My colleague, Dr. Chris Bollinger, asked me to come to his Facilitation and Negotiation class the other day to talk about how I facilitate group discussion and debate, especially in the context of my role as Director of General Education at TLU. The old joke is that faculty meetings can be so tense because so little is at stake. Of course, discussions about what goes into the General Education curriculum can indeed be tense, and no one would really suggest that the philosophical discussions about what belongs in a Liberal Arts curriculum, the practical discussions about what happens to major programs when we add or subtract courses, and the pedagogical discussions about what students actually take away from any given combination of courses are trivial things!
It was a bit challenging to say "Yes" to Dr. Bollinger, as, although I agreed that I had gotten a lot better at group facilitation since I first started as a TLU professor, I could not really have said what it was that I did differently with any kind of reasonable specificity. I asked him to interview me instead of give a lecture, with the hopes that he would figure out what I was really saying if I got lost and then he could gloss it for me. I figured I might leave the session understanding what it was I did, and hopefully the students wouldn't leave more confused than when they started.
I think I did learn some things about what I do when it goes well. And, of course, it doesn't always go well, but I have also found that these approaches lend themselves to managing those days and laying a foundation for further conversations. That is important. Faculty never "finish" and rest on one model for General Education, for example, even if everyone is in agreement for now. And every organization has an equivalent neverending issue.
So, here's what we figured out about my process:
1. Pick up those mics.
Either out of interest in sabotaging a discussion process from the start or as a result of the conversation not going their way, people will find all sorts of ways to not only disengage from a discussion, but also to raze the framework for the others while they are at it. They usually hit the group with the kind of rhetorical flourish I imagine them practicing in the shower (because, well, I have done that myself!). I think of these as mic drop moments.
|Photo by Robert Bejil, https://flic.kr/p/6bun5f|
As a facilitator, your job is to pick up the mic. Make it clear that no one will be able to stop the process. Depending on what they do and say, it might be as simple as a decompressing, "Thank you for that. _____ clearly has very strong reactions to this idea. What are other people thinking about this right now?" Decouple the process, the idea, the reaction, and the person. Their strong reaction is NOT, in spite of their probable intent (and perhaps in spite of, you know, reality), a rejection of the meeting framework or yourself or others, but it is a principled stance on an issue, one you are glad the format allowed to be said.
Your basic leveled-off support and engagement shouldn't waver, even if they say something awful. "That was strongly worded, which speaks to the depth of feeling all around the room right now. Let me see if I can get to the core of that concern." You want to try to short-circuit the shouting match with their opponents if you can. If they say something offensive, others may be frustrated that you are kind of normalizing their discourse, but assuming you all work together, you're going to have to figure out how to build a future, and you might as well start. Plus, if your process is such that people know they can destroy it with a well-timed just-offensive-enough-to-throw-a-wrench-in-the-works-but-not-enough-to-get-officially-reprimanded comment, then you don't really have a process.
This assumes they didn't just say something fire-able. It's a bit harder to get fired in tenured academia, but it can still happen. Offensive language, insults, invective, epithets, all of these can be handled if you choose. "Whoa! I think we can all agree that such language is a problem, and I'd like for everyone to monitor themselves a bit better, if we can. But that speaks to how hard this is to come together on . . . "
Again, I'm assuming problems within the normal range of what we can absorb in civil discourse, not setting up the room for people to be harassed or victimized. If it tips into that area, something like "I think we need to stop the meeting after that. I am not comfortable with what is happening here, and I think we need to come at this question another time. When we next meet, I'd ask for people to think further about the damages their communication choices can cause." Then you have to individually process that with everyone, including the offender. It's a lot of work, but it is how you set it up so the bullies don't win. We just keep talking. Maybe without you.
Let me make it clear that although I've had to use those approaches in other contexts, I never had to take these steps in my role as GenEd Director at TLU, but you've got to have that possibility in your head just in case.
