Thursday, July 24, 2014

7 Simple Upgrades to Improve Conference R.O.I.


You know the old adage, "don't let perfect be the enemy of good."

It's tempting to hold off on making improvements until you've got just the right enhancements ready to really rock the return on investment (ROI) a participant gets from attending your workshop or conference.

But while you toil away to build the perfect, your participants often find an immediate good and register for another event.

Don't let that happen.  Here are seven simple upgrades you can make to improve your conference ROI right now.

1. Connect people at hosted tables.
Meals are often one of the more intimidating moments for a conference-goer who may not know any (or many) participants. Help them get connected by offering individuals the chance to sit at a hosted table. Who serves as hosts? Thought leaders in your profession, people speaking at your event, and board members or other prominent volunteer leaders—all are natural candidates.  Make sure to seat people at 60" rounds to facilitate conversation among everyone at the table and do prepare your hosts to help people introduce themselves and get comfortable.  If you're worried about not having enough hosts, make the seating opportunity available to a more limited audience who would really value it; i.e., first-time attendees.

2. Use lightning rounds or "sneak peaks" to preview content.
Having too many good sessions to choose from is a great problem for a participant to have, but it is still a problem.  A possible solution?  Offer a lightning round of sneak peaks in which speakers summarize their session content in two or three slides and just a few minutes.  Think of this as a turbo-charged Ignite or Pecha Kucha round with the emphasis on previewing concurrent sessions that will occur in your conference.  Schedule these presentations during coffee or breakfast and people will start their day with a smorgasboard of key takeaways and a better sense of which sessions they want to explore in greater depth. Bonus: capture these speed talks on video for easy dissemination and post-conference marketing (look at what you missed). Double-bonus: if required during the program submission process, these lightning round slides actually could be used to help with selection.

3. Let people opt-in for more challenging learning formats or experiences.
Conference designers often lament that they have great ideas they want to try, but that their entire conference community would never go for them.  So don't focus on the masses.  Make whatever innovative learning format or experience you want to try an option that is limited to an "exclusive" number of attendees.  Instead of trying to win over the unwilling, you now have a great pilot group of the self-selected.  What you learn from this smaller group no doubt can help you decide if (and how) to implement your innovation to a larger audience in the next iteration.

4. Follow general sessions with discussion and application.
You've brought in a big name keynoter who wows the audience with her compelling content and interesting suggestions for their work.  But are you converting all that positive energy into practical implementation?  Most conferences don't.  Schedule a round of facilitated discussions for relevant audience segments immediately following the session (or do so at tables if a meal occurs next) so that participants can connect with like-minded peers and explore the "so what, now what" aspects of applying the general session content. Since not everyone may be interested in following up on the general session, be sure to make other learning opportunities available.

5. Enable on-site volunteering.
We've known for some time that micro-volunteering is increasingly compelling to potential volunteers, but far too few conferences enable that commitment in real-time and on-site. By offering an expansive menu of simple tasks you make it easy for newcomers (or the less involved) to increase their connection to your community while making a meaningful and very manageable contribution. 

6. Offer an Idea Fair and incent participation.
All attendees hope to get a few new ideas to use in their work, so make it easy for them to do so.  How? Offer a nominal incentive (reg discount, entry into a drawing for free reg, etc.) for attendees to contribute one simple idea in the style of a science fair poster session. Provide a Google Docs template for them to complete and have them tag their idea from a limited number of categories you provide before uploading the file to a Dropbox folder. Print all of them out and have volunteers (see #5) hang ideas similarly tagged in a prominent space that will have regular foot traffic (exhibit hall, pre-function area outside general session rooms, et al).  Now you have an on-site idea gallery, but you also have the electronic versions of all these ideas for your future publication and dissemination. Go one step further and let a panel of volunteer judges create awards that are attached to the winning ideas.

