Penny Walker at #dareconf mini, January 2014

How to facilitate when you’re the expert: podcast conversation with Penny Walker

In this podcast with my friend and colleague Penny Walker, we discuss the challenge of facilitating discussions when you’re the expert. Penny is an independent facilitator specialising in sustainable development. She also presented at #dareconf mini last year. 

You can listen to the podcast, download the MP3 file, or read the transcript.


Jonathan: This is Jonathan Kahn. I’m the founder of Together London, where I organize events about the people side of digital work.

Penny: My name is Penny Walker. I’m an independent facilitator, specializing in organizational change, stakeholder engagement and particularly, sustainable development. Today we’re going to be talking about facilitation.

Jonathan: What we’re going to do is we decided that we come from two different types of work. I work in digital, making websites and apps and that kind of thing, and Penny works in sustainability.

We thought it would be interesting to talk about some scenarios that we found in our work that have been challenging, and to hear the other person’s perspective on similar situations from the other industry, and ideas for dealing with that.

We tossed a coin, and Penny won. So Penny is going to be bringing her scenario to the discussion today.

Penny: Thanks, Jonathan. This is something that comes up for me very often in my work.

I’m an independent facilitator. I’m brought in to help clients with different kinds of conversations that they need to have. Very often, I’m brought in by the sustainability specialist in an organization. This might be someone who is at director level or possibly at a lower level in hierarchy than that.

They have a lot of expertise on things like carbon reduction, renewable energy, supply chain management from an environmental or social perspective, maybe they know a lot about behaviour change and how to get people to switch off the tap and switch off the lights, things like that.

They might have a lot of expertise in the environmental or social aspects of sustainability. They very often, don’t necessarily have a lot of hierarchical or power that’s given to them by being able to oblige people to do things. More often than not, they’d be an adviser rather than a rule enforcer. They are sometimes in a specialist function perhaps outside of the centre of the organization.

Quite often they need to facilitate conversations. I’m thinking of a particular situation where, there was a client of mine, Nick, he was asked by his Board to get together a cross-organizational grouping of people from different parts of the organization to talk about their current sustainability practices and policies. This organization had quite a lot of public statements about the things it would and wouldn’t do from an energy or carbon perspective.

Those things have served them well in previous market conditions but new market conditions have come about. The Board were wondering whether or not they needed to refresh and how much emphasis to give to those issues.

It was Nick’s job to convene and bring together a group of people and get them to give their feedback.

But he was a bit stuck, because he wasn’t sure whether he would really get people’s honest opinions, or whether the fact that he had this expertise and this place in the organization might mean that people didn’t necessarily tell him the truth but maybe told him what they thought he wanted to hear.

Jonathan: To reflect back what I’m hearing there, it sounds like the organization already had quite a lot of policies and public statements about sustainability, which maybe seemed relatively progressive in the industry. And Nick was this expert who didn’t have formal authority for making stuff happen, but was an advisor.

Then, what happens is the board says, “Should we still be doing all this stuff? Does this stuff all make sense?” Perhaps “Can we afford to do this,” etc. The board’s then saying to Nick, find out what people think. And his concern is, “If I’m this sustainability expert and I say, ‘What do you think about carbon emissions,’ will I get an honest answer?”

Penny: Yes, that’s a good summary.

Jonathan: Why do you think that he was stuck in that way? What was getting in the way, for him, of fulfilling this request?

Penny: I think he had the insight to see that his own position in this system, if you like, this system of conversation that he was hoping to set up, meant that he might somehow skew it or that people might not be honest because they were concerned that Nick would have a particular perspective and they would want to maybe tell Nick what he wanted to hear.

I think he also picked up that some people might worry that if they were too negative about the sustainability initiative, this might have implications for Nick’s job, and would that stop them from being honest or perhaps encourage them to be more forceful? So there was something about, did Nick need to get out of the way?

