A Facilitation Example, a Language and a Checklist

 

Part 1: What makes a conversation “productive”?

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As an HR professional, like all other leaders in your organisation, you both initiate and join in thousands of conversations. We all depend on conversations to get our work done… to get decisions, agreed actions, and also to set the tone and to energise others.

 

But many people, probably you included, are finding their work-based conversations at times unsatisfactory, maybe stuck, repetitive, confusing, disturbing or disappointing. We resent the time-wasting, politics, drifting, aggression, withheld information, the weight of undiscussables, the indecisiveness, premature closures, uncomfortable emotions, lies, waffling, the sensitivities, and the insensitivity, bullying, evasion.   the frustration when a person can’t communicate their heartfelt experience or can’t receive another person’s truth is palpable. Yes, conversations are difficult, complex and often unproductive. Enter the facilitator.

 

As an experienced business professional and as a human being in the 21st century you already know a great deal about how to communicate, hold meetings, solve problems, make decisions, influence people, lead, make strategy, build teams, facilitate etc, but in spite of this rich knowledge, huge frustrations remain. It appears that more productive conversations are less likely to arise from more and better theory, than from participants looking directly at what is actually going on in a conversation, being able to discuss what is observed and then evolve together a few guiding principles.

 

The facilitator joins you in doing this sometimes challenging work.

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As an illustration of what’s involved we will be examining a real conversation, making sense of what is going on and what might make it less or more “productive”.

 

Imagine the conversation is taking place “on-stage” as in a theatre, and that you are being given a rare privilege on three occasions to call a “time-out” and interview the players “off-stage”. We will develop this approach speculatively here and see what it might reveal.

 


Act 1. Arriving and making a start

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Somewhere in a glass fronted corporate office in business park Terry, a senior manager in charge of a big chunk of a utility’s business, one down from the Board, meets Elaine, an HR professional specialising in learning and development, over a cup of coffee.

 

The conversation “onstage”

 

The interview afterwards “offstage”

Terry: (Confidently). Shall I kick-off? I’d like to talk to you about getting some dialogue training off the ground for my people

Elaine: OK. Can you tell me a bit more about what you have in mind?

Terry: (Responding warmly to the question) Well, as you know I have 6 people reporting to me, and each of them heads quite separate businesses. This is new for me as until recently I was in charge of a larger, more integrated business overseas… where we conducted an interesting experiment which I want to continue here.

Elaine: (Cautiously..) Sounds intriguing. Tell me more.

Terry: (Enjoying it) The culture there was hierarchical, very command and control and we wanted to get people out of their comfort zones contributing more. A bit like here really. We hooked up with a team of facilitators and although our people were very reluctant at first, by the end we succeeded big time. We learned a lot about our baggage, prejudices and assumptions. By the time I left we had impacted 50% of the people in a business employing about 5000...

 

**Time-out**

 

 

What were you really after here?

Terry: I needed official support from HR and a facilitator with the right level of understanding and skill to join me in this work.

Elaine: This was a great opportunity to gain entry to Terry’s part of the organisation and get some positive development activity going

 

What were your feelings during this phase?

Terry: Eagerness. Warmth. Pride.

Elaine: Interest. Caution. Anxiety.

 

What concerns did you have?

Terry: That Elaine might not understand, might dismiss my idea or foist something different onto me

Elaine: That Terry was bringing a pre-conceived idea from somewhere else that didn’t fit here, like a hammer in search of a nail

 

Were you able to bring these concerns out? 

Elaine: Too risky! Terry was clearly enthusiastic and I didn’t want to pour cold water and lose a potential sponsor.

Terry: No. I needed to tell her more first.

 

So the scene is set, the players have arrived and a conversation has started, which seems to have a clear purpose to it. As a result the players have started to experience one another directly and some initial questions are arising in their minds (if not yet in the conversation!).

 


Act 2: Doing the “edge-work”

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The conversation “onstage”

 

The interview afterwards “offstage”

Elaine: (Getting really interested) How did it have this impact?

