Facilitating Full Dialogue

Often when you’re facilitating a conversation you pick up on misinterpretations on what the other was saying. People frequently do what I’ve heard called “talking past each other.” They’re so focused on getting their own point across that they’re not really listening and hearing the fine-points of what the other is saying. This results in a lot of time but not necessarily a lot of progress.

Enabling dialogue

Enabling dialogue Photo: D. Bond

As a consultant, in this facilitation role, you need to listen – and see – the conversation going on in the room at two or three levels simultaneously to help get value from the meeting:

  • the concrete words being spoken
  • the concrete response
  • the intention behind the words being spoken which may or may not have been transmitted successfully
  • the perceived misinterpretation by the receiving end
  • the silence from either/both/all parties that indicates that the central point has been missed and will come back to haunt everyone.

What you can do about it

  1. Run a tight ship with the agenda. Don’t be abusive and make people feel constrained, but on the other hand, don’t let people talk about whatever the heck they want to talk about – it can set off resentment and make people clam up for another wasted meeting.
  2. Watch for furrowed brows. While someone is talking, scan the room to see if people are calmly taking it in, or whether they’re shuffling in their seats because they can’t wait to fire back, or possibly are confused because they’re either not understanding the point to begin with or they think it’s somehow off-topic.
  3. Be open. In an up-beat way, point out that “Sally has a furrowed brow.” It makes everyone snap to attention and realize that something important is happening. Don’t let Sally sink and don’t let the speaker off the hook. Make everything clear.
  4. Listen for silence. If you know – in your independent third-party role – that someone has an opposing opinion on something being said, and if it’s somehow too hot to handle for that person, find a way to raise their concern on their behalf to break the ice and get some discussion happening. Either way, the open dialogue is healthy for everyone. Don’t let passive-aggressive behaviours creep in; that will be the death-knell for the team, the strategy, the organization.
  5. Explicitly say: you’re here to express your opinion. It provides a culture of “permission” for everyone – extroverts and the introverts alike – both to speak up and shut up as appropriate, making sure everyone is participating.

When it finally comes time for making a decision – a decision that will stick – you’ll be glad you did.

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