But at the same time, there was an assumption that Nick needed to be the person to convene all this, because if it was done without him, that also might be seen to be undermining of his position. So he was the obvious person to make this conversation happen. He definitely needed to be involved in some way. I think people could see that.

But one of the questions was whether or not he should be in the room while the conversation was happening, or whether in fact it should be facilitated by people who didn’t have that particular brief. The down side of that would be that there was a concern that these people might be talking about the sustainability aspects of the organization without really understanding them very well.

They might understand how they impacted on their own particular job. They might not have expertise about some of the broader questions around sustainability. That might get in the way of them having useful conversations. Where does the expertise come in, in that situation?

Jonathan: It’s interesting. It sounds to me you’ve used this word, “convene” quite a few times there. It sounds Nick’s background is a bit less about convening, more about being an expert about sustainability itself.

Penny: Yes. I would say that that’s pretty typical. People want to bring in people- give them these positions in their organization-  exactly for the expertise that they’re able to bring that may not be present in the wider staff body.

Jonathan: Is it furthermore the actual organization wants, people with expertise versus the people with convening or facilitation expertise?

Penny: Yes. Well, I don’t know if this is the case in your work. I often find that that convening and facilitation expertise isn’t really valued or recruited for specifically in organizations. It’s one of those hidden skills.

Jonathan: Exactly. We talk an awful lot about collaboration to the extent that it can become a buzz word. We don’t really talk about how you do that very often. The fact that this is a different skill set from designing things, writing things, or developing things, it’s about bringing people together, learning together, finding common ground, and all that stuff.

It’s interesting. At face value this problem for Nick is that he doesn’t know whether he can facilitate while also being an expert. The second part of it that I’m finding interesting as well is that the request from the board at face value is about sustainability. If you think about what they’re actually asking for, they’re actually asking for help with facilitation.

Penny: Tell me more about that.

Jonathan: Because they want to know what the people who work in the company in the organization think which doesn’t really have an awful lot to do with sustainability as such. It doesn’t really have a lot to do with, for example, technical information about emissions.

It has much more to do with what their perspectives are on it, whether values are, whether they are aligned on that stuff. That in a sense is, “Well, you know about sustainability, why don’t you just find out what they think.”

Actually, finding out what they think is a facilitation job. It’s obviously somebody who has interests and can do that. It’s not necessarily an obvious thing or an easy thing to do if your focus of self is on the expertise as oppose to the facilitation.

Penny: Yes, which is why to be fair to them, which is why they bring in somebody like me. They know that they might need to not only buy in the expertise, also, buy in the neutrality. As an independent contractor, I’m not beholden to any of the players in any long term way in the same way that someone who’s on the staff is.

Jonathan: Although in a sense you have a sustainability agenda that’s why you’re in it. You’re unlikely to push them towards not talking about these issues of whatever it is.

Penny: Yes. That is an interesting thing that other independent facilitators sometimes challenge me about is that if you come into the field from a particular background which I did. You have some expertise. You have some contacts. That’s where your own interest and energy is.

Actually, over the years, one of the things that I’ve learned to do and have some times to explain to people is that these days, my interest and expertise is in helping other people have the conversations they need to have.

The fact that I have that background, perhaps gives me better ability to see whether things are straying off the point or not. It helps me with the language, some contacts, and knowledge of the field. Indeed, there are conversations that I will sometimes say I’m probably not the best person to facilitate this because my own opinion is too strong.

Jonathan: Almost, “it is difficult for me to keep the role. I’m triggered by this. I’m not cool about this topic right now. I’m going to choose not to facilitate this time.” I think it’s interesting that you talked about neutrality. That to me doesn’t seem to be the core problem in the sense that anyone is explicitly regarding people as being biased.

What I’m seeing Nick having trouble with this is figuring out what help he can bring to this current situation? How he can stay true to his values? How do I ask people what they think about sustainability when it’s totally obvious, I think this? That type of thinking.

