Sunday, February 10, 2019

Me and Henry B.: Returning to the Scene of a Failure and Finding Success

by Steven S. Vrooman

When I was driving in to San Antonio the morning of my IAEE presentation in November 2017, I passed under a jumper perched on the edge of a bridge over the I-10. She had climbed over the wall/barrier and has holding herself up by grabbing the top of it. It looked like she could let go at any moment. The police had closed the bridge up top, and I was one of the last cars through before they closed down that side of the freeway.

That is me giving a good presentation on using social media in e-learning at TCEA 14 months later. (I am borrowing this photo from my friend Max Brandenberger, who came to my presentation and snapped a pic).

I did not give a great presentation in 2017. And I could feel the weight of that last week as I spoke at Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio for the first time since 2017. But I made it through what haunted me, and this post will take you through that journey.

An Unexpected Event

My presentation at IAEE was a great opportunity for me, and I was not pleased with the result. I didn't have the energy or focus I needed. 

I was pretty shaken that whole morning, and in my head during my talk, the image of her up there would flood back to me, as did the thought, "I don't think that bridge is high enough." The morbidity of that thought seemed to keep it sticking in my brain. I talk about what this felt like in the final episode of my public speaking podcast, in a conversation with fellow keynote speaker Strother Gaines:

After the presentation, pacing in the hallways outside the speakers' lounge, I called my partner, Michelle, and told her I blew it. (I had two presentations at IAEE, and on the second day I ran an escape room style workshop, and that worked out very well, but that kind of workshop thing feels different than you at the front with a PowerPoint, and it was easier to get through).

I looked all day for news of her, and I couldn't find any, so it seems like she got down off the bridge safely. I hope, anyway.

Yesterday, I found myself paying attention to the bridges as I drove in to town. But all was well.

I Admit that the Word "Dongle" Still Makes Me Giggle

I was pretty nervous heading into the building, and if you know Henry B, you know it is absolutely enormous, so much so that TCEA did this to the floors:
So I had a looooonnnnngggggg time to think about it while I tried to find my room.

There I discovered a bare HDMI cable. I had forgotten that I was supposed to have brought my own laptop to project from. After a moment of panic, I remembered that I was prepared for this. I have been teaching class with a thing called a WiFi display dongle

It works well, and the name makes my inner 13-year old (never far below the surface anyway) giggle. I had been using this for teaching in an the old, haunted theater where I teach most of my classes at TLU. I can walk around the room and use the web. I like both the Internet and pacing, so this is a good tool for me.

Thankfully, I also had the right adapter, so I plugged it all in and crossed my fingers:

It worked so well I had time for some selfie shenanigans.

The Friendly Face Phenomenon

As I always do right before a presentation starts, while the audience files in, I try to talk to people and get the feel for what they are about. It helps me adapt my material to their needs. This time, that was harder. I think I was letting the memories creep back.

But then I found my friend Max and my former student Megan in the audience, and that relaxed me. 

In my textbook, The Zombie Guide to Public Speaking, I point out that you should use the "friendly face phenomenon" when you have anxiety. Find a person in the room who looks friendly, maybe the first person to laugh when you risk a joke, and look at them a lot. Well, when you have actual friendly faces in the audience, it's even better! Afterwards I joked with Megan that it was just like old times. She'd scowl at me and look at me like I was nuts while I was speaking, but that was exactly what it was like to have her in the classroom, so it worked perfectly!

I was able to keep my attention for a hard task in this talk, where I was asking them to consider using social media in the classroom, and at every point I had to work with the three parts of the audience, college, high school and middle school, each of whom tends to have different types of concerns when it comes to using social media for their class.

For example, many in the audience knew their administration would never go for it, so I had to make sure I emphasized other takeaways for them. Middle school teachers worried about bullying, etc.

In November 2017, I had a hard time even keeping one idea on track. But this time, I think I was able to stay on all three tracks.

Is Failure the Right Word to Use?

I am a big fan of learning from failure, as you can see from the many posts on the issue in this blog.

But how should we think about levels here, as professionals? 

There are small errors and big catastrophes. Neither encapsulates my time at IAEE. My presentation was good. I got some additional speaking gigs from audience members, which wouldn't have happened if I'd blown it. 

