Meetings take place – by the million - every day in our world. Some are satisfying and productive for the people involved. But many are deeply frustrating. People depart feeling annoyed, unheard, and unsettled. The last hour – or five – has delivered one more hit on their faith in humanity and their hope for the future.
The single biggest factor in determining whether a meeting is rewarding or disappointing is the skill of the leader. Unfortunately, skills for facilitating meetings are rarely taught. People seem to assume that white hair, or a good education, or the title of CEO, chair, reverend, etc., somehow equips leaders with skills adequate to lead meetings. Well, maybe. Or maybe not . . .
The good news is that a small number of facilitator skills can greatly enhance the ability of anyone to lead transformative meetings. These skills are not a substitute for broad competence. A number of excellent, highly readable books on meeting facilitation now exist and every group leader ought to have at least one on his or her bookshelf.
But reading and planning are no substitute for the interactional skills required of good facilitators. These skills are like oil in a hard-working engine, easing human interaction and helping things run more smoothly.
Perhaps more important, they have a transformational impact. When leaders use good listening and summarizing skills, when they have a well-honed ability to recognize the varying and somewhat contradictory phases of making a decision and can guide a group calmly through them, they help groups and individuals to grow. People regain a sense of confidence in themselves and those around them. From that confidence comes an expansion of spirit and capacity. And in that expansion lies the energy and hope to become all that our Creator has meant us to be.
Paraphrasing involves saying in your own words what you understand another person to have said. Paraphrasing is a powerful tool:
- For communicating understanding to others and thus setting the stage for the conversation to deepen. A good paraphrase often brings further, more reflective responses from others, as in the example below.
- For slowing down the conversation between the parties.
- For "laundering" vicious or insulting statements so as to be less inflammatory while retaining the basic points that were made.
A caution: Paraphrasing is a positive and powerful tool in interacting with most, but not all people. In some cultures paraphrasing may be perceived as disrespectful, in particular if used by lower status people addressing people of higher status.
Facilitators often summarize a statement or a whole series of statements made by people in a group. Summary is similar to paraphrasing, but it covers more ground. Whereas a paraphrase summarizes only a few sentences or paragraphs, a summary is a condensation of a longer statement or of many statements. Facilitators use several kinds of summaries, these include: Summary of content, summary of agreement, summary of disagreement, summary of process.
Using “Modest Rituals of Cooperation” in Facilitation it is hard for groups to do more than a few things well at once. It is not possible to simultaneously hear and acknowledge feelings, identify and support needs, define problems, seek and articulate points of agreement, develop creative solutions, evaluate those solutions, make binding decisions, and work out the details of implementation all at the same time or even in the same hour.
With phasing a facilitator guides group discussion to take place in phases, so that people can cooperate on one task rather than trying to do many things at once. By enabling the parties to cooperate in the many activities involved in successful decision-making in a common way, phasing creates a sense of safety and order in the group. By agreeing to take turns or to define what the problem is before trying to solve it, for example, participants affirm their willingness to be work together in a common process. In this sense, phasing is a ritual of modest, short-term cooperation, that symbolizes and assists in reaching the goal of larger, long-term cooperation.
Examples of Phasing
- Phase the categories of discussion
- Phase the various activities involved in decision-making.
- Phase moments of social interaction with issue-oriented work, so as to intersperse times of work with times of relationship-building.
- Separate dialogue from the phase of decision-making.
- Separate agreeing (eg: naming the points of agreement or listing a set of common shared principles) from clarifying the differences (eg: listing the points of disagreement or contention)
- Separate joint education or information gathering from the phase of decisionmaking or negotiation
- Phase intellectual activity with physical activity
Moving Discussion to Deeper Levels
People in conflict often focus their attention on blaming and attacking each other or each other’s ideas, with the consequence that discussion never moves to the deeper levels of understanding required to transform the conflict.
How to assist parties to move beyond this to deeper levels of reflection? The temptation is for facilitators to pressure people to see new things. Often this achieves the opposite and parties become more intransigent.
Some useful strategies:
Focus on understanding people who are upset rather than moving quickly to solve their problems. A slightly different way of saying this is the general principle: never debate solutions until you are clear about the nature of the problem.
Develop a repertoire of “deepening queries”. These are questions facilitators can ask that draw people deeper. “Explain that farther…” “Say more about that…” Look for opportune moments to invite people to talk about the deep things that always deeply influence them but rarely get conscious attention - their hopes, dreams, hurts, fears, values. None of these skills will alone work magic. But used together, guided by a heart committed to the service of others, they can make a big difference in the quality of meetings. More important, they have the capacity to transform the people in those meetings. Used on a consistent basis, these skills create space where human beings grow. Individuals become more confident and more trusting. Organizations become more flexible, more humane, more empowering, more effective, more connected to the depths of spirit that constantly seeks to transform our world.