How Do We Have The Important Conversations?

It goes without saying that we find ourselves in interesting and challenging circumstances. Even as re-entry and the lifting of lockdowns occur in some parts of the world, we continue to see outbreaks of Covid-19. Previously recovered regions are locking down again, and still others are exercising abundant caution.

Sooner or later, though, we will find ourselves in offices again. Sort of. Not everyone will be in all offices. Some offices won’t re-open. Some businesses won’t re-open. And for some, working from home is their new reality.

The consequence is that we are experiencing—and will continue to experience—an enormous discontinuity in how we work, how we meet and how we function. For everyone that questions when they will feel safe again going out to a restaurant, or the movies or a theatre… when will you feel safe again in a meeting room?

I facilitate strategic conversations for a living. Sometimes, they are about actual strategic plans. They are also frequently about strategic initiatives. They are also not infreguently about how to address and respond to complex and uncertain strategic problems. And while “strategic” is the most repeated word in this paragraph, the crucial word in this paragraph is “conversation.”

The most important part of any of my consulting exercises is also conversation. That part isn’t necessarily always as obvious. If you were to look at the formal deliverables that I leave behind, they are tangible work products: strategic plans, business cases, project plans, change management approaches and execution strategies.

The deliverables are the formal work products specified in the contract. They are the tools that are used to support communications. They are also touchstones for participants in remembering what happened, what was discussed and what resulted from that conversation. The vital part, however, was the conversation. That’s where understanding was built, meaning was created and insights were gained.

Getting there isn’t easy. Facilitating well means going in without a preconceived notion of the outcome. If you think about that for a moment—and I encourage you to do so—that is an incredibly scary proposition. You are about to be the focal point of a room full of people. Those people are usually smart, frequently opinionated and often powerful. While they may be in the room to arrive at a common purpose, that in no way means that they are aligned. And while they might all work for the same organization, that is not to presume that they like each other are are necessarily intent on being considerate.

Your job as facilitator is to stand up in front of a diverse and not necessarily cooperative room and guide them. More particularly, you are guiding them in a conversation of which they are responsible for contributing most of the content, and they own all of the results. Success for you is in meeting them where they are, aiding them in articulating what they aspire towards and prompting them in determining plans—or at least first steps—in moving forwards. Do your job well, and they will leave marvelling at the great conversation they just had with each other. Do your job poorly, and they will leave complaining about the inadequate facilitation they just experienced.

Facilitation is perhaps the pinnacle of what it means to have influence without authority. You don’t own the outcome, but you are responsible for arriving at one that the group values. You don’t own the discussion, but you are responsible for guiding it. You can’t make people participate and you can’t dictate how they interact, yet your job is to shape the conversation so that it is inclusive, constructive, meaningful and ultimately valued.

I would argue that if you don’t go into a facilitation with a gnawing level of anxiety, then something is wrong. There are a lot of variables to manage, and well designed meanings allow for a lot of different outcomes to arrive at, with a wide number of avenues to get there. The challenge is being prepared, trusting that you have tools and processes to draw on, reading the room constantly to sense where and how you are doing, and responding to change and challenges with flexibility, confidence, humility and supportiveness.

My purpose here is not to try to discourage people from being a facilitator. It is a significant, valuable and essential role, and we need more good ones. It’s a role I revel in (occasional bouts of anxiety notwithstanding). There is a challenge and level of engagement and intensity of focus that you experience when you are doing it well that is hard to replicate in any other situation. I thrive at the front of the room, even as I fully acknowledge that it’s not my room and not my meeting.

This is where I return back to where we came in; we are experiencing a level of disruption and discontinuity that isn’t going away for a while. I suspect that I won’t be in front of a room facilitating for quite some time. At the same time, there are conversations that—now more than ever—desperately need to happen. There are very real strategic problems to be explored and resolved, and that demand reason and thought rather than simplistic answers.

Just saying “we’ll do that online” is not the answer. At least not fully. And I’m not sure that Zoom or Teams or Google Hangouts is the place to do it, necessarily. Not to diss any of those platforms, per se. But we’re having a hard enough problem holding individual meetings on them. “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing. Throwing everyone on a webcam and hoping for the best is not necessarily the most optimal strategy.

I am not approaching this discussion with answers. At least, I am not yet. I imagine and suspect that I have just embarked on another series of posts, where I do try to explore what that answer might look like. But where I am starting right now is with an exploration of the problems that we need to solve. What I lay out in the following points is the challenges that exist in any facilitation situation, but that particularly need to be addressed and resolved if we are going to engage in significant strategic conversations in a meeting situation that isn’t a facilitated, face-to-face session.

