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A Birth Story: The Participatory Facilitator (Part 3)

We had two ½ day retreats scheduled. The purpose: strategic planning for a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). Suffice it to say, 8 hours wasn’t going to cut it. But even if we scheduled 8 days for these discussions, we still would not have made much progress; not with the facilitator that was running the show, not without discussing the elephant in the room.

by Leo Cullum

She was a nice enough lady, with over 30 years of experience facilitating, yet her approach felt quite mechanical.  Her plans weren’t adaptable to the current reality we were all steeped in.

So we just we went through the motions of the meetings. The facilitator kept the conversation on schedule. We filled pages of flip charts, voted with our dots and left with lots of ideas, yet no firm decisions. But insufficient progress was made on the task at hand: a strategic plan.

We didn’t accomplish our goals because we never discussed anything substantive. We talked in circles, never making any real decisions. Everyone was acting copacetic, when just under the surface emotions were raging. And when one brave person tried to confront the central problem, the concern was just swept under the rug.

The Human Element of Facilitating

I know from talking with others that this scenario is not unusual. Some people believe that facilitating is all about following a process. This approach likens facilitating a discussion to running a lab experiment where all variables are known and controlled for. Sure, maintaining structure is one role of a facilitator. But it is my experience that expecting this person to separate completely from their emotions is a disservice to the group.

A Nuanced Dance

Facilitating a discussion is a nuanced dance.  One that requires a bit of improv combined with heart, structure and some mad skills

(my friend @JazzCode beautifully illustrates how constructive conversations are like playing jazz).  The facilitator is constantly taking the temperature of the group dynamics and adjusting the tone and focus of the conversation to fit the situation.  Since most quality conversations yield unexpected twists and turns, a talented facilitator must tap into her own feelings and know how to make snap decisions.  I’m constantly relying on my intuition to help me guide discussions forward.

What does this tap dance look like?

The Seven Practices

These practices aren’t rocket science, they aren’t earth shattering, these ideas aren’t new.  And yet, mostly everyone (myself included) can benefit from putting some time and attention towards mindfully embodying each of these practices while in conversation with others.  It’s amazing the kind of meaningful dialogue you can foster when these practices are applied continuously (and usually simultaneously) throughout a meeting.

The absence of any one of these practices can drastically affect the quality of a conversation.  Consider your own meetings or discussions of late.

  1. Does your team practice active listening?

  2. Are they encouraged to ask questions (inquiry)?

  3. Are they given the opportunity to reflect on how the discussion relates to their own experiences?

  4. Are people encouraged to own and share their unique knowledge with the group?

  5. Is everyone present in the discussion or are people playing on their smartphones/computers?

  6. Are people showing up by being authentic (vulnerability)?

  7. Are you actually engaging them in a discussion, are they actively contributing?

The next time you feel frustrated because important things went unsaid in a meeting, consider the above questions. The Seven Practices are the behaviors that help a Participatory Facilitator create conditions for constructive, collaborative conversations. I’m curious, which of the Seven Practices are underutilized in your meetings?  And at which practices does your team excel?

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