The parallel from my work is bringing people who are not experienced in say, design, into design processes and saying, for example, “From our point of view we should be using plain English for this but it’s full of jargon,” and the lawyers say, “Well, jargon is absolutely essential. If you don’t have precise language, it will be totally misleading and it will be a disgrace.”

The ability to actually ask them, go on a journey with them towards what we’re both trying to do, instead of saying, “You don’t understand design and you’re wrong.”

Penny: Yes. Tell me a bit more about what are the parallels that you see with Nick’s situation.

Jonathan: The parallels I see are that the requests that come down, has come down from the board…it seems like they’re looking for more understanding of what the employees of the company think, what their perceptions and attitudes are, opinions, I suppose and that he is uncomfortable in the current situation.

This happens in a similar way in digital when we get a request, normally from management, it can often be from the board, to design a new service or to make a change, or to make a budget change or whatever.

The request as it stands, doesn’t make a lot of sense to us, and we have trouble with engaging in that request, while holding on to our values. We might see it as cutting corners, or this isn’t the way it should be done.

A big one that comes up often is there’s this principle of usability testing or user-centred design, which says, “Assumptions a designer makes, is normally going to not quite meet a user’s need, because they don’t really understand the user’s context, because they’re not that person and they’re not trying to do this task.”

If we can subject everything we do to actual testing with human beings and see whether they’re able to fulfil the requirements of its own language, complete the task, then we have a much better chance of tweaking, tweaking, tweaking, until it does actually work for the person.

Often in organizations, they say things like, “There is no budget for usability testing.” What happens then is the professional says, the expert says, “This will basically be contravening my values to do this. This is wrong. I won’t do this.”

The only thing that I know really, that works in this situation is to treat the request as it comes from the boss or the person up in the hierarchy, as if it was a genuine request for help. So, not a demand to comply with rules and then to follow my orders, but actually a request to say, “Would you be willing to help me?”

Just because they’ve asked you to do something with no testing, that sounds to me like they don’t understand the value of this thing. The fact that we haven’t figured out common ground, that we are trying to meet user needs. We’re trying to meet customer needs with this.

Whether or not you believe it’s the case, you can behave as if you believe it’s the case. You can go to them and say, “You’ve asked me to do this, and I want to find out where our common ground is, what we both are trying to achieve here, because I reckon we’re both attempting to achieve these outcomes for these customers.

So, can we talk about what we might want to do to achieve that. Can I take you on a journey, as much as you telling me stuff?” What we tend to do is we put executives in front of users, struggling with, for example, jargon.

When the lawyer sees that the person using the website cannot physically comprehend the words, then they’re no longer going to argue, “This is the way it has to be,” because they do not want them to be able to not comprehend the words.

They just don’t believe until they see that normal people don’t understand legal jargon, or caveats confuse people, for example. They don’t realize that until they see it. We have to show that to them instead of telling that to them.

Penny: Right. In doing that, you’re helping them to see the world from your perspective. In order that, they can see that it’s worth seeking common ground.

Jonathan: It’s funny. It ends up challenging our perspective in the end because we tend to think of them as stupid, old people who don’t get it…

Penny: [laughs]

Jonathan: A lot of the time there is a lot of prejudice and judgment that we’re holding onto as professionals, as experts, and frustration, which has got nothing to do with that boss who just said, “This seems like a good idea. Why don’t we do this?”

Penny: So, you’re projecting a lot of assumptions. When you hear that request, you’re building a lot of assumptions around it.

Jonathan: Yeah. That’s an important point. Exactly. A lot of it is in our heads. Sometimes there’s all these difficult political things, like there’s a project manager in between us, or there’s another executive, or whatever. There’s this difficulty of communication and it’s broken down to, “You must do this. There’s no discussion.”

A lot of this does come down to our own assumptions. It’s very scary to go to someone and say, “I want to understand what you need here. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I want this to work for you.”

