A conversation with John Hawley, Co-founder at Stale Chips
“When I first started facilitating, I was of the mindset that getting anything out of that meeting was better than getting nothing out of it. They were going around the room almost trying to show everybody how smart they were, by rehearsing various things and saying this, that, or the other, and I cut that out. I was like, “Hey, let’s get to what we agree on quickly so that we can talk about what we disagree on.” It was as simple as time boxing people, to say, “All right, hey, look, you two get together and come up with something, you two get together and come up with something, and you only have one minute to do X, Y, or Z. How are you going to do it?” To be honest with you, I don’t exactly remember what I did. I think I blacked out for the whole thing, but it worked.” -John Hawley
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with John Hawley about his journey becoming a meetings facilitator and self-proclaimed people nerd. He shares practical tactics for leading better meetings, how to set yourself up for success as a facilitator, and the power of vulnerability. We then discuss how John trains to develop skills as a facilitator. Listen in to hear his perspective on in-person vs. Zoom meeting facilitation.
[1:50] How John Fell Into Facilitation
[11:35] Practical Tactics For Leading Better Meetings
[19:40] Making Team Building Activities Your Own
[26:00] How To Work With A Co-Facilitator
[35:40] The Highs And Lows Of Running A Business
Links | Resources
About the Guest
As the co-founder of Stale Chips, John is on a team of dedicated people nerds who are wholeheartedly in love with problem-solving. John also created illuminate Thinkshops/Center for Adaptive Warfighting: a Human-Centered Design/agile program within the Navy and Marine Corps while on active duty and there are currently dozens of active chapters across the globe. John has experience facilitating senior Government officials, 3 and 4 Star Admirals & Generals, and C-Suite off-site retreats and provided over 500 unique problem-solving workshops.
He likes pepperoni pizza but takes off the pepperonis before he eats it — typically eating them first.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and 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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Douglas: 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.
Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control the Room Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques, so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real-time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab.
If you’d like to learn more about my new book, Magical Meetings, you can download the magical meetings quick start guide, a free PDF reference, with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at voltagecontrol.com/magical-meetings-quick-guide.
Today, I’m with John Hawley, of Stale Chips, where he’s a people nerd, facilitating teams through strategy and impact-based team building. He’s also the co-author of Your Meetings Are Stale Chips. Welcome to the show, John.
John: I appreciate you having me. Thank you.
Douglas: It’s great to have you here. As usual, I’d love to start off with a little story, hear a little bit about how you got your start. How did you get into the world of facilitating teams, impact-based team building? And I guess, in general, how does one become a people nerd?
John: Yeah. I think, just like anything else in life that is valuable to a certain extent, it happened by accident. I was in the, depending on how you look at it, the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the right time. And started out where I was in the Navy, I was meant to be taking notes only, not talking whatsoever. Fast forward, you’re supposed to get through four line items on this agenda by the end of two hours, bunch of O-6s, captains, in the room, and we’re still on topic one after an hour. I think I said, under my breath, “This is abysmal.” Somebody heard me and said, “Oh, you think you could do better?” And I was like, “I think I could.” And they let me run the last hour of it, and from there I found out I was pretty good at it. Was asked to do the next one and figured I needed some formal training to figure out what I didn’t know, which was a ton, and just build on it and iterate through my own craft. That’s kind of how it started, really.
Douglas: That’s fascinating. I want to come back to that moment where you were speaking under your breath, and they invited you, “Well, if you can do better.” What did you do different? When you think back to what they were doing, versus what you did, what would you say were the key elements that made it different?
John: I was of the mindset that getting anything out of that meeting was better than getting nothing out of it, and they were going around the room almost trying to show everybody how smart they were, by rehearsing various things and saying this, that or the other, and I cut that out. I was like, “Hey, let’s get to what we agree on quickly so that we can talk about what we disagree on.” It was as simple as time boxing people, to say, “All right, hey, look, you two get together and come up with something, you two get together and come up with something, and you only have one minute to do X, Y, or Z. How are you going to do it?” To be honest with you, I don’t exactly remember what I did. I think I blacked out for the whole thing, but it worked.
