Facilitation Friday #13: I Need to Do Something

So you’ve decided you need to do something.  You’ve assessed what you’re observing using Roger Schwarz’s five questions offered last week: what’s happening is a problem, it’s your role to intervene, and you have the skills to do so.  Before doing anything though, remember what you’re trying to achieve beyond this moment: build the capacity of individuals and the group.  Doing so requires that your intervention provides leadership, but with restraint.

In deciding to intervene, you have to determine (1) what you want to accomplish,  (2) where/to whom to direct your intervention, and (3) how you will do so.  Let’s consider a common situation: a participant or two who seem to be dominating the conversation.  If you choose them as the object of your intervention, you'll consider the most appropriate ways to reduce their contributions, to silence them a bit.  That’s a difficult choice to navigate without singling those individuals out in a way that could make them uncomfortable or defensive, disrupting the safe climate you've worked with the group to create.

Instead of intervening on their perceived excessive contributions, you could choose instead to focus your interventions on the possible under-participation of the rest of the group.  Now you’re extending an invitation to get more engaged instead of trying to stifle someone’s comments.  Possible dialogue here includes:
  • I’d love to hear from some folks who haven’t spoken much yet today.
  • Let’s get some insights from those of you in the back of the room (select an area where your vocal folks aren’t sitting).
  • Who hasn’t yet commented on this issue and what are you thinking or feeling about the options being discussed?
  • One of the group norms we established was to ensure everyone contributed their thinking.  How do you feel we are doing on that and where might we improve?
  • According to my notes for this conference call  Paul, Amanda, Gareth, and Elaine haven’t weighed in yet on this topic.  What are all of you thinking?
  • Hey, you're letting Tonya and Phillip do all the heavy lifting here.  Let’s get input from some of the rest of you. (Humor can sometimes lessen the potential harshness of naming individuals).
In most of these cases, your invitation to the group doesn't single out individuals since that spotlight is best used sparingly given the discomfort it can sometimes cause.  As the facilitator, you can enhance the power of these questions through your body language and eye contact.  Remember, you are an intervention on the group ... something we will explore in detail in a future post.  Looking directly at the individuals not speaking (without having your visual focus appear like a prison spotlight) delivers your participation invitation more directly.  Moving closer to the part of the room where you’d like some participation helps connect you more to those individuals.

So deciding you need to intervene is one thing; deciding where to direct your intervention is quite another consideration.  By carefully considering the options available to you, your intervention often can be redirected and offered in a less intrusive manner, one that is less challenging to/for some individuals.  Direct comments or questions to the dominating individuals still remain as an option, but even then they can be done in different ways:
  • Paul and Chris: you've been great at sharing your perspectives.  Could I ask you to invite a few others to do the same, people you're most interested in hearing from?
  • Paul, Chris, you both are making some excellent contributions, but I’m wondering if it is having the unintended consequence of reducing other folks to spectators.
  • Paul and Chris: I appreciate that you have so much to contribute today, but I need you to help me make space for others to share their perspectives as well.  Would you mind holding back a bit to see how others engage?
These types of statement are best held in reserve for when all other options have been exhausted.  They are trump cards of sorts.  You can play one in the most respectful manner possible, but it still is going to feel more heavy-handed than the other possibilities.

In Trevor Bentley’s excellent primer, Facilitation, he offers an Intervention Spectrum, detailing a continuum of gentle to forceful interventions with three categories of options in between.

Supportive: doing nothing, silence, support, questions to clarify
Persuasive: questions to change, questions to move, suggesting choices, suggesting paths, sharing ideas, suggesting actions
Directive: guidance, choosing for the group, directing

All of these options can work, but if we want to build individual and group capacity we should first consider interventions that are supportive before choosing ones that are persuasive, trying persuasive approaches before choosing ones that are directive.  The subtlety of shifting from asking a question to suggesting a path changes how the range of options available to those you're facilitating.  Questions invite a range of possible answers.  Suggesting paths invites agreement or disagreement with what you've proposed. The more forceful the intervention selected, the more control you exert over the group instead of engaging with or facilitating the group’s control over itself.  Just as the parent can always say “because I said so” to a child, cracking the control whip as the facilitator should be used sparingly because of the shift in power dynamics and relationships it will cause.

And remember, sometimes the best option (and one that is always available to you) is simply stating your observation non-judgmentally to the group: "I'm noticing only a few individuals participating in the conversations."  If you can hold the silence long enough, some group member (s) will explain why this is occurring.

I'd love to have you join me for a full-day facilitation skills workshop the American Society of Association Executives is offering on August 21 in Washington, DC.  Learn more and register here. And do contact me if you might like me to do a half-day or full-day program specifically for you and your staff or volunteer colleagues. My best availability is in August and October-December.

To find earlier posts in these 2012 series, search for the label: facilitationfriday.

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