Video and transcript from Erin Lamberty’s talk at Austin’s 2nd Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

Please join us for the Control the Room 2021, which will be held Feb. 2-4, 2020. You can find out more and buy tickets here.

This is part of the 2020 Control The Room speaker video series.

In February we hosted the second annual facilitator summit, Control The Room, at Austin’s Capital Factory. We launched the summit last year in partnership with MURAL to create a space for facilitators to gather, break down the silos, and learn from one another.

The three-day summit is a rare opportunity to bring together an otherwise unlikely group of highly experienced and skilled professionals across various industries and crafts—from strategy consultants and negotiators to Scrum Masters and design thinkers.

Anyone interested in deepening their knowledge on how to successfully facilitate meaningful meetings and connect with other practitioners is welcome. Together, we dive into diverse methodologies, expand upon perspectives, and learn new insights and strategies that enrich our expertise.

This year we had the pleasure of welcoming 24 speakers, all innovation professionals, who shared their insights and strategies of successful facilitation.

One of those speakers was Erin Lamberty.

Erin Lamberty is the Director of Strategy & Culture Change at The Design Gym. She presented on how to navigate uncomfortable conversations and facilitate the unexpected.

“No matter how much you prep and plan, it doesn’t matter. When you’re in the room, you never really know what to expect.”

Erin explained that uncomfortable conversations put people out of their comfort zones in four different ways:

  1. A conversation that requires the people to participate with vulnerability, honesty, and bravery.
  2. A very personal topic that might not have been addressed before.
  3. A topic that’s had a lot of surface-level chatter but not a lot of in-depth talk.
  4. A topic that’s taboo, polarizing, or provocative.

She shared various tactics she said facilitators need to deal with sudden elephants in the room created by uncomfortable conversations.

Watch Erin Lamberty’s talk “How to Navigate Uncomfortable Conversations and Facilitate the Unexpected” :

Read the Transcript

Erin Lamberty:

Thank you. Yeah, thanks. Great. I’ll do my professional intro in a little bit, but I also have other lives as yoga and meditation teacher. And I used to have my own studio, so that perhaps makes me the most woo. Even more than Sunny and Leisha, we’ll see.

Erin Lamberty:

But I’ve been feeling that we’ve been in a lot of inhale mode today. We’ve been taking in a lot of information. Our brains are working a lot. We’re writing a lot. So, I’d like to do a very enlightening talk spirit, enlightening exhale, okay? So I invite you all to stand up for this. You can stay seated if you’re more comfortable with that.

Erin Lamberty:

Grab a spot. Okay. And have your hands down by your side. Okay, great. And participant’s choice, if you’re super tired right now, do not close your eyes for the next 30 minutes. If you’re feeling pretty caffeinated, you can close your eyes. It’s nice for this, okay. We’re going to do a very short breathing activity that gets into our bodies a little bit. Okay. So as we stand here, I’d like you to first bring your awareness to your feet on the ground beneath you. And now you can move a little bit and bring your awareness up to your knees. And your hips. Yeah, a good little sway. Nice.

Erin Lamberty:

And your shoulders, good time to bring them up towards your ears back and down. Yeah. Nice. Good. And the very light movement in this is on our inhales. We’re going to open our palms wide and stretch our fingers out and the exhales will be a drawing back in. Okay? All right? So we’ll do three team breaths together with the hand movement. All right. So team breath. Team breath, inhale, stretch out your fingers and bring them back in. Okay, one more together. Very nice. If your eyes have been closed, you can open them and you can all have a seat.

Erin Lamberty:

Everyone’s like chill now and [inaudible 00:02:46] into our bodies a little bit. Great. So as Douglas mentioned, I work at The Design Gym. I am a director of strategy and culture change, okay. And at The Design Gym, we’re a consulting group, and we empower organizations to make some stuff, break a whole bunch of stuff and create new ways of working. Okay. And anything that requires, basically I just facilitate all of the time. Like it’s lots of different ways.

Erin Lamberty:

And I added at The Design Gym, for those of you that are Tweeting or Instagramming or whatever… My marketing team was like, “For the love of God, Erin, can you please remember that we are a company and that we should do social on this?” So there we go, so I don’t forget. And great.