7. Showcase attendee talents.
Few moments are as memorable as when you learn that the brilliant professional you admire is also an accomplished musician, artist, poet, singer, etc.  So many individuals in your conference community likely possess unknown talents. Make it possible for them to share them.  An attendee talent show is the obvious idea, but many more opportunities exist: let individuals "guest DJ" with their favorite playlists before general sessions or meals begin, have members serve as entertainment at meal functions or awards programs, and let members be busker entertainment in the hallways between sessions or at the registration area as people arrive.


What is another easy-to-implement conference upgrade you have found successful?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What do you think?


Four seemingly innocent words that so often unleash such mayhem when expressed: what do you think?


I witnessed this phenomenon in a retreat I recently facilitated. A staff member, eager to get feedback from board members, posed that simple question: "What do you think?"

We've probably all learned the shortcomings of close-ended questions, but I'm not sure as much attention is paid to the possible pitfalls of open-ended questions.

Asking, "what did you think?" is an invitation for completely unfiltered, unstructured, and unfocused input or feedback.  Anything goes ... and just about anything is what you'll get.

If that's what you seek, more power to you.  But if you have a decision to make, you probably need more specific reactions, ones this open-ended invite may not elicit.

In my retreat example, responses ranged from tactical criticism to strategic input, from commenting on one specific element of the proposal to questioning the project's overall intent.

After letting participants offer their wide-ranging thoughts for a few minutes, I gently asked the staff member posing the question: what direction do you need from the board in order to make a decision?

Some basic criteria were put forth, and board members tailored their subsequent input accordingly.  In a relatively short time the staff member had what she needed and we moved on to the next agenda item.

As human beings, we aren't always helpful with a carte blanche invitation to share our thoughts. Fortunately, some simple adjustments in the way we have discussions can more quickly gather the input we need and make the decisions more effectively.
  1. Many organizations find Edward deBono's Six Thinking hats to be a useful and easy-to-implement framework to help a group focus their deliberations on a specific idea or question and get maximum input in minimum time. This is called thinking in parallel.  Some do a compressed version of deBono's six-stage process that is called PNI, asking what's positive, what's negative, and what's interesting for the item under consideration.
  2. Determining decision-making rules or criteria in advance of recurring types of decisions provides continuity in process and can help minimize potential political or personality battles that might erupt around one specific decision and its potential consequences. An example would be a board or management team that determine specific thresholds or results that automatically move an idea into a pilot stage or cause an existing program to be evaluated for whether or not it should continue. Decision-making can be enhanced by simple if-then statements or by established criteria which all participants use to rank or evaluate options
  3. When asking for ideas or input, frame your question more narrowly to help respondents focus their responses to what you need.  Doing so means you first have to ask yourself: what feedback or input would I find most helpful?  Once you have clarity you can invite others to share accordingly. Edgar Schein's book, Helping, is a wonderful resource for this area.
  4. Narrowing the input sought is a common approach innovators use, as constraints are known to help inspire fresh thinking and new solutions. Rather than opening up a general call for ideas, they invite ideas that meet a limited number of specific criteria already identified as critical to the innovation envisioned.
  5. You can also use a limited number of criteria as a constraint to help quickly reduce the number of ideas or options that are then discussed in greater detail.  Think of a hiring process in which only candidates who have a college degree and a minimum of three year's relevant experience move on to the next round of review.
  6. Create evaluating forms for workshops or programs that gather the input you need to inform the subsequent decisions you will make. Evaluation forms often are too generic because the future use of the feedback they solicit has not been fully considered.
  7. Distinguish between making an adequate decision versus an optimal decision. Sometimes the
    input we need is to determine if something is "good enough" to be shared or released, but all of the deliberation is about making the product perfect … even though that is not the goal.
  8. Finally, don't forget to be inclusive in how you invite the input you seek. Asking for verbal feedback on-demand biases extroverted feedback and may minimize the amount of ideas you gather from more introverted individuals. Giving time to consider the question and allowing people to share input in written form as well as verbal are simple adjustments you can make to honor their participation.
Asking for feedback or input is helpful, but what you receive in return won't be of much help if you don't tailor your request or frame the discussion more thoughtfully.

