The Art & Science of Facilitation

Human NetworkManagement & MotivationProfessional Development/Leadership

How to Lead Effective Collaboration with Agile Teams — Standing in the Storm of Conflict —

Storms emerge from opposition and high-tension situations within a group process. Storms are places of difference. They are also places of energy. You know you’ve entered a storm when the emotions are high and the stakes are raised.

While the storm might look, feels, and behave, differently with each team, there are certain characteristics within the group dynamic that have a tendence to create them. Messiness, uncertainty, fixed beliefs, hidden assumption, unwavering opinions or positions, black-and-white thinking, right-or-wrong polarities, power dynamics, hidden agendas – all of these things can create storm. 

However, most groups do not naturally want to stay in conflict situation.  In fact, they usually have patterns of avoiding them, often at all costs. 

This facilitation stance is therefore about being able to recognize the storm and understanding how to weather it — because there is greater clarity in a group’s thinking on the other side. 

It is about staying with conflict and difference instead of avoiding it, recognizing that different points of view provide clarity, discernment, deeper understanding, and energy.

It is about seeking out and really listening to people’s points of view, perspective, options, solutions, and paths, knowing that collaboration will be less effective without them.

Standing in the storm is about holding space for all to speak and be heard during a meeting – even when storms arise.

A STORM ON THE HORIZON

Short story: … a group of us, a group of experienced coaches and facilitators, were in a getting-to-know-each other meeting. It felt respectful, authentic, and collegial.

And then, quite suddenly, one person made an unexpected move and we could instantly feel the energy in the group rise from the ground. We had found our storm. It was an idea that contained passion and sparked differences within the group. 

Collectively, we stayed with the topic, and we chose to stay with whatever discomfort existed for each of us individually, and we worked with the change in the group energy. The result was that we came out all the better for it on the other side. Not only were we more collaborative because of the work we did to pull through our storm, we learned to trust our collective ability to have generative, open meetings where difference of opinion could be productively surfaced.

That’s the thing about energy in groups: it’s not planned.  But it’s not inherently negative, either. It’s emergent. And you have a choice to make in the moment to make space for it. 

When the stakes go up for a group, they can go up for a facilitator as well. Anxious thoughts creep in:

  • How do I handle this much opposition?
  • What if we don’t achieve what we need to do today?
  • How will I be viewed?

Standing in the storm is a place of inner work. It is mastering yourself so that you can stay with a moment of crisis in order for the group to emerge on the other side in a more collective, productive place.

THE LIGHTNING ROD

For example: You’re facilitating a meeting around the topic “why Feature A and Feature B should or should not be included”, and you notice that the air in the room feels stagnant, that there are only 2 or 3 people speaking, and that the majority of people have become silent. You might “feel” the tension. You might even see people actively disengaging: checking their phones, pushing their chairs back, looking at the floor rather than at others. There may even be one person who chimes in and tries to relieve the tension by saying the dispute is not that important: “Let’s just include both!” or “I think we can just move on….”

Within this storm, there are several choices you might make that feel “easy” as the facilitator. They might even feel effective. For example:

  • You can change the topic of the conversation
  • You can shut the conversation down.
  • You can ask the group how important it is to resolve the issue right now. If it can wait, you can ask the group for permission to put the issue in a “parking lot” and save it for a later conversation.
  • You can take a vote to determine how the majority of people in the room want to proceed.

But be careful! There is a major downside to all of these options: you are bypassing the opportunity for a deeper conversation. 

There is the topic that the group is talking about in the moment, but there is also the real issue on the table. The real issue if the one that’s underlying the conversation. Is it really just about the relative importance of Features  and B? Or have Features A and B become the replacement topic for something deeper? They may be the lightning rod for something that on or more people in the group do not feel safe talking about. If you bypass the deeper conversation, you will more than likely find yourself back here again, stuck in the same conflict.

Teams form habits around their conversational patterns. If a team’s habit is to not talk about the real issue, that is what they will most likely continue to do.