Douglas: Yeah, it sounds like maybe the tactics get a little blurry too. Also, in hindsight, it’s like you learn all these things and it’s like, “Of course, I was doing all this amazing stuff that first time.” Also, there was a focus on decisions and maybe less of a focus and checking boxes, which I feel is a common problem that plagues so many meetings, and so many people, is that they have this agenda, it’s this list of topics that they want to get through, without any thought of what the experience of the arc is like, and then trying to jam through these things without actually getting results. Does that echo true to maybe what it was like when you were trying to make that shift to decisions?
John: Spot on. And I will say some of these decisions aren’t, “Hey, we are going to devote exactly this first step in that. Who is going to send the email or make the phone call, by what date, to accomplish those things that I just said, right?” So it’s just how do we tip over the first domino to move forward? They weren’t doing that, they were trying to get perfection at each step, and they got in their own way to be able to do it.
Douglas: That’s interesting. I often talk about big enterprises trying to boil the ocean, because they see change that they need to embark on, and they look at it holistically, and they’re like, “This is a massive thing.” And it’s like, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time or whatever, right?
Douglas: And it’s exactly what you’re talking about around, I learned this from writing software for years and years and years, which is decompose your problem into tiny little problems, and then to go attack the little tiny problems. You used the domino metaphor, which I think is also applicable. And I think it’s the same issue. It’s people wanting to come in, even if it’s not a big change initiative, or a big complicated problem, that everyone’s trying to do everything at the same time, even if it’s just a decision that they’re in analysis paralysis on, it’s because, you’re right, it’s the date, it’s the money, it’s who is all going to do it? What is the very first little step we could take? What’s that little action, and can we at least decide on that?
John: Yep. Yeah, exactly. I think a lot of them too, I mean, there’s an array of personalities, no matter where you go, but specifically for this audience, it was like some of them didn’t want to step on each other’s toes. They didn’t want to say, “I want to do this”, or, “We should do that.” They were trying to prompt, and it wastes a lot of time when you have to walk around on eggshells around everybody to get there. To be honest with you, I think it really worked because they didn’t expect a lieutenant at the time to, I mean, not to, say, tell these people what to do, but in a way, control their time. And so I think they were off guard and, in a very weird way, they were relaxed to be able to go with it.
Douglas: Were they somewhat amused? That, “Oh, who’s this guy, who’s like…?” Or maybe they thought you were going to fail, right? Which is why they were like, “You try it.”
John: For sure. There were about 10, and I can tell you, there were three of them, I distinctly remember, that did not like me, didn’t like the fact that I said anything. Because one of them told me before we even started, “Your job is to write stuff down.” I’m like, “Hey, I’m a good guy. I’m going to write it down.” And they’re like, “No, really, you just need to just write down as much as you can.” I was like, “All right.” So when I said it, I think they wanted me to fail, a couple of them did.
John: I had a couple allies in the room and I leaned on them, just like you do in a workshop. You lean on the people that you know have the right energy and tempo, so that once you get two or three people to do something in a positive way, you’re calling yourself out if you’re that fourth person who decides to go negative, right? So I just started with the positive folks, get them going, establish a drum beat, so that by the time I got to the people that I didn’t think would be able to carry it, they kind of had to, because-
Douglas: Well, it’s similar to the dominoes. You’re tipping the ones that are easier to tip and then the other follows along, it’s human nature for them to want to fit in. It’s the same phenomenon that you were describing earlier, where people didn’t want to speak up because they didn’t want to buck the trend, even though now the trend is to share. If you’re not sharing, then you feel like the odd person out. It’s really interesting to play with some of those dynamics.
John: Yeah. And you go back and you think about it, I mean, you mentioned this, in hindsight, you can go back and really take it apart. I didn’t know then… Domino, and it stops the thing from tumbling over as you go. Sometimes, as a facilitator, you want to take those out, so that you can box people and time and value into various aspects of what you’re working on. And sometimes you have to make sure that they’re all in a row, because once you start, you don’t want to lose that tempo, you don’t want to lose that energy that everybody’s [inaudible 00:09:04]… Plays or not, I try to force it in there.