2. Just keep swimming.
|Photo by looyaa, https://flic.kr/p/ead3TR|
This is a part of the larger philosophy of facilitation. It is *never* all about that day. This is not a high pressure 11th-hour negotiation. If you are doing *that*, well that is another blog post entirely.
I joke sometimes that I exhaust people into submission. That's not really the case, but my marker is that when the majority of the group juuuussstttt begins to get tired of how many meetings we're having, people who have been quieter in the process up until now might just get up the motivation to speak. In some cases, in my experience, they have been waiting for exactly this time. If the majority is against you and if they have some structural power on their side, wouldn't you want to save your comment for when it has the most amount of leverage? Well, this is that time, it seems! Once the majority is ready to be done with the process, that feeling begins to pull them, potentially, to the same side of the table as you, the minority voice on the question. "Everything is soooo close! Maybe we can make a concession here . . ."
I did two years' worth of faculty forums before our latest GenEd revision. And after the second-to-last meeting is when we got a huge counter-proposal. It happens every time when people are talking about things that matter to them! I have been the source of quite a few last-minute proposals myself in the past! Your task, as facilitator, is to expect that and to help the group process its options going forward. "We're just going to keep talking until we get this," is the vibe.
Time has added benefits, as it is easier to trust the process then, especially for people who only marginally care and might be easily swayed by bullying voices from either side at the end. I heard quite a few statements of support that ran along the lines of, "We've been working on this for so long now..." It is hard to argue that anyone got left out of the process or was railroaded or was overruled by some kind of secret group if it all so openly takes so long.
Another element of this is that you don't try to pull together a fragile consensus. If people aren't clearly coming together, you keep talking until they do. Time itself will begin to induce people into agreement, just to be finished with the neverending process.
Of course, all of this is harder when you run up against something urgent or a hard deadline. You do less facilitation and more management when you run out of time. And that's not good. So start it all earlier than you think you need to. Like, much, much, much, much earlier.
3. The big pile of bad ideas
You've got to do two things to have a successful facilitation, and they are connected. They are both things we hate to do: brainstorming and failure.
It's really hard to blame people on the brainstorming thing. When you take group communication class or training, you learn the importance of this process, where you just toss out all ideas with no judgment. But this is fake and it feels fake (just look here at the corporate graphic/stock photo sadness that happens when you image search it).
No, let's try that sentence again -- it feels fake in direct proportion to the amount of tension in the room. You are asking people to play in a space of trust. Annie Dillard talked about her writing as her desk floating in the air. When you ask a group of people embedded in real arguments that have structural implications that have been going on for a while to sit down in a facilitation session, they often can't or won't play such games.
So we teach them how to play. Someone else will suggest that their own idea might not be right or is "probably bad" or "most likely wrong" or some other polite turn-taking statement we use in potentially tense situations. If they don't, you try it once. Then take that moment at face value and run with it. "Great! I want to hear a lot more bad ideas. Let's just get them out there. If you have a good idea, that's okay, too. You might make the rest of us feel bad, but we'll manage. I want bad ideas. I've always found that something that seems terrible at the beginning of the process finds a way to get polished up by the group and work." Or something like that, depending on the group and how many times you've tried this before.
Now you are all floating on Annie Dillard's desk together, and people's skepticism about the process has been pulled into the process itself. It really works too get things moving.
The second part of this is that you are then giving people experience of failure and disappointment in a safer space. If all the ideas are coded as bad, well, then, we're going to have to bail on a lot of them. And probably yours, too. I will make sure I toss out a purposefully bad idea and then sacrifice it to model this.
