A conversation with Rebecca Sutherns from Sage Solutions
“I am a poor participant when I am poorly led, but when I’m well led through a process, I’m really willing to play along.”- Rebecca Sutherns
In this podcast episode of the Facilitation Lab, host Douglas Ferguson talks with Dr. Rebecca Sutherns about her journey in facilitation and the nuances of group work. Dr. Sutherns, with 27 years of experience and authorship of three books, including “Elastic Stretch Without Snapping or Snapping Back,” shares her early discomfort with group work and how it influenced her interest in facilitation. She discusses the importance of well-structured and skillfully facilitated group processes and the potential of collaborative activities. The conversation touches on the challenges of group dynamics at various stages of life and the benefits of providing structure to group interactions to enhance efficiency and reduce awkwardness.
[00:04:00] The importance of well-structured group work
[00:09:30] Creating containers for creativity
[00:15:40] Navigating through challenging group decisions
[00:16:39] Embracing the messiness of the process
[00:22:41] Value of Silence
[00:35:00] Authenticity in Facilitation
[00:43:25] Facilitators’ role in creating safe spaces
Links | Resources
About the Guest
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns is an insightful and high energy collaborative strategist and world class facilitator who has served as a trusted advisor to hundreds of mission-driven organizations, across Canada and internationally. Rebecca brings intellect, enthusiasm and varied experience in strategy development and adaptability when speaking, writing and mentoring. She is a skilled communicator, with a particular gift for helping leaders make wiser decisions faster. Rebecca is a Certified Professional Facilitator and is the Regional Director for North America on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Facilitators. She is a frequent keynote speaker and author of the books Nimble: Off Script but Still On Track. A coaching guide for responsive facilitation, Sightline: Strategic plans that gather momentum not dust, and ELASTIC: Stretch without snapping or snapping back. Learn more at rebeccasutherns.com.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a facilitation academy that develops leaders through certifications, workshops, and organizational coaching focused on facilitation mastery, innovation, and play. Today’s leaders are confronted with unprecedented uncertainty and complex change. Navigating this uncertainty requires a systemic facilitative approach to gain clarity and chart pathways forward. We prepare today’s leaders for now and what’s next.
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Hi, I’m Douglas Ferguson. Welcome to the Facilitation Lab podcast where I speak with Voltage Control certification alumni and other facilitation experts about the remarkable impact they’re making.
We embrace a method agnostic approach so you can enjoy a wide range of topics and perspectives as we examine all the nuances of enabling meaningful group experiences. This series is dedicated to helping you navigate the realities of facilitating collaboration, ensuring every session you lead becomes truly transformative.
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Today, I’m with Dr. Rebecca Sutherns from Sage Solutions. Rebecca has been facilitating for twenty-seven years and is the author of three books. Most recently, she published Elastic: Stretch Without Snapping or Snapping Back. Welcome to the show, Rebecca.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
It’s great to have you. I’ve been looking forward to chatting. In fact, we got to chat just yesterday because we’re planning a little workshop for the Never Done Before Festival.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
Which we have never done before, fittingly. I am looking forward to that too. It’ll be fun.
Absolutely. As I always do in the podcast, I would love to hear a little bit about how you got your start. You’ve been facilitating for quite a while. What was that first moment when you remember just getting turned on to this idea of facilitation? Even if you didn’t have the word for it. Sometimes people go all the way back to kindergarten. What was it for you? What was that moment?
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
It makes me think of almost three different things, and I’ll be super quick with three, but one of them is when I was younger in that I was often the person in school, say, that didn’t, ironically, that really didn’t like group work because I really found it inefficient. I didn’t want to, I don’t know, hug the microphone in a sense, but I was often the one that was moving quicker than some other people in terms of my ability to either grasp concepts or wanting to, I don’t know, whatever the nicer term for being bossy was. That was probably me that I got on my report cards all the time. I was a bit awkward when it came to group work because it didn’t really suit me very well at that time, probably still doesn’t. I wonder if part of my interest in this was that I really didn’t like being in the equivalent. Whatever the elementary school equivalent of bad meetings is, that was my school experience.
Then later, in my early part of my career, I was involved with in international development, and so had an opportunity to do a lot of facilitating and hosting of various kinds of events. Was asked, again, as you said, didn’t have the words for it, but was asked to do some internal team leadership and facilitate some processes inside the organization that were outside of my normal job description because somebody there had seen skill in me in that way, and I hadn’t really thought of that being a separate skill set.