Douglas: It does, I like it. I guess my question for you would be, because this is something I hear from a lot of junior facilitators, which is they want to sweat the details around, do I have all the dominoes in the right place, so when I kick it off, everything just keeps falling and falling and falling and falling? I’ve found that, oftentimes, we had to be okay with emergent qualities, and know that I’m not sure what’s going to happen on that 10th domino, but I got to be ready. When number eight’s starting to fall, I’m going to just lift the right one in and get it in place. And I feel like that’s part of a really great facilitator, someone who can have all the moves in mind, but be willing to swap those things in and out on the fly.
John: Yeah. I just played Mousetrap with my daughter, she’s five, I guess it’s been probably 20 something years since I played it, and in the end, pretty much the mouse gets trapped. Spoiler alert, the mouse gets trapped every time, as long as it’s underneath, right? As a facilitator, as long as you know what that last object is, it might not even be a domino, the Domino’s the thing that gets the marble that gets the whatever, as long as you know what that is, you’re able to flip the switch to trap the mouse.
Douglas: That’s right. So if you always focused on that end goal, at any point in time, we can re-shift toward that. Even if we go way off track, we can rein it back in. That’s a thing that echoes back to your original story too, which is, so often I see people in meetings where they’re just doing the meeting. They’re just grinding the meeting, and it’s like, “We’re going to do this agenda, dammit.” And I feel like, if we had our eyes on the objective, on the prize, more often, then it would allow us to do some of that improv, right?
John: We come out with a solution. It’s like you’re going in the wrong direction here, you’re really not getting the tacit knowledge of the people that are in that room with you, because now they’re trapped, there is no safe environment when you establish a meeting like that.
Douglas: I love this. You talked about getting the agreements out of the way first, so then we can focus on the disagreements. It reminds me of Sloan’s quote to his leadership team around, “Okay, it seems like we’re all in agreement, so I’m going to put this matter aside until we all have time to formulate some disagreements.”
John: That’s awesome, I love it.
Douglas: What are some of your tactics that you’ve grown to love over the years? Because that was where you started, but clearly you’ve dug in, you’ve gotten very good at this. What are some of your favorite go-to’s for managing disagreement, for inviting it, for making sure it’s healthy?
John: Yeah. A lot of it’s proactive, right? The proactive piece is setting the environment, and that doesn’t mean literally showing up when it starts and getting it going. It’s how did you set up the room? Rewind from that. How did you email or message everybody before you started? Or did you send everybody a video of you saying, “Hi, I can’t wait to see you all on Thursday. I’m looking forward to meeting you all”, and blah, blah, blah, to give them that warm and fuzzy. Keep rewinding back. What elements could you be proactive about, so you capture their attention? One, listening to you right out of the gate, hopefully. So that by the time you get there, you don’t actually have to do much work. It’s something that I used to do, which was talk a ton and fill in as much time as I could.
What you realize, as a good facilitator, is if I can accomplish my job with almost no talking… Then I guess the second element of that is reactive, and I’ve learned to lean into it, because you can’t fake what’s actually happening, right? If they see it going awry, there’s no way you can sugarcoat it. “Hey, this is what I meant to do.” No, it’s not. If it’s not going the way that you want it to, or a joke didn’t go through, or you missed something on the agenda, or whatever, right, I lean into it and I put everything on me, or transparently to the audience. And what I’ve learned is it’s the most vulnerable portion of a workshop, where people actually see you as a human being and they’ll give you more out of themselves. It’s just something I did not know.
Douglas: Yeah, it reminds me, I’ve definitely got colleagues that intentionally make mistakes early on, they just bake them in. It’s just like, “Hey, I’m going to just trip over the threshold when I come in the door”, and just be very human.
