Navigating Conflict with a Generous Approach – Episode 28

In this episode, Beth Cougler Blom talks with Meg Bolger about how facilitators can respond effectively to participants when they say something that could or does cause conflict in the group.

Beth and Meg also talk about:

  • Giving more space and agency to people to participate
  • Not avoiding conflict when it happens
  • Bringing a curious mindset
  • Noticing and responding to participants’ underlying needs
  • Using a three-stepped approach to respond to potentially problematic statements

Engage with Meg Bolger

Other Links from the Episode

Connect with the Facilitating on Purpose Podcast

Connect with Beth Cougler Blom

Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Beth
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

[Episode intro]
Beth Cougler Blom
Hello, thank you so much for being here. This is Episode 28. On this episode I have a guest that’s going to share with us how we respond to participants when they say something conflictual in the room when we are facilitating. I don’t know about you, but I teach facilitators and the question about how to deal with conflict or how to respond to conflictual statements comes up a lot. So I was so pleased when I realized that I could reach out to this particular person because she does a lot of work in this area. She, too, also teaches people how to facilitate. Her name is Meg Bolger and she’s an expert facilitator, social justice educator, and participatory educator.

When I introduce people on the podcast I don’t always say what the name of their business is, but I’m going to tell you what Meg’s is because you actually might know her more commonly through the name of her business, which is Facilitator Cards. I think maybe that’s how Meg came across my mental sphere first of all, I became aware of the work of Facilitator Cards as a company, their card decks, their training, and so on. And then I realized that it was being led by Meg Bolger. And one of my team members was able to be part of a workshop that she led this year. She became a fan, I think I was already a fan. Those of us who follow Meg online and have been part of her training really think she knows what she’s talking about, and I really appreciated the chance to ask her about conflict because it’s something that she does deal with in her work, and is able to help people learn about it as they’re learning facilitation skills.

I hope you enjoy this episode because Meg is not only an interesting conversationalist to listen to, she actually gives us concrete steps to do when somebody says something problematic in the room. And this is a process that you can take, put it in your facilitator toolkit and use it from now on. So I hope you enjoy listening to Meg and I have this conversation about Navigating Conflict with a Generous Approach. Enjoy the show.

Beth Cougler Blom
Meg, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. It’s great to have you with me.

Meg Bolger
Yeah, it’s good to be here.

Beth
I was wondering if we could start with you just saying a little bit about your background and how did you become someone who teaches facilitators? A facilitator trainer, I’ve heard you say? Maybe you’ve got other words for it too. Tell us a little bit about your journey and how you got to where you are today.

Meg
Yeah, so I started facilitating workshops when I was in college. Basically, I went to like a Gender and Sexuality 101 workshop. It was called a “Safe Zone Workshop” at my college. It’s called that in a lot of different higher ed [situations] in particular. And I just was like, “oh, this is so cool. I want to do this.” And I asked the person like, “how do you do this?” And they were like, “yeah, you just like go for it.” And I was: “OK.” I went to a small school so that was actually kind of normal for students to just take things on. And yeah, I started facilitating safe zone workshops. Those were like two to three hour workshops about gender and sexuality. Within two years of that – so I started when I was a sophomore – when I was a junior, and definitely when I was a senior, I was like, ‘I’m graduating and I don’t really want this program to stop’. So I started teaching people how to facilitate them before I graduated. I started training people in facilitation two years after I started facilitating, maybe even a little less. That’s kind of always been part of my facilitation practice is both that I have been doing it and teaching it almost the entire time I’ve been facilitating. That’s what I did for a long chunk of time. In my like early career what I mostly did was teach other people how to do, and how to facilitate, gender and sexuality workshops. Then I kind of did – I kind of zoomed out and did a lot more just like social justice – and difficult conversations – and kind of DEI work more broadly. Then, because I had spent so long teaching people how to facilitate, I just started doing that as one of the primary things, like separate from whatever content area people were in. It was, at the beginning, a lot of people who were kind of DEI social justice folks or people who are hosting difficult conversations, which is all of us. Now it’s kind of – there are facilitators who don’t work in that world at all who I train. And there are still a lot of folks who are kind of doing a lot of social change work that I kind of like specialize in.

Beth
I think what you do is particularly needed because we’re all trying to learn, you know, a lot of the aspects of what you just said, but the DEI pieces – I tend to call it ‘inclusive facilitation’ sometimes. And this piece about conflict, you know, I also teach facilitators and it comes up time and time again, doesn’t it? ‘How do we do this?’ And I think you’ve said – I’ve checked you out a little bit in some of the things that you’ve written about, and of course in your teachings, but I think we tend to avoid conflict and try to shun it away. But you’re saying ‘this happens to all of us, probably. It’s part of all of our work.’ We might not think that we’re going to go into a session where we’re going to facilitate a difficult conversation or experience conflict, but are we going to?

