A conversation with Michael Wilkinson, CEO and Managing Director of Leadership Strategies


“Whoever said, do what you love, the money will come, they got that right. Lots of work, mind you, in between. As we like to say, your passions determine your purpose. But it’s your decisions that determine your destiny.” – Michael Wilkinson

I’m pleased to have Michael Wilkinson here with me today for Episode 9 of the Control the Room Podcast. Michael is the CEO and Managing Director of Leadership Strategies, the largest provider of professional facilitation in the country.

Michael, who grew up in the projects as what his sister described as a “Sesame Street Gangster,” eventually found himself at a New England prep school through an opportunity found through his job as a paperboy. After turning down an acceptance to Harvard Business School, Michael abandoned his 10-year plan to become undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development to begin a “faith-walk” that ultimately ended in his founding Leadership Strategies.

In today’s episode, Michael and I talk about his path to the International Association of Facilitators Hall of Fame, what makes a facilitator great, and the six P’s of preparing for a meeting. Listen in to find out how Michael identifies and trains facilitators with great potential and how to ask the right questions in meetings.

Show Highlights

[1:38] Michael’s childhood in the projects of D.C.
[5:39] Michael’s path to facilitation.
[10:30] What makes a great facilitator.
[17:17] Human connection in a virtual environment.
[26:07] Generating engagement when facilitating virtually.
[28:58] The only 3 reasons people disagree.
[35:16] The Six P’s of preparing for a meeting.
[40:56] Kumbaya facilitators.
[42:45] Asking the right questions.
[50:03] Leadership Strategies’ resources for facilitators.

Michael on LinkedIn
Leadership Strategies Website

About the Guest

Michael Wilkinson is the CEO and Managing Director of Leadership Strategies, a leadership training and strategy consulting firm that specializes in group facilitation. He is also the author of books such as Secrets of Facilitation, Facilitating Strategy, and CLICK: The Virtual Meetings Book. In 2016, Michael was awarded a place in the International Association of Facilitators Hall of Fame.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

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Full Transcript

Intro: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.

Douglas: Today I’m with Michael Wilkinson. Michael is the CEO and managing director of Leadership Strategies, Inc., a leadership training and strategy consulting firm specializing in group facilitation. Michael is the author of the bestselling The Secrets of Facilitation, and most recently, Click: The Virtual Meetings Book. Welcome to the show, Michael.

Michael: It is my pleasure, Douglas, and thank you for introducing me to your audience.

Douglas: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to have you. And I guess, speaking of the audience, I think they’d love to hear how you got started in this amazing work of facilitation.

Michael: Well, as you know, because you’ve been there, and many who are facilitators know, there is no front door to facilitation. It’s not like you can go to college and go, “I want a degree in facilitation.” Most people enter through the back door. The major entry ways, many come through H.R. Others come through the processing-quality side. Some come through the I.T., the consulting side; from the D&I, diversity-inclusion side. I was on the I.T. side.

So I was one of those kids—in fact, if you back up my story a little bit, I’m a projects kid. I grew up in the projects of D.C.. So for those who know D.C., back in the day, Anacostia, the worst neighborhood in D.C., and I have to confess, at six, I was one of those bad kids, where we’re stealing from the local grocery store. Remember the corner grocery stores that used to exist? We would—and this is really bad—we would, at six years old, we were tying kids to trees and leaving them out all night. I mean, it was before gangs were gangs. My sister called this the Sesame Street Gangsters. It was just not good.

And by the time I got to seven, we moved from what I call lower-lower class—the projects of D.C.—to lower-middle class, out in what’s today is Suitland, Maryland. And at that time, and people who believe that place doesn’t matter, place absolutely matters. The kids in that neighborhood, they were building clubhouses. They had a chess club. And so me and my brothers, we started doing what they started doing. Even got a paper route, if you can remember the old paper boys, where you deliver papers. Had two paper routes, making money for my family.

And the change, the big change, in life came when, at 14, the Post building, the Washington Post, sponsored interviews for private schools, and any of the carriers could come for an interview. I got interviewed, got accepted to a couple of the really big private schools in New England, started going to this New England prep school. My graduating class, 50 people, 50 people in the graduating class, including—and you won’t know these names unless you were into that movement—but the Wares of Long Island, Paula Ware; General Patton’s grandson, the Stacks of Greenwich is—do you remember all superlatives in the yearbook, “first to make a million”? Well, we had a superlative, “already has a million,” and there were two names. These are trust-fund kids. But I had gotten pulled into that environment.

And as a senior, I did a study of grades and test scores. I was a psych major at the time. So a correlation in prep school of the—and I got the grades and test scores of my graduating class. Of course, the registrar stripped off the names, but he left them in alphabetical order, Douglas, so it was too hard to find Wilkinson. And to say my test scores were lower would be true, but an understatement. I was so much lower than the next lower person, I clearly took someone’s place. Talk about affirmative action, they reached out and got me. They were looking for a black kid, and I was the only black kid in my graduating class. But I graduated fifth in the class, which means it wasn’t really fair that I took someone’s place. But it also wasn’t fair that I hadn’t had the preparation that all the other kids did.