Then fast-forward later to when I started my consulting business and was taking on whatever work I could get, anybody that phoned me. If it sounded interesting and I could find childcare, I would take it. But then when I looked in retrospect at those early years of that and went, what is it that I love about the parts of this that I really loved and what is it that people are calling me for specifically, it was my own clients saying, “Hey, this seems to be a bit of a superpower of yours.”
I think over the course of multiple chapters of my life, this particular skill set of managing group process and helping a group of people structure their conversation to get to a set of objectives has become something that others have identified in me.
That point around the early days of not loving the group work, I can totally relate to that. I hadn’t really thought about it in that term or from that perspective, but it reminds me of how Liberating Structures talks about how ineffective open discussion, or even, to use their term, the goat rodeo can be.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
It’s true. Especially, I mean, give it to a group of kids or teenagers and we don’t know what to do. You’re playing with all of your, just like adults are, you’re negotiating your social world too at the same time. You’re paying attention to, I don’t know, reputation management, impression management. You care a lot what other people think of you. You’re behaving weirdly anyway trying to manage all of that, and then trying to get this task done under time deadlines or whatever it might be at a stage where I cared about the marks I was getting and was trying to figure out if we were all getting the same mark or if I was going to end up doing all the work. Having now parented four of my own kids through that same journey and they have that same affliction I had, it’s really hard to do a good job in groups.
I thought of myself for a long time as a really bad participant. The irony of that expertise is not lost on me. But I realized lately that I am a poor participant when I am poorly led, but when I’m well led through a process, I’m really willing to play along. For me, that really has to do with being skillfully facilitated and being given activities to do that make sense and that matter and are purposeful and sequenced well and paced well and all that stuff. If that’s my experience, I am all about it and quite okay with group work, and in fact, am now a huge proponent of collaborative activity even in areas where we think it might be more traditionally a solo activity.
For example, when I was writing Elastic that you mentioned a few minutes ago, I write in there about imagination and I write about curiosity, and those are typically things we think of as happening in individual people’s heads. My suggestion is that they’re even more powerful when we do them collectively. I’m a fan of group work now, but only group work that is well-structured and facilitated, which I guess is also an occupational hazard.
Well, it’s so fascinating to think about how often the group work in elementary school, high school, even college, it’s like, oh, here’s your group, but there’s never any rules of engagement. No one’s been taught how to lead the groups, and there’s no roles being assigned. Just think about how much it could influence the way that folks collaborate and work together if we just started assigning some of these roles and best practices, if you will. I’m loathed to even say best practices, but at least distilling some essence of how to do better collaborative group work versus just saying, “Okay, here’s five people, go work on this project.”
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
Exactly. I notice it even now when, I don’t know, perhaps put people in breakout rooms in a Zoom meeting, I’m trying to get in the habit of giving them a little bit of structure that will just speed things up and take out some of the awkwardness. It could be something as basic as, “Each of you in your group of three is going to share blah, blah, blah. Start with the person whose first name is closest to the alphabet,” or some little thing that helps us avoid that awkwardness at the beginning going, “So, do you want to start? Do you want to start?” It’s no different than middle school. We’re still the same awkward social creatures that we are when we’re younger. I think if the person structuring the experience can provide just a bit of guidance, it just makes it less awkward for everybody, in addition to being more efficient.
Well, we’re perhaps more awkward now because now we’ve got these weird rules layered on top that’s like, oh, now who has certain power and who has this rank and where are the people? You had to go through this whole protocol to even understand it, and it’s not explicit. Folks are trying to feel those things out. To your point, if you just say, “Who most recently ate green vegetables,” that’s much easier to figure out.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
Absolutely. Those unwritten rules exist in school and they exist as adults. Peer pressure is not limited to when we’re 13. I think just being given some edges, and I think of it as creating containers for people. If we know that our creativity is enhanced when we have limitations on it and parameters and edges to it. I love the story of how kids in a playground will, if they’re in a big playground with no fences, they will play really close to the school when they’re let out outside. But if you give them a fenced area to play in, they will play all through that whole area because they understand where the limitations are and they feel safer there.
I think I see that in adult interactive activities as well, where if we know the edges of the assignment or the roles are clear, we are much more likely to be exploratory and experimental and probably more creative and interesting and take few more risks than we would. Because we really play it safe when there’s not clarity, we get a bit more cautious. If we want people to be a bit more edgy, we need to give edges to them.