So, what do you think?

P.S.  If you're looking for a guide to evidence-based decision making for associations, this PDF resource from Mariner Management & marketing and Spark Consulting is a good read.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

You Have to Invest to Get a Return



We don't have enough time.
I don't think we have the resources.

These are the increasingly common cries I hear from individuals and groups make about changes they want to make in their organization's culture or on a specific project, or when talking about new initiatives to explore.

And my increasingly frequent response (after offering some empathy for their plight) is one simple question: Do you envision that changing anytime soon? The answer is generally no.

So people have great aspirations.  But since they don't have the resources to do everything they envision, they opt to do nothing, leaving them feeling frustrated.

I get it. I really do.
I often feel the same way.

But here's the simple truth: we have to make in investment if we hope to get any sort of return. 
Doing nothing yields nothing.

Financial planners have long advocated the power of dollar-cost averaging: making consistent purchases of stock or bonds regardless of marketing conditions.  Over time, the average of those routine incremental investments often produce healthy returns.

But we want to time the market, buying low and selling high, both in financial terms and in change management.

It rarely works.

So here are two powerful change management investment questions we all need to ask routinely:
  1. What is the most significant step forward we can make right now with the limited resources we have available? 
  2. What are micro shifts in behavior, culture, process, etc. we can make right now that slowly will start to contribute to a different workplace and different ways of doing things?
You have to get in action if you want a piece of the action.
Start doing something, anything.
Start doing it right now.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

When the Charge No Longer Holds


My laptop battery drains much more quickly than it once did.  And while I haven't actually timed it, I think it also takes significantly longer to recharge to 100%.  At some point, I fully expect it to give out and need replacement.

As human beings, we're not that unlike a laptop battery: over time our inspirations or aspirations may lose their power to get us charged and we may tire and perspire more quickly as we do our work.

The brilliant designer Stefan Sagmeister gave a popular TED Talk in 2009 on the power of time off. Every seven years he closes his design studio for one entire year.  It's a deep dive in both personal and professional renewal, one he sees as essential to remaining a leader in creative work.  For the past decade I've thought of giving myself a year off Sagmeister-style, but it never seemed to be the right year.

This year, despite doing programs and keynotes that have garnered some of the best reviews in my 20+ years of speaking and facilitating, I know my battery is about to give out. Work that once energized me is now draining. It takes significantly longer between engagements to recharge the presence, empathy, authenticity, creativity, patience, and curiosity that I believe has been at the core of my effectiveness.

Bottom line?  I'm tired.  Emotionally, physically, and perhaps more importantly, intellectually.

So for my birthday this year, I'm giving myself a special gift: a permanent sabbatical.

Permanent sabbatical?  Is this new age code for retired? Well, sort of.

Do we ever get to retire completely nowadays? I don't think so. The Rolling Stones keep touring, and don't get me started on how many times Cher has bid farewell.

What I am retiring from is the active pursuit of any new work.  While I have grown increasingly selective the past few years about taking on new work (in 2014 I have said yes 19 times and no 13), my default position is still "take on new engagements."

For 2015 and beyond, my default setting is now no.
And most emphatically no to any strategic planning processes.  

What I am wholeheartedly saying yes to and what I now see as my full-time "work" moving forward is reading, writing, exploring, tinkering, conversing, thinking, creating, and sharing. In other words, a permanent sabbatical.