Terry: (Pausing..) I can’t say exactly. I remember a couple of blinding flash moments which were particularly powerful, to do with “parallel conversations”, a different one going on in your head than is going on outside. Like when my father phones and says “why haven’t you called?”. And there’s something unspoken going on in his head.

Elaine: (Showing excitement) Like right now in my head what does Terry really want here… or maybe in your head am I trustworthy and OK to work with…

Terry: (Satisfied) You’ve hit the nail on the head …(Slowing now) …but the facilitators were mechanistic, which at first was useful but later we fell out

Elaine: (Warily) What was useful about this.. at first I mean?

Terry: (Still slowly) They insisted our people do “body work”, which meant leaping around to music, but this moved us out of our comfort zones and became easy.

Elaine: OK. So I understand this programme made a deep impression, but that was then. What are you thinking of doing here? In what ways is it similar or different?

Terry: (Frustrated) Well it’s the same question here. Moving off command and control, people being braver, out of their comfort zones, bigger contributions. (Now picking up speed) Everyone knows this on the surface but have they really “got it”? (Getting excited now) Meetings are a bit like asteroids colliding briefly, then going off on separate journeys for days, weeks or years. (And reflectively) We don’t always seek a meeting of minds (Frowning) and seem untroubled by this as long as there are action points to take away.

Elaine: (Cautiously) OK. I can understand what you’re saying, but what about your people. You are clearly not satisfied. How engaged are they in this problem?

Terry: (With tired resignation) I’m willing to open myself up to challenge on this. I intend to ask their permission to take them on this journey. I’m not going to force them.

Elaine: (Pressing further) But will it be OK for one of your people to say no to you? And if they lack a real sense of choice will they be able to say so?

Terry: (Irritated. Emphatically..) Aren’t you over-complicating this? I’m going to ask their permission. Most will agree and we can take it from there can’t we?

Elaine: OK let’s move on to the outcomes you want from this.

 

** Time-out**

 

What were your feelings and energy levels in this phase?

Elaine: Excitement. Getting stuck in.

Terry: Understanding. Satisfaction. Irritation. Heightened energy.

 

Were there any particular moments of connection or disconnection?

Terry: At first when Elaine started probing I felt her real interest….and then when she gave the example of what was going on in her head right now I knew she had got it…and I got every energised… but later when she was pushing me and I felt uncomfortable.

Elaine: When he told me about blinding flashes, parallel conversations… then I disclosed my private thoughts and I knew we were connecting. He showed me what he was looking for in a facilitator… but became rigid later when I asked about how he would get people enrolled so I backed off.

 

What helped the connections to happen?

Terry: Asking me questions, showing she understood my concerns and was not afraid to apply pressure. It was a genuine exchange and whilst we did not agree on everything, she also knew when to back off.

Elaine: He showed he was open, put his concerns on the table and would be flexible… up to a point… we had both pushed one another a bit which established an understanding.

 

What form of agreement was emerging between you?

Elaine: Agreement that we respected one another and could do a piece of work together, but no details yet.

Terry: That this was exciting, relevant and worth doing. That it is important to take a stand not just to agree, and to be flexible too.

 

What remains to be settled between you?

Elaine: We haven’t talked about exactly what we are going to do. I’m still not clear on what permission I’m being given. Does he just want a puppet or a real contribution?

 

Terry: I’m less sure of exactly how this will work now. We have muddied the water. I’m not sure how to invite people without them feeling forced. I’ll need some help with this.

 

The conversation in the second phase is more energetic, emotional and tense. The initial concerns are being raised and dealt with. They “get real” with one another. This is the “edge-work of negotiating permissions and boundaries characterised by curiosity, disclosure and challenge, with a sense of push and pull giving rise to respect, but also some rawness, defensiveness and confusion. A form of mutual respect and a loose understanding emerges.

                                                                      


Act 3. Crystallising the outcomes and closing

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The conversation “onstage”

 

The interview afterwards “offstage”

Elaine: What outcomes would you want ideally from this?