John: One of the things that I used to do, and this depends on the audience, is I would do some kind of icebreaker, where my so what of that icebreaker is the lamest thing that you could ever do, like me doing a dance move. Where typically I’d be at a wedding, everybody would be into it, and it doesn’t matter how goofy or ridiculous you are, and now I’m going to do it why everybody is sober, and everyone’s going to be looking at me, and there’s no music, this is the most awkward thing you could be part of at this moment. Then once they see something like that, they’re like, “Okay, if that didn’t scare this guy, nothing’s going to scare him.”
Douglas: He’s unflappable.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Douglas: Amazing, I love it. You mentioned that, after that experience back in the day, you felt this yearning, this urge, like this is your calling, and you wanted to go get some training. I’m curious where you sought out the training. What was your first training in facilitation?
John: Yeah. I got as much free stuff as I could. They do all these, they’ll do Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word training, and of the same schoolhouses, they’ll have strategy for two hours, four hours a day, depending. So I grabbed as much as I could do, where I didn’t… They call it fraud, waste, and abuse, right, you don’t want to take the taxpayer dollar, until I got to the point where, “All right, I’m going to start paying for my own stuff.”
So I flew out to Palo Alto, I did that a couple times actually, they open to the public, or they used to anyways, for a few days out of the year, every year, and I made sure I got on it for a couple years in a row. Then that ballooned into, “Okay, well, how can I go to the Air Force and learn what they’re doing? How can I move to the Marine Corps and learn what they’re doing?” I just grabbed every single course I could think of, that I could get my hands onto. I would call and say, “Can you put my name on the list?” And they’d go, “Oh, we’re full.” And I’d be like, I would just talk to them, “Oh, how are you doing? Where are you from? What are you working on?”
Douglas: That’s amazing. This sounds like it was strategy stuff, it’s like the SWOT and mission vision kind of stuff, so starting with some of those business essential type stuff, is that the kind of stuff you were getting into at the early training?
John: Yeah. Actually, you take a step back from that, some of it was just personal, a strategy on how you’re going to come to work. I thought it was, Always grab a core nugget out of almost everything you go to, and it’s not necessarily positive. The nugget might be, “When you’re facilitating, never do this”, right? “I saw this guy or gal do this thing, and I will never do that now that I saw what happened.” Right?
John: So you learn by going to these things. They were personal. How are you going to position yourself in the organization to climb the ladder? And then some of them were… I went to one where it was meant to be business, but the guy started doing some team building stuff in it, and that pushed me over the ledge to go, “Okay, this isn’t all about strategy, this is about team building as well, it’s about culture as well, it’s the whole package”, right? You want to know everything that you can about their personalities, and where they want to go, in order to get them there, and sometimes you need people to trust each other, you need that team building element. And oftentimes you do, I try to insert it into almost everything I do.
Douglas: So what was that first team building moment you got exposed to? Do you remember what it was?
John: Yeah, I do. They started off with a ball, and I’m sure you’ve done some iteration of this one, but everybody gets around a circle, you start with a ball… Everybody’s got it, right? And then the next time you go… I have my own version, right, I’ve done like 20 plus of my own iterations, but theirs was, then they have you go through faster, then they add a second ball, and then they add a third ball, and they prove to you that even though you have more balls and it’s more chaotic, you finish in less amount of time when the skids are greased, or the whatever, and everybody’s on the same page, and we’re functioning as a team. That was the first opening that I had to it.
Douglas: That’s cool. Yeah, it’s that strategy element of team building, right?
Douglas: It’s people are having to come together and have an emergent strategy. Those are fun activities.
Douglas: There are two moments I really, really love in those types of activities. One, when you explain it to them and they do it without having much thought, because you want them experience it without having done the strategy or whatever, and it’s a train wreck.
Douglas: And that’s a lot of fun, right? Then they do it again after having talked about it, and then that moment it clicks, where someone’s got the idea, and everybody’s listening and they’re leaning in, it’s so cool.
John: Yeah, 100%. Yep.
Douglas: Is that the one that’s called Ball Point? Is that what that one’s called.