I have a handful of questions I've wanted to sit with more deeply for some time.  Along with turning 600+ blog posts into some meaningful electronic publications suitable for sharing, exploring these questions will now be my work:
  • Saying yes less is the only sustainable choice for both individuals and organizations, but seems incredibly difficult for either to do so. What would change that?
  • Is it possible to have (and what might become possible if we had) rising tide leadership that engages individual talents for a greater good while sufficiently engaging their potential self-interest and competitive drive?
  • What are the fundamental tools and techniques that will help anyone present better and move from delivering content to facilitating connection and conversations?
  • Why do so many boards seem to be so ineffective despite all the training, resources, and support so readily available?
  • Fundraisers and philanthropists have been talking about the huge transfer of wealth beginning to occur as Baby Boomers retire, but what about the transfer of expertise, wisdom, and insight? Few seem to be talking about the need to ensure it happens.
  • Honesty in individual and team relationships is too often still seen as risky. But the real risk is when we make decisions based on incomplete information because people fear speaking their truth.  How do we create more open and honest relationships and organizational cultures where transparency and ongoing feedback are seen as normal and are welcomed wholeheartedly?
  • How is it that speaker programs still lack the diversity that is increasingly omnipresent in the world around us? Can I do anything to help accelerate the long overdue change in this area?
No doubt my time spent sitting with these questions will produce content I want to share: definitely in writing, possibly in speaking. So I probably will do so at some point in some way. But hey, I'm permanently on sabbatical so I make no guarantees.

I do envision holding a few public "train the trainer" programs like my Oct. 22 Art of Facilitation event in which I help others take content I have honed over the years and put it into play in their own organizations. Just because I won't be using it doesn't mean it shouldn't be put to great use.

Finally, I'm happy to say yes to a very limited number of opportunities for which my intellectual battery currently remains fully charged. Learn about those here.

So, I'm retiring. Sort of.
But permanently on sabbatical? Most definitely.



Friday, June 20, 2014

The One Skill Everyone Needs


At its most basic, facilitation makes it easier to get things done.

Effective use of facilitation skills helps build better relationships and discussions which then yield better decisions, greater commitment, and hopefully, improved results.

But we still think of facilitation as a specialist role, usually an individual brought in from the outside to help a group.  And that makes sense for specific types of discussions or sessions where a true neutral third-party as a facilitator will be a catalyst for better outcomes.

But when that person leaves, the need to help gets things done remains yet the facilitation skills needed to do so do not.

That's a problem I've seen repeatedly in my more than 20 years of being that third-party facilitator.  So for many years, I've presented in-depth facilitation skills training programs to help more insiders gain the competence and confidence to do on a daily basis what outsider facilitators come in and do on an episodic schedule.  Looking back, I'm thrilled that these programs have helped thousands of individuals adopt the values, skills, and beliefs of facilitation and become more capable at individually putting them in play in their own work and organizations.

But given the VUCA environment (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) most of us find ourselves nowadays, the need to exponentially increase the number of people adept at facilitation is very high.

I want to help.

So during International Facilitation Week, October 20-26, 2014, I am going to do something people have asked me to do for years: conduct a facilitation skills Train-the-Trainer program.  The goal?  To provide individuals all of the content outlines, facilitation tips, slides, handouts, and other support material they need (along with the knowledge on how to use them) that they can then use to teach their colleagues (staff, volunteers, members) to be facilitators.

If you believe that your organization has unrealized potential to have better discussions and make better decisions, I believe this program will provide you the tools and support necessary to help make that happen.

This inaugural effort will be held from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. in Washington DC on October 22, 2014, and attendance is limited to 25 individuals in order to ensure everyone gets personal attention for their specific needs.  If interest is strong it is possible I will do similar programs at other locations in 2015, but that's not guaranteed.

If you think you'd like to attend, please complete this simple form to request an invitation.  Invitations will be sent to all who do so on August 1 and you will have two weeks to register before I publicly share the registration link with all others.

I've tried to price the program to reflect the value I believe the materials and training offer, as well as keep it reasonable enough to allow smaller organizations to access its benefits.  If you'd like to attend, but can't quite make the full registration fee, talk to me and I will see what we can do.

As I've said before, anyone can ... and everyone should ... engage in facilitative contributions in both their personal and professional lives.  I am excited to have this opportunity to hopefully make that possible for thousands of more people beginning this fall.  I hope you'll join me.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Clock Doesn't Tell the Whole Story

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“Everyone is given the same 24 hours in a day.”

Well, of course, right? How can you argue with such a simple “truth”?