I always find that there’s a lot of interesting things to learn at the edges. When you go to those edges, why do those edges exist? Who created this edge? Is this a physical phenomenon or is it manmade? Because there’s so much to learn there.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
That’s such an interesting, I don’t know if it’s a tension, but it’s something that I’m learning into in facilitation where I’m doing people a favor by providing a container, but I also am really, most of the time, open to them testing the edges of that container and trying to expand it and question it and say, “Actually, I don’t want to be in this container. I don’t want to be in any container.”
I want people, on the one hand, conceptually or philosophically I say I want that. Yet as a facilitator, I know there are times when I want to exert too much control over the nature of the conversation that I want to have, partly because I see how it fits into the structure of an overall experience that I’m trying to create. That not being too much of a control freak in it, but also wanting to provide the structure that I’m being asked to provide is always a challenge.
One of the earlier books I wrote is called Nimble, and it’s really about if you tend to be someone who likes to highly orchestrate things and develop really detailed agendas and do all your research ahead of time, you probably need to hold that script loosely and loosen your grip on your plan because chances are you’ve really over planned and you’ve grown to love your design so much that nobody else in the room feels like it’s theirs or that they have any opportunity to influence it.
But it’s also true on the other side. If you’ve got a really improvisational, spontaneous personality, you may need to provide more of a roadmap or an agenda to your client, or whatever it might be, than you feel that you need. Because if you ask people of the opposite preference, if they are loving your style of your improvisation or your heavy detailed planning, if they’re not somebody like that, they’re hating it actually. Your happy place is not everybody’s happy place. I feel like that creating those edges, but also making them a bit stretchy is a really magical sweet spot for really skilled facilitators.
It’s also important to think about the participants, not just the sponsor. You mentioned the agenda and the design, and do they feel they’re getting enough structure or explanation around the plan. Sometimes it’s literally just understanding that no matter what we’re doing, there may be folks in the room that maybe don’t enjoy the decisive part of the session because they really love the more exploratory parts of the session. That’s fine. It doesn’t make them a bad person, it doesn’t make you a bad facilitator, but coming to the realization that that’s okay being comfortable with it, I think that’s a part of maturing as a facilitator. I see a lot of new facilitators really struggle with that.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
I noticed that too. I think that if I can do the quick eye test vertically down my agenda, if I have, say, I have a one-day workshop or something and I’m looking at the plan that I’ve written out, even if I’ve written it out literally on the back of an envelope or something, if there’s no variety in it, not only does it seem like it’ll be boring, but it also risks losing a big chunk of the room for too much of the time.
I do find myself saying out loud to people, and I did, in fact, just a couple of days ago in talking to people in a session I was running, I said, “Look, we’re going to do four different activities here. There’s a good possibility there’s going to be one of them you’re not going to love, and probably the other three will be fine. It’ll be a mix as to which one is the favorite or least favorite in the room, but hang in there long enough to understand that not every part of this next experience is going to be amazing for all of us. But that by providing some amount of diversity in that experience, I’m hoping I will hit everybody at some point with something they really love.”
That’s a trade-off. I feel like facilitators are always making trade-offs in their head and guessing if they’re making it in ways that your participants would make in your place.
Now, the listeners may have keyed in on this, but I really want to underscore a really critical part of what you just described is when you’re making it okay for folks to feel that they don’t enjoy one piece. You already sowed that seed, and so when they feel it, they say they’ll think for themselves like, oh, she knew this would happen. It’s not like she’s making me suffer through this. It’s just a fact of life. Now, it’s just something that we’re moving through together. I think that changes things quite a bit psychologically for the team or for the group.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
Yeah, I do too. I think it can happen to the level of preference. I don’t like this kind of activity, but I like this other kind. I think it can also, in a related way, happen in terms of the nature of a process sometimes. If I’m doing strategic planning with a group over a period of time, I will often say to them, “Hey, we’re at that trudge through it stage that this is often the place where a group can get frustrated or get stuck or progress feels like it slows. That doesn’t mean we’re doing it incorrectly or that we’re way off track, it just might be that this particular stage of the process is hard slogging a lot of the time.” That’s another way to normalize it for people. Because I can’t always make it easy for them, and it’s not even desirable to do so all the time because I find that group decisions that are hard won are often the ones that have the most traction later.