One of those gigs, at the TSAE Tech Talks the following March, went so well I got almost universal positive feedback on the audience evaluation forms. One guy in the audience recommended me to his father's business as a speaker. He forwarded me the email he sent, which had the phrase "the best keynote speaker I have ever seen," so I'm going to take that as a clear win.

But that IAEE talk still grated on me. I could feel all the issues that were there in my focus and energy. I can imagine how I would have graded it using my 55-point grading rubric for speeches.

And that's the thing. I push students out of the A or F mentality all of the time. I want them to see what they can do with a B and to see it simply as a "not A."
But I was having a hard time doing that myself. 

There's a lot more to unpack here about the ways that failure is a set of nuances or degrees, not the either-or that seems to be how we talk about it as we build a motivational mythology of failing forward.

I wrote a conclusion to this post that grappled with all of that, but I guess I failed to pull it together. I will need to think more on it and a sense of what we might call micro-failures, but which we used to just call errors, and how we process error in the midst of the BIG WIN! and FAILING TO SUCCEED! cultural moment.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Rattling Chains and Hyzering Around Memory: Disc Golf, Lost Things, and the Camp Fire

I just started writing a blog series at UDisc, a disc golf scoring app. My role at the UDisc blog is to write data analysis of amateur and professional stats. So the following piece, a personal tale, is not exactly in the focal area of the UDisc blog, much less my part in it. But sometimes pieces of writing just have to come out, and this is one of those pieces, so I'm publishing it here. 

If you are not a disc golfer, the first few paragraphs will be a bit dodgy with terminology. I could stop and explain it, but I feel like maybe you won't really care enough to figure out what an anhyzer is in order to read a piece about my sports relationship with my Dad and my son? Instead, imagine that I am talking about wizards, maybe, casting discs like spells through tree-lined courses. You don't have to know how we cast the spells, just that the words are magic and that eventually brightly colored discs clang into a basket. I think you will still find the piece worth the read.

* * *

Disc golf is a game of time.

So many practice drives need to be thrown to break 400 feet. Many hours + a bag of putters is often just the ticket to getting decent. The rounds add up as the year goes by and we watch our average strokes decline.

And there are other kinds of time.

We move from summer shorts to whatever cold weather gear we can still X-step in by the time daylight shrinks enough to summon the glow discs. One day, eventually, that Z plastic will start to turn over. Small trees get larger and reach farther onto the edges of fairways. The big oak in middle loses its fight with winter storms one December, although we often still catch ourselves hyzering around its memory. Big rips that used to be easy get less so, and perhaps we grudgingly admit we're on the back nine of life.

Disc golf is a game of time.

And time comes with loss. Today I'd like to write about three lost things while I tell you a bit of a story.

Hole 8

On the brisk morning of November 8th, I was beginning work on my first post for UDisc, the list of the most popular courses in the United States, trying to figure out the right colors and sizes of dots to use on the map. Visualization always takes longer than you think it will, so I had to stop, eventually, to walk across campus to teach class to first-year students. Plato's cave. 

That walk always takes me right past the basket for Hole 8 on our university's’ disc golf course:

(Texas Lutheran University, Seguin, Texas. Photo by author.)
It’s a 554 foot par 4 right down the middle of campus with ceilings so low some days you have to duck. But we are redesigning the course to get the fairways away from the middle of the campus before a student gets hit by a loose Destroyer. So Hole 8 will disappear forever this winter. It’s for the best, but I will miss passing it on the way to class and having the chance to practice putts 100 feet from my office.

That day I was waxing nostalgic, and I thought about teaching my son to play right here on campus.

“S” Driver

On a whim, years before, during the dark times in which I’d sort of forgotten about disc golf, I bought two of these orange discs for a dollar apiece in a bin someplace:

(Photo by author.)
You can see this one is worse for wear, including an enormous gouge on the bottom from when I drove it right into a NO PARKING sign on Hole 18. I taught my son to play with this disc, or perhaps its identical twin, which was lost this summer on another course, perhaps forever, as so many discs are in Texas, on a runaway roller into a swamp.

It got me thinking back to when my Dad taught me to play, at Twila Reid Park in southern California. I remember constantly missing the curve around a mandatory light pole. I remember watching my Dad's drives sailing on to forever. And I remember what the chains sounded like when I made my first putt.

