Facilitation Friday #22: Conversation Detours, Not Roadblocks

Two of the more frequently heard statements (either in reality or in some participants' minds) in strategic planning or idea generation sessions are:
We've always done it this way.

That won't work.  We've tried it before.
These statements usually end group discussions or temporarily stifle them. They act as invisible barricades to continuing the previous line of thought. They shut people down.

Some participants will feel personally rejected; others will wonder if the group is not open to new ideas.  Both of these reactions are natural, but have negative consequences for interpersonal relationships, as well as group decison-making.

It doesn't have to be this way. It is our role as facilitators to ensure that it doesn't.

We shouldn't experience these statements as barricades, but simply as another voiced contribution to manage.  We should treat them merely as temporary detours on the route to the stated outcomes for the meeting.  If we've helped create a safe climate for these conversations, it then becomes possible for us (and other participants) to challenge these statements, but in an impersonal and nonjudgmental manner.

Remember, facilitation literally means actions that make it easier ... for decisions to be made, good conversation to occur, and much more.  So here are some possible verbal actions we can take in response to these two common temporary roadblocks.

"We've also done it this way."

Note the person is speaking in plural and making a blanket assertion.  Check it out with the group:  "Bob says it's always been done this way.  How do the rest of you see it"?  Unless that one individual is the universal truth-teller, his opinion doesn't have to go unchecked.  You also can probe if individuals have ever experienced "it" being done another way in another organization, and if so, invite them to talk a bit about it.

It also can be helpful to push back a bit on the "always."  The time period individuals describe as always usually relates only to their time in the organization.  Other individuals in the group may have different timeframes and experiences to share.

Explore the implications of the actions.  "So what have been the results from this apparent longstanding practice?"  Remember, our role is to help surface underlying assumptions and unstated meaning.  Implicit in the assertion that "we've always done it this way" is that it's always been successful and no need for change exists.  Bring that to the surface.  Help people discuss the actual results to see if a need for change might exist and if so, in what area and to what end.

Explore the future sustainability of the practice.  "We've always done it this way" is about the past and somewhat about the present.  Strategy sessions are about the future.  "What conditions made this practice appropriate or work well in the past and are those same conditions currently present and likely to be so in the future?"

Invite the person who shared the initial alternative idea to talk about its possible value.  "Susan, can you explain more about the value you see your approach offering that might be different than what's been done in the past."   Remember, sometimes our facilitation intention (ensure ideas are thoroughly explore) requires that we shift our attention (from the conversation blocker to the idea contributor).

"That won't work.  We've tried it before."

One facilitative response is to simply to invite the participant to tell us more. "Talk a bit about what happened with the previous attempts and any lessons learned from them."  Again, the conditions of the past are not necessarily the future environment in which we will operate.  Whether or not an idea will work depends on context, and context is not permanent.  Effective facilitation helps tease out the conditions or context so that potential ideas can be assessed against it.

Another approach is to engage the naysayers in mining the suggestion for potential value. "Is there a variation on what was attempted in the past that you think might be more successful?"  or "What elements of this idea might have some potential despite past results?"  The statement as spoken is a blanket rejection of what's previously been attempted.  Help the group consider if some portion of the idea might have merit and how to build upon it.

"That won't work" is a critical judgment.  If expressed during the initial portion of a brainstorming session, it 's out of place and against the stated rules for conversation at that time.  Call it out:  "Remember, we're only doing creative thinking right now.  We will critique ideas later.  What are other ideas people have?"

How else might you respond to these common retorts so that the conversation continues as opposed to be completely blocked?

Every Friday in 2012, I post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

I'll be leading an open registration full-day course on The Art of Facilitation: How to Maximize Individuals' Contributions and Commitments on Tuesday, August 21, in Washington, DC, for the American Society of Association Executives.  Learn more/register here.

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