Meg
Yeah, so I would say there’s like a couple of different pieces. Like one is that I think that so often just in the highly politicized and divisive world that we live in, that we end up having a lot of difficult conversations just by the nature of the times or what’s happening in the news – that it’s really hard – you have to either avoid them or have them. Those are the kind of two options that I see a lot of workplaces facing – is that they’re either avoiding the conversations or they’re having the conversations. But there’s no “oh, we just haven’t thought about it anymore.” That’s not as much an option in the kind of highly globalized information world we live in. That’s one piece that I mean when I say ‘all of us are having them’. The other is that facilitators are there to do something that the group could not do without us – or is struggling to do in general. Like, they could do it without us, but facilitate means ‘to make easy’. So to me, conflict is one of those things that a lot of people see as a problem, and I often – at my best – see it as the point. Having somebody say something in a workshop that they wouldn’t otherwise say so that you can actually deal with that piece of information or that perspective or that opinion, is the point of the workshop sometimes. You know for me in a lot of social justice spaces, a lot of people walk around with a lot of questions in their head that they don’t ask because they’re like ‘oh I know that it’s like kind of unpopular or maybe it’ll make me look ignorant’ and like them revealing that you know in a workshop that I was hosting meant that I was doing a great job of creating a space where people felt they could open up and be honest, and it meant we actually got to address the thing that was holding them back, or the thing that they were stuck on, or the thing that they thought made them a bad person. Like, all of that actually got to be dealt with. Outside of a social justice context, a lot of times conflict is the thing that we are all not doing. Therefore, there’s so much extra work because we’re not actually facing the challenge that’s in front of us.

Beth
Yeah. So it behooves us to help a group bring things out, bring things out of individuals because then we’re going to get somewhere, aren’t we? It’s the ultimate impact we’re hoping to have, that something changes. And so why not make the space to talk about it? Yeah. I like that. (Yeah.) So you tell facilitators that, I assume, as you’re working with them and helping them learn. Are there things that you tell them to help them feel better about learning the skills of navigating conflict in their groups?

Meg
It’s something that I have gotten more and more philosophical and tactical about in the last few years. To me, facilitators are experts in getting people to participate. That’s why we’re not lecturers, (Yeah.) is that we are holding and creating highly participatory spaces. What I think is an inevitable outcome of participation, especially the less controlled the participation is – and I don’t mean ‘contained’ or ‘focussed’, but I mean you actually allow people to say things that are possibly unexpected, unscripted, and are not answers to leading questions, right? The more space of agency that participants are in, the more possibility of conflict there is. Because you’re not controlling what they’re saying. You are controlling the space in which they say it, right? To me, if you want to become a highly participatory educator, if you want to become somebody that really empowers people and who that holds real emergent facilitation space, you have to be willing to deal with conflict – because otherwise you are going to avoid actually giving people their agency and their ability to truly show up. Because as soon as they say something that creates conflict in the room or creates a divide, you’re going to see that as a problem instead of just the inevitable outcome of people being people with each other.

So that’s the first thing that I usually say to people is conflict is an inevitable part of humans relating to each other [laughs a bit] – and showing up and being able to fully participate. If you’re not willing to help them navigate that conflict, you kind of have to temper the amount of participation and the amount of ownership they really get over the space. That’s the first thing I usually tell people. Then in terms of like how to handle conflict – I mean there’s a [laughs] – I want to be able to give you some kind of a succinct answer, but I’ve designed two-hour workshops to basically give people an answer to: ‘what do I do if somebody says something problematic?’ There’s a lot to that response. But to me, it kind of starts with ‘how do you see the person who has said something problematic? Do you see them as a problem? Do you see them as somebody that you’re curious about? Do you see them as a full human that you’re willing and able to be – to extend grace towards, or are you writing them off?’ That mindset is the first part. The second part is like, ‘do you know how to validate what they are saying or validate anything that they’ve shared without agreeing with them? Can you basically say, ‘it’s reasonable for you to have said that perspective’ or ‘I understand emotionally what’s going on with what you’re saying – like I can connect on [an] emotional level even if I disagree with everything you’re saying’. Can you do that? And then direct their attention somewhere else? Or to where you want it to go or to the broader perspective? But do you know how to connect with people without agreeing with them?

Beth
I think that’s a great thing. Let’s circle back to that because I know that you do teach about that in your workshop, but let’s go back to mindsets for a second. So these are things that we can do ahead of time as we’re preparing to lead the workshop or the session. How do we get into the right mindset? What are some of those detailed mindsets that we have to intentionally take on for ourselves to get ready for – no matter if we think the session is going to be conflictual or not. I mean, we know something – as you say, if we facilitate – we intend to facilitate the kind of exciting, generative sessions that you were just talking about – we know we’re going to just have to be ready for anything to happen. So how do we get into some of those mindsets to help us be present like that?

Meg
So I’ll give you the very specific ones that I teach for folks especially who are hosting difficult, identity-based, political conversations – and that could extend to just broader conversations, but I find that these mindsets really pop up in those two spaces. There’s a mindset that I think is really pervasive in our culture which is solidified for me from Katherine Schulz’s TED Talk, where it’s ‘ignorant, stupid, evil’. It’s just like an escalating series of assumptions that we make about people who disagree with us or we disagree with. And that mindset is not something that any facilitator goes into the room cultivating, right? They’re not like, ‘I’m going to see some of these people as ignorant. Some of these people are stupid, and some of them are going to be straight up evil’. No one thinks that consciously, but it IS operating all the time. It is operating in the background. It’s the default operating system, I think, of a lot of political conversations. To me one of the really important things is to just be able to know and admit that and to be able to spot it in yourself. That was my first step when I started working on this. I was like, ‘OK I need to be able to spot when I dismiss people and what stories I am creating about them’. So ‘ignorant, stupid, evil’ is like kind of the [laughs] – is the mindset that I think is a default that is unconscious.

