June 15, 2012

Facilitation Friday #24: All Agendas Are Hidden

It happened as it often does. I was facilitating a group of individuals who had come together to develop plans for a project.

During the first break I overheard a few participants speaking disparagingly about the “hidden agenda” of one of the other attendees. It reminded me again of the power of language … in this case limiting language that seemed to be getting in the way of the relationships among team members.

“Hidden” agendas are almost always described as negative. Someone seen as having a hidden agenda is often perceived as not trustworthy, being manipulative, and a host of other descriptors that get in the way of valuing the contributions of the party being described.

Why such a rush to judgment? In reality, a hidden agenda in and of itself is neither good, nor bad. A hidden agenda is merely … well … hidden. And therein lies the opportunity.

Only when a hidden agenda is revealed to others can we truly determine whether or not it is negative, manipulative, or has a positive contribution to the group's work. Until then, we are in no position to render a judgment. Yet, we often make extremely negative assumptions about those whose agenda is not clear.

In reality, all agendas remain hidden unless (1) individuals are naturally predisposed to sharing them in a group (and many folks certainly are) or (2) opportunities are created for everyone to share agendas early on in the formulation of a group (something effective facilitation can help do).  Whether or not individuals disclose their agenda or interests is a perfect example of Johari's window in action.  Unless individuals interests and agendas are made public, others in the group cannot respond to their potential intentions or implications.

Given that individuals will have differing comfort levels with self-initiated disclosure to a group, it is incumbent upon the group (and/or its facilitator) to create the space for everyone’s agendas, motives, and self-interests to be shared early in the group’s development. For this to be effective, the invitation to disclose should be offered in a nonthreatening manner after the group has discussed the importance of knowing of others’ perspectives. "We all have a stake in the discussions today.  Perhaps it would be helpful if we each shared our vested interest before we begin."  This may be a time when as a facilitator you can model the way for the participants, indicating your agenda related to the work about the start.

Everyone in a group has self-interest. That is neither good nor bad … it just is. Becoming aware of what these interests and agendas are is a necessary step for the group members to develop their ability to work together. Once agendas and interests are disclosed, the group needs to discuss what their implications might be for the group’s assignment and how they approach it. “Given what we have just learned about each other, what might we need to do in order to accomplish the task that has called us together?”

It is not unusual for a period of silence to follow the posing of this question, particularly for groups in the early stages of development. Individuals are both reflecting on the range of self-interests shared while simultaneously measuring how much of their own reaction they feel comfortable voicing to the group.

Let the silence fill the room. Participants’ voices will soon fill it.

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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