So once I got it, I just excelled. Went off to a New England prep school, and I came out. I was going to be undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development. I had a 10-year plan—even back then, Douglas, I was a planner—a 10-year plan to become undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development. I was going to go back to Harvard Business School. I’d gotten accepted. I’d asked for a two-year deferment. Decided I wanted to work for two years in D.C. so I could see how Washington worked and how the different agencies worked. And somewhere along the line, got the spiritual thing. So I’m a son of a minister, so I got really clear on getting directed from the Spirit, and had that what we call the bathroom experience, the second major shift in life. So they’re actually the third. The first, of course, was moving out of the projects. The second, getting the scholarship to go to New England boarding school. The third was hearing in the shower, from out of nowhere, “Michael, if your most important relationship is your relationship with Me, how is going to Harvard Business School going to help you do that?” There you go. There’s 10-year plan down the drain, Douglas.

So ended up, I quit my job, I told Harvard I wasn’t coming, and went on a six-month faith walk, where just—and things are great when you do a faith walk, Douglas, where these things are great 29 days out of the month. It’s when that rent is due, that’s when things get really hairy. But it was one of the most important times of my life and learned some really important lessons. And the most important one, because I was asking, “Okay, God, you don’t want me to do this 10-year plan. It was clearly my plan. Well, what do You want me to do? You want me to become a minister? You want me to go off on a mountain and contemplate my navel. Do You want me to stand on the corner and say, ‘Have you asked, talked about, thought about God today?’” And I got that direction, and a really important direction, that each of us is called to ministry. Ministry is service. That’s what it’s called for. Some people, it takes the form of the pulpit. For other people, it takes another form. Facilitation is my ministry.

I ended up facilitating, 1985 is my first official facilitated session, in a session where we were doing requirements analysis, and it was going south. Vendor was presenting, just going all over the place. I was the youngest kid in the room. We have, you know, the consultants. I was with Ernst and Young, the youngest consultant on the team, but nobody was stepping up. So I just got up and said, “You know what, let’s structure this a little differently.” And so here with the client people, with our own consultants, and with this vendor, restructured the conversation and led it for that three hours going forward. Afterwards, someone said, “That was a great facilitated session.” Douglas, I was like, “What? What are you talking about? What’s this thing called…” I had no idea. And then when they explained it to me, I said, “Oh, yeah. It’s easy. Everybody is good at it.” And that’s where I learned everybody was not good at this thing called facilitation that I had been gifted with some natural talents that made me instinctively good at it. And so I started doing it, started facilitating for my church, started facilitating for the nonprofit associations I was a part of.

And then the fourth major shift in life came. This is the call that actually changed my trajectory again. Connie Bergeron—I remember. It was March 1991. She called and said, “Hey, we’re looking for a facilitator. I’ve just been named head of Meeting Professionals International for the Atlanta chapter. I’m getting my officers together for a retreat. It’s going to be on this particular weekend. Would you facilitate it for me?” I looked over my calendar, Douglas, and said, “Sure. I’d be glad to.” And, again, she said the words that changed my life, “And we’ll pay you.” Really? I mean, I was willing to do it for free because it’s fun. So she paid me. It was great. Two months later she called me back. Mentioned the pay word again. Three months later called me back.

It was November of 1992, 1992, yes. I was, at that point, 18 months from becoming a partner at Ernst and Young. I turned to them, Douglas, and said, “I’m having way more fun on the weekends than I’m having during the week,” and left and started Leadership Strategies, the facilitation company. Do you like to say world headquarters, our second bedroom, which is great. Big plans, but just getting started. And it has been an amazing blessing.

Today, we’re the largest provider of professional facilitation across the country. We have 600 facilitators under contract. We have a core team of 27 facilitators. We’ve trained 28,000 people in facilitation skills; written six books on facilitation, the two you mentioned and four others. It is crazy. Here’s this kid from the projects, and it’s been just amazing blessing. Whoever said, do what you love, the money will come, they got that right. Lots of work, mind you, in between. As we like to say, your passions determine your purpose. But it’s your decisions that determine your destiny. And so it was just a bunch of decisions that helped me along the way. And it’s been just a tremendous blessing.

Anyway, long story, but thought your listeners might enjoy understanding, how did I get here? because it’s been a crazy, crazy ride.

Douglas: Yeah. I mean, wow, impressive. And, you know, I think most facilitators can relate to this kind of moment of—well, kind of two moments that you described—the moment where you start to—these kind of natural talents start to click. You know, for me, it was always, I always found myself in meetings where people were disagreeing, but really they were saying the same thing but just in different ways, or they thought they were agreeing but they were saying different things. And I always had to interject and say, “Hold on for a second. I think you’re saying this and you’re saying this,” and they’re both nodding their heads. And then they stop for a second and realize that they were saying different things. And that happened enough and enough and enough that I realized that, man, that’s something that I’m not seeing enough out of other people. And so I think that’s something that’s a hallmark of a facilitator, when you realize that in meetings, there’s something about what you’re observing or the way things are unfolding that really align with this ability to help move things forward in a natural and productive way. So I think—

Michael: You really have touched on something that’s really important, and many facilitators may know it or not know it. When we were doing training early on, I was recognizing that there were people who were learning the techniques but missing some things that were going to make them a great facilitator, even though they knew all the same stuff that others knew or that we were training other people in. And I realized, and you put it well, that we talk about now seven key characteristics to look for. And people ask us, “Hey, we’ve purchased your training class. We’re going to have a training for 16 people. How do I choose the 16 people in the class?” And we tell them, “Here’s some target characteristics to look for.” We talk about seven, and we tell them, “Really it’s three that’s really important. And oh, by the way, the first two we can do nothing about.”

