January 3, 2018

Facilitation, Fascism, and the Avoidance of Actual and Metaphorical Fatalities

Many years ago, before I had much experience with facilitation, I remember reading an article on effective facilitation techniques.  I have forgotten the whole thing except for the guidance on how to handle "difficult participants" who take up too much airspace or who won't let go of some point they want to make.  

There was some guidance in the article on paraphrasing the point being made and then something about creating a "parking lot" list for topics that should be discussed after the meeting.  But if that didn't work, the advice was to go over and stand next to the difficult participant and make eye contact as if to say, "You're off topic and ruining the vibe.  Knock it off." By the way, even though I read this article a couple decades ago, a quick search reveals quite similar advice being recommended by FacilitatorU.com.

Articles on facilitation are a bit like the instructions the flight attendants provide before you takeoff.  They don't have much to say about smooth flights...they don't suggest stuff to read or how you might want to look out the window at key points during the flight or the best in-flight entertainment to chose.  The instructions primarily center on what to do when things go south... "in the event of a water landing"...an oxymoron if there ever was one given how different water and land are...and how to deplane using slides, which sounds like it might be fun, but smart money says will be anything but.

I was reading that article, not because I was worried about conversations that might go well.  I was worried about how to handle conversations that get mired or spin out of orbit.  And to my rookie eyes, that looked right:  if there is a disturbance, a couple nudges and then use the bully pulpit to squash it.

Now with years of facilitation experience, I know that article was actually advocating a kind of fascism. The facilitator decides for the group or through some a priori agreement with the leader or perhaps even the group itself that people behaving in a certain way and/or certain topics are a disturbance to the main agenda and moves to reinstate order. 

When you sign up to be the facilitator of an event, here is a key question to ask the leader:  what do you want facilitated?  Am I facilitating the accomplishment of the agenda or am I facilitating the interaction of the perspectives and polarities of the group to ensure the best decisions are reached in the short-term and ensure the health of the group and the participants in it for the long-term?  

 When you sign up to be the facilitator of an event, here is a key question to ask the leader:  what do you want facilitated?  

Said another way, are you signing up to be the leader's police force, ensuring the agenda is adhered to almost no matter what is encountered along the way?  Or are you signing up to help the group and all the sides and perspectives interact with each other, which hopefully won't, but might include scuppering the preset agenda in the service of emerging wisdom and group health?

Before I go on, it sounds like I might be advocating that one is better than another.  I am not.  Both have their place, but it is important that you and the participants are clear about your role.

Also, in the event it sounds as if I might be disparaging the police, I again assure you I am not.  The police in society play a critical and difficult role doing what we ask them to do:  enforce the rules we have created.

Let's focus on that briefly.  When our societal rules are being violated and a real police officer stops you,  she doesn't say, "Do you think this law is serving society as a whole?"   Do you think it might discriminate?" "Do you think it would be better for everyone if there were a different set of laws we lived by?"  They don't discuss and debate societal decisions, they enforce rules.

Enforcing laws is a big part of what we ask our police to do and often what we want our facilitators to do.  We want them to facilitate the accomplishment of the agenda.  The topic on the agenda is important.  We don't have much time for debate other than the merits of the choices.  We believe we simply can't afford to deviate, even if there are consequences.

On the other hand, someone hired to facilitate an interaction of divergent views, would be aware of the ground rules and the agenda, but helping the polarities engage would be a high priority.  A facilitator like this would encourage debate, not try to squash it...encourage dissent, not for the sake of dissent, but so that a decision that best balanced the needs of all the stakeholders could be made in the short term and so that the group stayed healthy and engaged for work and decisions down the road.

A meta-orientation for this kind of facilitation is to never assume you know what decision/outcome is best. This kind of facilitation trusts that lasting benefits emerge for individuals and the whole when all the sides are respected and allowed to interact.   A facilitator like this knows that there is potentially important wisdom in a disturbance, in a point that won't go away, in "difficult participants." 

Consider the decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger in freezing temperatures in January 1986.  Armed with data that described the possibility of a catastrophic failure due to the O-rings on the booster rockets hardening at low temperatures, the engineers from NASA's contractor, Morton Thiokol, argued vociferously for hours to delay the launch.  NASA leadership responded with, "I am appalled by your recommendation" and "My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch — next April?"  The relentless pressure from NASA caused Thiokol leadership to "put their management (read as: future revenue) hats on," to overrule their own engineers, and to give NASA to green light to launch. 

 A facilitator like this knows that there is potentially important wisdom in a disturbance, in a point that won't go away, in "difficult participants." 

I am guessing the Thiokol engineers were regarded as "difficult participants" by both Thiokol management and NASA leadership. No one stood with them.  No one encouraged them to stick with their counter-to-the-primary-agenda views. Their warnings were a disturbance to the agenda, they were silenced, lives were lost, and it was twenty-two years before a civilian was sent into space.  

I am not saying facilitation would have saved those astronauts and that mission. But I have seen time and time again that encouragement and support for the minority position in a group discussion has a profound effect on the decisions made and on the group itself. (Another post of mine, Women in Leadership:  Not Just Long Overdue, but in the Nick of Time discusses how female leaders are better at creating open environments and engaging disparate views and how important that will be in a world increasing in speed and complexity.)

Even that language..."difficult participant"...should be closely examined. Difficult to whom or to what?   Difficult because it is different from the dominant position of the group/agenda or difficult because it is a good point that we do not know how to deal with and would rather not think about?

Fortunately for all, most group facilitations do not involve life and death decisions.  But make no mistake, consequences derive from how alternative views are handled.  If your views are disrespected or disregarded, what do you think happens to your level of engagement and effort coming out of that meeting?  When you see problems on the horizon next time, are you likely to bring them up?  People rarely die, but energy, spirit, and engagement are routinely killed by unconscious and ineffective facilitation.

 People rarely die, but energy, spirit, and engagement are routinely killed by unconscious and ineffective facilitation.

If you are there to ensure the successful accomplishment of the agenda, there is nothing wrong with that.  However, you are the prototypical wolf in sheep's clothing and it is just best to be clear about it with the entire group.  Get the leader to say:   "We know we are stepping on toes.  We know we are ignoring dissenting views.  We know we might be flying blind.  We know we need to dedicate time in the near future to discussing how to avoid having to force things through like this next time.   We are committed to fixing this."  There are no guarantees, but this could help. 

If you are being asked to actually facilitate the interactions of the polarities, then the most important thing you can do is to be the one person in the room who can stand in the middle of the tension and believe in the wisdom of what is trying to emerge.  From there, go way beyond merely recording alternative viewpoints. Actually help those holding the minority position to come out even stronger.  

I can say unequivocally that this will help on multiple, seen and unseen, levels.

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