John: I’m actually really impressed with myself that I even remembered what it was, let alone the name. I have no idea what it’s called, though.
Douglas: There was another one I saw not that long ago that a trainer was doing. I was just walking through a hotel, and I guess the training room was too small so they had spilled out into the lobby. I saw them all and I was like, “Oh, this looks cool.” So I went over to the trainer and I was like, “What are you guys doing?” And he said, “Oh, this is some team building.” And I was like, “Oh, tell me more.” Right?
Douglas: I can’t remember what he called the activity, but basically the job was that everyone was instructed to pick two other people, and they were going to make isosceles triangles with those other two people. Actually, equilateral, isosceles would be way too hard. They were supposed to make an equilateral triangle with two other people, but they couldn’t say who the two other people were, and so they had to figure it out with non-verbal cues.
John: Oh, yeah.
Douglas: So it was just crazy. It was like kids playing soccer, it was just insanity in this lobby of this hotel. I’m curious what other cool activities have you landed on through the years, because it seems like the team-building aspect is something that’s really struck a chord with you?
John: Yes, absolutely. I’ll start by saying I have attempted to figure out ways, maybe just to stretch my own abilities, but I’ll find something that maybe is not meant for team building and try to figure out my own twist on it. You and I both have probably done, heard of, or taught a ton of the same things, but if I watched you do it and you watched me do it, they wouldn’t be the same. We have our own twist, we have our own so what, et cetera. So the elements that I have picked out for team building have been the ones where, one, you get the person that doesn’t want to participate and you’ve got them to participate, that’s one element of it. You might not even have a great icebreaker or team-building exercise, but you got that one person to participate. Sometimes just getting that to happen is mind-blowing to their peers, like I can’t believe they participated in that thing, and it leads to the next so what.
I’m trying to think of a good example of that. I have one that I sort of created, I think it goes in this bin, where you set the ground rules so that if you aren’t going to participate, it looks like you’re being the naysayer, you’re being the Debbie downer. No offense to Debbie out there, I got an aunt named Debbie so I think I can say that. And one of those is, everybody plays their favorite song at the exact same time and complete chaos ensues. But if you’re not sitting there with your own music playing, or you’ve drawn something, then it’s like you’re not a team player.
There’ve been a couple others where, you’ve done the human-machine type of thing before, where somebody makes a movement or a noise, and then you reflect on that for the second person, and so on and so forth, until everybody’s moving in this perfect motion with each other over time, and then you pull random people out at any given time. I think anything that gets you to laugh, whether it’s just pure awkward situations or it’s actually funny, those are what I’ve zeroed in on, is that laughter element of it.
Douglas: There’s also, it seems to be, this mechanic around interdependency on the team, right?
John: For sure.
Douglas: Everyone’s playing their part.
Douglas: So yeah, the human machine’s a good… Any of the improv stuff tends to require that, right, in some way.
Douglas: That’s just part and parcel. Let’s talk a little bit about, in the pre-show chat we talked about this idea of preparing, and being ready, and just giving it your all, and how it can often feel exhausting-
Douglas: … to finish a workshop. So I wanted to hear more about your perspective on that.
John: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s so many things going through your brain as the facilitator. You’re reflecting on the vibes you’re giving off, you’re attempting to pay attention to what you set out as an agenda, how you’re going to tweak and change it for the Mousetrap type of thing, you are reflecting on the body language in the room. If you leave that day and you haven’t given it everything you’ve got, unless you are just an animal, you’re going to be tired when you’re done. I mean, I’m an extrovert through and through, and I finish something like that, I don’t want to be around anyone anymore, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I just want to relax at the end of a workshop, and to me, that’s the way I think it should be. You have left everything you’ve got on the table to get the most out of that group.
Douglas: We’ve talked quite a bit about how important it is to balance the needs of the group and the personal needs. You’re a father of a young lady.