At the end of the meeting, no matter the outcome, someone will go away disappointed. If this is a really a meeting that seems like a group forum but is really just a shadow negotiation between two opposite parties and everyone knows it and some people came to the meeting just to see the sparks fly (a fairly common structure in my experience), well, that will be big disappointment. If the structure is less clouded with conflict so there is a larger diversity of ideas expressed, well, lots more people will be disappointed with the inevitable if they liked their own ideas (I work with university faculty a lot, and, well, duh!).
|Photo by Bad Alley (Cat), https://flic.kr/p/UucVcZ|
A field of bad ideas helps people practice failing in a public space before the end of the session. We have to learn how to be voted down or ruled out in a group of our peers eventually. And who exactly is training us in that? If your organization is large enough, each meeting has a totally different structure of interests, and so we kinda have to learn it all over again each time for a while.
I know this section has been going on for a bit, but that's because this is the fulcrum of the whole thing. If a pile of bad ideas doesn't fit your vibe, okay. But you've got to come up with some other game that gets the brainstorming and failure practice you will need to get to the end.
And, finally, to answer the inevitable question, yes they will get tired of this sort of thing. But if you do it with good energy enough times, they will take it from you and play the game without you directing the traffic.
4. Now play with the ideas
In Gladding's classic text on facilitation in a counseling context, we learn that these are the things you do as a leader to get the process working: active listening, reflection, clarification and questioning, summarizing, linking and tone setting. Do all those things. But my personal version of this was based on one of the best professors I ever had, Dr. James Hanink, a philosophy professor I had twice as an undergraduate at Loyola Marymount University. I have never met another person as good as he is at pulling everyone's voices into discussion. It always felt like he meant it, you know? Really, really good teachers can pull all the voices out, but sometimes you can see behind the wizard's curtain and can tell that they are just talking now to try to figure out a way to pull everyone in, because that's their goal. But it's a job, then, not a conversation.
|Photo: Frederick Magle Music, https://flic.kr/p/bu2eqh|
Dr. Hanink would perch on a desk in the middle of the front row and conduct the class like a symphony. He didn't call what we were doing "bad ideas," the way I do in facilitation (but never in my classes, so I guess I learned some things from him), but he made sure we understood the particular conversational game of an upper division philosophy classroom. All ideas needed to be looked at further. We've been doing this for thousands of years, and since we are still debating, what is the likelihood that any of us have it all figured out?
That does sound like a forest of bad ideas! Thanks again, Dr. Hanink!
Instead of the kind of brute "reflection" you see from facilitators, where they pause and nod and say things straight out of the group comm textbooks like, "What I hear you saying is . . . ", he would give a partial paraphrase of your idea, with a kind of RCA dog head bend while he maintained eye contact until you nodded that he'd gotten it right or restated because he was just looking at you and you kinda wanted that to stop. When you nodded, he would turn and gesture over to another part of the class, the French horn section, say, and give that raise-in-volume conductor gesture and ask a person over there to chime in.
The reason this worked for him is that he remembered everything you'd ever said. I'm sure it wasn't *everything*, but was merely the biggest whoppers or what you'd been saying the past week or so, and so he could easily do things like, "Steve seems to be saying that in certain cases the factors are too complex to use utilitarian logic, which reminds me of what Michelle said last week when arguing for the categorical imperative. Michelle, what do you think about that connection?" Or he would elicit an argument.
His classes were so much fun.
I want that to happen in facilitation settings. I want people to leave having felt like a conversation they were dreading turned out to be great. I'll take that it was just less painful than they'd feared, but you gotta aim high.
Those four steps are probably enough, really. I'm sure it's easy to have too many steps and overthink it. Your job is to get people pretending, gaming, imagining, and maybe even failing, for an extended period of time. It asks a lot of people. But any process designed to create agreement in a situation of a disagreement or conflict will always ask a lot of people. From my perspective, if you're going to ask for so much, be sure it works.
One final note. If your process as a facilitator is fair, you should be able to write about your process in a public forum, like, saaayyyyy, a blog post, knowing that your colleagues may very well read it, and it won't be trouble for anyone going forward. No secret techniques or secret agendas. And if one of them reads it with suggestions for how you can improve, so much the better!