We think that that’s part of why diverse teams are stronger teams. If we think of the work that was involved at Google with Project Aristotle a few years back, for example, they found some of the things that make teams function best. High diversity is one of them. They took a while to figure out why. I think that part of it, and part of the evidence that’s coming out, is that diverse teams can’t just make assumptions about what everybody thinks. I mean, people are thinking very different things. If you can come to some measure of agreement or consensus in that space, you’ve worked for it.
That’s not a terrible thing. It’s as much as facilitation means making things easier, it may not always be that. It might be I’ve created a clear container for this conversation to happen, but the conversation itself might be tricky. I think part of the learning process for me has been sorting out when that’s really okay and when to help a group, I don’t know, find more solid ground if they’re feeling like their feet are slipping a bit.
I love this idea of this thing is hard and helping people understand that, hey, it’s hard, it’s messy. There’s no right way to do this. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it right. I think a lot of times people are worried about are they doing it wrong. Are we messing this up? Are we going to fail at this? The fear of failure is deeply rooted. It’s really traumatizing and scary to a lot of people. Just allowing people to realize that, no, this is messy. It’s going to feel clunky. It’s sideways, it’s totally fine, but just the fact that we’re here going through the mess together means we’re doing it right.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
I love that. I find sometimes that if I can find a metaphor that people can relate to, it helps them. The one that I find myself frequently drawing on is the idea that when you’re cleaning out a closet, for example, you pull all the crap out of your closet and put it on your bed. Then, your doorbell rings and then it’s time to make dinner, and then you got to walk the dog, and then you realize it’s bedtime and you go to bed and you’re like, I should have put all this stuff back or I forgot to or whatever. It would’ve been better to just keep it messy inside the closet with the door closed than to put it all out here on the bed, and now I can’t even go to bed and I still haven’t cleaned up my closet.
In that moment, it’s a mess. It would’ve been better not to start. I think partway through a conversation or a process, whatever it is, it’s messy. If I know, for example, I’m involved in a multi-day, multi-touch point kind of process, I might say to people, “Look, we’re right at that place where all the mess of our clutter is literally out on our bed and we have to go to bed and we have to leave it and find a way to step over it and shove it onto the floor and whatever, because it’s not going to be all finished with nice, neat new labels and containers and a shiny bow on it today. But by the end of the process, next week, next month, whatever, I’m hoping that this newly cleaned out closet will look fabulous, but right now we’re right in the messy part.”
Then when that happens to them, we can go, “Oh yeah.” I will often have the participants feed that back to me, “Oh yeah, this is when all our junk’s on the bed.” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s exactly where we are.” I do find sometimes giving people a bit of a visual image is also helpful.
100%. I love that. That’s super cool. It just conjures up that experience perfectly. This is making me think about something that we spoke about in the pre-show chat, and that was your desire to have more spaciousness, or this moment you’re examining more spaciousness.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
I am. I am someone who has a word that guides my practice for the year, and I’m not super disciplined about it, but this year my word that I’ve been thinking about and seeing everywhere is spaciousness. Not just space, but literally spaciousness and what that’s like.
It came for me from not having a lot of it in my life for at certain seasons, and then finding myself now having more of it in certain parts of my life. We’ve got four kids that have now moved out and gone away to their lives, and my house is much more both physically spacious, and my calendar is much more spacious than it used to be in some ways. Yet my work calendar, less so.
I think it came out of that personal experience, but where it has me thinking in my facilitation work now is, particularly as we navigate whatever this stage of our broad cultural moment is, how much spaciousness people in groups crave in their work and how to gauge that pretty quickly. Because I’m often someone who comes in from the outside to design and run processes with a team that I have not worked with before, and trying to get a sense from them what they most need.
Because my experience is that if we do things digitally, say on Zoom, we can be really productive with that. It’s a very efficient, productive space if well-facilitated, but we don’t … There’s not a lot of informal spontaneous, organic interaction there. In-person gatherings tend to have those hallway conversations, chats at the buffet line, just the between the cracks conversations that Zoom isn’t good for.
Yet, if people are looking for something efficient, if they’re looking for something where they don’t need childcare, that they don’t have to sit in traffic, there’s something really appealing about the efficiency of a digital experience. I feel like if we’re going to ask people to come in-person to anything, we’d better make it worth it. It has to be worth the drive. It has to be worth, whatever, the childcare expense or the logistics that it took to get there.
Here we are in this, I don’t know, maybe I hope a beautiful venue together as opposed to some generic airport hotel meeting room or something, and we’re creating this moment together that is actually worth the hassle that it took to get there. If so, part of what makes that beautiful is often having some breathing space in it.
