Sunday, June 14, 2015

Skeptics - Facilitator's Best Friend

As a facilitator, one of the scariest things we can come across is the skeptic.  This is scary whether they are skeptical of the intent and possibility of the gathering, or of us, our role and our plan as facilitator (much less of an issue, but personally harder to bear!).  But they can also be one of the greatest assets of the group... I always try to remind myself of this, and to act with the courage to make the most of their contribution.

I normally open a gathering with a check in (round the circle, person by person, with a name and a few words), which is prime opportunity to uncover such skepticism — the best possible result.

After 'hellos' from myself and often from the sponsor or convenor, and after a statement of the story and intent for being there, people are in a suitable frame of mind to check in with the intersection of their own personal history, and the shared path they are joining.

In ideal circumstances, a simple invitation like "how are you feeling about what we intend to do today" works wonders.  In less than ideal circumstances, it might take a bit of work to uncover the subtext behind people's guarded responses... this can be tricky, but worth trying to open them up, perhaps with a "I sense there is a bit of unspoken reluctance... would anyone like to speak to that?"

Either way, if we're lucky, the skeptics will have been open enough to share that "we've been here before, I don't think it will work, and I'm not optimistic about the plans we have for today, they won't amount to anything".

If we're properly unlucky, these people have been forced to be there, which lands us in a kettle of fish we need to navigate to getting them properly engaged.  But for the moment I assume they have chosen to join us in the gathering, as has everyone else.

Now is the decision moment... where we decide to cover our backside and fudge around the issue by reinforcing our authority and what positive responses we heard from the group... OR to embrace the challenge for the gift that it is.

I know different people have different styles of facilitation, so this may not apply for everyone, but for me, the primary goal of facilitation is to host the right quality of space for people to get into really genuine and meaningful conversations.  This is like a biodynamic farmer, every single one of which will tell you that their number one focus is the quality of their soil.  I guess that makes me a biodynamic facilitator...

So with that in mind, it is easier to see the skeptics for the gift that they are.

These people are supporting the quality of the soil, by demonstrating qualities that are perfect for meaningful conversations.  They are not troublemakers (yet ; ), but leaders of the group!

What's more, they are inviting us to be humble and vulnerable enough to accept the tension they are inviting in to the group.  This is the perfect kind of challenge to ourselves model the kinds of behaviours that no amount of description or permission-giving will enable: being grateful for all contributions, accepting difference, opening ourselves up to be vulnerable to change.  Imagine the quality of conversation that would be possible if everyone demonstrated these behaviours!!

So this is the perfect opportunity to respond, with genuine gratitude, something like
"thank you to those who have shared their skepticism openly... this is exactly the sort of honesty that will make for really powerful conversations today... and thank you as well for joining in today despite your skepticism... that dedication as well is valuable and will hold us in good stead... what I have heard is that there is skepticism from a few people around [fill in the blank] ... have I understood that correctly?"
Hopefully yes!  But if not, it will quickly be clarified.
"This is definitely a challenge worth being mindful of, and I'd like to make sure we keep this in mind over the course of the day.  I think for the time being though it is worth us plugging ahead with the plan to [do the next thing / follow the plan / whatevs]... is everyone okay with that or do we need to spend a bit more time here and make sure we're going in the right direction?"

Whoa!  We've invited confirmed, card-carrying skeptics in the group to torpedo the whole workshop!

If anyone does pipe up and say "yes it's all wrong and everything needs to change!", then we're in trouble!  Especially if they try to hold the stage for a three hour monologue to do so...  But at least it's out of the way early, right?  All plans are out the window.

It's not so bad though.  I have been in almost this exact situation before, a few times actually (did it sound like I was playing back a scenario?), and I have yet to have anyone who thought it was not a good idea to forge ahead.  And not just moving on to the next bit as if nothing had happened— but forging ahead together, not apart, with renewed authority as facilitator, with some skeletons out of the closet and on the table and everyone having felt heard, and with some demonstrations of impeccable, genuine behaviours that will be exactly the grounding needed for conversation a level more powerful than would have been possible otherwise.

What a gift!

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