You can’t at face value, but the meaning behind the statement merits further examination.

Think about how this statement is most commonly used.  I most frequently hear it when people are trying to prod others into being more productive with their day. 
It’s often paired with the example of how some uber-entrepreneur invents some world-changing smartphone app before most of us have finished our morning coffee.
“Look at Erin.  She gets more done in a few hours than most of us accomplish in a full day.”
Be. Like. Erin.

The underlying message is we’re not worthy because we don’t make as much of a difference with our 24 hours as others do with theirs … and remember, we all have the same 24 hours in a day.

Except that we don’t.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.

I am self-employed. I am single. I don’t have kids. I don’t have pets.

These four facts are the basis of a 24-hour day that undoubtedly is very, very different than others.  For the most part, I have almost complete control over my day unless I am speaking or facilitating for an organization or participating in the occasional conference call to plan upcoming client work. In general …

I get up when I want.
I work when I want.
I don’t have to go to meetings.
No one checks when I punch in or out.
I have no family demands on my off-work time.

This is the epitome of privilege.  This is what genuine freedom of choice looks like, and it is a freedom that people possess in widely varying degrees.

We may each start with the same 24 hours in a day, but what is important to acknowledge, understand, and appreciate is how many of those hours are genuinely available for our discretionary use.  And that’s where the clock starts to tell time differently.   

When I was an association executive I found it very helpful to ask my board chair to tell me about his/her typical day.  You can learn a lot about others by getting a sense of how their 24 hours often unfolds and what choices are available to them about how they spend their time.  I’ve since turned that simple conversation into the exercise “A Day in My Life” that I often use as a part of leadership conferences or organizational retreats that I facilitate.

The bottom line is this: we don’t all have 24 hours a day available to us for our use.  In fact many people have very few discretionary hours at their disposal in any given day.

If we want to build more effective teams, if we want to strengthen interpersonal relationships, understanding a day in the life of others is a very good place to begin.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Facilitation Friday #45: Help Participants Become Power Prospectors


If there's "gold in them there hills," there's wisdom, ideas, and insights in a conference community. The challenge is helping participants more quickly connect with others who have the gold they seek.  To do so, I've been experimenting with helping participants become Power Prospectors in a session.

Imagine a room filled with participants (this exercise scales to any size) seated at rounds.  It would not be unusual for individuals at the same table to introduce themselves informally and begin some networking.  As the presenter or facilitator you might even start your program with a more structured activity to help them better connect with others at their table.  That's great except people are only learning about 6-8 others as possible resources.  Power Prospecting doubles, triples, or even
quadruples that number in a relatively short period of time.  Plus it so in a way that energizes the community while honoring the preferences of both introverted and extroverted learners.

The premise of Power Prospecting is simple: instead of individuals only looking to get their learning needs met, turn them into prospectors seeking individuals who have knowledge that matches the needs of anyone in the small group at their table.  The odds of finding someone who has the ideas or insights I seek is exponentially increased if I now have 6-8 other individuals also searching on my behalf.  Plus the mixing and mingling that occurs serves as a very low risk icebreaker of sorts that gets people rapidly up and talking to a large number of people on their own terms.

Here are some additional tips to consider if you envision yourself experimenting with the Power Prospecting approach:
  • I have used it at various times during a program, but it is a natural opening exercise.
  • It becomes a great mid-point or closing exercise for distilling the learning if you tweak the basic premise: instead of people at their tables sharing a learning need, they share a takeaway from the program so far.  The mixing and mingling then focuses on individuals giving away the takeaways, prospecting for individuals who would most value the insights they can share from their table.
  • Tables aren't required for the exercise though they make it easier.  If people are seated theatre-style simply have them form small groups with 5-6 other individuals near them.
  • Time permitting, you might add one additional step after people return from mixing and mingling and sharing at their tables. It's possible some individuals still will not have the names of a contact person who can meet their need, so let them stand, state their need, and anyone who can help them out then raises their hand or stands.
Letting people network as they see fit is nice, but insufficient in our time-starved, info-overloaded world.  Savvy conference designers and workshop presenters see themselves as catalysts for helping individuals find the knowledge they need as quickly as possible: that's the value-add that will soon become the baseline expectation. Power Prospecting is just one approach I have found valuable.