There’s this tension in me of, okay, I’ve been brought in here to help this group get somewhere, get something done, meet some objectives. But maybe one of the objectives that I need to make more explicit in my own practice is that they have a relationship building objective or a relational currency building objective that I need to honor, even though my personal need for a relationship with them is temporary or low, theirs might be really high. Sometimes that requires more informal unscripted time.
I got talking with a colleague. I was actually, speaking of beautiful venues, I was actually two weeks ago in Fiji for work, which has never happened to me before, so I’m almost embarrassed to say that out loud. But I was talking to someone, a colleague from Australia who gets paid an awful lot of money for what she does and she does it beautifully. One of the things that she does is she might ask a group a question and send them off to reflect on that with their journal and pen and whatever for an hour and gives them lots of time to sink into that question and reflect.
I was saying to her that I think, in my head, I might have this inner critic that is creating a bit of monkey brain for me going, “Hang on, they’re paying you a lot of money. You can’t just send them off to do their own thing for an hour of a four-hour experience. That’s not delivering value.” She pushed back and she said, “Maybe that’s exactly the value they need. You are getting paid for value, not by the word that you speak. Keeping your mouth shut for an hour and letting them spend some time either together or in their own heads might be exactly the value they need. That is the magic of facilitation in that moment because they have not had an hour of quiet with their own thoughts for months, and you’re providing exactly the gift that they need in that moment. That is skillful facilitation.”
I am living with that idea and realizing how sometimes what I have in my head and what the group actually needs isn’t only about achieve the objective. Sometimes the objective is to catch your breath, and is there something that I can be doing to adjust the pace and what I would consider the density of my agendas to match what that group needs and still be able to feel that I am delivering high value to a client to whom I’m accountable?
Well, there’s a lot surfacing for me here. One is this idea of explicit needs so that this is the productivity, this is the outcome they’re able to articulate. Sometimes, they actually tell you connection. I just got back from DC where we were working with a group and collaboration and connection. They hadn’t met in-person in five years because they were overdue, and then the pandemic hit, and so they knew connection was a big part of it. But what are the implicit needs that haven’t been communicated that if we as practitioners can surface and understand and attune to and provide, then we’re going beyond expectations? Talking about delivering value. I mean, that’s the value that will create awe and wonder.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
I love that. It’s true. When it’s a group that we don’t necessarily know well yet, we have to find ways to be able to attune to that quickly. Because I would love it if a client says to me after the fact, “You gave us what we knew we needed and you gave us what we didn’t know we need.” I think of that as known, spoken problems and also unknown, unspoken problems. Maybe not problems, but just needs that they have in that moment.
The faster that I’m able to tune into that, and also the more adaptable I’m able to be in the experience I’m creating for a group to respond to what I’m picking up on, the better. But it’s a bit risky because it’s quite possible for us to read that incorrectly and/or to facilitate out of our own preferred style. Or to, not to put to fine a point on it, but to basically believe the group when they say what they need, even if we are then getting a sense that what they need is something different. It’s one thing to add to the list of objectives. It’s quite another thing to actually, in a sense, cross out one and replace it with one we think is better. That’s harder. Where the group says they need one thing, and in fact, I might find that I think they need something actually quite different, not additional, but opposite to what they said.
I had that happen last week where I had a group where it was quite divided and they said, “We don’t need this time together on this thing. We need to do this other thing.” Part of the group was saying, “No, we have …” Like you said, our group was the same. They had not been together in four years, and the group had changed in the meantime. Some of them had actually never met. I think we are in such a treadmill of productive, efficient, short meetings where you just click a button and join, and click a button and leave, that I think that some of the group had actually forgotten how important those relational ties are, and that those relational ties sometimes can’t be rushed.
I am someone who thinks that we can build connection digitally. I’m not someone who would say, “Oh, it was on Zoom and therefore we haven’t got any connection.” I run courses on how to build connections digitally, I know you can. But we build them differently and at a different pace in-person. I sometimes need to push back on what the client is saying for in-person designs to say, “I think we need to remove a couple things because the group is going to need some time.” Whether that’s something as basic as make the lunch break a bit longer, or I was a participant in a course last week where we started at 10:00 and ended at 4:00, and starting at 10:00 felt ridiculous to me from a facilitator point of view. I was like, oh, you’ve missed the first whatever hour and a half of good content you could have been involved in.
