I was in a meeting yesterday, a policy consultation actually, which went quite well. As expectations are sometimes low for these types of meetings, and ours came off as a pretty good time, I spent some time thinking about how we made it work.
This was a very typical kind of policy consultation. Government creates a policy, in concert many others, and checks back with the “stakeholderss” (a term I loathe) as to where we should go from here. In this particular consultation, history has made relations between the government and the participants particularly rocky. Consultations are often characterized by lots of yelling, demands and disrespectful dynamics at meetings, mutual distrust and unchecked assumptions and misperceptions on all sides. In addition, information is very difficult to communicate and there are often several levels of language and understanding in the room. So all told, very complex, lots of passion, lots of urgency.
Perfect conditions to make something happen.
My client wanted a very standard type of meeting, with presentations of four aspects of the policy and open discussion from the group of 50 or so participants. It was a tight agenda, but we had an hour for each of four or so presentations and feedback. I felt we could work with that, if we got the right questions. We spent time in the pre-meeting getting to the heart of the matter and we recast the consultation as more of an intelligence gathering or learning process. Being open to the possibility that the participants would be interested in helping craft the policy helped to overcome defensiveness. There was nothing to defend. We were simply open, curious and learning and building together.
By and large, that is how it came off: presentations were collegial, feedback was cynical but constructive. Accusatory questions came forward, but we had a container created that allowed us to turn those questions around and seek out the underlying heart of the matter. There were rants and speeches, but we heard people and extracted the heart of what they had to say.
So upon reflection, here are some things we did that made the day flow relatively well:
- Be prepared and curious. Come into the meeting room curious. Be curious about the people who are there, about how the day will go. Genuinely want to find out stuff, get interested in the discussions and ask stupid questions. Maintaining a role of respectful curiosity, grounded in good preparation will allow you to be detached enough to see the possibilities as they unfold over the day.
- Acknowledge that the heart speaks truth. People that care deeply about an issue will become quite emotional if they see that something bad is going to happen to that issue. They will speak out in emotional ways. It is a true reaction. You can’t lie when that kind of passion arises. So hear the truth, acknowledge that what they care about is real, and that it needs to be heard. It’s important that the client know that there is a real issue at the heart of the intervention.
- Reflect what is being said. All those communications courses where you practised active listening and reflected back what you heard felt contrived, right? Well, in practice it isn’t contrived – it actually works. When people say something, especially in a situation where they are “speaking truth to power” the most significant act you can do is to repeat what they said. To feel heard is a powerful salve. To BE heard is the goal of good consultation. So reflect back and ask questions for clarification or to test out a theory that what you have just heard connects to something that someone else said earlier. Then you are really engaged and your interlocutor knows it too.
- Build wholeness and sense the emerging story. There is nothing more frustrating than a consultation that is simply a set of speeches. Encourage people to connect their thinking with what has come before. As a facilitator listen for the emerging story and see how people are connecting their comments to that story. At the end of the day it will mean that you have something truly valuable, much more so than a collection of comments that stand alone and make no sense. Wholeness should be the goal. That is what makes consultation useful.
- Do not be attached to anything other than the container. Your client might have spent years working on the thing that is being ripped to pieces in front of them, but that is not your concern. If it is out there for feedback, you have to let the feedback come. As a facilitator, pay attention to the container, and ensure that as the piece is being ripped up that it is done so respectfully and constructively. Don’t let people get away with being “terrorists” in a meeting. Passion bounded by responsibility, leading to wholeness is what you are after. If there is anger, ask about what might be done to move forward. If there are dismissive comments, challenge them and invite people to share the alternative. Building and holding a well formed container, one that, as Williams Isaacs says, hold safety, possibility and energy, is your job.
- Coach, affirm and soothe. Your client might be raw before, during or after a difficult gathering. Coach them to listen and see what is being said, and help them to understand that it isn’t personal. And if it is personal, and there was a reason, get really honest with the personal behaviour that triggered the attack and help to move forward. Affirm their work, and help them to see that the people who gave time to provide feedback, in whatever form, are committed to what is happening, and as such, they are actually allies. It’s about seeing differently.
- Be honest. There is no faster way to get people angry than to lie to them. When bullshit detectors go off, the reaction comes fast and furious. As a facilitator I have ethical standards for working in these kinds of meetings. If something is a done deal and the consultation is just window dressing, I won’t do that job. If a client betrays the confidence or the trust that has been built with a group, in an ongoing process, I will quit the job. Honesty and trust are the only things you need to move past difficult public meetings. It is surprising how many people choose to go the other way, into deceit and mistrust.
- Ask real questions. Get really clear on what you want from people and ask them real questions. When folks provide feedback, probe with real questions that are aimed at drawing the conversation forward into something bigger. Real questions are questions with which something is at stake. If you can get your client to say “we really don’t know and your feedback will help us move forward” then you have overcome many of the hurdles that prevent collaborative relationships from evolving. Asking real questions means asking questions that put us all on the same side of something.
- Turn around cross examinations. You would be amazed how many people learn conversational techniques from watching courtroom TV. It’s appalling. Whatever benefit the adversarial legal system has for society, its form of debate is toxic. In many meetings people will ask impossible questions about decisions long past, or worse still, will ask a series of questions which can only be answered with “yes” or “no.” These questions are loaded with assumptions, and the good news is it’s a simple matter to turn them around. When someone says “Have you taken into consideration that your building will destroy this forest?” you have a tremendous opening to begin a conversation with that person about values. Ask “So for you it’s important to preserve that forest. How do you see this project negatively impacting the forest? What kinds of ways might we mitigate that impact? What do we need to know about the forest that seems to be missing?”
- Debrief the deeper learnings. After the meeting is over, build in time to reflect about the content and the process, but do it in a deeper way. Talk about the story that emerged, the places people were attached to that story and the reasons why heart showed up. Think about what made the meeting work well and get a handle on the strategies that were used. Reflect on improvements for next time.
All ten of strategies got put in play on this project that I worked on yesterday. I don’t like doing these kinds of meetings in general, but when I do, this set of ideas helps to make the most of them. Feel free to add some below.