Douglas: So that’s important for you, to support the family. I think we were even, not that long ago, talking about this notion of even how we prioritize our identities. Are you a father first or a facilitator first? Those kinds of things, right? So how do you balance this need to be super present in the moment, and how exhausting that can be at the end of the day, and still leave room in the tank to use your words for the family?
John: Yeah. I’m going to contradict myself here, but you got to leave enough, when you’re done with a workshop like that, not to come home and be not available, right? I think the best way to describe this is, everybody, understands what Zoom fatigue is, or whatnot, where you have a meeting and it ends at the same time the next one begins, and you don’t have that break in between. So as a facilitator, it’s enough to know, “Hey, I can do a three or four day offsite. I’m probably going to need some help here or there in accomplishing the so what at the end, or throughout. But I’m not going to schedule a workshop on day five unless I need to”, right? I’m probably going to move that a week. If I’ve got two different clients, I’m not going to butt them up against each other, I’m going to separate them by a week, or a few days, if I can, so that when I’m done, I can have me time, family time, and then re-attack.
Douglas: Yeah, I was going to ask about the downtime. That’s a strategy that we believe really strongly in, making sure our facilitators aren’t just booked day, after day, after day, after day, after day, there’s something for them to do in between the facilitation work.
John: 100%. Yeah, absolutely. And to me, a lot of that is, it’s either reflection on what you’ve done, or it’s prepping for the next workshop, or it’s education, learning what you don’t know and improving what you’ve got. In a lot of respects, what we do is a perishable skill. I don’t know if you’ve ever… The longest you’ve ever gone before getting in front of a group of people before, whether it’s virtual or otherwise. You can feel the confidence drift away from you when it’s been a long time. So it’s like, “Okay, I need to get another rep in.” I need to be able to, in the downtime, maybe it’s you just looking in a mirror and going over some of the reps and sets that you’ve got.
Douglas: Yeah, no doubt. It’s just like going to the gym, muscles atrophy.
Douglas: So it’s like, if you don’t keep this stuff trained, you will start to lose control of it.
John: That’s right.
Douglas: I want to talk a little bit about co-facilitators. Is that something that you ever make use of? Is that a way that you protect some of the just burnout pieces, where it’s not so much pressure on you?
John: Yeah, I’m trying to figure out how I answer this without sounding like I don’t need one, or like I need one. I think, just like anything else, it depends, right? So in the very first, I’d say, four years of this journey for me, I don’t want to depend on someone else, I don’t want to have the success of that day depend on someone else, I want to own it entirely. Did it fail miserably? Okay, it’s my fault. Was it wildly successful? Okay, I did that. Trusting another human being, where you don’t have the ability to cut them off for time, or purpose, or direction, for the next thing that’s coming up, is very uncomfortable for me.
And, oh, by the way, there are not a lot of really good facilitators who can work well with another facilitator. You’ve found a way to put a couple of them together, a few of them together and work fluidly, but that is not the norm. In fact, almost every course I’ve been to, I could name some things that I probably shouldn’t, of Fortune 50 companies, that say that they are the best at facilitating, and you watch it and you go, “This person had no idea they were going next. They had no idea. They never spoke to the person that was going after them to figure out some kind of transition, et cetera.”
So now I’ll answer your question. I am now. I have, after everything I’ve been through, found somebody that I trust wholeheartedly. I could get up in the middle of a workshop and go to the bathroom and not worry that the sky’s falling when I get back. And you definitely need to be able to delegate your roles, throughout, to give each other a break, throughout. I definitely think so.
Douglas: It’s helpful, I think, and I hear you on the confidence piece, and understanding how to delineate lanes, and where responsibilities are. But when you can find the support, it’s definitely nice to have it, for sure. It’s funny you mentioned the co-production of a thing, whether that’s a talk or a facilitation, it’s the transitions and whatnot. So often people just think, “Oh, it’s going to be way easier because it’s two of us.” It’s almost like they just put in less work ahead of time. And I think that there’s more work ahead of time-
Douglas: … so that it becomes easier in the room.