The mindsets to me that have been really helpful are any mindset that allows you to cultivate curiosity and grace an extension towards people. To me one of the most useful ones that I have found is Glasser’s Five Needs. It’s just this idea that all of us have core human needs. There are five of them. Let me see if I can do all of them: Security, love and belonging, freedom, fun, and power and recognition. Four of those are social-emotional needs. Security is the only physiological health – you know, roof over our heads, food in our stomachs – that sort of thing. All the rest are social-emotional needs. And to me, if you know those things, if you’re like, ‘OK everybody is trying to get love and belonging met, everyone’s trying to get fun, and freedom, and power and recognition’ – if you can keep that both in your mind about other people, it has allowed me to feel much more curious about people. Look at the same story from both of those different mindsets of ‘ignorant, stupid, evil’ versus ‘the five needs’. They report such physiological differences in their bodies. They’re like, ‘man, when I looked at it from this perspective, I was closed off and hunched shoulders and my heart elevated – when I was looking at it from “ignorant, stupid, evil”. And when I was looking at it from these ‘five needs’, I felt my shoulders drop and I was much more open. And the words I was using were ‘curious, interesting, heart-centred’.”

It doesn’t have to be the ‘five needs’, but what allows you to stay curious about people? What allows you to want to understand where they’re coming from? For me, it can be the ‘five needs’. It can be connecting that group of people that I’m about to work with to people I already care about. So when I started working with tech companies, you know, my older brother was a corporate lawyer for a while and I was just like ‘these guys are just like my brother’ [laughs a bit], you know? And that allowed me to not roll my eyes at them, because like I have a good relationship with him. And so I was like, ‘yeah, maybe these guys are just like him’ and that allowed me to stay open and curious instead of writing them off. I’m sure other people have those strategies, too, but to me it’s about like finding what are the things that allow me to stay open and who are the people I am putting outside of my circle of care. Who are the people I easily dismiss and roll my eyes at, even if it’s internally, because those internal eye rolls still come out in the types of moves that we make and the strategies we employ. I spend a lot of time noticing that in myself and trying to continue to extend my circle of care.

Beth
I’m glad you just said ‘noticing’ because that was the word that was coming up for me. We’re trying to figure out what is happening inside our mind, aren’t we? And the more we can kind of like notice and prepare to go into situations, any situations, and try to be aware of what’s happening with us – as well as what’s happening with the other person – as well. It’s really an empathetic kind of stance or mindset that you’re talking about, isn’t it? (Yeah.) Like we’re trying to delve behind what this person is saying in the room that our first – I don’t know is it the lizard brain? – like the first trigger response would be like ‘ach!’ you know, ‘why!’ – all sorts of things might go through your mind, but you’re noticing that first response and quashing it down, I think [laughs a bit] so you don’t want to go there. But then you’re saying to go deeper and think about these five needs behind what they’re saying. It helps us be more empathetic with them?

Meg
Yeah. Something I was sharing recently with a group of folks is that when people talk there are so many different ways you could listen to what they’re saying. You can listen to the tone of their voice. You can listen to the literal words as if it’s on a page. Something that I think is a real facilitation skill – and also to me is – I mean it’s a great skill of people in general – but I think it’s essential for facilitators – is to be able to listen to the content of what they’re saying versus the emotional reality of what they’re saying. People can be expressing something and you might be like, ‘wow, I really wish this person wasn’t saying all of this,’ but if you kind of go underneath the content and you listen for the emotional reality, you can almost always name a feeling word, like ‘wow’ – like even if somebody has gone on this tirade, right? [laughs] You can be like, ‘I see that there’s a lot of passion here’ [laughs] or ‘I see this is really important to you’ or ‘it sounds like you are really uncomfortable by this’ or ‘you’re really anxious about X’. Those emotional realities are almost – are always present. There are very, very few people who are not basically really – really emotional even if it looks, you know, really different. So being able to listen to those different pieces – also if you’re doing that you are staying in a curious orientation. Because you’re like, ‘I hear the like, blah, blah, blah’ of the content, but I’m actually looking for the emotional reality that I can connect to, or the feeling word that is actually here that is very humanizing to that person.

Beth
Yeah because we’ve felt those feelings, haven’t we, that they’re probably feeling. So if we can kind of get past the content piece and just dive further, then we can find something to connect with them around, because we have felt security, we have felt love and belonging, and freedom, fun – whatever – so we if we can get there, then we are more easily able to hear what they’re saying too?

Meg
Yeah, I think it’s just that so often we may not agree with the content of what they’re saying, but there’s an emotional reality underneath it that we can connect to that still allows that person to feel heard or understood. I think that that is really important. A lot of times our brains are looking for shortcuts all the time. It’s really easy to get caught up in what you were saying, you know, the initial thoughts that come up that we kind of have to squash down. I kind of think it’s more like – I don’t know – the image that just came to mind is like an auto-response. Your first thought is rarely something that you’re like – sometimes you’re like, ‘oh great, I agree with that’ and a lot of times you’re like, ‘oh my god, I wish I hadn’t had that’, right? [Chuckles] Your first thought is often cultural conditioning. It is something that is socially determined. And we don’t have to agree with it. And we kind of have to just like let it – you know, let it go or just not pay as close attention to it as the things that we can purposefully cultivate underneath.