Terry: (Relaxing) People starting to question the kinds of conversation they are having with their own people…wanting their conversations to move on… and to have conversations they have not had before… understanding how to create a deeper, more meaningful dialogue in their teams …wanting to run something similar in their teams….

Elaine: (Warming to the vision) That all seems very clear, and… (frowning) I’m starting to wonder how much you had already decided, and how open to others’ ideas and influence you really are.

Terry: (Defensively) I’m totally open to your suggestions. (Realising the mixed message) I’ll stand naked in the Thames if you want me to, if that would help! But these are my initial thoughts, not fixed but a starting point. Is that OK?

Elaine: (Relaxed now) Yes. Go on.

Terry: (Easily) I want to start with a couple of days… off-site…laying out dialogue as a skill the company needs to develop … this is what we mean by dialogue… here’s an example…

Elaine: (Butting in) Would you be happy to start with a 2-3 hour session to give everyone a taster before a full workshop?

Terry: Yes… you propose the programme. I also need your help to frame the invitation…

 

** Close**

What were your feelings?

Elaine:  Courage. Satisfaction. At the end I’m really excited at the permission I’ve won, also anxious not to screw up.

Terry: Trusting. Delighted we are able to take this forward now.

 

What was the third phase really about?

Elaine: Getting a vision, some room to influence things and agreed next steps.

Terry: Delegating with an agreed plan.

 

Couldn’t you have got here faster?

Elaine: No way. We needed time to unpack this and work it through between us until I could really sense Terry’s respect and trust.

Terry: No. I needed to know Elaine really understood where I was coming from and what I wanted – only then could I open up to her advice and influence.

 

What remaining concerns did you have?

Elaine:  We have to keep this on the edge, open-ended in order to understand and react to the buy-in we have.

Terry: I’m OK with where we are and the next stage, but let’s take it one step at a time. The first step is to get the invitation right and get my people to come along in a receptive frame of mind.

 

In the third phase the form crystallises as a vision with clear next steps. The energy is still high but the conversation is easier and much less tense.


 

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Well, what did that example conversation reveal? We uncovered hidden agendas, that is, a whole invisible layer of inner experience (including energy, feelings, intentions, values), behind the conversation. This layer both follows and leads, simultaneously responding to the words/gestures received while listening and determining the words/gestures produced while speaking. We also demonstrated how easy it is to access this layer when you take a “time-out” and ask some simple questions.

 

When a facilitator conducts a “time-out” in a real meeting, they help people to hear one another differently, to bring out the “harder to express” inner layer that hangs behind the words, to enable everyone to feel communicated with, and to uncover what needs to happen next for the conversation to move forwards to a satisfactory conclusion.

 

We have seen how by looking closely at a particular conversation you can easily uncover certain blocks and enablers to a productive outcome. For you as an HR professional or any leader in your organisation to take this further may not be so easy since you may come up against your own ingrained habits, assumptions and ways of seeing. In our experience where people are provided with workshop opportunities for trying out new approaches directly, doing rehearsal, observation and feedback, then dramatic progress is possible.

 

In part two, we will be looking at whether there is a natural shape to a productive conversation.

 

 


A Facilitation Example, a Language and a Checklist

 

Part 2: Is there a natural shape to productive conversations?

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One difficult conversation is not like any other, and the particular obstacles to a productive outcome in each and every case may be unique. But a facilitator, with experience of many different kinds of difficult conversations, starts to discern patterns, a sort of rhythm to what is unfolding from the “hello” moment when two or more people open a conversation, through an important middle bit when “something happens”, to a completion and “goodbye” moment, that in the best case leaves all parties with a sense of having done something useful and productive. Might there in fact be a “natural underlying shape” to productive conversations? What might it look like? If so how might it help you make your conversations more productive?

