Facilitating Conversation: A Day-to-Day Skill You Need!

Facilitation has outgrown its traditional image. It’s no longer about an individual at the front of the room guiding a group of people through processes. It’s no longer just about decision making, conflict resolution, or team building. Many factors in today’s world have brought a new look to the role of facilitation.

Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation. ― Mark Twain

Recent significant social changes help to shape this new look:

  • Online meetings call for us to re-think working with others toward shared outcomes.
  • Growing diversity calls for inclusive responses that reflect multiple perspectives.
  • Difference brings tensions that can be leveraged toward increased coherence.

Examples of these social shifts are woven into our daily lives. We understand that “facilitation skills” are needed in day-to-day life. We need communication styles that allow us to be more agile in conversations at all scales of our interactions.

Several years ago, Glenda Eoyang and I reflected on patterns of excellent facilitation she and I had observed over time. We explored the question from two perspectives. Behavioral perspectives look at actions taken by great facilitators as they work with groups. Cognitive perspectives capture the thinking and processing that happens as great facilitators work.

I decided to re-visit those perspectives in light of our need for facilitation skills in everyday interactions. In re-reading them, I am struck by how they can inform my engagement in day-to-day conversations. They can help me consider my actions differently as I engage with those around me. They also help me process the interaction differently as well. Behavioral and cognitive perspectives remind me that a conversation is not just about me. It is not about how I come out “ahead” in my interactions. It is not about always convincing others. Conversation can be about opening space to explore differences and to create generative connections.

In today’s divisive and complex interactions, I am becoming more aware of participating in ways that open the conversation, rather than closing it down. Glenda and I identified patterns that describe benefits for each perspective. I have created a series of questions to reflect on as participant-facilitator at all scales of interaction.

In short here are the descriptions and reflection questions that go with them:

Behavioral Perspectives help me consider how I participate in conversations.

  • Build relationships
    • What is the invitation I give to others?
    • How do I express that invitation through what I say and what I do?
  • Take others’ points of view
    • How do I shift my assumptions to consider others’ points of views?
    • What enables me to be more curious about others’ views?
  • Discern patterns
    • What patterns can I see that inform me about others in the interaction?
    • What patterns can I see that inform me about my role or contribution?
  • Generate options
    • How do I use each conversation as a springboard to new ideas and options?
    • When and how do I damp what might be possible?

Cognitive Perspectives are about how I think the dynamics of my conversations.

  • See layers and scales
    • What bigger “picture” lies beyond this person’s perspective? What is the smaller picture?
    • What can I learn from zooming into the smaller picture or zooming in to the larger picture?
  • Observe systems
    • How are the connections that show up in this conversation? How are those connections dependent on each other?
    • What does not seem connected that maybe should or could be?  
  • Consider dynamics
    • What patterns do I see / hear in this conversation?
    • What tensions am I aware of and how can I respond to them?
  • Explore the whole and the parts
    • What are ways this person is connected to a larger system or group?
    • How might that larger group influence this person? How does this person influence the larger group?

The role of a facilitator is to make a process or action easy or easier (Dictionary.com, 12APR2021). Why not borrow ideas from great facilitators to make our everyday conversations easier? Facilitation doesn’t just have to happen in large groups.

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