I don’t think we need to spend a lot of energy with it. I think we instead can like – yeah, try to direct our attention to other places. Can you find the emotional connection? Can you find the piece of what they’re saying that you have experienced before? And then – you don’t need to spend a ton of time there. You really can say ‘that sucks’ or ‘yeah that sounds like it was a really hard experience for you’. That single sentence can be enough for somebody to go, ‘thank you for hearing me out’. You’re like, ‘yeah. I want to also add blah, blah, blah’. That’s fine. Sometimes in conflict we often feel like we really have to tend to somebody a lot before we get to move into a new direction or before we get to hear a different perspective. And I think that we don’t – we don’t have to spend five minutes trying to make them feel heard in order to spend the 30 seconds to make them feel heard.

Beth
I think that makes people feel better because there is a worry there, isn’t there, that ‘OK this person in our workshop or session has said something’. And one of the thoughts I would have is, well, first of all, I suppose, ‘should I say something like, should I deal with this?’ And then the next is sort of ‘how long is it going to take [laughs] to deal with this?’ You’re saying it can be quite – maybe it’s not simple but it can be quite quick to help that person feel heard, that you get those underlying needs going on. But what about the decision to say something or not? Should we always say something when somebody lands this statement out there and we realize there’s a problem in some way, should we always say something?

Meg
I think if you’re the only one who thinks that there’s a problem then you get to wonder that, but basically the rest of the time I have almost never been in a circumstance where somebody has said something that has made the facilitator uncomfortable and no one else in the room, right? (Yeah!) [Beth laughs] If that’s the case then that’s a specific trigger point for you, right? (Yeah, yeah there’s a barometer there.) That’s a completely other ballgame. To me almost every time I’ve ever been in a workshop, both when I’m facilitating and when I’ve been a participant, and something has come up where you can just feel that energy shift – you can feel kind of everybody like tense their shoulders or a couple people in the room get really uncomfortable and you’re like ‘ah crap’ – As facilitators, I see in that moment a lot of people just want to move on. It’s really important that we don’t just move on. Even if we say something as brief as, ‘so I just want to flag what you said there as something that a lot of people disagree about. Here I heard you say “this” perspective, and I know other people feel “this” perspective. We’re not going to get into that today, because we don’t have time with the purpose that we have set out to do together, to really do that conversation justice, but I just wanted to flag that before we moved on. OK, we’re moving on!’ I think that can take 90 seconds, and I did most of the speech, right? If we don’t do that, the energetic shift that happens is going to be far more expensive. People’s distrust of us as facilitators to not really go into the hard stuff can really disrupt and kind of like short circuit the rest of the workshop. I’ve seen a lot of facilitators just say ‘thank you for sharing that. Anyone else?’ And I’m like, ‘oh my god, you’re really leaving it open to the next person who talks to be the person who is responding to that comment’. I know that is so many facilitators’ go-to strategy. They’re like, ‘well if somebody says something I often say does anybody else have a different perspective?’ [animated]: And I’m like, ‘you are banking on the next participant having a better response than you do for that moment’.

Beth
And it’s not fair to the participants, is it, when we deflect that off to them, the responsibility.

Meg
Yeah, I really do think it’s a little bit of obfuscating our responsibility. And sometimes we’re human and we don’t have the right response. That’s where I think honestly having set phrases that you can say or like go-to – like I said earlier: ‘I’m going to flag that’ right? ‘Some people agree with you, this perspective, two sentences. Other people don’t, this perspective, two sentences’. That’s like a go-to thing that you can say almost every time. There’s a couple of those that we could have in our back pockets and we should maybe let go of the ‘thank you for sharing, we’re going to move on’ because I just think that feels really unsatisfying to everyone involved. If somebody throws something into the room that we didn’t want there, we have to be the ones who go like, ‘oh my gosh, wow, thank you so much. We’re actually going to put this outside the room again’. And that has to be intentional. I don’t think that can be avoided.

Beth
Oh, I love what you’re saying because you’re intentionally doing something to put that thing outside the room, whereas if you didn’t say something, that thing is still inside the room and maybe kind of on the surface your workshop continues to go on, but at least somebody – or a few people – or all the room – is thinking, ‘why didn’t she deal with that? Why didn’t they deal with that thing?’ And now they can’t learn [animated] or participate because they’re like replaying the whole thing in their mind and going, ‘are we going to talk about that elephant that just landed or …’ (Yeah.) Yeah so we have to deal with it.

Meg
Yeah. So I think we have to like energetically deal with it. It doesn’t matter – I mean it does matter how you do it, it matters tremendously – but there are multiple strategies for dealing with it, right? There is the like ‘we’re not going to do that right now’. There’s the ‘do we need to go into this? OK, we’re going to spend 10 minutes to do that. Here’s how we’re going to do that’ – and you create a new structure for it, right? There’s the ‘I’m going to share a perspective here because I think it’s important for us …’ – that there’s kind of like a set piece response. There are a lot of different ways to deal with it. But yeah, you can’t just let it sit there and be like, ‘no, everybody don’t pay attention to that’ [laughs] – it just doesn’t work.

Beth
Yeah. You can’t just take it away from their minds that it just happened. (No.) Yeah.