Erin Lamberty:

So much like all of you, I’ve been facilitating for a long time and as my facilitation has gotten more complex and the problems we’re tackling and the things that the groups that I’m working with are working on. I’ve learned a lesson the hard way, a few too many times, is that no matter how much that I prep and plan and do the pre-work and the stakeholder mapping and the scoping sessions and all of that, doesn’t matter. When you get in the room with a group of humans and you’re asking for opinions and trying to get them to talk about interesting things and work, you never really know what to expect.

Erin Lamberty:

Ironically, you cannot control the room. Okay. Yeah, we know that. Yeah. Good. And it’s not a matter of if, but as when and how. It’s something unexpected going to show up in the room that I’m working with. Okay. And for today, I’m not talking about logistical curve balls, though very valid. I’m talking about unexpected conversation topics that are super deep and personal and real and taboo and polarizing, all of that. And that’s what led me to put this talk together today.

Erin Lamberty:

I have titled it “Uncomfortable Conversations: How to Facilitate the Unexpected?” Okay, so what exactly is an uncomfortable conversation? Well, quite literally it puts people out of their comfort zones because it’s just something we don’t necessarily talk about on the regular and might be a little bit prickly, like our appropriate for Texas icon here. But [inaudible 00:05:04] said, I generally can bring these into four categories or qualities of these types of uncomfortable conversations.

Erin Lamberty:

Okay. So the first is that it’s a conversation that requires people to participate vulnerably, honestly, and with some personal bravery. So for example, one time I was working with a leadership group and they went out for their afternoon break and… Like 10 minutes or so. And they came back and the whole vibe of the experience, just like total 180. I was like, what the heck happened in the past 10 minutes? And it turns out that one of the leaders had resigned that day. And the group had just found out during that break and they lost all of their confidence. They’re like, well, screw this, project’s over, we’re not going forward with this. And it required them to really tap into that personal bravery to admit that they had a lack of confidence. We spent the whole rest of the day being like, “No, we totally got this.” And making space for that.

Erin Lamberty:

The second one is a very personal topic that just might not have been addressed before. For example, that one time during my team’s Monday morning meeting, that I casually announced that I was getting married on Wednesday of that week. Unplanned conversation, very positive, but unexpected nonetheless. We did not spend the rest of the meeting talking about my secret wedding. We side barred it for later, but that came up. It could be a topic that’s had a lot of surface level chatter, but not a lot of deep, real talk. You know, those slack, back channel conversations that I’m talking about. Yeah.

Erin Lamberty:

And last, it definitely could be something that’s taboo, polarizing or provocative. Like the one time I was working with the leadership group on a new product and were in like prototyping, getting pretty far down the project, and it came to light that the two co-founders of that experience were not aligned on the business model of this product. Okay. Had to address it. Yeah. You’ve been there before. Yeah.

Erin Lamberty:

Now it’s important to know that all of these conversation topics and, uncomfortable conversations in general, are not bad. They are great. We should be having more of them. In fact, I’ve done a whole other talks on how to intentionally have those, but today I’m really talking about what happens when those are unplanned. Okay. You’ve been in those situations and in walks that elephant into your meeting. Yeah. We as facilitators need to have tactics to navigate those very unexpected moments that we hadn’t planned for. Okay. Also, this is the third elephant in the slides, the sessions today, we had… Linda had the red elephant this morning, the purple elephant, we’ve got this guy.

Erin Lamberty:

Yeah. Okay. Must be a good omen. So what I would like you all to do is… You know, we laugh and it’s like cute on the slide, but are your personal memories of those uncomfortable moments, when an unexpected conversation pops up that you had not planned for, how does that feel? All right. So I’d like you just, again, take a moment to reflect. If you want to close your eyes and visualize that, or jot notes on your paper, bring to mind one of your personal moments where a situation like this happened to you. Okay, just 15 or so seconds to call to mind, so we’re all on the same mental page of what that’s like. And just take note of how does your body feel from that memory. Yeah, turns like no way, bad, bad. Maybe you had a little while, and you’re like, yeah, that was a great memory. And I am proud of myself.