I taught my class, and as I walked back to my office past Hole 8, nostalgia hit again. I remembered the big numbers in the center of my Uncle Leo’s Midnite Flyers, but I didn’t remember what my Dad’s Wham-O discs looked like. I texted him at 12:31 CST to see if he could find them in the garage and take a picture for me.

I have never once in my life asked my Dad to go take a picture of something for me in his garage.

Wham-O World Class

31 minutes later my sister in Oregon messaged me this: “I don’t know if mom called you or not but everyone is evacuating there is a fire.”

At the exact moment of my text, my parents had just finishing a panicked stuffing of essentials into their cars and had started a journey that would take them 8 hours to drive 25 miles off the ridge. The Camp Fire had arrived in Magalia, California, “Just North of Paradise!” as the old motto went, and as you’ve probably seen, it was a monster of a fire.

After an hour just to drive out of their neighborhood, they reached a crossroads. To the right was what my Mom described as “a dragon of fire” roaring through the pine trees. They turned left, which saved their lives, but were out of cell contact until that evening, because the fire destroyed cell service as well as everything else. We all waited and waited and waited to hear from them.

My Dad did not get my text to take pictures of his discs until well after the garage and its contents had been obliterated, along with the house and generations of memories inside.

My folks are fine now, physically at least. They have an apartment. My Mom, just today, sent me a picture of the first beautiful, precious thing she’s allowed herself to buy since the fire. 

My son and I were about to drive on Hole 2 at the time she sent its image, so I sent her back a pic of him waving with his yellow Defender. She sent me back a picture of my Dad’s hands as he scrubbed ash off the few scorched ceramics they were able to salvage from the wreckage. I don’t think his back could take a round of golf these days, and their local course, Lava Creek, has “Fire damage. Closed until further notice” as its last UDisc course conditions update. But in that image it looked, while I was standing on a fairway listening to my son hit the chains, like Dad was holding a disc, not what was left of the china cabinet.

They wished Sam luck in the round and told him to beat the socks off of me.

We tied.

Real Talk

Listen to me now.

Someone taught you how to play this fantastic sport. Someone showed you how to splay your fingers on the putter, how to ease off on that natural hyzer, how to get more distance by not trying so hard. Someone out there was with you when you first nailed a putt.

Or, reader, if you don't play disc golf, you have similar memories about something important someone introduced you to along the way.

I am lucky enough that that my someone is still here. If you are also so lucky, give them a call. Let them know what it means to you that they shared this game that is still a part of your life. And let them know the other things, too, the things you don’t usually tell them out loud. The holidays are coming up. It’s a good time for such things.

It’s also a good time for some rounds of disc golf. I’ve got some nieces and nephews to visit and a bag of old discs. It's time to pass down a family tradition.

Disc golf is a game of time.

It’s time to rattle some chains.

* * *

There are lots of ways to help the thousands of newly homeless people from Butte County as Christmas approaches, if you are so inclined. There are the traditional routes like the Red Cross or Salvation Army, a number of GoFundMe pages, and local brewery Sierra Nevada is brewing up a Butte County Resilience IPA and donating 100% of sales.

(The Resilience! Photo by author)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Speaker's Plight: What We Think When You Tell Us Your Event Will Give Us "Exposure"

A real quote from multiple speaker calls in various states.

It seems like conference organizers who are looking for "polite" ways to get free labor are *lifting this* from each other's websites! Usually the quote ends with "...a purpose for which _____ was founded."

You know, maybe they are not stealing this after all. Maybe they all got this in the pdf notes from a presentation at an association meeting they all went to. I wonder if *that speaker* was paid?

Original image borrowed from here.
by Steven S. Vrooman

Let’s say you are a branch of an industry association or a community group. Perhaps you are a charity or an educational institution. Maybe you are a smallish business.

You have an event. You’d like a speaker or a workshop facilitator. Maybe you even need a short course for continuing education or certification credits for your members. 

You have had some trouble getting speakers in the past. Maybe you can get plenty of speakers, but rarely good ones? Maybe you have had success and are reading this blog post out of morbid curiosity. 

All of that sets the stage for what this post is really about:

What Speakers Are Thinking

Let’s do this in translation format. Each numbered bit below is what you are thinking/saying as the meeting or event organizer, and each section within is a window into your speaker pool's minds.