But as a participant, it was amazing. I loved it because I could start my day with some measure of sanity. I could exercise before work, and I could get a few things done before showing up for the thing. The trainer, he would show up at 9:00, so he said, I’m going to be here from 9:00 to 10:00 if you want to come have a coffee together, happy to do that. He just started it with a really relaxed, sane pace. We were able to enter into the space and probably got more done on the efficiency scale in that shorter time period than we would’ve if we had extended it out.
I’ve come home from that experience thinking about redesigning and changing my start times on things and just doing things differently to honor the breathing room that I think people really appreciate.
You’re getting hip to my game. I love the 10:00 to 5:00 workshop. It’s an amazing schedule. To your point, you can hit the gym, people can check their emails and get that stuff out of the way. Especially if it’s a multi day workshop, because it’s whole idea of leaving that stuff behind and not bringing phones and distractions into the workshop. It’s much easier for people to do that if they can knock that stuff out in the morning. To your point, you get so much more undivided attention if we concentrate that stuff in there.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
I love that.
There’s something else I wanted to hit on. That was, you mentioned what are people asking for versus what they need. It’s the classic product conundrum. Product managers are always on the search to understand users, but then to really look beyond what they’re asking for and going, “What’s the real underlying thing, the real need here?” I think facilitation has this extra nuance, which I guess in the product world it exists as well, but this idea of what are they ready for?
Oftentimes, I’ve been in situations where I’ve diagnosed something with a client and I know that this is what needs to happen, but they’re three steps before that. I have to be very careful about pushing them too far into a territory they’re not quite ready to go into. How do I nudge them because, otherwise, they could easily reject it like an antibody.
A lot of facilitators get rather dogmatic about, “No, this is how teams need to operate.” They go in and they push it too far, and then it does a disservice because the teams reject it because not, for whatever reason, culturally or they’re being conditioned and they’re not … We got to move them along at a pace where they’re comfortable with. With twenty-seven years of experience, I know you have some thoughts on this.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
Oh, I do. I’ve got two. I love this idea of readiness. I hadn’t framed it that way before because I was thinking about the difference between need and demand in the product world and probably also in the group dynamic world. Where what a group might need or a person might need might not match what they’re asking for in the front-end, but it also might not match what they’re, as you said, ready for at the other end. I often, in my mentoring practice, I do a lot of mentoring with business leaders. Part of it is, especially solopreneurs or entrepreneurs, they’re like, “But people need this thing that I do or that I sell.”
“It’s like they might need it, but they might not be aware that they need it such that if there is no demand for it, you will not sell anything. You might be right that they need it. I’m not arguing with you whether they do or they don’t, but what I’m saying is they’re not asking for it. The demand isn’t there even if the need is there.” I really love this addition of the idea of readiness and sussing that out because if people aren’t ready to buy something or aren’t ready to enter into an experience or to face something, there’s not much point in taking them there.
If I can pick up on that, my second piece of this has to do more with the metaphor that my book Elastic is about, and that is that if you stretch, I think it’s really important that all of us be stretched a bit as facilitators and as participants. If you think of an elastic band that’s just sitting on your desk, it’s sitting on your desk, it is not doing anything. It’s not fulfilling the purpose for which it’s intended. It’s super comfortable sitting there, presumably, but it is completely useless. If you leave it there long enough and you go to stretch it, it will not stretch. It gets brittle and it’ll break. We aren’t very useful if we’re not stretching at all.
But if we’re stretching either too far, too fast, and obviously then snapping, or if we’re stretching slowly maybe, but staying stretched for too long, like stretchy pants during COVID or an old bathing suit or something, you don’t go back to the shape that you were before. Then you are also useless because you’re no longer fit for purpose either. I’m constantly playing with that metaphor as a facilitator because I want to invite my groups and myself to stretch appropriately, but not too much.
For example, I had one group I always think about on this where they had invited me to facilitate what they were calling a retreat. Well, I get to the retreat and the gentlemen are all in jackets and dress shirts, and the retreat meant that they’re not wearing a tie or that they had undone the top button of their shirt. Meanwhile, I’m picturing retreat being much more casual than this. Their definition of this was different than mine. I realized that some of the activities I’d planned that were more, I don’t know, camp game-like than I normally do, but I was thinking this was a retreat, like an offsite fun day. This was not the least but fun. It was in a very stodgy, paneled meeting room. It was not in a casual environment. Well, that was the morning of my day.