  • Separating out thinking modes. Meetings flow through different modes of thinking. Broadly speaking, there are times when we are divergent and others when we are convergent. Divergent thinking is about generating options; it’s about expanding content and putting more possibilities on the table. A hallmark of convergent is being creative and expansive; this means not editing or limiting ideas. We put out what come to mind, without worrying about how crazy, off-the-wall or impractical it might be. Convergent thinking is about winnowing down and coming up with specific choices. It’s where criticism and critical thinking happens, where we edit and narrow and focus on finding rational choices to proceed with. Meetings need both. They don’t co-exist well. And doing both constructively requires openness and trust in the room.
  • Ensuring opportunities for full participation. Strategic discussions require input from everyone. That’s hard enough to do in person, although it is do-able. That’s not to say that everyone will get equal speaking time, or that you’re simply going to go around the room (although that can—used judiciously—be a strategy). Throw technology into the mix, though, and you complicate matters significantly. You now have a multi-layered problem of being able to read the room and recognize who needs to participate, their willingness to do so, their technological competence in managing whatever you are using and the relative noise of others in the meeting responding and distracting in not-quite-real time.
  • Allowing quieter voices to be heard. A slightly more nuanced challenge than full participation is teasing out input from those who tend towards the quieter end of the spectrum. It’s easy enough to observe and sit back in a meeting setting, and people adept at doing so can fly under the radar for a surprisingly long time. Over technology, that gets even easier. The cues of technology in terms of trying to speak—time lags, speaking over each other, stopping together and then simultaneously trying again—focus the attention on how is attempting to contribute, and deflects even further from those who are not.
  • Discouraging power plays in the room. Bottom line, power and politics get exercised in virtually every interaction. In strategic conversations where the stakes are high, this outcome is inevitable. Power manifests itself in a surprising range of ways, though. It’s not just the person who overtly dominates the discussion—and in many instances, this is not where the true power in the room lies; it’s more reflective of behaviours of those trying to influence power. Power plays can be inordinately subtle. Responding to and deflecting them when they occur is one of the greatest difficulties of facilitating. The challenge of doing so ratchets up significantly when you can’t fully watch the room and sense body language and interpersonal dynamics.
  • Confirming agreement and acceptance. How do we know when we’ve decided? How do we acknowledge that we’re in agreement? Simply navigating to the express purpose of a meeting—making a decision—can be difficult to gauge online. Agreement well expressed comes in many forms on a spectrum of responses—from fully enthusiastic to choosing not to oppose a decision that the rest of the room goes along with. There is far greater nuance than can be characterized by someone clicking a “thumbs up” in Zoom.
  • Identifying where there is dissent or disagreement. One of the other great facilitation skills is sensing and drawing out where there is dissent or disagreement. Often, this is subtle, which doesn’t mean that the disagreement is mild. Someone can be quietly seething about a discussion or an impending decision, and yet demonstrate nothing but a calm veneer externally. Identify its presence and metaphorically tap the person on the shoulder, and it will often be expressed clearly and fiercely. Ignore it and it doesn’t go away. but will often come back to manifest itself in astonishingly passive-aggressive behaviour later.
  • Creating means to meaningfully draw out and engage in alternative viewpoints. One of the essential reasons that we have group discussions is that we theoretically value the diversity of skills, expertise, perspectives and viewpoints in the room. This requires inviting, encouraging and eliciting participation that draws on the full range of people present.
  • Avoiding racing to the lowest common denominator. While diverse views matter in theory, however, in practice groups often ignore diversity and zone in the simplistic facts that everyone agrees on. Where we are theoretically trying to be expansive and draw on the value of group experience, research has demonstrated that group decision making far more frequently focusses on what everyone has in common, rather than celebrating the different views in the room. Unmanaged, group decision making undermines the value of having a group in the first place.
  • Calling out the elephant in the room. Arguably the greatest challenge of facilitating well is being able to recognize, describe and call out the elephant in the room. I quite literally cannot count the times that I have facilitated a meeting that was ostensibly about one thing, only to discover a short ways in that a different, much larger and much more politically volatile problem is what really needed to be addressed. The elephant, though, is often subtle. Participants subconsciously knows it is there, but the reason that it is in fact an elephant is that everyone has agreed not to discuss it for such a prolonged period that it was able to grow that big. Look for the right cues in a meeting room, and the elephant quickly emerges in full colour. I am as yet unclear of whether they are visible over webcam.

All of these points are important. Addressing these points is fundamental to good facilitation. Being able to resolve the problems that they convey in trying to make strategic decisions in non-face-to-face context is an essential challenge. I don’t fully know as yet the answer to how we approach strategic decision making without in-person facilitation. I have some ideas, but they are not worked through. Some may be valuable, and others may prove to completely miss the mark. Regardless of the outcome, the exploration will be worthwhile.

One Comment to “How Do We Have The Important Conversations?”

  1. Excellent piece particularly on elephant in the room. Whoever said facilitation is easy!
    Managing (well) the under currents among powerful people is a task in itself and needs great skills particularly when some will be acting proactively to undermine the outcome despite having grudgingly signed the project.

Leave a Comment