What other ways do you use (or have you seen effectively used) to help people connect with individuals having the answers or insights they seek?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Facilitation Friday #44: Try Ambassadors Instead of Reporters

You divided into small groups and had a great conversation. Energy in the room was high and everyone was engaged.

Get ready for all the passion and enthusiasm to get sucked out of the room as the reporting out begins.  One by one, report by report, attention and interest will diminish.

It doesn't have to be this way, and it shouldn't be this way if you simply tweak the traditional small group reporting process.  Here are a few variations you can try:
  • Create a shared document in Google or another collaborative platform and have each group contribute its report in real time to this shared file. Designate a period of time for people to review the combined output with others in their small group.
  • Utilize a Gallery Wall. Have each group capture key output in large print on flipchart paper.  Post these sheets around the room and invite individuals to browse the output for a set period of time. Close with facilitated large group discussion. Use a smartphone or tablet to capture images of the flipchart and make available to all the participants.  If you don't want to do a wall, you can have people note reports on tabloid sheets at their table and then do a read, pass, repeat. Sheets still could be photographed and/or posted.
  • Invite only a representative number of small groups to initially report a key takeaway or two. Then open the floor for any remaining groups to share any new information they feel would enhance the overall learning. By limiting the initial # of reports to a few groups and only on or two takeaways, you more likely maintain individuals' attention.
An approach I've created that seems to work very well utilizes ambassadors instead of reporters. Ambassadors carry forward the spirit and key insights of their group conversation into another brief conversation with a different group. Instead of standing and reporting out to a number of small groups as traditionally is done, ambassadors rotate to a new group and join them at their table. This creates a dialogue between the ambassador and his/her new table, as well as maintains the intimacy of a small group conversation.

When using this technique be sure to stress that ambassadors are to be full participants in the conversation of their initial small group so that they aren't reduced to mere notetakers. In addition, I find it helpful to remind ambassadors that when they carry their home table's thinking to a new small group, they should allow time for the group to react to what they share so that it is a two-way exchange.

People participating in this weaving report feeling much more engaged in the ambassador's visit than they do with the normally process of a reporter for each group verbalizing takeaways. They like the intimacy of the ambassador's sharing, as well as the chance to react and offer their own thinking.

In testing this ambassador format, I find people remain enthusiastic for two rotations of ambassadors visiting.  After that they seem to lose interest as the format (and sometimes the information subsequent ambassadors share) becomes repetitive.

The primary shortcoming of the ambassador approach is that not all of the groups' thinking is being made available to every participant.  If this is a concern (and it won't always be), you can combine the ambassador conversation weaving with one of the earlier reporting variations I mention.

Or try this additional variation: I sometimes have ever person in every group be prepared to serve as ambassadors and then form "mixed table groups" consisting of one person from each of several different tables.  This feels a bit like traditional reporting, but because it occurs in small group format, the physical intimacy seems to keep people fairly engaged. As an option, you can then have the initial groups reform after the mixed groups and invite each person to quickly share one idea or insight they picked up from their mixed group.

What other ways have you tried (or experienced) to better facilitate sharing from small group conversations.

Monday, February 24, 2014

10 Favorite Facilitation Quotes


"A facilitative leader brings discipline into maintaining and deepening their capacity—whatever that may be —to be engaged. Engagement is easy when there are no distractions, nothing else demanding your attention, and none of the internal anchors prevent us from committing. Of course, it is precisely in those moments of distraction and difficulty that the discipline is required."
The Nine Disciplines of a Facilitator by Jon C. Jenkins and Maureen R. Jenkins.

