Keeping Everyone in the Conversation

Posted on | November 5, 2009 | No Comments

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A professional colleague of mine recently wrote to me about a situation he encountered. He was at a meeting of a board of directors. A question was posed to the group, to which he responded with the first opinion. Everyone who spoke after him disagreed with his opinion. The conversation went on for 30 minutes. His opinion was not acknowledged, nor did anyone check in with him about how he felt as the group reached seeming agreement. No one invited him back into the conversation—and he didn’t offer another opinion or participate. He was “shut down.”

After the meeting, my colleague asked me, “As a facilitator, can you sense when someone is clamming up and needs to be eased back in to the conversation? Is it a good thing to let people decide for themselves whether to speak up or simply observe? Finally, when one person is outnumbered by everyone else, is it a good idea to revisit the contrarian’s view and try to get more details/understanding?” All excellent questions.

A facilitator’s job is to help a group engage in meaningful dialogue. Our work is in service to the group helping it to do its work (task) while focusing on the process of how the group conducts its conversations. A mentor of mine used to refer to the role of a facilitator as that of a chauffeur. The facilitator has the destination in mind but focuses on the journey.

As facilitators our job is to make sure that the conversation is productive, that there is balanced participation, and that the process encourages healthy dialogue. It’s a quite a challenge to manage a meeting in such as way as to ensure an outcome AND be able to create a process that supports good group behaviors. To this end, a facilitator pays attention to the individuals as well as the group as a whole.

An important part of our jobs is helping to ensure that people participate, get their thoughts expressed, and are heard. This sometimes means helping to manage people who tend to dominate and inviting quieter people into the conversation. Often, I make a point of asking to hear from some people who have not shared yet or to purposely ask each member to speak to be sure everyone has had an opportunity to offer their thoughts.

Occasionally we will encounter what appears to be someone who is reluctant to speak or has been in some way shut down by the group. Our job is to invite them into the conversation but not force them. Simply asking someone how they are doing or if they want to join in is often enough to encourage their participation. On an occasion such as the one my colleague described, we might make a point of checking back in with the person who offered the differing opinion to see how they are doing. This sends the message that everyone is a valuable contributor, which in turn sends a message of safety to all.

The second part of my colleague’s question relates to differing perspectives. This is a vitally important aspect of good dialogue. When any group is vetting a topic it’s essential to encourage divergent thinking before attempting to make a decision (i.e., engaging in convergent thinking). Most groups move too quickly to solutions without sufficient understanding of the issues or problems. A contrary perspective offers the group an opportunity to explore. Failing to fully explore a topic jeopardizes the quality of the outcome.

A facilitator or any person in the meeting can note that someone has offered a contrasting thought. This is important for two reasons. First, it is important to validate the person who offered the opinion if you want to support relationships in the room. Second, the differing thought helps the group ensure a thorough vetting. Both are important to building good group functioning.

An easy solution to this dynamic is to simply notice what has happened. I often acknowledge the outlier for both the courage to speak a different truth and to be sure the group has adequately addressed the issue raised.

The group also needs to be aware of its own processes to ensure that the processes support participation. If the group ignores or devalues one person, it will likely do it again and eventually alienate a number of people. So raising the dynamic up for examination is one way of helping the group see its own behavior. The ability to observe the process is what allows a group to grow and improve.

Skilled facilitators want to build capacity within the group to self-manage, so modeling how to raise these kinds of dynamic is another important function of the facilitator. A few techniques to try include:

1. Simply acknowledge the dynamic. “I noticed that Jane offered an opinion and the group moved on to express another set of opinions.” Then wait for someone to respond.

2. Use ground rules that set standards for good dialogue—then hold the group to them

3. Loop back to the person who spoke and ask if their concern or idea has been addressed

4. Poll the whole group about how the conversation is going or where they stand on the topic at hand, then ask the group to reflect on what was said.

5. Conduct a simple evaluation at the end of the meeting and ask people what worked and what didn’t.

As always, I invite feedback and questions, as well as your suggestions and ideas!

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