In the afternoon, I went to another corporate retreat and the client had given me an address and I show up, turns out it’s in the woods in this yoga yurt that is completely way more casual than I thought. What I had planned was completely inappropriate because they did not even want, I mean, there was no tech there, but there wasn’t even a flip chart or a marker to be seen. It was just sitting around a campfire in the woods.
It helped me. I was newer in my career and obviously had not asked enough questions in my prep for that day, but it’s become the symbol for me of what can I stretch a group to do? Because, in fact, I think my morning group that day, in their sport coats and paneled meeting room, wanted the forest. They wanted the fire pit. They wanted that experience. They were feeling pretty stifled in this very stuffy environment, but that was already a little bit of a stretch for them. Whereas the other group probably could have used a bit more structure in their day to get more out of it.
That’s become the experiential benchmark for me of am I willing to stretch a group. Because there’s certain activities as a facilitator, I just can’t pull off. Some facilitators can do crazy stuff that I would feel, I’d probably either roll my eyes or just be embarrassed, and other facilitators could totally do it. Similarly, I might push a group in directions that some of my other colleagues might feel were, I don’t know, more than they would be comfortable. I feel like there’s something about matching my stretch with a group’s stretch and what their objectives are that is another part of the alchemy of this whole experience, and that’s part of what makes it fun, I think.
I love that. I always tell people to really tune into what feels authentic when you’re exploring new tools and methods and looking through libraries. Don’t force yourself to do some thing just because you’ve heard design thinking is popular. If it doesn’t feel authentic, move on to the next thing. Because there’s something about what is deeply true about how you’re showing up. It’s the same thing as getting a gift and not liking it and trying to pretend like you it. It’s like you don’t want to be doing that with your methods when you’re facilitating.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
No. It’s true. And yet, we’re also always playing that off against the discomfort of learning something new. It’s going to feel inauthentic maybe, or at least uncomfortable when it’s brand new. And yet, it might grow to fit us. I don’t know.
I remember somebody who said to me fairly early into the pandemic, they said something about, “Well, I just don’t do digital.” I went, “Well, happy retirement,” basically.
Welcome to digital.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
You don’t get to opt out. There’s something about figuring out what you can learn, and it’s like a new pair of shoes that feels super uncomfortable at first and then becomes your favorite pair. But then there’s other pairs where you’re like, oh, I’ll break them in. Then you wear them and wear them and they still feel terrible and you never wear them.
I don’t know if we know right at the front-end, but I think we have to be willing to live through some discomfort to see if it fits us. I think that edge is not one that I … I need to make sure that I’m still living in that because I think I can rely on … I’ve got enough comfy pairs of shoes in my closet right now that I don’t always need to stretch myself into new areas. I’ve been grateful for some circumstances over the last few years that have forced me to up my game in ways that I might not have otherwise.
I love this idea of comfy shoes. I’m going to have to walk around with that for a little bit.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
Me too. I hadn’t thought of it till right now.
As we come to a close, I always like to end thinking about the future. Something you mentioned to me in the pre-show chat was this idea of feeling that the pulse was gone. You mentioned that during COVID there was a real clarity around everyone’s focused on formats, everyone’s adopting digital. Even as the pandemic was coming to a close and people were coming back more online, there was this talk of in-person/not in-person. You were relaying a sense of, I’m not sure where are the pulse is.
I’ll also add in. This is something I was thinking about as we were talking, I’m really layering this up.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
One thing we talked about when you were last in Austin was some of the amazing dinner conversations you’ve had with your kids and how inspiring those are just from a … Because you have this basically reverse mentor, these kids that are seeing the world from totally different vantage points. Now that you’re an empty-nester, that’s also a pulse that has left. What is this pulselessness that you’re feeling, and where might it evolve to?
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
Oh, I love this. This would be worth a lot longer conversation than what you have time for right now. I love the connection you just made because I hadn’t thought of those two things together. But it’s true that we rely on signals all the time, and maybe the signals we’re getting are a little faint right now, and we have to find other ways to tune into a different frequency or bring in more intel in other ways.
Because during COVID, we knew that meetings were digital and we knew that people were doing poorly. It sucks that we’re doing poorly, but we didn’t have to ask. I’m a big fan of avoiding being the oblivious facilitator. If I had said to people during the height of COVID, “How are you doing?” People are like, “What are you talking about? Of course, I’m not doing well. Nobody is.” But as we emerged from that, people’s experience is … The data would show where I live in Canada, we had a sixty-forty split for a long time in terms of wellbeing, whereas about 60% of people were feeling pretty good, ready to get back out there, thriving, excited, and about 40% were still really languishing. There wasn’t much in between. Both groups felt some shame about that.