 

Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who was interested in natural processes of growth and development provides us with some clues. By closely observing nature he noticed how transformation happens during reproductive cycles in which seeds are transformed into plants, embryos into children then into adults, and so on. He carefully labelled what he observed: the preceding “matter” (such as seed, embryo) contains the subsequent “form” (such as plant, child) as a “potential” which then is drawn forward by some natural and inherent “force” to “actuality” before subsequently decaying. He also observed that the force always requires “an external cause”. In other words a child must have a parent, every seed has to come from somewhere  (i.e. a mature plant).

 

From this we can infer that a natural shape for a productive conversation might begin with a clear reason or purpose (“external cause”) which motivates people to gather and begin the work of finding out the issues (“matter”) and, through carefully talking them through, releasing the inherent and embedded “force” that will transform “potential matter” into “actual form”, that is into a creative, realistic and agreed upon solution. A conversation is productive to the extent that it effectively and efficiently transforms “matter” into “form”. In other words, each productive conversation has to deliver a baby of some kind, with parents who understand their responsibilities. Thus Aristotle’s terms provide the simplest of handles with which to grip what is and is not happening in a conversation.

 

If you glance back at the worked example in part one, it is easy to see the natural process:

 

When?

Example

Natural Process Phases

Prior to conversation

Overseas experience. Terry’s decision to repeat. Calls Elaine in HR and books meeting.

External cause to this conversation

Act 1: Arrival & making a start

Starting to interact and find out the issues

Matter: bringing the issues (sperm, egg, seeds) into the conversation

Act 2: Doing the edge-work

Tense and energetic conversation that creates respect and mutual understanding

Force: active, vigorous interaction which finds the potential, releases the energy (conception)

Act 3 Crystallising outcomes

Expressing vision, articulating details, clarifying permissions and roles

Form: a meeting of minds, actualising phase (the baby is born).

Closing and afterwards

Taking this forwards into an invitation, a taster, then a full workshop

External cause: to further conversations leading up to taster etc (parenting)

 

 “Releasing the energy” is the edgy work facilitators often in Act 2. It entails re-including the hidden agendas, that is the layer behind the words consisting of unspoken inner life which typically consists of the four core emotions (anger, fear, sadness, joy) that are usually present but denied, undeclared interests, intentions, values and needs. The art is in bringing these shadowy elements into awareness through respectful interactions between participants that are direct, without bullying or avoidance. You can summarise this work as releasing the authentic voice, initially the voices of individuals (“matter”) so that they hear one another clearly, letting us experience a group voice (form) that is coherent and clear.

 

This requires everyone to bring a special depth of listening, honesty and a curiosity to explore together at the edge of people’s comfort zones and create a meeting of minds. The “form” is a collective creation that is a natural consequence of including the issues (“matter”) brought by everyone involved. Once the “form” arises the conversation shifts a gear into a practical and easier “let’s get on with it” mode. After the conversation is over each person, sometimes deliberately but often unconsciously, sows the “form” as a seed (“matter”) into other conversations thus being the “external cause” from which change ripples onwards and outwards into the wider world.

 

How is this useful?

Once people in a group understand these terms and are alive to what is entailed in the work of transforming “matter” into “form”, each of them is better equipped to make responsible, graceful i.e. less clumsy interventions…appropriate in their intent, style, direction, timing and intensity, applying the minimum effort needed to release the natural energy in the group.

 

The facilitator helps a group to respect this natural form. Groups without a facilitator can ask someone, apart from the leader (who may properly be pre-occupied with the subject matter), to pay attention to “holding the space” and inviting the group to take regular time-out for keeping their conversation on track.

 

But what happens when a conversation mistakenly departs from this natural shape? As we all know, many conversations do. Looking around us, compared with this natural shape, we can see countless “mistakes”. Few conversations stand up as being efficient at transforming “matter” into “form”. For example reflect on your meetings in everyday business, and in life outside. Notice children’s naïve challenges to the adversarial debate in government and the courts. What about the rituals of decision-making in your committees and team meetings? What about budget setting and performance management conversations which seem to hide the lies rather than to reveal the truth? How many conversations do you tolerate everyday that are pedestrian, superficial, stuck or tiresomely repeating? Why do we accept a sense of connection which is thin, possibly illusory or just pretended? Notice our “How do you do?” habits and protocols which fail to uncover potential and which promise no transformation of “matter” into a new “form”?