So those three, just quickly, one is you got to like people, right? If you don’t like people, this is not something you should be doing, because people give you lots of reasons not to like them. So you really have to have a starting point, where you really like people.

Two, you have to be able to process information quickly because there’s so much coming and your mind has to be listening and processing at the same time and being able to differentiate, yeah, this is the same as that. This is different from this. This is…while you’re listening, being able to process that. And if you can’t process quickly, really, all you’re going to be is a meeting manager. And great facilitators are way more than meeting managers because they’re able to capture the spirit of a group; help engage them; and help guide them; can see down the road and around the corner, see the car or the truck that’s coming that they’re about to crash into, long before they’re getting there, because they’re processing while stuff is going on.

So clearly, you have this skill, and then could recognize, a lot of people don’t, “Well done, sir. Applauding you. Well done.”

Douglas: Well, yeah. You know, it’s funny. I don’t know how many times you’ve been speaking with someone that’s maybe interested in learning facilitation or even a prospect or whatnot, and it turns out they’re conflating facilitator and moderator. And I think that’s maybe the big—and I think when you say meeting manager, it’s all in that same bucket of, like, not facilitator.

Michael: Yes. And it really, I mean, it really is because there are some people, people who are great speakers, think, “Okay, I’d be a good facilitator.” People who are great trainers, “Wow. I could be a good facilitator.” And we say, okay, let’s separate this, because, as you know, facilitation has got convoluted with a bunch of stuff. So ATD, the Association for Talent Development, uses the name facilitator for trainers. And that’s fine. Training facilitators, that’s good. We can infer very much. But we are more group facilitators. In our business, it’s kind of interesting because what we find is in general, this isn’t completely true, but in general, our best trainers are extroverts. Our best group facilitators are introverts. One of my people who worked for us many years, she said something to me one day, and it’s like, this capsulizes it well. She said, “You know, Michael, I like facilitating, but I really love training.” I said, “Okay, Leslie, I’ll bite. Why do you really love training?” She said, “Well, when you’re facilitating, you really have to listen to them.” And there you go. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. You get where I get that? Really rings the bell of why introverts, who are, really, they value listening and processing a lot more than extroverts, who generally like expressing. And so if you generally like expressing, you may find that training is way more your passion than facilitating, where you’re really listening, contemplating, and helping a group move in a direction and so on. Interesting, yes?

Douglas: Yes. And, you know, I can find that really fascinating because usually we like to pair up someone who’s kind of a classical trainer—

Michael: Yes.

Douglas: —and has that air, that performance aspect with a facilitator in these training sessions, because then that person can put on the dog-and-pony show while the facilitator is making sure that learning’s integrated, because if you’re not listening and working with them, you don’t know if it stuck.

Michael: And so what’s interesting, I’m going to take you a step further, and I’m really biased here, that I really think we figured out in our company or we’ll wait to think about how to make training work, because we don’t hire trainers to train people in facilitation. We hire facilitators to train people in facilitation because they understand and role model all the techniques. But then we teach them about how important it is, with one of our eight principles in our facilitation course, all has to do with energy and keeping the energy high because that’s one of the hallmarks of our practice. So we have to be able to, we call it show time. As an introvert, I get my energy from within, and people often are surprised when they see me do my thing, and then at the end of it, it’s like I’m the thumb in the mouth. I need a blankie. It happened twice before I realized this was a bad idea, Douglas.

Clients who, when I was about, I was going to facilitate a two-day training session. Let’s say it started on a Tuesday. The client said, “Hey. Why don’t you fly in Monday night, meet with the team, they’ll get to know you, and then we’ll get started Tuesday morning?” Douglas, I did that twice. I’d never do that again, never, ever, ever, because what happens is, because I’m a natural introvert, when they meet me Monday night, the side conversations. “This is our facilitator? Really?” because—

Douglas: We got a meeting with this guy all day?

Michael: —I’m quiet. I’m just, that’s who I am. But once I—I’m glad we meet with them Tuesday night, because after that, they’ve already seen me. And now they’re asking me the questions, not looking for me to entertain them, because I’m not an extrovert. I’m an introvert. So very different. So it’s what we do in order to make it work.

Douglas: Well, and nowadays we’re in the midst of a pandemic. So all the team dinners are a thing of the past.

Michael: Well, actually, actually, think about it. It really is. We still need—the social engagement is central. And so we as facilitators have to recognize, how do we make that happen, even in a virtual environment? And so we do that. So we may have this session from eight to five, and then we have a virtual cocktail hour for everyone. We break for 30 minutes, everyone grabs their favorite drinks, and we have a virtual cocktail hour for 30 minutes, an hour, as we would if it was a real session. But it’s an important piece, so we can’t miss it. That’s for sure.

Douglas: Yeah. And the human connection is so, so critical.

Michael: How are you all doing it in your business? How are you keeping the human connection going during this?

Douglas: Man, you know, I think it’s always been a part of the design. And I think as long as it’s a focus as a guiding principle, when you’re designing an agenda for a session, it’ll find its way in. I think it’s important to start there first, right?

Michael: Oh, it always helps.

