Recently, on the Relatable Leader podcast, the warm and engaging host Catherine Goggia asked me about how employees can put issues on the table and confront problems in ways that maximize progress while minimizing unproductive conflict and defensiveness. One of the approaches I described involves using a facilitator to shift the discussion so people can see there’s more to the situation than the facts they’ve already accepted or the positions they’ve already taken.
Providing New Perspective
Say a conflict arises between two colleagues: They each take actions they believe they’ve been directed to take, which they view as right, but unfortunately, these actions don’t work well together. By introducing thought experiments and encouraging consideration of hypotheticals, a facilitator can get a more open, thoughtful discussion process started. The facilitator can also help opposing participants refocus by reinforcing the organization’s vision, strategy, and current needs. Often, simply emphasizing opponents’ responsibility to satisfy the organization’s purpose and goals helps adjust perspective.
In addition, the facilitator can examine the situation from a broader or deeper perspective, identifying historical or cultural norms that may never have been true or are no longer relevant and point out how they still determine the way people perceive issues. Many employees have operating patterns or habits based on their beliefs about old instructions, so pointing them out and offering suggestions for new responses can bring about a shift.
Using Gentle Nudges
Facilitators can ask questions about issues that participants avoid raising like, “What are you really worried about?” or “What’s the worst thing that might happen?” and follow up with additional probes like, “And if that were to happen, what could we do about that? What could anybody do about that? What if you had power in the situation that you don’t usually have?” Repeating that sequence can be like using the “Five Whys,” letting the facilitator open participants’ minds to new information and points of view.
Gentle nudging supports fresh thought processes much better than demanding answers or leaving participants stuck in negative or defensive postures. And by getting participants to express their worries, facilitators can help them debug their thinking processes, rather than just ordering them to think differently. Maintaining this kind of practice helps participants get used to expanding their own thinking and incorporating others’ views.
It’s hard to make progress when people are afraid to speak or feel like they’re under attack. When the facilitator’s positioning is neutral and tone is curious, participants are more likely to bring out their best thoughts, rather than behaving self-protectively. So, instead of starting a discussion by asking, “Jonas, why did you let the inventory get screwed up?” the conversation can be positioned as: “Here’s how our inventory situation looks to me. What could we do to improve X in the short term and make sure we don’t end up in this situation again?”
This hypothetical prompt lets people think about what would improve the situation, rather than defending themselves or blaming others. The facilitator can model and explain this approach until everybody in the room learns to do it for themselves.
Moving Forward Positively and Productively
Acknowledging and praising even small contributions is another crucial facilitative behavior. It encourages people to continue making useful suggestions and recommendations, rather than feeling shut down by the cold-shoulder response that often meets new ideas or comments from people who don’t have significant political capital. And when the facilitator keeps drawing out new information and fostering dialog, others can chime in. Once people realize there’s a real conversation going on, most will decide to participate.
When the facilitator helps people see additional sides of an issue, buffers criticism and defensiveness, and encourages thoughtful participation, both individuals and entire teams often become able to maintain the new behaviors by themselves. At the very least, they may recognize how helpful it is to have a facilitator present for the tricky stages of a discussion, offering a bridge to finding practical solutions.