Douglas: Right? What you’re doing is you’re trying to remove the risk of something going bad. Like, “Oh, my flight got canceled”, or, “Oh, lunch is late. Who’s going to scramble and deal with it?” You just got a buddy, right? But you got to figure about the transitions. I mean, come on.
John: Yeah, and the thing that comes to mind for me is, and I’ve heard this way too much, to it’s actually kind of funny at this point, when you hear someone go, “Okay, who’s next?” So wait a minute, I just paid $6,000 for this course and you don’t know who’s going next. Like, what? How does that make any sense? You should know who’s going next. You should be able to fill in if that person’s not there. All the things that you just said, all the contingencies need to be in place. It is way more work to have another person before you go, because you got to find out, “Okay, what happens if this happens? Okay, you’ve got it.” Or, “What happens if the food doesn’t come when it’s supposed to? Okay, you’ve got it.” And you establish the battle rhythm before you show up.
Douglas: That’s right. I want to come back to the Zoom fatigue comment you mentioned. Have you found it to be more exhausting in Zoom, or more exhausting in person? I mean, the evidence bears out for attendees, but for the facilitator, I’m curious, because I know, at the end of in-person days, I’m actually physically tired quite often. So I’m curious what your experience is, Zoom versus in-person, actually, facilitator.
John: It’s a great question, it is a really good question. I think for the in-person it’s a finite amount of time and you’re done. I mean, that’s true for Zoom as well, but you can’t move something in Zoom. If you have a 10 o’clock after your 9.30, you can’t just not do it. But in a workshop you can have everybody talk for five more minutes, you can have everybody do silent reflections for five more minutes, you can send everybody on a bathroom break and pick your nose off to the side, right? If you’re doing back to back to back Zoom things, it’s potentially more exhausting because you’re always on. The screen is always on, you can’t get away. Like, “Yes, I’m smiling because I’m genuinely happy to talk to you right now.” But sometimes you talk to people and you’re not happy, but you got to put it on, right?
John: And in person, if this group is bothering me, because there’s somebody in there that really needs some more direction, I can pull that person away, I can go over to another group, I can have a co-facilitator jump in there and give it a different shake, so you can get away from it in-person. I didn’t answer your question at all, so it’s all over the map.
Douglas: Yeah. I mean, I think, personally, I feel more physically exhausted in an in-person, because I’m probably running around a lot more, and more animated and things, right? I got more space to fill, more distance to cover. But definitely more mentally exhausted from the Zoom, just because I feel like there’s so many more… There’s chat, there’s this, there’s that, there’s all these things to be aware of, there’s lights. I don’t know, it’s just more intense on the brain, I think.
John: Yeah, I agree.
Douglas: Well, I want to touch on this other point you made in the pre-show chat, and it’s a little bit of a gear shift here, but I think it’s worth it because it’s an interesting concept. You were talking a little bit about level setting, and I was thinking in the terms of, and you brought it back up too, it’s like are we sending a video to our participants ahead of time around these expectations, et cetera? But also, are we level setting with our host, with our decision-makers, with our stakeholders when we’re doing our planning? I think you, specifically in the pre-show chat, we’re talking about, they were wanting to do back to back to back meetings, and then Saturday there’s a dinner, and then it’s a lot being requested, as far as the on time and attention time.
I think, also, another thing we see often is a lot being expected of what’s even possible in a 90 minute session, or even a week long session. Hey, wait a second, we’re not going to recalibrate the large hadron collider in a week.
Anyway, it’s an important topic. I’m just curious what some of your go-to strategies are for helping them understand what’s possible, level setting, reining them in, but making it feel collaborative, because no one wants to just get told no a bunch?
John: Yeah. This one has taken a lot of reflection on my part to get it right on my end, and I’m still working on it to be honest with you. But if we could do everything in 90 minutes, nobody would ever schedule a half day, or full day, or a weekend retreat ever, right? You would just say, “Hey, just give me the 90 minute thing. Let’s do it.” So I try as hard as I can, in the very beginning of a conversation, to be as transparent and blunt as I can with that person, which you know, with conversations that we’ve had, it’s just like it’s going to waste too much of your time and my time not to be honest with you.
