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Facilitating Difficult Conversations

Facilitating Difficult Conversations

Jennifer Rutley
May 20th, 2015


We are in the business of helping organizations facilitate conversations so they can come together, think better, and move forward. Sometimes we facilitate conversations that all parties are eager to engage in; other times it’s not so easy.

Difficult conversation meetings are hard for everyone; that’s why they are “difficult.” But good facilitation and agenda design can make a big difference in the outcome. Here are a few ways to ensure folks leave the meeting with a smile.

  1. Build a fact base. One of the most important things to do before your meetings is collect data. Keep the focus on facts that document the current environment that’s causing change. When you have facts in the room, you avoid opinions. If possible, visualize the data so it’s easier to absorb in a short amount of time versus volumes of content in a pre-read document.
     
  2. Build empathy. Everyone is human and has a perspective on the conversation. Step back and allow attendees to put themselves in one another’s shoes. What does it feel like? What’s most important to them? For difficult conversations to yield successful outcomes, each side has to feel empathy for one another.
     
  3. Present the case for change, but don’t solve it. Be careful not to come to the meeting with a pre-determined solution because it will surely be rejected. Lead the audience through the case for change through activities that let them make their own conclusions on why change is needed. Once there is a common understanding of the problem, then design can begin.
     
  4. Test solutions and leave possibility for new solutions. If there are potential solutions already designed, it is great to test those solutions with the group. Test them by playing devil’s advocate, looking at pros and cons, or letting the group pick a few things to change about the solution that might improve it. This will help them understand the potential solution and may yield a better result by involving more perspectives. If part of the solution is a given, then find the areas where there is still an opportunity for input and design. For example, if lowering costs is a given, let the group figure out how to do it versus prescribing it.
     
  5. Avoid the mob mentality. I like to start off a difficult conversation meeting with small group activities to get everyone engaged in the facts and allow for individual or small group insights. If you assemble people in a large group right away and tell a bad news story, it can be a hard meeting to get through. You have the potential to create a mob mentality and lose control. Entry points are different for each individual. Smaller group discovery can make it more likely that each individual will find a relevant connection point.
     
  6. Involve an unbiased third-party facilitator. Whatever the size of the group, it can be helpful to have an outsider managing the conversation. These conversations can get heated and it’s important to make sure people on both sides are respectful to one another and there’s a process in place to move things forward. It’s about being human, reading the people in the room, and making sure the conversation gets everyone to higher ground.

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