Douglas: Yeah, yeah. And I love this notion of the cocktail hour. Everyone has demanding schedules in this virtual space, right? And so they might have kids to run off to—

Michael: Absolutely.

Douglas: —or they’ve slotted it in. And it’s a lot different than, you know, having taken the effort to drive somewhere and like, “Okay, I’m here. Maybe I’ll just stick around for a little bit longer.” We always just make it clear that, okay, the plenary is done; we’re going to be around a little bit longer because I know some people like to stick around. Because I like to refer to it as, you know whenever you’re cleaning up the supplies, people stick around and ask you questions?

Michael: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

Douglas: In virtual, there are no supplies. You can just shut MURAL and Miro or whatever off, and we’re done.

Michael: We’re done. Bye.

Douglas: So I like to tell people, “All right. Well, now we’re cleaning up, and we’ll be around for a little bit longer. If you want to ask any questions, we’ll be here. But don’t feel like you have to stay if you have places to be.”

Michael: That’s a great idea. Douglas, I’m writing that down. “Hey, we’re going to have a clean up or stick-around time for those who…” I like that. You’ll see a blog about that soon. I like that. Courtesy of Douglas.

Douglas: I love the cocktail-hour notion, too. It’s like, I’m just making sure we reserve that time for people. In fact, it was BBC released a report, and the headline was quite hilarious. It was like, “Research Finds That Most Meetings Are a Form of Therapy,” or “Most Meaningless Meetings Are a Form of Therapy.” And the point was, and you hear that and you’re like, “Well, that seems kind of crazy,” but it’s kind of interesting because it’s like people gravitate toward having these meaningless meetings, these meetings that nothing comes out of them because they have this need to have connection. And so if you think about it, if we get really intentional about our connection during meetings and plan them in, then people don’t have to plan these extraneous things that then waste time.

Michael: Well done. Well done. And we think that the pandemic has changed a lot of things. Unfortunately, one thing it hasn’t changed is poor meetings. In fact, they’ve gotten poorer in the sense that with this virtual thing that people actually think that, well, because it’s a virtual meeting, it takes less preparation or because it’s—and we are finding, just as in our training work, we’ve converted virtual sessions where maybe 5 percent, 4 percent of our business prior to the pandemic, now it’s 95 percent. And our facilitators are finding it’s way more work, whether it’s a virtual meeting or virtual training, way more work to prepare for it. Way more.

And the key is, we call it the virtual details, that where before you would have, okay, let’s say we have a process-improvement session. And so we’re going to start with (a) introduction; then section (b) we’re going to talk about how does that process work today? Let’s say we’re trying to fix the hiring process in the company; (c) we’re going to talk about the problems and causes; (d) we’re going to brainstorm potential solutions; (e) we’re going to reformat the process; (f) we’re going to put together implementation plan; and so on. Well, that’s what we’d do if it was face to face. We’d go, okay, (b) here’s what I’m going to do with the flip charts. I’m going to set them up. And we know instinctively to do that.

Virtual, whole different world. We say with each of those agenda items, do what you normally would do. But you also have to figure out the virtual details. So (b) you know what, I’m going to do a poll; action (c) I’m going to use the whiteboard; action (d) I’ll do annotations; (e) I’m going to use a breakout group with…and then we…

So we teach a course now called the Zoom Plus. And what that is, is everyone is now using Zoom, and you know wow. All those people, Zoom meetings, they’re not even using all the basic Zoom stuff. Annotation, whiteboard, breakout groups, and so on. So we show them. And we like to say, “We are going to play with the technique so that you do it. You’ll play with them. Then, we’re going to take the camera and put it behind the facilitator so that you can see how the facilitator creates the polls, how the facilitator creates the breakout rooms, and then you’re going to do it.” So that’s using the basic stuff. And then, Zoom Plus, the plus part of that is we then show them what our facilitators do. And these are 15 virtual-engagement strategies, things like rotating flip charts. How do you use—how do you have the groups rotate through? Last person standing, dump and clump, and all these other advanced engagement strategies, using them, doing them, and doing them virtually. All cool stuff. So we first tried to get them using the basics, which most people aren’t using. And then we’re showing them, here’s how you use the advanced strategies that will make your meetings absolutely stand out. And people, as we like to say, you know you’ve gotten there when you hear people go, wow, that was the best virtual meeting I ever attended. And unfortunately, as you can imagine, Douglas, it’s easy to be the best, because most are so poor and boring.

Douglas: The bar is so low. So low.

Michael: It is. Exactly. You’ve had the experience.

Douglas: So. Yeah. And, you know, I think there’s so much—early on, folks were asking, “Oh, do we get a discount for virtual?” And I’m like, “Man, I’m thinking about charging a premium,” because it’s not only the prep time, but, you know, having an assistant facilitator is so much more critical because someone has to manage the tech.

Michael: Absolutely. And what we’re finding is frequently—I would put it in the 20 percent time—the facilitator has an issue. So as an example, one of our rules is for client sessions, client sessions, you never underscore underscore. Use your microphone on the computer. You always call in over the phone. The reason is if something happens to one of the two, you still have the other. So for some reason, you lose Internet connection, you can still talk to them. Or some reason the audio goes out, you can convert to what’s happening. So you actually want to have redundant backup.

We often suggest that you have another computer connected. So you have two sessions going, one is the participant computer. So if something happens, you can transfer over quickly to make it seamless. So it’s almost like you run out of flip-chart paper. You run out of flip-chart paper, you always have a spare right there. Well, how do you do that virtually?

