Facilitation Friday #20: Taking Care of the Conversation


Let’s talk about mowing.  Stick with me for a second as I tell a story I believe has direct implications for effective facilitation.

I live in Cottage Home, a historic district at the edge of downtown Indianapolis.  The neighborhood is diverse, eclectic, and filled with caring, ommunity-minded individuals.

When you enter our neighborhood you are greeted by welcome doorways handpainted by one of the many artists living in Cottage Home and a well-maintained bed of bright flowers and plants.

But before you reach that welcoming entry, you walk along several city/state-maintained sidewalks and streetscapes.  The picture above illustrates the dramatic contrast between what government employees consider appropriate maintenance and how we as residents take care of our public spaces.

They don’t live here; we do.  They see it simply as sidewalks and an interstate underpass.  We see it as the gateway to our community. And as a result, we care differently.

When we facilitate the work of others, we temporarily move into their neighborhood and try to help them maintain and improve it.  We are visitors in spaces where they reside. We rent the responsibility; they own it.  This is particularly true for consultants or external facilitators, but also for someone inside an organization who might be facilitating meetings with co-workers and other colleagues.

When it’s your neighborhood, your job, your department, your organization, your emotional and intellectual attachment is different than when it is not.  An issue that might seem trivial or unimportant to a facilitator may feel much more critical to those who live with it everyday.    We can still question the need to discuss it, but we need to do so without suggesting we know better or best: "I’m wondering if this is something that requires our attention right now?"  Because we are not members of the community or organization we are facilitating, we can ask questions that might be difficult for others to pose.  But as outsiders we should not assume we know the answer.

Part of the value we contribute is that we listen with less attachment or emotional investment in what is discussed.  But we have to guard against that becoming detachment.  Our neutrality and objectivity shouldn’t necessarily trump participants’ partiality or subjectivity.  We must not act in a manner that causes those we are facilitating to feel like lab rats in our grand experiment.   While we indeed observe as someone outside of the group, its members should experience our contributions as a fresh lens that helps them see the inside more clearly or differently.

Sometimes the simplest contribution we can make is naming the attachment and engagement that we believe is occurring.  "It seems to me that you have a long history with this particular program or service and that people are quite proud of its record of achievement.  How might that be affecting your sense of the program’s future value and whether or not it needs any modifications?"  That sounds so very different than “I think some of you are so attached to what’s been done in the past that you are unable to think clearly about what is required for the future.”  One is an observation; the other is an inference.  Meeting participants should experience our contributions as assertive but supportive, ones that are invitations to explore further rather than judgments that close off conversation.

Among those we facilitate, a range of caring and commitment will exist.  We can help the group or community consider the consequences of those differences for the future they seek to create. Because ultimately, it is their project, their organization, their neighborhood, and we are present to facilitate what they want to create within it.   While participants may care deeply about the topic of conversation, we most need to care deeply about the participants and the conversation they are having.  That’s the territory we most own ... albeit temporarily.