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.  

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