Douglas: Planning on the redundant systems, having the activity by activity, having what is the virtual equivalent of all of this? Have I taken the time to proof it and make sure it’s good? I mean, that is a lot of extra work, and not to mention just the fatigue of these environments.

And, you know, I recently spoke with someone. They were telling me that—I’m not sure where the research came from, so this is all anecdotal—but they were saying that any time we’re typically working in a three foot kind of context, it’s typically a fight or a mating scenario.

Michael: Wow.

Douglas: Because you don’t get three feet in someone’s face inside the meeting room. That would be awkward. But now we’re doing that with these computers and is very sometimes mostly charged, political, like, we’re talking about some really intense stuff. And we go in, and we try to—one mistake we made early on was, let’s have an eight-hour session virtually. And, you know, you can’t do that virtually.

Michael: Yeah, it’s much harder.

Douglas: You have to do it much shorter. And so I think there’s some training of setting expectations for clients, too—

Michael: Absolutely.

Douglas: —even ones we’ve worked with in the past.

Michael: Yeah, yeah. And so I’m going to go a step further, because this will be—because you are correct that the virtual sessions, by their nature, the dynamic is very different. And I want to—everyone knows—not everyone knows—many are aware, and it comes out in our polls, when we ask people, what is the biggest challenge in virtual meetings? And we’ve asked this to thousands of people now through our webinars and so on. It always comes up with the same thing, and it’s not even close. It’s engagement, keeping people engaged, because people are multitasking, doing other things. And so as facilitators, that’s got to be our number one focus. How do we keep people engaged?

And here is something that we ask people to consider. We as a company, we do have, we have what we call the PDI Difference—Practical, Dynamic, Interactive. And the way we do that in face-to-face sessions is we ensure that if we’re training people or having a facilitated session, there will be significant engagement every 20 to 30 minutes. Thirty minutes will not go by without significant engagement, and mostly 20 minutes. So somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes. Douglas, when you go virtual, cut that bad boy in half. You’ve got to have significant engagement every 10 to 15 minutes. So if you’re getting people together, if you are going 90 minutes between breaks, do the math. Even if you say, “Well, the beginning, there’s obviously engagement. People are going.” And the end of that 90 minutes you have engagement, so that means you’ve got to have at least four others, at least four other engagements. And if all you know is the classic engagement question-answer, question-answer, man, that meetings will wear people out. That’s why it’s so important for people to have all these other engagement strategies—dump and clump, last man standing, rotating flip charts, all this other stuff, to help put in people’s toolbox.

And so really important for facilitators to recognize that it takes a lot more if it’s virtual. And as you said, training our clients that, “Listen, you know, normally I would charge a day of prep for this, but it’s virtual. And so therefore,…” Yeah. And making it clear it’s extra.

Douglas: Absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit about the Secrets of Facilitation.

Michael: Oh, my favorite book. Yes.

Douglas: You have over 60 secrets in that book.

Michael: It is. And really good stuff, I think, personally.

Douglas: Yeah. I’m a fan. I have it on the bookshelf behind me. And, you know, beyond the basics, things like preparing and managing for dysfunction, what do you think the biggest secret that most people don’t know? Like, what’s the one that you’re just like time and time again does no one just…?

Michael: There are a couple that come to mind, but let me focus on this one. And I’m about to make a statement, Douglas, that when I say it in our training classes—I mentioned we trained over 20,000 people—there are always people who go, “No, that can’t be right.” And by the end of the teaching, they go, “Yeah, that’s really true.” Here is the statement: there are only three reasons people disagree. Huge secret. There are only three. Every disagreement in the entire freakin’ world, there are only three reasons people disagree. Only three. Now, that’s the good news, and that’s really good news.

But here’s the bad news, and it’s really bad news. If you have a level-three disagreement and you try to solve it with level-one techniques, you’re going to fail. Level-three disagreements can’t be solved with level-one techniques. Likewise, you have a level-one disagreement, try to solve it with level-two techniques, you are going to fail. Can’t happen. So we as facilitators have to understand the three reasons people disagree. Have to be able to diagnose which reason it is and have strategies for addressing each one. Now, while that’s a teaser, I probably should take a minute to say what are those three reasons people disagree. So let’s break it down really quickly.

So you probably have figured out one, two, or three of them. You want to take any guesses, Douglas, or you want me to reveal? Your shot.

Douglas: Why don’t you—well, you do the reveal. You do the reveal.

Michael: Okay, I’ll do the reveal. So number one, and it’s most disagreements, level-one disagreements, and you actually implied it when you were talking about learning that you were a great facilitator. That is, people disagree because of information. One has information that the other doesn’t have, and they’re arguing, bumping heads, even though once they realize and the information is put on the table, they’ll realize they weren’t in disagreement at all. Level-one disagreements always end the same way. “Oh, is that what you meant?” There you go. And as we like to say, when you hear those words, your job is done, because they really weren’t in disagreement. In fact, the book Crucial Conversations highlights that, they give it a name, violent agreement. They really are in agreement, but they were arguing. They were just using different words or one had information that the other didn’t have. So you saw level-one disagreements, pretty simple. We as facilitators have to understand the difference between advocacy and inquiry. If you ever watched two people arguing, it’s like they’re fighting back and forth. Statement, statement, statement, statement. Each person is trying to advocate for theirs. If one of them would just step back and just ask the question, “Well, why do you say that? What do you mean by that?” they’ll then would clarify, and you would hear those words, “Oh, is that what you meant?” There you go. Resolved. So we have to move people from advocacy mode to inquiry mode, and you do that yourself by asking questions. In a business environment, there are specific questions we train facilitators to ask, because most level-one disagreements or business are based on either cost, time, who’s involved, or how it’s going to happen. And so we get the questions.