These are not always the things your speakers are thinking when you call them, but I talk to speakers all the time at events. I speak across the country and have interviewed them for my podcast. The complaints below are fairly ubiquitous in the speaking community. The images in this blog post are direct quotes from the kinds of speaker calls we see every day. People telling us our services are not worth what we think they are whilst simultaneously telling us that their event's experience is worth far more than we might think it is -- that is our norm. 

Maybe this will help you empathize with The Speaker's Plight.

1) We have a limited budget/no budget for speakers...

Original image.
So you want me to do this for free. 

I see. 

Why, exactly? 

I understand that your organization is a nonprofit, but, as you can imagine, I am not. You might even be volunteering your time for this organization and not be getting paid yourself. Of course, this is *your* organization and you value its mission and place in the world. I may very well have never heard of you before I got your call/email or found the call on your website, so asking me to immediately share your vision enough to provide free labor is kind of puzzling. 

I understand that money doesn’t grow on trees. 

But I know some things. I've been to conference and trade show floors. 

For example, I know that the logoed pens you are putting in the little plastic swag bags for the members are not the bottom tier of utensils like Bic pens. I know those cost more like 50 cents apiece, plus setup and shipping. 

Those lanyards we are going to get with the charger cable embedded? I know it's a thousand bucks to get 300 of those with your logo. I have three of those hanging on my hook where I keep my conference lanyards. I have never once charged a device with any of them. I also have a few of the badge holders with the cheap elastic cords. 300 of those will run you $800 less. Non-electronic woven lanyards? Sensible, but not extravagant? Those split the price difference. There are choices.

And, of course, the nicer lunch options and all the prizes and gag gifts for the membership. Maybe I even know the facility rental charge at the venue you picked, and I know there were cheaper options. I know, if I could see the state of the carpets at those cheaper facilities…

We are just talking on the phone for the first time, and I don’t know if your organization goes in for all that, but I have never been to a meeting of this kind that doesn’t have at least a little bit of this swag, so this is what I am thinking of while we speak. You are telling me that a custom pen order is more valuable than my work. That may very well be the case for you. 

People love the logoed notepads and fidget spinners but always complain about the speakers. 

Maybe if you weren’t filling your events with speakers who will say yes to free they would be able to budget the time to make something new for you? (Remember, this is what the speaker on the other side of the phone is thinking. You got them excited about an opportunity and now they are disappointed. It happens).

2) Your session is just going to be an hour...

I see. So that offer of $100 which you dropped just before you said that is supposed to make me think I'm getting paid $100 an hour and feel okay about the rate, right?

Well, of course, my hourly rate is, in fact, quite higher than that for consulting, thanks. 
Original image.

And you are not really asking for an hour. We won't talk about driving to Dallas or air travel here. Assuming you are local, there’s the 30 minutes of travel both ways, the hour early arrival for technical setup, not to mention all the time we’ve already spent on the phone, the building of the PowerPoint or the editing of it to fit your time constraints and your custom template and your desired focus and adaptations, the practice time to make sure I hit your time limits correctly, and maybe some additional industry research so that I am not blaring on with generic platitudes of the kind that make audiences say, “I wish we could bring in speakers who understand who we really are.”

But, that one time you had a speaker who obviously just threw up an ancient PowerPoint that hadn't been edited in years, so I guess you expect us all to have that same lack of care for our craft? Specifically, right now, talking to me live, you are suggesting that I have that lack of care?

Plus, since your meeting is on a Tuesday morning and I would speak at 10:30, I am going to have to pay for this one way or another with my full-time job, which I need to keep for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that so many speaking “opportunities” are unpaid.

Aaaannnndddd I know that you’re going to ask me to make a pdf of takeaways for folks *after* we agree on a fee, anyway.

3) It’s a great networking opportunity...

I’m sure all sorts of people in the room might want me to speak at their next event, which would be fine, but what are the chances they will pay any better than this gig? After all, they know I must come cheap if I am speaking here today.

Still, networking is a great opportunity to meet people. 
Original image.

Here's what that looks like at events like yours:

I have four or five conversations immediately after the speech. 

I am thinking, "I wonder which of these people is looking for a speaker for their event?"

They are thinking, "I wonder if he will answer very, very specific questions about my business/organization that normally I'd have to pay a consultant to provide, but which now I can grab for free while I charge my phone using my swag-tastic lanyard."