FINDING YOUR FEET

When you encounter a storm like the one described earlier, your first action must be to resist your own desire to flee. If you don’t stay in the conversation, why would the group you’re facilitating?

How do you naturally respond to uncomfortable situations? With self-awareness in the moment, what might you do instead?  In the next article in this series, you’ll learn ways to stay in the moment regardless of your first impulse.

Your second action should be to get curious.

Listen intently to what’s being said and start to make group inquiries. During the conversation, you might ask questions like:

  • What do others think about Features A and B?
  • Who sees the issue the same way?
  • Who sees it differently?
  • What’s true about what you’re hearing said?
  • What’s at risk if we don’t prioritize these 2 features for the new release?
  • What else might these features impact?

If questions like these don’t seem to be getting at the real issue, you might just point that out!

Ideally, you will stay with this conversation long enough to get a sense of what the real issue is. And once you get a handle on what’s really going on, you can make a more informed decision about what you want your next action as facilitator to be:

  • If it’s just about deepening the group understanding about Features A and B, then stay with the conversation.
  • If it seems to be something else, you might name what  you’re experience: “I’m noticing we’re not moving forward in this conversation. I wonder if this circular conversation is about something else entirely. What’s getting in the way?”
  • It if’s something that requires more safety, then use a process that creates anonymity and allows people to say what they are thinking without having to voice it. For example, ask everyone to write their greatest concern on an index card and pass it to the facilitator. The facilitator can then take the themes they’re reading in the index cards and introduce them back into the group conversation. 

Sometimes, it turns out that a storm is actually a reaction to the process of participating in the facilitated meeting itself. You might find yourself kicking off a meeting or workshop with the sense that all is going well, when suddenly someone raises the concern that this is just a waste of time and they want to get back to their “real work”. They don’t need any of this “touchy-feely” collaboration stuff. They feel sure that everything will work much faster if the team just gets going on whatever it is that needs to be done.

What do you do in this situation?

You could shut down the person and thank them for their feedback. But this approach likely encourages the person to get more vocal as the meeting goes on.

Try these steps instead:

  • Separate yourself from the process of the meeting. The facilitator and the process for the meeting are not one and the same.
  • Take a step back and ask if there are any others who have concerns or similar opinions. Let each person who want to speak say just a bit about what’s happening for them or what they are concerned about.
  • When it feels like enough has been said and the energy is lowering, then slow down your own cadence and ask, “Can I ask you a question? Wait for someone to respond before you continue. “What would you need to believe was going to happen today in order to be willing to be here in this process?”  Again, let people respond. Capture what’s said on a flipchart.
  • Step back and look at the desired outcomes. Do they align with the overall purpose? If so, then ask, “If we agree to these outcomes, are you willing to give this process a try?”
  • For those who don’t align with the overall purpose of the meeting, ask if you can place their concerns in a parking lot and set up another meeting to address them.

Storms are those places when working with a group feel uncomfortable — for you or for them. But standing in it together is a profound way to transform discomfort into something more productive and thoughtful.

In our next article, we’ll learn 4 lessons:

  • Cultivate self-awareness and management to stay in the situation.
  • Learn to press “pause”.
  • Deepen your understanding of group dynamics (learn a model for conflict).
  • Create a container for psychological safety.

Resources and Notes
This article contains excerpts from Acker’s book The Art & Science of Facilitation: How to Lead Effective Collaboration with Agile Teams.

About the Author: Marsha Acker is a professional facilitator and an executive and team coach with 25+ years of experience supporting leaders as they tackle complex challenges and spearhead change in their organizations. The Founder and CEO of TeamCatapult, she uses systems thinking, structural dynamics, dialogue, and agility, to help teams collaborate and align with clarity, purpose, and vision. Connect with Marsha Acker on Twitter @MarshaAcker and LinkedIn. For more information, visit https://artandscienceoffacilitation.com/.

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