"The main aim of the facilitative leader is to leverage the resources of group members."
Facilitating to Lead! by Ingrid Bens

"The facilitator's job is to support everyone to do their best thinking. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding, and cultivates shared responsibility."
Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, et al

"When people who attend experience that their presence is truly wanted and valuable, and that their unique gifts is necessary for the best outcome of the gathering, the possibility for authentic engagement, leading to success, is greatly enhanced."

The Art of Convening, by Craig and Patricia Neal with Cynthia Wold

"But the essence of Humble Inquiry goes beyond just overt questioning. The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity. It implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and, thereby, arouses positive helping behavior in the other person."
Humble Inquiry by Edgar H. Schein

"Perhaps one of the most difficult things for a facilitator to do is to allow someone to struggle. To rescue people from the struggle immediately shuts off an opportunity for them to learn and grow. Supporting and encouraging them through the struggle is much more rewarding for everyone involved."
Facilitation by Trevor Bentley

"The more present we are as individuals and as organizations, the more choices we create. As awareness increases, we can engage with more possibilities. We are no longer held prisoner by habits, unexamined thoughts, or information we refuse to look at."
—a simpler way by Margaret Wheatley & Myron Kellner-Rogers 

"It is a misuse of our power to take responsibility for solving problems that belong to others."
Stewardship by Peter Block 

"Any thoughts about the future that do not strengthen our capacity to be in service to the group are harmful. When we get ahead of ourselves, predicting what might occur, we take ourselves out of the present—the only place where we can have a positive influence."
Standing in the Fire by Larry Dressler 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Facilitation Friday #43: But We're Unique

Image Credit: Flickr User Kate Ter Haar • Creative Commons License
It may be in a workshop. Perhaps a town hall or house of delegates meeting. Sometimes it's a one-on-one discussion. 

But at some point every person who facilitates encounters this participant response:

But you don't understand.
We're different. 
We're unique. 
That won't work here.

Sigh. That's the internal facilitator response to something we've heard so many times before.  While this may be a natural human reaction, expressing impatience or exasperation with this participant comment isn't helpful, yet it too often occurs.

So let's dig a little deeper into the minds of the frustrated facilitators. They could be thinking any or all of the following:
  • You're not nearly as unique as you think you are.
  • Everyone thinks they are different, but you can still use this information if you adapt it a bit.
  • You may be unique, but that doesn't mean we are going to make an exception to the policy we are introducing.
  • "We're unique" is just a defensive response people use when they don't want to try something new or work at learning from an example that isn't 100% like them.
None of those will help advance the exchange … even if all of them might be true.  Remember the root definition of facilitation: actions that make it easier.  What are we trying to make easier?  For participants to thoughtfully entertain something that right now they are rejecting.

Only one response makes it easier to advance a discussion when a participant cries, "You don't understand.  We're different."  Accepting it as true and engaging in open-minded inquiry to learn more.
  • "You say your chapter is different and that what's being proposed won't work for you. I'd love to learn more about the differences you see here that are obstacles to implementation."
  • "You know, everyone and every situation is unique.  Tell me more about what makes that true for you."
  • "What do we most need to understand about you or your situation?"
In other words, we need to dig deeper and listen without judgment.  Doing anything else, particularly dismissing the proclaimed uniqueness, invites nothing but defensiveness.

Remember the ladder of inference:  "We're different and that won't work for us" is an inference, a judgment, based on a system of beliefs and possibly some tangible reasons. The facilitative response invites participants to step down to the base of the ladder and to share their observations, what they see as the differences that matter so much.

In doing so, we help surface the information that can help us determine (1) if the uniqueness of the individual and/or his organization really is relevant to what's being discussed, and (2) how we (or others in the conversation) might help them "try on" the proposed new thinking  to see where it might be a good fit with their environment.
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Facilitation Friday is a weekly series exploring the work of effective facilitation. Your comments about this post are encouraged, as well as requests for future post's topics.  To find previous posts in this series, simply search for the label: facilitationfriday.  

If you'd like a custom facilitation skills workshop (90-minute, half-day, whole day) for your organization, please complete this form.