The really cynical operators know how to dangle the "Can I have your card to give to ____ who is planning our next meeting and might be looking for a speaker?" in order to increase my willingness to undertake further unpaid consulting. 

Sometimes this great networking opportunity stretches for hours, maybe the whole afternoon.

Maybe this all happens over the table you provided me so that I could sell my book. This allows people to pick up my book and look at it while asking for live consulting. When I tell them what they came for, they generally put it down while saying "Thanks!" and walking away.

Some people do buy my book, though!

A good three or four sales at my conference price. That works out to, what, forty bucks? Cool!

At that rate, I almost hit minimum wage this time around. 

The Takeaway Here

I get it. 

There's a lot I don't understand about your organization/business/nonprofit/association. If you are a big deal, I know you have tracks where members submit breakouts because they have to (like professors) or want to (they are professionals who have to attend for continuing education credit/certification so a free conference badge is a real draw). If you are a small deal, you would have a bit more for speakers if event attendance wasn't down, etc. 

And I know your resources are limited. Trust us. We know *exactly* what that feels like.

But here's what we also know: You can make a difference here, conference organizer/education director. You have a budget. It has lines on it. Some of those lines and their sizes you decided upon. Some were decided for you by a predecessor or your supervisor or the board. You can advocate to alter those lines. When they first came out with pop sockets for phones and fidget spinners you might have had to pitch those to get permission to buy some. Maybe a few years ago you had to pitch leadership on the idea of springing for a full color logo instead of just two colors on your conference folders? Maybe everyone hated the food last year and you knew you had to push for a bigger catering budget this time around. 

If you can do those things, you can push to treat the people who are literally center stage at your event a tiny bit better.

I say this because I have worked with some outstanding conference organizers and education directors who were able to have conversations with me about compensation that were respectful, fair and completely human. 

And sometimes, when I felt respected and empathized with their situation, I agreed to speak for free.

Original image.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Get Real, Part 1: A Networking How-to for College Students

Tracy Fossum and I have been friends for a long time. You can see us below back in 5th grade competing on a local cable access game show.

In one of the few examples I have of a Facebook debate turning into something good, I was complaining about the vagueness of a trending (Okay, LinkedIn trending, at least. Is that a thing?)blog post on networking. It promised specifics but didn't give any. After taking me to task as a be-suspendered curmudgeon for sharing something to social media I was only going to complain about, she wrote a few comments on how she saw networking. They were great! I asked her to write it up for me to put on this blog. I got this in my email.

I've asked her to do a Part 2 for recent college graduates, so stay tuned!

by Tracy Fossum

We all know what networking is.

It’s an ill-fitting business suit paired with shoes that have turned your foot into one big blister.  It’s standing by yourself in the middle of a room, nervously stirring your diet tonic (sans vodka or gin) with those ridiculously skinny bar straws.  It’s you surrounded by loud Baby Boomer/Gen X salespeople who have done so much glad-handing that their fingers are swollen. It’s you trying so, so hard to collect business cards, knowing full well that you will never, ever contact any of these people – ever.

It’s you, alone, in the car, head on the steering wheel, choking back tears, wondering how you found yourself in this position, and looking into the black void that feels like your future.


Networking is NOT that.

Networking is you being you and looking for authentic ways to show up in the world to create connections that lead to opportunities.

Let’s agree on the following axioms:

1. You are brilliant.
2. You have at least one thing to offer the world that no one else has.
3. You have at least one connection to one other human being on the planet – no matter how tangential it might be.

While we’re at it, let’s agree on this:

1. People will not pound down your door to bask in your brilliance.
2. People won’t know what you can offer unless you tell them.
3. That one human being you know also knows people.

Hey, we’re on a roll – let’s take this idea for a spin:

***You’re networking (being real) every damn day.  Just up your game. ***

1. Get out of your dorm room and attend an event on campus that interests you: department guest speaker book signing, bonfire, theater production, underwater basket weaving demonstration.  Whatever. If you go to something YOU like, assume other attendees are there because THEY like it too.  You have an instant connection and natural reason to talk to someone at the event and afterwards. (Think casual conversation at the dining hall about what you liked and didn’t like about your shared experience.)