So, we actually avoid that. A lot of the time, the judgments we have are almost like a defence mechanism against engaging with these people.

Penny: That’s interesting. What are we defending ourselves against? The possibility that we might have to change ourselves, that we might have to alter our own description of the world and our own positions.

Jonathan: I think so. I think in terms of Nick worrying about his own perspective on carbon emissions, if it’s a very rigid perspective that we must reduce by this amount and this way.

There may be an element of he’s really trying to hold on to that and he’s scared of, “Will I be undermined if I opened myself up to all the complexity around this and all the different people and all the different needs?”

It’s like, “I may have to let go of some of my red lines,” or whatever. Or the usability person has to let go of testing every single time they design something, if there are other things going around that. Just imagining that that might happen is a scary thing to do.

Penny: Yes. I think jumping ahead to what the implications for your own identity as a person…

Jonathan: Yeah. Identity.

Penny: …the values that you hold dear, all of those sorts of things can definitely come in the way of people slowing the conversation down and having a properly exploratory conversation, where they’re properly listening to other people and sharing their own doubts and uncertainties, because there’s this sense that that makes you vulnerable.

Jonathan: Identity is really core, I think, because people…One of the things that I find…the underlying question here is, “How can I facilitate when I have expertise?”

One of the things I find difficult, that people find a lot of difficulty with, and I find difficult as well, is that when we think the only thing we’re contributing is the right answer. So, “It’s only because I have 10 years’ experience in designing digital interfaces that I’m invited to this party at all.”

If I then switch around to saying, “No, my role is to help people to communicate in an equal way, then I’m no longer providing the right answer. How am I qualified to even be here? Why do they even want me here?”

Obviously that’s all in my own head, but that’s something that I see a lot, that they don’t believe that they will be able to contribute without that expertise and that right answer.

Penny: I think another thing that can also reinforce that anxiety is that people think, “If I’m not here contributing the right answer, the right answer won’t be found. This group of people will find the wrong answer if I’m not allowed to put my expertise into the room.”

It sounds like we’re really understanding well why Nick feels so stuck here. What are some of the things that Nick might do practically that could help unstick this situation?

Jonathan: This is an example that if Nick were actually here he may not be exactly workable but it’s an idea from digital. In the same way that we brought the chief executive or minister into the usability lab to watch how the user was struggling with the jargon or the experience, Nick has options here around taking the request from the board at face value.

If the request from the board is “find out what other people think,” how can he actually bring the actual members of the board themselves into a process in which they are participating. They can think as well; they’re also human beings. Instead of hearing it as “I’m going to outsource it. You find out opinions and then I’ll decide what I do with these opinions. I’m going to gather feedback from the troops.”

Instead of doing that, why couldn’t you invite them to participate in a process with everybody else as equals? Talk about their own hopes and fears, about their own reactions. Then take on the role. Assume that what they mean is, “Help facilitate a discussion between me, board member, and these people who I’m a little bit scared of for these number of reasons.”

Penny: I think that I can see how powerful that would be and I’ve experienced the power of that from time to time. I think it takes quite a lot of groundwork for everybody to feel confident that people will speak their truth in that situation. I’m sounding perhaps more sceptical than I want to, because the troops, as it were, might feel equally uncomfortable about speaking their truth in front of the board.

Jonathan: Also if you’ve never facilitated before and you put yourself in this really high-stakes situation, it can go wrong if you jump in. I actually heard a story recently of somebody who had got the CEO on a meeting which was not really ready for the CEO to be there and it had gone really wrong for that person. They were OK, but starting with the big-stakes thing can not work. So I can think of a halfway thing.

Penny: Let’s hear about that, because I think that would be very interesting.

Jonathan: The halfway thing is, if you think about that as, shall we say, the radical option that you want to get to, before you get there, the question I would want to ask is to sit down with the people who’ve asked you and say, “Can you tell me what you’re hoping to get from this? What is it that you want to understand? What is it that you don’t understand?”

