I am a proponent of analysis and design via a Group Process. I’ve been doing most of my work this way since 1979 when I started in the biz. It’s a tough row to hoe – so to speak – but much quicker than traditional methods and with better outputs in terms of eventual buy-in by the clients – because the end results “come straight from the horse’s mouth” – again, so to speak.
Doing Group Process requires excellent facilitation skills. And mastering them isn’t always easy – but they can be learned. I teach these in context of doing analysis and design via a Group Process – and have been doing so since the mid 1980s with my staff and client’s staff.
The single most powerful insight I have gained in my evolution as a facilitator was from my exposure back in 1981 to a “communications behavioral model” from a “Win-Win Negotiating” course and a “SPIN” sales training course from Huthwaite, Inc. I feel most fortunate to have been involved in those courses in 1981 while I was at Motorola Training & Education Center (MTEC―the forerunner of Motorola University).
The model identifies four key verbal communications behaviors. I almost always categorize my verbal expressions into these four, even as I say them. And I typically “see” others’ verbal expressions falling into these categories, even as they speak!
The four types are
1. Giving Information
2. Seeking Information
3. Testing Understanding/Summarizing
The “giving information” communications behavior is straightforward and important. When facilitating PACT Processes, giving information is the place to begin. Generally, you may need to first give some information before you “find things out,” but you should soon be shifting gears into the next type.
The “seeking information” communications behavior also is simple. It’s typically in question form, either open-ended or closed-ended, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Knowing how you balance these first two types of communications behaviors is important in assessing your success and failure as a communicator, but nothing beats the next communication behaviors.
The “testing understanding/summarizing” is actually a combination of two behaviors, but I often combine them to simplify their use. However, they are different.
Testing understanding is making statements or asking questions for the purpose of testing what you think you’ve just heard or what you think you know. Most of us know this as a form of “active listening.”
One of the best ways to test understanding is to paraphrase what was said. Putting it into another set of words, rather than simply parroting it back just as you heard it, allows the sender to better check your receipt of their message. If you parrot it back, all we know is that you remember the words. The further your paraphrasing takes the original words away from the words you use, the easier it is to test for understanding.
It is also best to be somewhat declarative of what you’re doing when you test understanding. I often announce, “I am testing here” and then make a statement or ask a question. Then listen for the response, and always read the clues and cues of nonverbal facial and body language. You can also say, “Let me see if I’ve got this. You’re saying that x, y, and then z. Is that right?” Work on your own set of phrases to test understanding. Play with it!
The second part of this behavior is summarizing. Again, it’s best to provide your own clues and cues to your group. Say, “Let me try to summarize this,” and then do it. If your words stray from the original (but not too far), then it’s easier for the group to react.
Summarizing is very much like testing understanding, just done in a different mode. You are looking for feedback from the group that you are either right on, just off, or way off. Again, don’t let your ego get in the way! I tell groups, “As a facilitator, I can’t be afraid to be wrong because it’ll slow us down. In fact, I’m often wrong. So get used to it! Your job here today is also to correct me and keep me on the straight and narrow path!”
Testing understanding and summarizing are critical to ensure that we understand the meanings behind the words that others are using. As a colleague of mine once remarked: “It not just semantics, it’s always semantics!”
Testing understanding and summarizing helps us receivers comprehend the intent of the message sender. Testing understanding can be a very powerful tool for a facilitator. (Of course, Socrates used this technique way back when, so be careful! Watch out for hemlock.)
The “Defend/Attack” behavior is also a combination. Defending is typically in response to a real or perceived attack. No matter how it starts, it usually degenerates into a defend/attack spiral that won’t end until someone interrupts the spiral. The best interruption is to test understanding and summarize―something on the order of, “So you’re saying that this proactive facilitator stuff is just a bunch of hooey, and that the author must be a real jerk to perpetuate this garbage by committing it to paper and then disseminating it to the public?”
Usually a short string of tests and summaries are sufficient to defuse the situation and end a defend/attack spiral. All that the irate usually want is to be heard (and understood). Get the conversation back to more civilized ground and reduce the heat.
In my mind, the power of testing understanding and summarizing cannot be underestimated. Try it yourself. Try it on the kids. Try it with your significant other. (But stay away from gang fights!)
Using the Four Key Communications Behavior Types
Once I learned the four communications behavior types, I began to “see” all of my own verbal utterings as falling into one of the four categories.
I learned to first give information, maybe a little or a bunch, and then to soon test understanding. Do they get it? For example, “I want us to list all of the outputs for this Area of Performance and then identify all of the key measures of performance for each. Are we all clear on what I mean by performance outputs?”
Or, “We need to identify the typical performance gaps, if any, for this output.”
Or, in response to the group’s input, I test understanding for my benefit. “So the typical gap is that they are almost always late in turning in the monthly report?”
I also test understanding in response to their statements. “Let me test this out. You’re saying that there are indeed typical gaps, but they don’t sync up with any of the key measures we have currently listed.”
I learned to seek information and then summarize. “What gap do you think there is, and what key output measure would reflect that gap?” I would respond to their response with, “So we seem to be saying that it would be both a time to complete as well as a timeliness measure.”
I learned that the best way to break a defend/attack spiral is to first test understanding/summarize and then either give information or seek information. “So you think that global T&D dropped the ball and didn’t get the vendor into the effort soon enough, driving up your costs due to all of the overtime that was incurred trying to catch up?”
I learned that the more I test understanding and summarize the more it benefits the group, because they are sometimes hesitant to appear stupid. Again, I can’t afford to let my own ego get in the way of potentially appearing stupid, slow, etc. I’ve learned that the really smart people in the room will quickly figure me out and that I won’t appear stupid at all, no matter how hard I might appear to be trying with all of this testing understanding behavior.
This is great stuff. It made me more comfortable to have these communication behavioral tools at my disposal when I first started, and I believe it has made a big difference in my approach and style. It has made me a much better facilitator.
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