Monday, September 21, 2015

Learning to Lead: facilitating conversation

In my previous post in the Learning to Lead series I talked about how earned trust is the cornerstone to leadership. In this post I'd like to look at another aspect of a good leader; facilitating conversation. Being able to facilitate a conversation may not be at the forefront of the qualities you attribute to good leadership, but I think it should be. Being able to facilitate a conversation shows a level of maturity that's needed in order to lead people successfully.

Ensuring the purpose is known 

Every conversation has a purpose and I'm still surprised at how often I've seen two people arguing with each other simply on the basis of not having a shared understanding on what the purpose of the conversation is. A good conversation facilitator will be able to articulate in a meaningful way the purpose of the conversation. Often this can be accomplished by stating what the desire outcome is right at the beginning. For example, "Today we're here to talk about FOO and make a decision about BAR with regards to FOO."

Getting people to participate

One of the keys to being a good conversation facilitator is getting people to participate in the conversation. This can often be difficult for a variety of reasons like people being uncomfortable talking in large groups, not wanting to speak up, having a lack of confidence, being intimidated by their peers, and etc. A good leader is able to encourage participation in the conversation without it being awkward.

Some tips for conversation facilitation:

  • Ask open ended questions. This discourages one word responses and encourages meaningful conversation.
  • Don't be afraid to let the room be silent. Often people trying to facilitate conversation will talk and talk and talk so as to avoid silence. Not everyone is an off the cuff thinker. Silence allows people to process what they've just heard and formulate a response. The key is figuring out when it's been silent long enough the the conversation needs help.
  • Recap. This is useful at the beginning of the conversation as well as the end. At the beginning of the conversation it's often helpful to recap what the goals of the conversation are. For example, "when we finish today we should have a plan of record for...". At the end of the conversation a recap is useful to make sure everyone heard the same thing.
  • If you know someone is passionate about a particular topic but not eager to put forth their opinion, you can try to gently guide them into the conversation. This can be as simple as saying "Tom, you and I were talking about something similar the other day which makes me believe this is something of interest to you. I'd love to hear your opinion on ..."
  • Be direct and ask someone else to respond to a particular comment or statement. This can be especially useful when someone is steam rolling the conversation. For example, "Harriet, what are your thoughts on what Bill just said? Do you agree or disagree that..."

Avoiding derailment

Tangents are unavoidable, especially if you've got any "talkers" in the group. But tangents don't have to derail the conversation. A good facilitator is able to keep the conversation on topic. One common reason a conversation gets derailed is if someone else has an agenda that's not part of the purpose of the conversation. A good facilitator is not afraid to steer the conversation back on topic. This can often be accomplished by saying "Jess, that's a great point but I'm not sure that this is the correct venue for it. Let's set aside some time specifically to talk about that so we can use this time to talk about ..."

Another way conversations can get derailed is if you've got someone that rambles. What I've often found is best is to tackle a rambler head on. You can do this by jumping in and saying "That's a great point Sue, I'm curious to hear what other people think about the topic as well." Occasionally you have to be blunt and say something like "Greg, the latter part of what you're saying isn't really pertinent to the conversation at hand, let's stick to this topic now and we can get back to the latter part of what you're saying at another time."

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