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How to Facilitate Critical Team Conversations

An important element of critical conversations is how to facilitate team discussions. The goal of facilitating group conversations (critical conversations) is to help groups become teams that work together to solve problems. That isn’t an easy task, but by using these techniques, you get one step closer to creating a capable and effective team.

Four vital facilitation factors for critical conversations

Here are four areas to focus on as a facilitator of team decisions:

  • Look out for group dynamics. Group dynamics include knowing the roles people play on teams, both formally and informally, and how individuals on the team interact with one another.

  • Listen for the underlying meaning, both the spoken and unspoken, of conversations. Facilitators listen and take note when individuals aren’t being heard or are talking too much; they also can sense when participants say one thing but may mean another.

  • Provide feedback that has an impact. It’s one thing to observe a bully taking over the conversation, but it’s quite another thing to be able to say, “Thanks, Bob, for that information. How about the rest of you? What are some of your views?”

    Giving feedback appropriately also means knowing when to intervene. Politely redirecting conversations may work, but facilitators also need to be prepared to talk off-line to individuals who disrupt the group about the consequences of their behavior.

  • Know how to ask questions that drive a discussion. Luckily, if you’re an expert in critical conversations, you have a leg up on the types of questions that create discussion rather than shut it down. Consider these questions: “What could we do together?” “How do we work together?” “What problems are we trying to solve?” These questions are “we” questions that generate discussion and commitment to solutions.

Facilitation of critical conversations in action

Many people on teams and in groups come to meetings, think they come up with a great decision and action plan, and then come back to the next meeting to discover that absolutely nothing happened. Or worse, progress on the project or idea has backtracked.

Developing agreements that lead to action takes a leader, team member, or even an outside party that’s actively involved. Facilitating critical conversations within teams is a lot more involved than just writing what people say on flip charts.

Dialogue builds agreements and action. Here are some of the questions a facilitator would use to help the group decide together:

  • Examine issues: Ask, “Does everyone agree to work together to make a team decision?” People must be willing to work together before they can make any decisions.

    “What are the problems the team is facing?” A team facilitator shouldn’t just assume that the organization needs to grow at a rate of 30 percent. Instead, the leader should first ask the team to identify the big changes or problems in the market that are putting pressure on profits and revenue.

    The series of questions would include: “What does the team think are the problems facing our financial performance, and why do we have these problems in the first place?” If the group seems to be conflicted about what the problem is, it may be useful to back up and ask, “What problem are we trying to solve?”

    In this example, the team may bring up anything from an old pricing strategy that caused margins to deteriorate or government regulations that opened the market to more competition. Whatever the answer, examining the issues as a team will launch a collaborative approach to finding a solution everyone can agree with.

  • Acknowledge opinions and feelings: Some people may have an emotional stake in the old way of doing business. Before a decision is made to find a solution, you may need to acknowledge areas of contention or where disagreement may still lie. It may be impossible to thrill everyone with the outcome, but it is possible to ask whether everyone can support it.

    In highly charged situations, it may be helpful to recognize that until the emotional feelings are dealt with, a good decision probably won’t be made. You may sense that the team has hit an emotional barricade. In this case, state what you’re feeling and ask whether others feel the same.

    For example, you may say, “I feel like voices become a little tense when we talk about past solutions that didn’t deliver expected results. Does anyone else feel this way?” Most likely, if you feel this, someone else feels it too.

  • Decide how to move forward: Now is the time for the fun part — or at least the part many teams (and groups) jump into quickly: finding solutions. After everyone agrees on the problems, ask the team members how they recommend solving the problem. After ideas are voiced, the team can agree on the value of the options and then choose which decision everyone can support in the future.

    A team facilitator may first ask, “What solutions can we agree will benefit the company?” After these solutions are identified, ask, “Which of these solutions can everyone support as we move forward?”

    The first question is a safe question for the team to answer because it isn’t asking for commitment. Then, after the team narrows down the solutions to those that will solve the problem, they will be more comfortable with identifying the one or two that they’re willing to support.

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