Erin Lamberty:

All right, open your eyes, no matter what happens, again, in that space of uncomfortable unplanned conversations. So I have gathered some of my most trusted tactics, techniques, activities that I’ve used when this has happened. They might probably not all be new to you, but I think it’s important, as a group of facilitators, that we are talking about and reminding ourselves of the strategies to use in stressful situations. So we get in that moment and we don’t want our lizard brain default scenarios to just take over because we want to react to it. But instead, having these things in our back pockets, so we can thoughtfully respond to what the group needs and address the changing situation.

Erin Lamberty:

Okay. So I’m going to go through these pretty snappy. It won’t be as speedy as Johnny’s activities, but we’ll go pretty quick, and then we’ll see what the group has to share as well.

Erin Lamberty:

All right. Number one, as facilitator, call a timeout. So in your role, you are a deep listener with the group, but you also need to know when to put on your referee hat as facilitator. Okay. So if you hear a conversation come up or you sense it through body language or facial expressions, it is your job as the facilitator of that group to acknowledge it and put a pause and decide how you and the group want to handle it moving forward. So you will lose your credibility and trust with the group if you let the unexpected elephant lurk on the field, all right?

Erin Lamberty:

The second. We’ve heard this a couple of times last night, and today, is to name it. Name that topic that’s being talked around, but not directly about. That is your first step in getting the group to be able to talk honestly about that. And as you’re listening, you don’t need to nail the name of it exactly, but again, ask the group, “Hey, I’m sensing that like we’re not aligned on the business model. That seems pretty important. Is that correct? Should we talk about that?” And have the group weigh in. I also think it’s ironic that it looks like on the illustration my designer is giving me a hint by going to write Erin on that name tag. I didn’t notice that till like two days ago. Yeah.

Erin Lamberty:

Number three, redirect. This conversation was unplanned. So you had a game plan and agenda going into this. If you’re able to come back to that, great. But don’t steam roll the group into just force-facilitating things forward. Acknowledge it, communicate the trade-offs, “Hey, we could spend the rest of the day talking about this or not. What should we do?” But if it’s possible to get back on track, totally a viable tactic to do.

Erin Lamberty:

Number four timebox it. Classic. If you decide to tackle this topic, just like you would any other activity, put up your brand new time timer that you maybe just won, give it a time, set the timer. The group’s going to appreciate your flexibility in navigating that conversation. But also again, your commitment to honor the group’s time.

Erin Lamberty:

Number five. Write before speaking. So, because this topic was unplanned, it was not on the agenda, chances are folks have not had a chance to do their own reflection and processing about that topic. Or it’s just sort of like heated in the moment. So plan for a silent solo writing activity, even just three, five minutes longer, if it’s more about strategic business plan or the business model. Because verbally processing will just segue into that conversation… Is going to lead to confusion, and chances are, a spiraling conversation, which you do not want on a topic that’s very sensitive and people want to have a thoughtful conversation about. Remind them that what they’re capturing isn’t going to be shared. It’s not on sticky note that’s going on the wall, it’s just their scratchpad to help process, so that the conversation can be more productive.

Erin Lamberty:

Okay. Number six, go for a walk. If you can get the group out of the room, give a little, like quite literally, physical space between that conversation and coming back to it? Okay. Obviously outside I think is always best, but I live in Colorado. It was five degrees when I left. So walking around the hallways could do the trick. So that you don’t have the… Well I was going to say the joy of Austin weather, but it’s not as great this week as well. But it gives maybe the group a little more energy and like quite literally some perspective from that. So they can come back fresh and have a more thoughtful conversation and, facilitator bonus, this gives you a little time to regroup, prep, gather your thoughts and plan for what you want to do when the group gets back into the room. If you’re working with a larger group, it could also be a good chance to pair up. Say, “Hey, let’s go in pairs or small groups, start socializing your ideas, before you come back to a larger group format.” Okay.