Just interview them. You can always put that from the perspective of, “I am not actually sure what it is you’re asking me and I would like to participate in this in a way that it means you and I are working together. And right now, I’m not quite sure I understand. So can we work that out?”

For your point of view that’s about building trust. So you want as much trust as possible and you want to be able to go into this without having this worry about what they really want or what they’re going to do with it, whether you can trust that the outcome of this process you are working will actually have an impact, etc.

You can always sit down with the person as if they’re human being and say, “Tell me what you’re hoping for here, what you’re afraid of, what you want, and what an outcome is that will work for you. You may actually be able to find a not quite so demanding version of what I just said that still involves them in some way. Lower stakes.

Penny: One of the other ways that I found that helps to build the confidence of the troops in this scenario is to give them an opportunity to have these conversations amongst themselves without either the hierarchy or the nominated expert in the room, so that they begin to be more confident, challenge each other, refine each other’s thinking. And then get to the point where they decide how they would like to share that thinking with the expert and with the hierarchy.

They might do that either through requesting that, say…I’ve been in situations where they’ve requested that the independent facilitator feedback on their behalf. I’ve also been in situations where they’ve nominated the more confident or articulate people among them to feedback on part of the group.

Or they’ve made posters so they can let their written, considered words do the talking for them as the prelude then maybe to some freer conversation, so that they almost are putting forward their interim thinking in order to then have a conversation that gives them a bit more confidence that they’re doing that in a controlled way. They’re not going to panic and say something they’re likely to regret. That can boost their own confidence.

Jonathan: There’s a world of things that you could do in the situation. I think the thing you just outlined there with people getting together in small groups and deciding what they want to do. The prerequisite for that to work is going to be trust. And I think there’s this underlying thing in this scenario about will they really say what they think? His fear is that he’s not going to have the trust he needs.

I think in terms of my suggestion to engage directly with the people asking you to do the work, the board, if you can make your job to bring as much trust to this process as possible, then there is a universe of things you could do.

As long as you can stand up to those people who you’re going to ask to work together in groups and say, “This is why we’re asking you to do it, this is why we care, and this is what we’re going to do as a result.”

You believe that this is true and you can’t believe that they’re going to believe you but you believe that there’s a chance that they’re going to buy it and you’re coming from a place of authenticity, they will be able to see that. Even if they are suspicious, they’ll be able to see you’re coming from a place of authenticity.

In a sense it’s almost like you’re working with the boss people to work out what you’re happy to do, and then you’re going to do that for real. You’re going to do that from the heart. That will come through to whoever you’re trying to engage with. Whatever the situation and the hierarchy and the history is, they will be able to see the way you are communicating at that moment.

Penny: Yes. Bringing your personal authenticity to it. Jonathan, we’re almost out of time. Is there any final words that you might say to Nick or people who feel they identify with that situation?

Jonathan: I think the thing I would say to Nick is that probably none of our solutions are exactly what you need, and that’s OK. I think engaging with the fact that there is a conflict between the expertise you bring from what you know and your ability to bring a group together or help a group work together to come to their own conclusion, is a very, very common challenge that a lot of people face.

It’s OK to find that difficult and you do have the resources to deal with that if you want to. My tip-tip-tip is treat commands from the hierarchy as if they’re cries for help and you can go in whenever you want to and assume the best of intentions and assume that you have common ground, even if you’ve got no evidence that suggests that.

And try and find out how you can work together, how you can find a common aim with this person who’s asking you to do something. Then hopefully from that you will be able to act with trust. Trust for the group and trust for yourself, and come from this authentic place when it doesn’t really matter where you end up, because people believe that the process was an honest one.

Penny: Excellent. Thank you.

Jonathan: Thank you very much Penny. That was good fun and I hope we can do that again.

Penny: Me too.