Meg
And I think that honestly a lot of us do that because we don’t know what else to do. (Exactly). That is why I do a lot of the facilitator training that I do is that almost every facilitator I know didn’t learn facilitation intentionally. We learned it in the context of teaching specific content, or having a specific role or title or job. That means that there’s going to be things that we don’t know how to do [laughs] because we’re all just like – I don’t know, if we didn’t figure it out, very few of us know where to go in order to figure it out. I know a lot of facilitators who are really brilliant who can’t tell you why they’re brilliant at it. It’s the same way that there are really incredible artists and dancers who cannot teach you how to be a great artist. That’s because they haven’t broken it all down. They’re just like, ‘I don’t know. I just have a lot of instincts’, you know? [laughs] When our instincts fail us in facilitation – or just seem to be unsatisfactory – a lot of us don’t know where to go or who to trust in getting better because – or just most of us don’t go seek out that kind of education because it’s not how we learned it in the first place.

Beth
I’ve seen in your workshop – because kindly you shared a copy of a recorded session that you did with your groups – the Holding Space workshop you take people through teaching them a three-step process. Like, these are the real strategies we can use when faced with a triggering comment in a workshop. Are you willing to take us through those three steps?

Meg
Yeah, no problem. So the three step process is ‘connect, reflect, and direct’. CRD. Connect, reflect, and direct. This is what I use basically anytime somebody has said a comment. This really came out of me wanting to be able to have a specific way to respond when somebody says a comment that is problematic, divisive, harmful – I find that those are the moments [chuckles] where you’re like ‘oh god…’ Yeah, this is a three step process.

So connect, reflect, and direct. Connect is to name a generous truth, or name an emotional reality that allows them to feel connected and heard. This can sound something as simple as ‘wow it sounds like you have a lot of anxiety about your son finding a job’. One sentence. It can be as short as that. Connect is the first step. Reflect is when you highlight part of their story that you, the group, or other people, can relate to. So this will be more helpful if I give you a real life example. I was hired by an organization. They host hundreds of conversations of executive-level women. So they’re all-women groups. And this happened in three separate groups [laughs] one year. And it was a white woman who was sharing that she felt her white son was not going to be able to get a job these days because of the attention that diverse candidates were getting. That he was going to get passed over because he was white. None of the facilitators in those groups had any idea what to do [laughs a bit], and I was like ‘OK here’s what I would have hopefully done in that moment’. Connect. Name a generous truth. ‘Sounds like you are really anxious about your son. Sounds like you’re really anxious about his job, future, prospects’. Reflect is to highlight a part of their story that you, the group, or other people can relate to. So that might sound something like, ‘you know I know when my family members have been looking for a job, that I’ve been really anxious about that outcome, I can’t make it happen for them and that just really raises my level of worry, and it’s so hard when we can’t make something happen for people we care about’. That might have even been a little too long, but that’s two sentences. So, Connect, Reflect.

Direct is the last part, and this is where you shine a light in the direction that you want to shift their attention to go, OK? This is the thing that almost everybody does first. Almost everybody goes, ‘well actually that’s not quite true’, and we info dump on the person, right? The direct I would never recommend is ‘thank you for sharing that’, and move on, which we just talked about. You can do a lot in a direct. You can do the ‘you know, a lot of people agree with you or they feel similarly…’ You don’t even have to say ‘agree’. ‘They feel similarly and feel concerned about blah, blah, blah. And a lot of people don’t agree and think that the shifts that are happening in hiring practices are just correcting an imbalance that has existed and privileged certain groups of people’. Right? You can do that exact one that I gave you earlier almost every time in the direct. You can say, ‘oh boy, so I hear your anxiety. I know I’ve shared a lot of that anxiety, and you have just opened up a really big conversation [chuckles] about DEI, about race in America’ – well I’m in America so it’s almost always talking to an American audience – sorry Canadians – and ‘we are not going to be able to get into that intentionally the way that I would want to for such a loaded conversation. It’s highly charged for all of us in this room. And so I’m going to put that aside for the moment, that part of your comment. And if we want to, as a group, we can come back to that. But I want to make sure we do that intentionally’. That ability to say ‘whoop, uh, no’ and put it aside, or respond to it in some way, that is the direct. That’s where we get a lot of choice as facilitators.

When we do that without connecting or reflecting to the person first, it doesn’t land the same way. They don’t come with us on that journey. If we’re just like, ‘you know what? We are not going to go into that conversation’ then the person’s like, ‘what’ [sigh noise] – like they feel emotionally rejected, even if like not logistically or kind of content-wise. And so when we’re facilitating groups, it’s so important to bring everyone on that journey to bring people together and keep them together, even when they made a comment that casts them off the boat. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of like watching someone say something, where you’re just like ‘why are you digging yourself a hole right now?’ [Laughs] And as facilitators it’s our job to go over and take the shovel out of their hands and be like, ‘I’m going to stop you there [laughs]. I’m going to stop you there’ and let me try to re-contextualize and give people something to hold on to that wasn’t the comment that made them very uncomfortable or angry or hurt or frustrated with you, right? Which is what we do when we name the emotional reality of their story in the connect and the reflect. We give people a little something to like hold on to that isn’t the comment that is really divisive. Then we say like ‘come back on the – come back on board – and we’re going to move on to a new place’. That’s the three step process. Connect, reflect, and direct.

Beth
So useful. And I like how you said it’s not just about us as the facilitator and this person who has said something, is it? It’s everyone that’s in the room that that three step process really brings everyone along because then you help other people see, ‘OK there’s this connection piece going on here’. We feel like we’ve heard the person and their need behind it. And then they’ve heard you say the direct piece of the two truths, sort of final – ‘OK some people think this, some people think that’ and you don’t even have to say as the facilitator which one you think and you probably shouldn’t I suppose anyway [laughs a bit] – but yeah you’ve brought the entire room along. And as you say everyone’s still on the island together. I love that.