 

Once we have paused to compare real life with the “natural shape to productive conversations” we can all recognise certain familiar warning signs, and listing these makes it easy to state what may need to be provided:

 

Warning Sign

Likely departure from natural process

Suggested action

Participants fail to turn up , or join only fleetingly and keep going off at tangents.

Participants not fully present because the conversation lacks an explicit and compelling reason or purpose (External cause)

Ask sponsor to restate purpose/reason and check this is meaningful.

Participants are present but do no feel part of what is going on  

Issues participants bring are not being included perhaps due to rigid formal agenda and a lack of time, space, curiosity or trust (Matter)

Pause. Time-out. Go round the group giving each person a chance to reflect on what’s been said so far and what’s being missed.

The group fragments in the midst of a tense conversation and barriers arise.

People feel ignored, pushed aside, discounted rather than heard and received by the others (Force)

Slow things down. Heighten the listening eg. each time a person speaks, check the message is being received and understood before each response.

 

People seemed energised and engaged in the detail but still in separate worlds

The emerging solution is not made explicit or meaningful (Form)

Pause. Time-out. Ask individuals or pairs to summarise the solution that seems to be emerging.

 

People enjoy the conversation but leave without knowing how it will make a difference

Parents for the next phase are not made alert to their responsibilities (External Cause).

Re-open the conversation restating the form and negotiate next steps, timescales, permissions, roles in carrying this forward.

 

Is it really that simple?

Let’s not harbour any illusions. Productive conversations are messy and often confusing, particularly the edgy work in the middle. Everything happens in real time not in some sort of special controlled laboratory. Just as in jazz or theatrical improvisation, there is no such thing as a mistake, and “mistakes” become part of the emerging tune, everything that happens needs to be included. In really productive conversations the work is not smooth and melodic but at times awkward and discordant. It can become a struggle to be honest and courageous in the face of fear, when your instinct is to hide, throw people off track or lash out in defence against revealing what has been hidden (emotions, ingrained habits, assumptions, ways of thinking and working).

 

So what do you actually do when you notice departures from the natural shape? Of course you always have a choice either to accept and go with, or to challenge. The facilitator’s work here is paradoxical. We have both to include what is happening and gently but firmly to continue working the group with the natural shape in mind, trusting all the time that the “form” will emerge. When it does the conversation develops a momentum of its own and requires much less help.

 

Every conversation has the potential to change the world, in the sense that it contains small but decisive moments which can have big effects, like butterflies influencing global weather patterns. Often these moments get avoided or covered up but when handled gently participants’ lights can come on, awakening them to new understandings, making sense, releasing energy, fun and excitement. “Matter” that was previously unknown or strenuously denied, when accepted can release an astonishing force which penetrates the soul… and this means the effect on a person can be enduring, and of course it also impacts everyone else in the group, thus creating a new shared context, an agenda, a motivation and the leverage for action.

 

To uncover this kind of rich potential in your most important conversations, it may be worth preparing using the following checklist to honour the natural requirements:

 

Natural Requirement

Key Question

Provide an external cause

Is there an explicit and compelling reason or purpose that makes the conversation worth having?

Bring out all the subject matter (seeds, eggs)

Is there enough space, curiosity and trust for everyone to put their relevant experience and ideas onto the table?

Release the energy (conception)

Is there sufficient good quality interaction and “edge-working” between everyone in the conversation?

Bring out the emerging form (birth)

Has the emerging solution been made explicit, obvious and meaningful to all?

Carry this forwards as external cause to further conversations (parenting)

Does everyone know in sufficient detail their part in parenting the next natural phase of this before the conversation ends?

 

It is worth it! Conversations which respect the natural form are exciting and productive. They embrace deep challenge, strong emotion, breathtaking intuitive leaps, inspiring creativity, rigorous and intelligent testing… and promise real change.

 

 

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Copyright Tony Page 2003

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