Erin Lamberty:

Number seven, if I’m allowed to have a personal favorite, this would be it. Give the conversation some space. All right. So change up the format so that each person gets a set time to speak, say one to three minutes, but then honor an intentional one minute of silence in between speakers. All right? This gives, not only equal speaking time, but a space for the conversation to breathe, right? And it eliminates the desire we have to just instantly react or defend the last thing that the last person said. All right.

Erin Lamberty:

And last tip to share number eight, the one-on-one follow-up chat. So if the group decided not to talk about the topic in the session, check in at the break or afterwards with the person or people that did raise that topic and let them know that you see them, you heard what they wanted to talk about and thank them for their honesty and bringing that up and even help them set up time to actually have that conversation in the future. Maybe you even offer to facilitate that conversation as we go forth. All right?

Erin Lamberty:

So if you were not writing stuff fast, here’s your chance to catch them all. I know that these have worked for me in the past. I think they’re pretty good, but I know that I’m probably very soon going to be in a situation where I need different tactics than this. Stakes are higher. People are different. Formats always are changing. So the great is that I happen to be in a room of, what a hundred or so facilitators, that you probably have some tactics that are pretty good for navigating unplanned, unexpected conversations as well. All right.

Erin Lamberty:

So what I would like to do, not just yet, is gather some wisdom from this group. Okay. And add them to this running list of tactics that we can all have to navigate these situations. Maybe there’ll be the first… Or the next control-the-room little field guide situation. So I’ll take the lead on editing and bringing it together, but you all will help.

Erin Lamberty:

So what I’d like you to all to do, and if we were playing facilitator buzzword drinking game, this would be worth like 10 shots. I’d like you all to please grab a sticky note, yeah, classic. And please capture… If you can, if you don’t have one on top of mind, that’s fine too. Please capture one tip. If you’ve got a bunch great, grab a couple of sticky notes, but at least one tip that you’d like to add to this list that you think are great things that us, as a community of facilitators, should have possibly quite literally in our back pocket as we navigate unexpected, uncomfortable conversations. Okay? And if you want to be credited for this tip, please put your name on this sticky note, or you can submit it anonymously. I’d love to hear like one or two from the audience. If you’ve you’ve captured it, if you’ve got one to share. Yeah, Jay.

Jay:

So this is the value of co-facilitating. Is there sometimes when you’re already behind schedule, and you know if you’re not super tight, that you’re not going to finish by the end of the day, you can have your co-facilitator sidebar with that person so they feel heard while the other facilitator continues on the workshop so you can end where you need to end and that other person still feels heard.

Erin Lamberty:

Love it. Love it, thank you. Yeah.

Speaker 3:

Can I [inaudible 00:16:51] game?

Erin Lamberty:

Yeah.

Speaker 3:

If the group is open to actually having a little fun with it, there’s a game you can play called what could be worse for you. It’s like, oh okay, so this person, this giant stakeholder just got fired during this. What could be worse than that? Oh they’re actually shutting down the whole company. Everybody has to come up with again, worse and worse. And then the reality doesn’t feel quite so bad.

Erin Lamberty:

Yeah, great. Write that down. One more, Daniel.

Daniel:

We talked about this last [inaudible 00:17:21] work I agree with you [inaudible 00:17:19]… I don’t know if it would work in a business setting, but you create a safe space for the person to say what they are withholding from the person. You make sure that both people should [inaudible 00:17:33]. And then you check in with the person that received that and say like, “How do you feel?” Does he [inaudible 00:17:37] with content, so you create a ceremony around [inaudible 00:17:40].

Erin Lamberty:

Yeah, it sounds intense. I don’t want to be in that.

Daniel:

[inaudible 00:17:46] sometimes it’s something [crosstalk 00:17:48].

Erin Lamberty:

That’s good. Thank you for that. Oh, can I do one more?

Speaker 5:

All right, one more. We got to get moving.

Erin Lamberty:

Okay. What I’d like to do is please have one volunteer from your table, grab your stack of pro tips and bring them up and stick them on this whiteboard. All right. I will gather them, put them together. I’m serious about getting them in the book. Thank you all so very much.

Speaker 5:

Awesome. So cool.