Meg
Yeah. I think it is a generous thing that we do for the group – it’s a particularly generous act, which is why I call it – the workshop that you were referring to earlier – I call it a ‘generous’ approach to navigating conflict. It is generous, right? Like, to me, it is generous to the person to keep them as part of the group, but it also is a generous thing – the group now gets to take you up on a little bit of that generosity. They can either – they can still resent that person or be frustrated or dislike their comment but there is at least something for them to grab onto if they want to. And that person can sometimes do that, right? They’re like ‘you know what, I shouldn’t have said that last part, but you’re right I am just really, really anxious about my son.’ And you’re like, ‘great! Way to go!’

Beth
Yeah there’s a humanity there. (Yeah.) They’re a human being who’s trying to do their best, hopefully, in the world. [Chuckles]

Meg
Right. Exactly. So you kind of give them a chance to also fill in some of that hole that they dug themselves. The last thing I want to say about the group dynamic part of it is that when we don’t do that – when that person kind of throws themselves off the island and we’re like, ‘you know what – See ya! Bye! You did that to yourself’ [laughter] – the thing that is an unintended consequence of that is it raises the anxiety levels of the remaining group. Not because they were that person, but because they’re like, ‘oh Meg’s willing to cast people off’ and we end up with the feeling of ‘I’m glad that wasn’t me’ and ‘I’m glad that wasn’t me’ is not actually a reassuring feeling [Beth laughs: No!]. That is delayed anxiety. Or it’s anxiety that you’re just like ‘thank god it was them. It wasn’t me’. And it’s not a comfort, even if you think that person deserves to be cast aside, it isn’t actually soothing to your nervous system, I think, to see it because you’re like, ‘that could happen to me’.

Beth
Oh absolutely. And a sure-fire way to shut down all future participation in that (Yeah) workshop because no one’s going to put themselves forward if we shut somebody down. Yeah. That’s never going to happen. And then you wonder why it didn’t ‘work’ – like the session. [laughing together]

Meg
We’re like ‘I don’t know what happened’ and I’m like ‘I know what happened’ [laughs].

Beth
Yeah. I was part of a community group once where the leader had an argument with someone in front of the entire group. And there were 60 of us sitting there watching this whole thing go down. And I think it affected the group – nobody ever really did anything about it in front of the group. It affected the group’s dynamic for years to come. (Oh god.) Absolutely. Like, it was just awful. It’s a visceral feeling, isn’t it, when you’re the – it’s kind of a bystander thing, isn’t it? – where the other participants in the room see this happening, somebody has said something and the facilitator didn’t handle it and there’s this visceral kind of, ‘ack!’ and it’s very difficult to recover from that.

Meg
Yeah. I think ‘bystander’ brings up to me that feels like ‘I should have done something’. I think of it more like secondary – like secondhand smoke or we are now talking about this with trauma that you can have secondary trauma: Watching somebody experience trauma is traumatizing. The nervous systems of those two people are actually not as different as you would expect. Somebody getting yelled at and somebody witnessing somebody get yelled at, those nervous systems are both really dysregulated – I mean all the people in that scenario would probably be very dysregulated – and so yeah, to me, you all witnessed something that felt like – that broke the trust. A lot of facilitators promise basically to – the reason I use the term ‘holding space’ is that’s a term we use all the time in facilitation. What we are often promising is ‘I will be the biggest person in this room, not the loudest, right? But I will be on my best behaviour the whole time. I promise’. [Chuckles] When we break that promise and we become really emotionally dysregulated, it has an impact that is outsized to any participant having that same experience, because we’re the ones who promised to do something different. We are the ones who said, ‘I have a unique responsibility and therefore I have a unique set of realities that I need to live into’. We can also be human and we can have those moments, but you said too they never dealt with it in the group. And when a dynamic enters the group, you have to deal with it in the group. Even if it is just to say, ‘we’re not going to deal with this’ [laughs]. Even if it’s just to acknowledge – but it has to be acknowledged in the group.

And I think the group – especially – I was going to say ‘especially adults’, but actually I think this is probably just universal – deserves to be told when and if it will be dealt with. In the example I gave earlier, ‘we’re not going to do this right now, and if you want to do this another time, I will circle back with the group and we can talk about when would be an appropriate time to get into that level of conversation’. Or ‘we might be able to get to that at the end’, this is the other go-to facilitator thing – ‘we might be able to get to that at the end, let me parking-lot it’. And I think that that’s good because it acknowledges to the group, ‘I see it, I heard it, I understand that we might want to deal with it, and this is the plan’. We should never underestimate what avoiding things does.

Beth
I love that you talk about it as being generous to whatever’s happening in the room – the people in the room or whatever they’ve said. But how do we – can we turn that to ourselves as well? How do we be generous to ourselves as the facilitators of these meetings, these group process pieces? Because it’s hard work, isn’t it, to prepare for this, to deal with it, to deal with it wonderfully and skillfully. How do we be generous to ourselves?