2. Join a club or sport.  I know a girl who is joining the badminton team even though she doesn’t know how to play badminton.  It looks interesting and fun and she wants to get to know different people outside her circle.  It doesn’t have to be varsity football, maybe just IM Ultimate.

3. TALK TO ALUMNI! GO TO ALUMNI EVENTS! I can’t stress this enough.  They’re just like you – just older.  These are the real people in the real world who have spent years in their careers.  They want to help students and recent grads from their alma mater find internships, jobs, connections, etc.  It gives their degree more street cred if they can demonstrate to their peers that their school turns out high-quality graduates.  I know that sounds dumb. But it’s not.  Trust me.  I’ve seen it.  Anyway, our career center is turning away alumni volunteers because not enough students are asking for help.  Don’t be stupid and ignore people who are begging to help you.  Asking for help is being real.   As a corollary, if your school has a robust reunion program and is looking for student/recent grad employees to help, APPLY!  The alumni will see you at your best: helpful, attentive, energetic, fun, and hard-working.  These are the qualities that someone wants from members of their professional team.  And you don’t have to do anything but be the real you.

4. Social media.  I’m sorry, but old people with jobs to offer actually do use LinkedIn.  A lot. You have to be on it -so just get over it.  Use a profile picture that looks at least semi-professional.  No one wants to see you at a kegger.  Even a well-done selfie would do the trick. (But don’t purse your lips or tilt your head like Kim Kardashian.  That’s just lame.) As far as the rest of the profile, I’m assuming you did something to get into college.  Distill those activities into something tangible.  No one will care if you just say you were president of the Drama Club.  Who cares? However, they WILL care if you helped plan an event, ran cabinet meetings, and worked as a liaison between the club and the overarching student body association to secure funds for materials for productions.  See what I mean?  Show that you’re relevant.  You’re still being real because you really do have those skill and talents.

5. More social media.  For God’s sake, if you’re entering the job market, clean up your Facebook page.  People you’re connecting with check you out after they’ve talked to you.  No nekked pictures. No partisan reposts from Russian bots.  Clean up the language. Presenting the best version of you isn’t selling out – it’s growing up, which is something you really, really have to do.

6. More e-advice.  If your email address is, change it right now. Picture that at the top of a resume or giving it out to a potential contact.  Then picture yourself never being taken seriously. Then picture yourself unemployed forever.  There’s nothing wrong with  That’s your real name. Use it.

7. Volunteer and be active in the community.  Your college is located in a town.  Go be a part of it.  There are students at this campus (which is on Second Street) who have never been to the local coffee shop on Third Street.  What a wasted opportunity.  That coffee shop is where EVERYONE in town goes.  Every flier for every activity in town is posted on the walls. Why wouldn’t you go there?  And how hard is it to drink latte and read the Times? If you’re there frequently enough, you’ll get to know the proprietor on a first-name basis.  And remember, she knows EVERYBODY.  Volunteer at a local Habitat for Humanity build site.  Be a mentor.  Do some community theater.  Lead tours at the local Historical Society museum. This is all you showing up in the world.

And it’s all networking.  Better yet, it’s being real.  We’re social animals and when we authentically and meaningfully forge new connections, we feel good.  Also remember that this isn’t a one-sided transaction.  You’re giving as much as you’re getting.  For instance, you might find yourself chatting with someone who has always wanted to talk to your roommate’s dad about his landscaping business.  Hallelujah!  You just networked!

I know that sometimes being the real you is a little scary.  You might not even know quite who the real you is.  It’s OK.  We’re all just sort of flailing around on this planet.  But it’s fun being present in it.  So take a chance, stretch out your hand and I think you’ll find another hand waiting for you…

Photo by:
Tami Enfield, Brand Yourself Consulting

About Tracy Fossum:

Tracy has had a varied career, spanning 20 years and two continents, with a majority of it spent in higher ed fundraising and financial services. She has recently plunged into books, and spends her days nose-deep in texts, helping students find their purpose in life, keeping faculty happy, and listening to alumni reminisce.  When she's not giving unsolicited, brilliant advice, she is being real as a wife, mother, and all-around upstanding citizen in her idyllic Midwestern hometown.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

4 Keys to Facilitating Group Discussion

by Steven S. Vrooman

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,

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,

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),

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,

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!