Level-two disagreements are different. If the level-one disagreements are about information—again, we find most disagreements are level one—level-two disagreements are about values or experiences, that they have different values or had had different experiences that prefer one alternative over the other. They understand each other perfectly. They just value different things. Well, you can solve a value disagreement simply by identifying and isolating the key values. What are the key values that each person has? And then creating solutions, brainstorming solutions, that combine those values. It’s not a compromise activity. It is a creativity activity, where, as we teach it, you can come up with some pretty novel solutions once you isolate those key values. It just works. In fact, we get more letters about that technique than any others because it really does work when you understand what you’re looking to do.

Level-three disagreement is different. It’s not about information. It’s not about values or experiences. It’s about personality, past history with one another, or some outside factor that has nothing to do with the disagreement. It’s not about the disagreement. They basically don’t like each other. Can you solve a level-one disagreement by asking questions about the issue? No, because it’s not about the issue. Can you solve a level-three disagreement by asking about the values? It’s not—yeah, you solve level-three disagreements differently. Take it to a higher source. You’re not going to solve it at this level. You’ve got to take it up the chain. And so we talk about strategies for doing that.

But most facilitators, that secret of understanding there are only three reasons people disagree, and so when you’re listening to a disagreement, we train people to say, “Hey, next time you’re listening to a disagreement, just say under your breath, ‘level two. Yeah, level one. Yeah, level three,’ so that you can get used to diagnosing what type of disagreement it is so that you keep that mindset of, okay, here’s the technique I want to use to adjust this disagreement. So it’s cool stuff and really one of those fun secrets out of the 60.

Douglas: Yeah. I love frameworks like that, that can—are very actionable and we can kind of lean on them in the moment pretty easily.

Michael: Well, you know, I find that the best facilitators are process oriented, Douglas. And I’m just going to give your listeners a heads up. If you were to see the prep work that Douglas had sent out to my office around the thinking that they’ve already done around how to have a great podcast, it was like, oh, my gosh, this is like a cookbook. All I have to do is this part. They’re doing all these other pieces. And some great process thinking, very much appreciate it, because it makes it easy. In the same way, if you can give facilitators a process to use that’s been tested, proven, that they can modify and make theirs, it makes all the difference. And that’s one of the things I think we’re good at: giving people processes.

Douglas: Absolutely. If you could change one thing about meetings in general, what would it be?

Michael: Oh, my gosh. Wow. You’re asking big questions here. If I could change one thing about meetings. Yeah, I guess—yeah, that would have to be it. Douglas, the biggest challenge I find, and we find over and over again with meetings that other people are leading, is preparation. So few people do the preparation necessary. And quite frankly, it’s not a lot of work if, as you would say, there’s a framework for it.

And so I’ll just give your listeners a framework. We call it the six Ps. And it doesn’t matter whether you are running a meeting for yourself or running a meeting for someone else, ask the six Ps, because once you know the six Ps, you execute on that and you can be really prepared. One, and you know it all starts with purpose.

Douglas: Yes. Thank you.

Michael: Why are we having this meeting?

Douglas: Yes.

Michael: Why are we having this meeting? What’s the real purpose of the meeting? And then we say, “Okay, now that we’re clear…” And so I’ll give an example just to make it real for your listeners. Someone may come to us. “Michael, Michael, I’d love to have a team-building session for my team.” First P, purpose. “Really? Help me understand what’s really the purpose of the team-building session?” “Well, I need my team working together better because, you know, we kind of snipe at each other sometimes. So I really want us to have a strong, bonding experience so that we can walk out of that room, moving together, working together, feeling better about each other.” “That’s helpful.”

Second P, product. “So what is the product you want to come out of that meeting?” “Michael, what do you mean?” “Well, think about it this way, in terms of the three Hs. When this meeting’s over, what do you want your team to have in their hands that they can see?” “Well, Michael, it’d be great if we had a team vision.” “Cool. Anything else?” “Well, maybe some team norms.” “Okay. Anything else?” “Well, maybe if we could walk away with what’s going to happen if someone violates the norm, so we have that kind of…” “Anything else?” “No, I think that’s pretty good.” “All right. Well, thank you. Well, let me ask you this. What do you want them to have in their head when the session is over?” “Michael, what do you mean?” “Well, what do you want them to know that they didn’t know before the meeting started?” “Well, maybe I want them to know, hey, what makes a team great? What are the qualities of a great team and know how we assess against that, and what are the things we need to work on to be a great team?” “Cool, cool, great. So what do you want them to have in their hearts when the session is over?” “Michael, you getting soft on me?” “No, no, no. What do you want them to believe that maybe they didn’t believe before this session was held?” “Well, I want them to believe that if we do these things, we’ll be a great team. I want them to feel committed to making it happen.”