Meg
I’m going to go ahead and say I think that’s the most difficult part for me. I can be generous to other people all day long, and to myself I find that to be the ‘hardest patient’. You know there’s a person who talks about marketing that I follow on Instagram, uh, their name is Bear Hébert. And Bear said a line once that I was just like, ‘ooh that’s good’ and they said ‘don’t get your attachment needs met by your clients’ – and I was like ‘ooohhhh [laughs] that just called out so many people’. To me it is totally important to be generous with ourselves. It is so appropriate to debrief your workshop – like to have a go-to buddy to debrief your workshops with. I think that has been hugely transformative for me. Having facilitator friends, people who get it, to be able to say like ‘I think I really messed up’, and they’re like ‘oh my god, want to hear a story when I messed up?’ And you’re like, ‘yes, I do!’ [laughter] That’s really important.

But I think it is incredibly important to not make your participants be the person that is being generous to you. That is something that I don’t feel comfortable with. It is important when we are in our – it is OK for people to do that. I don’t think it is OK to ask for it, to request comfort, to request reassurance. Maybe with the person who hired you, not the regular – you know the point of contact – not the rest of the group. But generally speaking, I think it’s really important for us to get our needs met outside of the groups that we’re working with. Before and after. To go in prepared, to go in resourced, to go in with our best version of the self that we can come up with that day, and then to do a lot of the debriefing, processing, etc with people who are not those people. That’s been really important to me.

I know there’s been a proliferation in the last few years with just how many of us have shifted to online work, of like communities of facilitators, and if you’re listening to this and you’re like ‘I don’t have any facilitator friends’ – I think it’s really important to look up communities of facilitators because you can connect to them – or go to a single workshop and just DM people. Like ‘hey do you want to connect after this?’ Do it. I fully encourage you to do that. That kind of thing is really important because most people in my life – even the most loving, lovely people in my life – don’t care about facilitation. And they have no idea what it’s like to have to [sighs] listen to somebody rant about something and be like, ‘man, I really messed up. I should have cut them off three minutes ago’. It’s really important to have somebody go ‘yeah, that uniquely sucks’ and to really understand it.

Beth
Yeah. And to know – I’ve both been the person that has called a facilitator friend and said, ‘ugh can I tell you what happened?’ and then I’ve been the person – a person has called me, and it just happened the other day actually, and I was able to say to that friend ‘yeah that sounds tough’ – the skills that you were saying that you use in the room. I use it with friends as well. ‘Oh that sucks. That’s really tough. I get it. I’ve been there too’. And but then I kind of try to – maybe it’s a ‘direct’ piece too – and say ‘but I see you as a person and you as a facilitator, you friend, you have skills in blah, blah, blah, and I think that you did your best…’ Like you just say the words ‘I see you and the things that you’re trying to do as a facilitator in this very hard work that we both do, and don’t beat yourself up so much. You have a lot of skills in this area’. Whatever. So you get that kind of words of wisdom maybe – I hope – from the people that love us the most and get the situation as you say.

Meg
Yeah I think a lesson I have learned from being in relationships with people is the difference between advice and support. Where just that initial question of ‘did you want advice or did you want support?’ We know that it often goes better if you lead with support before you go to advice. That order of operations is really important [laughs]. If you’re going to give advice, people better know that you care about them first. That’s exactly what CRD is. It’s like: do not info dump on somebody before they know that you care about them as a person. They’re not going to listen. And we know that with friends. We know that with relationships that it goes better if we go ‘ooh do you want advise or support?’ [Laughs] And sometimes we forget that common wisdom when it comes to interrupting things or especially people who just like grind our gears or perspectives that we find really hard to tolerate, we just lose that good sense of relating to people, and we default into the ‘let me give you some advice’ [laughs]. It doesn’t work.

Beth
You know just the more time we continue to spend with people, with groups – and it doesn’t make a difference for me whether it’s in person or online – it’s just that, I don’t know, humanity coming together piece in real time – and maybe because of things like social media where it’s asynchronous and you’re just kind of lobbing things out there or whatever – well, I don’t [laughs] I try to stay out of the fray – but in the synchronous time that we have with other people we can develop those skills and use them and be generous with ourselves as we fail and fail forward and all that kind of stuff. Yeah. So keep getting together with other people. And I love that you’re turning us – still – I believe the same – to communities of practice. The more we talk with other people who do this work, the better it’s going to be, isn’t it?

Meg
Yeah and I think also sometimes it’s really important for us to like not see [sighs] the things we learn in our lives as like so separate from our work. When you ask ‘how are you generous with yourself?’ – it would be a great practice for me to go like ‘well where in my life am I best at that? Where in my life am I the most forgiving, the most gracious, the most compassionate with myself? Cool. What do I do there?’ Because sometimes we – I see this just like all the time in social justice work and in the DEI work that I do, people will be like ‘how do I give my boss feedback about the fact that I think that they’re being subtly racist or explicitly racist’. And I’m like ‘what do you currently give your boss feedback on?’ And they’re like ‘Yeah. Nothing’. And I’m like ‘OK yeah it’s going to be tough to give them feedback about one of the most socially loaded topics of all time of this current moment. It’s going to be really hard to give them feedback about that when you give them feedback about nothing else’. And they were like, ‘huh’. And I’m like, ‘yeah same goes to talking to our families about politics…’ And that is true of … if you don’t do it in ways that you find less intimidating, it’s not going to be easy for the things that matter most. If I’m not giving myself grace around anything, why would I give it to myself around something that is one of the most important parts of my identity – which is my work. It’s often also finding those like lower-stakes, easier places and learning from that, building from there.