You’ve asked me for 90 minutes, and you’ve asked me to achieve this thing, here’s the thing, I think you could get to this part, and I guarantee we can get there, but I can’t guarantee we’re going to make it over here. We’re going to create a lot of chaos, and I might leave you scratching your head at the end of 90 minutes, because what you’ve asked me to do is beyond the scope of what 90 minutes can provide. Some companies you go to and they need a pretty substantial portion of that just to let loose of the culture that’s binding them in the very beginning.
So I try to be honest with them. I try to just tell them right out the gate, “This is what I’ve got going on, this what I think your people will have going on.” And in a very weird way, this has actually gotten me more business, which is so weird when you tell someone, “Hey, I don’t think I’m the guy for you to be able to do this, because I can’t guarantee my work in what you’ve asked me to do.” And they go, “Oh, maybe we should do this over the course of a couple different sessions.” And I’m like, “I’m not trying to get more work out of this, I’m just telling you what I think you need to be successful. You don’t want to have to redo this over and over again, you want to get it right the first time.”
Douglas: Yeah, I think being honest and transparent around how you work, and how to be successful in the work you do, really critical for maintaining good healthy relationships with clients, right? Because even if you acquiesced and did this short thing, are there going to be good referrals out of that? If they do go ahead and do the short thing without you, at least they remember, “Oh, well John does this thing.” So when someone asks for that thing, they know John’s the guy to call, right?
Douglas: I mean, I think that so often people are so eager to close the deal. It’s a trap though. And you were talking about that a little earlier, just thinking about biz dev, and just how the year’s wrapping up, and how it can come in cycles too.
John: Absolutely. I mean, everybody, including you, is trying to take a break. They got Thanksgiving, and rolls into all of the holidays that you’ve got going around this time. Most companies are, for lack of a better term, they’re on pause, and so you almost have to hold your breath a little bit through this lull and hit the ground running when we come out of it. And make sure that you have the right relationships going into it, so that you can weather the storm for that lull.
Douglas: I think it’s good advice, especially to freelance facilitators that are trying to figure out how to make a go of it. If you left your job and you’re trying to be a full-time facilitator, just know that there’s going to be some down times, and squirrel away some money for it. I feel like it’s always late in the year, and then little dips sometimes through when people are taking summer vacations and things. Just got to roll with it, yeah.
John: Exactly. Take the high highs in stride, just like you take the low lows.
Douglas: Yes, 100%. It’s such good advice to stay centered. The highs can kick us off our game as much as the lows, right?
Douglas: Cool. So I think that’s kind of getting near time here. I want to make sure that we leave a little time for you to leave our listeners with a final thought, so what would you like them to keep in mind as they reflect on the episode?
John: I think that if you’re trying to do everything yourself and you’re trying to make your own go at things, right, if you’re talking about a freelance facilitator, realize that there are people out there that genuinely want to help you, they want to see you succeed and want to give you the nuggets for you to learn from. I wouldn’t be where I am today without reaching out to some of them for help. And so there’s a huge community of people that are willing to do that. Douglas has the ticket, right there, can probably plug you into almost anybody that you need to learn from your own personality. And I would figure out a way to make that happen and don’t do it alone.
Douglas: Absolutely. That’s such good, kind advice. I want to make sure that people know how to find you. So how can they learn more about Stale Chips and everything you have going on?
John: Yeah. So right now, everything that we’ve got is at stalechips.com, and just like the chip that has been left out in the room for a while, stalechips.com. And LinkedIn, can get me personally on LinkedIn, or the company that way.
Douglas: Awesome. Well, everyone should do that. Check out John on LinkedIn and go to stalechips.com to see what he is up to. Definitely doesn’t sit still, so by the time this comes out, I’m sure there’ll be some new stuff. So John, it’s been a pleasure chatting today and looking forward to more in the future.
John: I appreciate you having me. Thank you.Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released, and if you want more head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together. Voltagecontrol.com.