“There you go. Great. Well, so you’ve talked about purpose and product. Let me ask you this. Tell me about the people who are going to be in the room. Who needs to be in the room that we create these products and achieve this purpose?” “Well, I want my whole team there.” “Anyone else?” “Well, you know, do you think, Michael, my E.A., should be there?” “Well, let me ask you, do you think your E.A. is part of the team, work with the team? Is your E.A. part of getting things to happen?” “So, yeah, that’s great.” “Anyone else? There we go.”

“All right. Well, we talked about purpose, product, participants. Let me ask you this. What are the probable issues that we need to address? What are the things that we absolutely need to talk about if these participants are going to create these products to achieve this purpose?” “Yeah. We’ve had a couple of things happen over the last few months that we really need to talk about.” “Well, let’s talk about what those are. Anything else we need to talk about? Great.”

“Well, now let’s talk about process. What’s the process you’re thinking we might want to take the team through so that we address these issues so the participants create the product and the purpose? Great.”

And notice, by the way, Douglas, process is fifth. Many people think, “I want to hold a meeting. What’s the agenda?” Wrong answer. There’re four questions you have to answer first—purpose, product, participants, probable issues—before you get to process. Never start with agenda.

And then the six P is place, meaning—and it’s all the stuff around the place. And in these days, the place is virtual. So let’s talk about all the things around the virtual platform that needs to be.

So we say when you have those six questions answered, the six Ps of preparation, you’re now ready to do the work to get well prepared for your session. So we think that’s a great way to address and make meetings so much better. Just most people don’t do the work. They don’t think about the six Ps.

Douglas: Yeah, you know, there’re so many meeting—you talked about the lack of preparation, and it’s like—

Michael: Yeah.

Douglas: And so there’s this weird spectrum, because on one end, no one’s doing anything. So they’re just kind of walking in blind, and they just threw something on your calendar called a meeting, and they’re not even—so there’s a lexicon and taxonomy problem.

Michael: Yes.

Douglas: And so that’s a whole other thing we could get into. But then on the other hand, when they do the planning, their agenda’s just a list of topics—

Michael: Yes.

Douglas: —and it’s not thoughtful, it’s not informed by—

Michael: Absolutely.

Douglas: —the purpose. We were just talking earlier today about the problem with icebreakers and warmups, in that—

Michael: Oh, my gosh, yes.

Douglas: —people just throw them on the agenda, without thinking about the purpose and why they’re there. And I love this. I have this saying that if you can’t ask your participants after doing something like that, “Why did we just do that?” and have it erupt into a pithy conversation, you need to ask yourself, “Why did we just do that?”

Michael: Oh, well said, Douglas. Well said. In fact, our company, in general, when it comes to icebreakers, we hate them because most icebreakers are just stuff. And we say, “It’s good to break the ice,” but you want to break the ice with an activity that furthers the purpose and product of the session. If you say, “Hey, you know what, we’d like to spend a few minutes talking about your favorite vacation spot,” that’s a great icebreaker if the purpose of our session is to choose a vacation spot. If it’s not, leave that icebreaker at home. “Hey, you know what, we’d like to hear about your most embarrassing moment.” That is a great icebreaker if this session is about dealing with embarrassing moments. If it’s not, leave that icebreaker at home. Whatever you use as an icebreaker, it should further the session result, not be something, as you said, that’s unpurposeful and inserted into the meeting.

Facilitators have a bad rap of, “Hey, we help people hold hands and sing Kumbaya.” Read that from an executive standpoint, “We’re great at wasting people’s time.” That’s how executives view the classic Kumbaya facilitators. Our job is to make sure every moment we spend with executives is productive. It’s used to get to a result that they are willing to invest in. If they’re not willing to invest, we have just added non-value activity. So non-value added activity is not helpful in a facilitated session.

Douglas: Well said, my friend.

So I would love to leave our listeners with one last piece of advice. And so if you could ensure every facilitator in the world had one skill, what would it be?

Michael: That’s easy. That’s really easy. When you think about facilitators, when we walk into a room, our most important job is to pull out the most important information that’s going to help this group get where they’re going. That’s our responsibility. To do that, we don’t have to be good at asking questions. We have to be great at asking questions. We have to be really excellent at using questions to pull out the information that’s going to help the group.

As I said in one of my early, early ad set we put together, the ad said, “Hidden inside of your company are answers to some of the most important issues facing your organization. Your people have the answers. We bring the questions.” And so we teach something called the secret of the starting question. If you’ve ever facilitated a session and you asked this really great question and got complete and utter silence, if that’s ever happened to you, what we teach is, more times than not, the reason you got silence is that you asked what we call the “type A” question instead of a “type B” question. Type A questions lead people to silence. Type B questions get people putting up their hands, jumping up and down, trying to get you to respond to them. Or you’re old enough to remember Welcome Back, Kotter. We called it the Horshack effect. “Ooh, ooh, ooh, Mr. Kotter. Mr. Kotter, call on me.” And that’s what we want to get. And so, how do you get that? Well, it’s all in how you ask the question. And we call it the secret of the starting question.

Now, just to give an example. Let’s go back to my hiring process. If we’re in a room and we got a bunch of people, we’re trying to figure out how the hiring process works today, that’s one of the first agenda items. As a facilitator, we go, “Okay, great. We’re all together. We’re ready to get to that first agenda item. Let’s get started. How does the hiring process work today?” Crickets. “Come on, folks. You know how it works. How does it work today? What are the steps?” Crickets. “Come on, guys. You know the…” There you go.

