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Open Conversations

In this post, I’ll share some tips to set the stage and develop trust in dialog and collaboration. As many of you know, I spent many years working in public health, primarily in nutrition and food systems. Along the way, as funders set the stage for collaboration, I saw the need to develop group facilitation skills. I was comfortable from all my years in front the room, but I noticed that good group facilitation was different. My goal was to be able to work with groups, partners, even competitors, to bring forth needed change. It was obvious that outcomes improved when people felt safe to openly express their concerns, wishes and challenges.

It’s pretty unrealistic to think that everyone feels the same way you do. We all come to where we are in our lives with different life experiences. When planning and collaborating it is a gift to look at differences in perspectives along the way so they can be considered and addressed. A few years ago, I worked on project to develop policy. Through our meetings, stakeholders’ considerations informed the creation of policies that were realistic, understood and welcomed. When piloting the proposed policies, we found that our open conversations prepared us for acceptance and easier adaptation.

It is helpful to begin meetings with some basic guidelines on conversation etiquette. As a group we need to consciously engage. When I am working with a group, I share my intention to have an open and honest discussion about the topic. I want them to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and to feel respected. There are obvious things to keep in mind, like letting one person speak at a time without interruption. Sometimes, with a larger group and tight timeframe, I might ask we keep our comments to a specific time period, perhaps 1-2 minutes.

It is hard to “check” our reactions and often people just blurt out what comes to mind. So here I suggest, take a breath, or perhaps give me a signal or raise your hand so I notice you want to say something. None of these ideas are earth shattering, but they give the group some common guidelines for participation.

To make sure that people’s comments are appreciated, and no one feels put down or made wrong, I might say, “We want to encourage different views, and we don’t want to make anyone wrong, so use “I” when sharing your own feelings and actions. For example, say “I feel”, rather than, “You make me feel..” or “You made me do..”, which can provoke defensiveness and shut down conversation. If someone says something you feel is wrong or different, say, “I see it differently” or “I have a different perspective.” These last two phrases are helpful in life, whether you are in a meeting or in conversation with a family member or friend.

In business, the norm is to check our emotions. Our feelings are present, whether we acknowledge it or not. Yet our underlying emotions can impact our interpretations and decisions. A good facilitator knows how to bring out the gut level response in a safe fashion. Ask for example, “What do you like about x?”, and allow for a number of responses, without comment. Then move on to, “Where did you feel nervous about what was said?”. Upon hearing these responses, a facilitator acknowledges the comment and moves on.

A mentor tells a story of working with a group that was very charged about something that had recently happened. There was a lot of emotion in the room so she gave them time to share what was going on for them. Then when she sensed it, she guided the conversation to the next level of discussing impact and resolution. I co-led a meeting recently where there was a lot of emotion. We acknowledged it right from the start, we felt it too. It was important to do so and ignoring it would have been sad. At the same meeting someone stood up and stated their perspective, very defensively. While it was clear others didn’t share this perspective, I was also clear that a debate about it would have put fuel on the fire and would have derailed the meeting. We just said, “thank you” and moved on, and people did. Times like this call for an unbiased, experienced facilitator, one that doesn’t have a stake in the decision, or one who can set aside their personal interests and attend to the needs of the group.

Safety of the group is part of a facilitator’s responsibility. Facilitators ask questions that allow for a variety of perspectives, ideas, to develop a shared understanding or to make a decision. Facilitators make sure all voices are heard and respected; they provide enough time to fully discuss the issue, thank folks for their ideas, and make sure the conversation stays open, respectful, and on-point. I might say, “Who has a different perspective?”, or “Who hasn’t had a chance to share their idea and would like to?”. Although it is easy to do so, try not to put someone on the spot by saying, “XXX, we haven’t heard from you.”

I hope this helps you set the stage for your meetings. I’ll share other ways for promoting trusting participation in future posts!

Robin Rifkin, MS, CTF

Certified Facilitator and Trainer

Meeting Intentions

Conversations start with trust.


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