Beth
Yeah and you talked in the workshop about practice, like those are ways to practice the skills in low stakes ways and that’s, it’s a good place to start.

Meg
Yeah, exactly.

Beth
Meg, is there anything that you want to leave us with as we think about closing this episode? I know we’ve gone down a lot of paths here wonderfully. Any final words about holding space?

Meg
I guess I’ll close with a story. I do another workshop on navigating our triggers as facilitators. There are so many different strategies we can use, but one of the strategies is – it’s kind of like building a mindset. I call it ‘Safety Goggles’ – ‘You wouldn’t weld without a welding helmet. You shouldn’t facilitate without certain mantras or mindsets that help keep you safe’. I was doing a two-day training and somebody – we were coming up with different safety goggles. And this person said, ‘you know, I just, I think assume best intent’. And I was like, ‘OK great. Does that one work for you?’ And she was like ‘Oh no. No. No. NO’. [Laughs] And I was like, ‘oh OK, that doesn’t kind of give me – that’s not your vibe’. And she’s like ‘yeah, no. But I feel like I have to say that or like I should – that one should protect me’. And I was like ‘how about: everyone’s a jerk sometimes’. And she was like ‘oh I like that one better. Um-hmm. That’s good’. And I was like ‘great’. But I was like, you know, [sighs] ‘yeah what about that?’ And she’s like, ‘yeah that would be a lot easier for me to be able to protect myself from getting emotionally escalated if I was just able to internally protect myself with like: everybody’s a jerk sometimes’. And I was like, ‘yeah, I think it’s really important sometimes to have things that work and not have things that we aspire to. Assume best intent is beautiful. When you can really do it, it is incredibly powerful. But if it doesn’t help you from getting triggered then it’s not working. It’s not a strategy that works. There are a lot of strategies right now that we wish worked.

In a workshop recently somebody was like ‘you know I just always info dump on people’. And I was like ‘and does that work?’ And they were like ‘no’. And I was like ‘yeah it doesn’t’. What I would just really want to invite people to do is just – the strategies that you want to work but don’t are worth revisiting because it’s important to find ones that do. It’s important to find the things that work to keep you safe, to keep the group together, to allow you to maintain people’s humanity who you would otherwise want to dismiss. All of those are really important things to be able to do. Sometimes the strategies that we use over and over again aren’t working and when we slow down to ask ourselves – we know it. And it’s really important to look for support when your strategies aren’t working.

Beth
That’s such great advice. And I bet there are many people listening to this right now thinking, ‘OK that thing that I thought was working is not working. So what am I going to do now? How do I move forward?’ Yeah. (Um-hmm.)

Thank you so much, Meg. It’s been a pleasure to have this conversation – this conversation about a difficult thing, but it’s we’ve able to even have some laughs as we’ve talked about this and just – I don’t know – make it easier perhaps for people to enter into this. I know I will look at conflict differently too because of this conversation. So, thank you. Thank you for continuing to open up my awareness and cause my learning as well. I appreciate it.

Meg
Yeah you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

[Episode outro]
Beth
I found my conversation with Meg so valuable. The piece that she shared about Glasser’s Five Needs and that most of people’s needs underneath what they’re saying are actually social-emotional needs, this is really important for us to realize, isn’t it? Because we might be tending to just listen to the words that they’re saying. But no, she’s really encouraging us to dig deeper and to recognize that there are needs not being expressed behind that statement. And if we can figure out what those needs are it really helps us to be able to connect, and respond to that person. So remember her three step process: Connect, Reflect, and Direct. If you didn’t take notes during the episode when you were listening to it, this might one you go back to and listen to and take those notes, and then don’t just do that, try to practice the three step approach that she’s recommending. Maybe you have something in your past, recent or otherwise, that’s been a situation that you can think of to be able to practice what you might have done in that situation that you didn’t do at the time. You could practice it with a facilitator friend of yours or even just by yourself by writing down what you might have been able to do, what you could have said in that situation. Because it’s one thing to learn the three stepped approach but of course it’s another thing to actually integrate it into our practice. And I count myself among that as well. It doesn’t happen too often to me but even if it hasn’t happened so far, I know it will happen again and I want to be ready for it. And I hope you do too. So these three steps and basically all of the other pieces that she had to share with us around being generous to our participants in our meetings or workshops.

I really love the word ‘generosity’ when it comes to thinking about how we are with ourselves, how we are with our participants. And if we can show our participants generosity and respond to them effectively then, as she said, it just translates out to everybody else in the room and they come along for the ride of that. And isn’t that the whole point of it anyway? She said conflict is kind of the point. If we can’t get together and have meaningful conversations and deal with the possibility that conflict might come up, what are we doing this for anyway? [chuckles] This hard work of facilitation. So I think Meg’s given us some really great skills to grab onto here and just keep practicing it with your groups as you go forward. I really want to thank her for being my guest today.

On the next episode of the podcast, I talk with my guest Michele Mateus. Michele is an international award-winning photographer, an artist, a coach, and a bonafide cheerleader. She says she’s on a mission to remind people that they are a “big f’ing deal worthy of celebration and adoration”. [chuckles] I think that statement alone might give you a little window into Michele’s personality. She was so fun to talk with. What are we talking about? Sharing Ourselves Through Photography. And what does that have to do with facilitation? A lot. Catch you on the next episode. We’ll see you then.

[Show outro]
Beth
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit facilitatingonpurpose.com. Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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