Instead, you would ask what we call a type B question, and it sounds like this. “You know, we’re ready to get started with documenting the current hiring process. I’d love for you to think about the last time you hired someone. Think about all the steps you had to go through, all the people you had to talk with, the forms or whatever you had to fill out to get that person on board. What are the steps in the current hiring process?” We call that a type B question. How is it formed? They’re three steps. It’s pretty easy. It’s pretty simple, just not easy.

Its first step is you start with an image-building phrase. “Think about the last time…,” or “If you were about to…” or “Imagine…” It doesn’t start with “What…” Here comes a type B question. You’re going very direct. Or “Why…” or “How…” or so on. It starts with an image-building phrase because you’re trying to create an image, because when people can see their answers, they answer right away. Then, you expand the image with at least two other phrases. Then, you ask the direct question. “Think about the last time you hired someone. Think about all the steps you had to go through, all the people you had to talk with,” and so on.

Because when people can see their answers, they raise their hand. When people can’t see their answers, if you ask, “What are the steps in the current hiring process?” they’re going to go, “Hm, let me think.” What are they doing? They’re trying to imagine their answers. Why? Because you didn’t ask a question that helped them do it. Facilitation means to make easy. We’ve got to get them visualizing their answers.

So that’s just one of the things. We teach nine different questioning techniques. And if we could do that for every facilitator in the world—in fact, your audience have probably heard of TED Talks. If they were to go to the TED site and type in “secret of the starting question,” they would see me giving a TEDx Talk to the International Association of Facilitators on the secret of the starting question.

Douglas: I love it. So good.

It’s funny, once you were starting to talk about the secret to—or the one thing that facilitators should know, and you started talking about questions, I was going to ask you, what is one of your favorite questions? But then, before I even had the opportunity, you gave us a framework for asking questions. So I’m still going to throw this at you for extra credit. Is there a question…? In fact, you threw out one of my favorites already, and that is, what did you mean by that? I think that’s such a disarming question, especially if someone says something that is maybe judgmental or offensive in some way, and maybe there was no intention behind it, and we want to just give them an opportunity to unravel that or explain it.

Michael: And it helps them do it. And that’s a great one. And I think one of the things you find is why questions and how questions are often challenging for people. And so you want to be careful, as we say, you want to focus on the tone. And probably my favorite, it’s simple, is, “Help me understand, why is that important? Help me understand, why is it important?” because your tone could be, “So why is that important?” That’s a wrong tone. No, thank you. Yeah. So tone as you ask that question, “Why is that important?” is one of my favorite questions. There have to be questions because it gets to, oh, new understanding, because I’m thinking, perhaps if you could see my thought bubble, “What does that have to do with anything we’re talking about?” And so sort of just, “Hey, help me understand, why is that important?”

Douglas: Also, “Help me understand,” I’m taking the blame for not understanding it, which is great. It reminds me, too—I’ve been listening to a lot of masterclass. And Chris Voss has a really great masterclass, and he’s a master negotiator—

Michael: Oh, excellent.

Douglas: —and author of that book, Never Split the Difference. And one of his points around not using why, he never asks any why questions when he’s negotiating with a hostage. And it’s because, remember when you were a little kid and something you broke, something by accident, and your parents were like, “Why did you do that?” So it’s just like, it brings you back to those moments. So we don’t want to psychologically hijack anyone when we’re asking these questions that we don’t really have much intent behind.

Michael: There you go. Really important stuff. Questions are a key for facilitators. Really getting down a question framework for yourself, really good stuff.

Douglas: Absolutely. And I encourage people to check out the type B questions and all the other great stuff, the six Ps, et cetera. It’s really awesome stuff.

And so if they were going to dig deeper into this, how can they find you? How can they unravel the secrets more deeply?

Michael: Well, please, our website, www.leadstrat—that’s short for Leadership Strategies—leadstrat.com, and any of the resource pages. You can also, in our store, we have all the books—The Secrets of Facilitation is probably the one we’ve talked about the most, as well as Click: The Virtual Meetings Book. Those two are ones that in this pandemic people will find most helpful. And again, do check out—

Oh, our gift to the industry, we recognize that as part of our—we’re the largest facilitation company in the country, that what we do, we typically do three or four free webinars a month. Most recently, we’ve been doing them on the virtual side of things, running effective virtual meetings, making Zoom hum, those kinds of things, just, really, free webinars. Of course, we do it because we know that once people get a taste of what we do, they may want to learn more. We’ve been doing them for over a decade now, these webinars. But please check them out. And you know what most webinars, Douglas, are thinly veiled sales pitches. For us, we go, “Okay. Please give us 60 minutes. You’re going to get 55 minutes of real content, stuff you can use tomorrow. Then, the last five minutes we’ll talk about for those who want to learn more.” So really hardcore, hit-it content. And so it’s really great. They get 400 or 500 people on every webinar, and so it’s really fun stuff.

Douglas: Excellent. Well, I can’t wait to check one out. And, you know, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the show today.

Michael: Oh, likewise, being with you. It’s just been a fun conversation.

Douglas: Absolutely. Well, thanks again, and we’ll be talking to you soon.

Michael: All right. You take care.Outro: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together