The people that were thriving felt badly because they knew there were some people that weren’t and they didn’t want to admit how well they were doing because we’d had a couple of years of not doing well. It felt a bit like you were bragging. The 40% were like, “Hey, there’s people that are doing fine. Why am I not? Why is it taking me so long to pull out of this?” But we knew that there was this bifurcated experience in the room.
Now, it is much more variable. I see it in terms of wellbeing and how people are doing. I see it in terms of formats of meetings. I had an experience just two weeks ago where I showed up and it turned out it was a hybrid meeting. I didn’t know that. They hadn’t told me that, but a couple people had COVID and they phoned in. It’s like, oh, I haven’t had that happen in forever. I’m out of the habit of that. I knew how to handle that a while back. Now it’s like, oh, are we going back into that? So I’m constantly trying to read the room in a big way, cultural way, in a societal way, not just a read this immediate room.
I appreciate what you were saying about the link with my family, because when you’re sitting at a dinner table with one other person, it’s very different than when you’ve got the whole crew around and you’re hearing all kinds of stories and all kinds of examples and getting lots of perspectives. I mean, I’m a collaborator by profession. I say that the collective is protective. Getting multiple perspectives eliminates blind spots much more effectively than doing something out of your own head.
My strategy in this is I’m walking into spaces and with groups asking lots of questions and trying to show up with a lot of curiosity right now because my own experience individually is not enough, never is enough, but the experience of my participants is not at all homogeneous right at the moment. I see it in polarization conversations and dynamics that we’re seeing around the world. I’m seeing it in wellbeing and burnout. I’m seeing it in formats that people want. I’m seeing it even in what we were talking about before about some people wanting high efficiency, high productivity experiences and others wanting a bit more space. I think we need to show up with lots of curiosity into that space.
The thing that popped into my head as I was listening, right when you said it’s getting more important to read the room, it just immediately popped into my head, it’s actually forcing us to read the system.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
To your point, it’s like someone’s now having to dial in, they’re not in the room. The thing that caused them to have to dial in was not in the room, but there’s all these moving parts. It even comes back to your early lesson around the folks that were in the stuffy conference room, but trying to cut loose, and the folks that they were out in the crazy yoga forest, what is the system that they’re in? Not only am I tuning into the room and the setting and the space that we’re going to be in for the day, but what’s the system surrounding them and how might that influence the things that might unfold in front of us?
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
Absolutely. I think as facilitators who, as someone who is committed to justice and equity and diversity and inclusion, I think those kinds of considerations become very important. Because what it took for people even to show up and to be in that room is very uneven and not equally distributed.
There’s, actually, there’s some really good pieces of work in there in Adam Grant’s new book. It’s called Hidden Potential, just came out a couple of weeks ago. I just finished it last night. I run a book club every month of a bunch of new titles for people, and this month I’m only doing that book because it’s got so much in it. I absolutely loved it. He talks about a NASA selection process that has evolved over time, but that somehow we need to look not just at people’s end of their story and the accomplishments, the heights they’ve reached, but how far did they travel to get to that point. Because people who have overcome a number of obstacles to get there are probably more impressive candidates, even if they haven’t reached as high a peak. Look at their starting point, more than just their end point.
I think about that even in the room, as you said, the systems that people are navigating even to show up and what kinds of designs we need to be thinking about as facilitators to make sure that a space is more safe, more inclusive, more participatory in ways that are true to the systems that people are living in. I think it’s a really important skill set for facilitators to develop. That’s probably a conversation for another day, but I think it’s really important.
Amazing. Well, I’d love to end on a note like that. It’s like there’s more to talk about. It’s been a great pleasure. I would love to continue the conversation, but we are at our end. I want to just say thanks so much, Rebecca, and I look forward to our next conversation.
Dr. Rebecca Sutherns:
Me too, Douglas. Thanks for the opportunity.
Thanks for joining me for another episode of the Facilitation Lab podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please leave us a review and be sure to subscribe and receive updates when new episodes are released. We love listener tales and invite you to share your facilitation stories. Send them to us on LinkedIn or via email. If you want to know more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about facilitation, team dynamics and collaboration at voltagecontrol.com.