interactions are unique and get the work done? Do you want a note-taker? What is it that you expect out of that person? Sometimes people would call and say I want a facilitator but what they really wanted was somebody to deliver bad news. (Well guess what, that’s not what facilitators do.)
Many people don’t think consciously of the many roles the facilitator can play. I have a client right now that has a very large board with a six standing committee. I facilitate all of them. With this particular group, I’m helping them design the meetings, but the chairs of the committees run their meetings. I’m co-facilitating with an elected chair, but I’m not standing up in front of the room leading the meeting. I’m co-facilitating as support to the elected chair. It’s still facilitation, but it’s more in the design. If things go sideways, I jump in. Knowing what you can expect and knowing what you need is critical. It’s back to focus. That’s what’s going to make a successful outcome.
How do you assess needs, misconceptions, and fears?
I once taught conflict resolution to third graders at our neighborhood elementary school. I would walk in with an orange and get two children to help me with this skit. I said, “Hey, I’ve got an orange.” The two children would say, “We want the orange!” I turned to the class and I said, “Oops, I only brought one orange, but there are two children that want the orange. What should I do?” The third graders will look at me like, “Well, lady, just cut it in half.” But when I tell them I’m going to cut it in half, the two little kids in my skit say, “No! No! No! We don’t like that idea. That doesn’t work for us.”
Now, I turned back to the class and said, “The obvious solution isn’t going to work, so what should we do now?” Then I was quiet. We don’t like silence. We want to fill the silence. Finally, somebody would say, “Why do they want the orange?” So I asked the two children. The little girl says, “I am so hungry. I want to eat the orange. I’m very hungry!” Then I turned to the little boy and asked why he wanted the orange. He explains, “It’s my mom’s birthday, and she loves cake with orange frosting on it. I want the zest of the orange to make my mom’s birthday cake.”
The point to the little skit is that the nugget mediators bring to the conflict in difficult meetings is the concept of listening to understand and then separating positions from interests. In the orange story, “I want the orange” is the position. Both little kids had the same position, and we had a conflict.
The minute you get curious, and you listen to understand, and ask what’s behind that position, is when all of a sudden your universe of solutions is bigger than just cutting an orange in half. You can find other ways to help meet those interests. Of course not every conflict we have is as simple as a story about an orange, but you will learn more, and you will discover the possibility of more solutions – and solutions that might even be better – when you ask “Why?”, “Tell me more”, and “Help me understand why this is important to you”.
In my work, I want to fully understand the expectations of what work you want me to do as your facilitator. What do you need out of this meeting or this series of meetings? What does success look like for you? When I first start with a new client I’m scoping out the job. I determine how much preparation is needed, who’s doing the agenda, who’s taking the notes, what the roles are around supporting and implementing this meeting or this conversation. Did you know that there are really only three things we do in meetings? One, we share information, or we gather information in meetings. Two, we analyze information. We make sense of it. We look at the trends. We talk about what it means and what the implications are. Three, we make decisions.