Parrot.

I’m really getting into reading blogs from other facilitators around the world. One great one is Geoff Anderson’s at themeetingsexpert.com. One post in particular caught my eye from the @TMex twitter feed:
http://www.themeetingsexpert.com/paraphrasing-summarising-and-synthesising/
The blog post is fantastic for explaining how to bring participant contributions into a conclusion, without adding new ideas yourself as the facilitator. It set me thinking about what happens beyond this though, when as the facilitator you add in someone else’s words, someone who is not in the meeting or workshop.

Here is an example. I fielded a contextual question on resilience in a workshop earlier this year. The best answer I could think of was a quote from a senior leader where I work, that I had heard once and that had stuck with me. So I did the verbal equivalent of a retweet. The participant who asked the question paused, nodded and then proceeded to pick apart the philosophical angle of the quote.

Right there, that moment, was a commonly experienced line in the sand for an internal facilitator in a big organisation. I’d put forward the senior leader’s quote to provide a ‘light on the hill’, an attempt to artfully in our organisational culture with the topic. Simultaneously I was also trying to drag the discussion away from positioning me as the source of that ‘light’. Notwithstanding, I had been a parrot by repeating someone else’s words, someone outside of the workshop.

What happened next was the senior leader’s thought processes, motivations and role came under scrutiny in a group context. It felt dangerous to facilitate that discussion for those few minutes (at such times my cheeks flush bright red unfortunately, so it was like having a flashing neon sign saying ‘Pressure’s On’ above my head!). I was asking myself questions like: Do I consider it as obfuscation and shut it down? Do I defend the honour of the senior leader, considering I was the person who introduced their quote to the discussion? Do I allow the discussion to fully flesh out?

I chose the latter, largely due to a trust I can have in our organisation’s ‘Enterprise Behaviours’; there are only three (so they’re easy to remember) and one is ‘Be authentic & respectful’. People do follow them and often I’ll drop in a comment like ‘that is an authentic and respectful way to look at that’. I also posed plenty of ‘why’ and ‘what if’ questions, such as ‘if you were the senior leader, what would you say?’ and ‘why is discussing the intent of this quote so important for us?’.

The outcomes were many. The first was there was still spirited discussion in the break, which indicated that the initial curiosity had spilled over into self-led contextualisation of the impact on their lives. The second outcome was the participant who asked the original question told me at the end of the day that she was now satisfied with her understanding the topic. Lastly, for me, I understood exactly why senior leaders choose their words carefully: because they are constantly on show and subject to scrutiny. Just like a facilitator, I guess.

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