By Rae Ringel
We don’t hold meetings on a football field, but great quarterbacks do. Five-time league MVP Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos can teach us a lot about facilitation. He dedicates extraordinary preparation to his sport, but will shift his team in the moment to make the play.
Great facilitators are masterful planners. They work from a playbook, mapping stakeholder interests, performing needs assessments, defining meeting objectives and exacting myriad hard skills in the craft of facilitation.
But facilitation is also an art, and a sport, and facilitators must be great pivoters, deftly relying on intuition, emotional intelligence, experience and self-awareness to know when it’s time to shift strategies.
Imagine a great basketball player like LeBron James or Stephen Curry, the ball of their pivot foot planted on the floor, spinning jab step with the other, all the while scanning the court for an opening.
This metaphor of cunning athleticism perfectly conveys when describing the turns, revolutions and evolutions of the facilitator, at once grounded and yet prepared to spin in conscious motion in service to the team.
On the playing field and in life, the only constant is change. The court or field of the facilitator is of course the meeting space, where predefined agendas and processes meet head to head with evolving group needs. Stick strictly to the playbook and your message may fall on deaf ears.
Peyton Manning has been called “master of the audible.” He will bark out the name of a play, his helmet swiveling as he scans the field, ready to call it as he sees it. Manning looks for threats. The linebacker is setting up to blitz on the blindside. He looks for weaknesses. The cornerback is distracted by a heckler. Manning pivots and changes the play.
There is not a facilitator in the world who hasn’t walked into a room after hours, weeks or even months of intensive preparation, only to realize that the group will need to go in a different direction than planned. Heart rate goes up. Adrenaline swells, along with the recognition of a genuine, authentic and unforeseen need that must be addressed.
How do you let all of that hard work go? How do you pivot successfully in real time to meet the group’s needs? Here are a few ideas from our facilitation toolkit:
#1 Be an explorer
The best pivoters artfully blend confidence and humility. Like the early explorers, they must be willing to abandon their preconceptions and show a willingness to forge into uncharted territory. This takes faith, daring and a heaping dose of Chutzpah.
# It’s not about you
As a facilitator you are in service to the people in the room. Ultimately, it is their agenda, not your agenda, that may need to shift. You must endeavor to be flexible enough to move into their need, and not forcibly railroad your objectives.
#3 Listen deeply
In most cases, your audience will tell you what they need. You just have to listen. They’ll indicate this through their words and body language. Use your peripheral vision to search for signs of disengagement (a semi-concealed yawn) or frustration (belligerent behavior).
#4 Retrofit your time
In pivoting, you may find that you are working not towards the original goal but a completely unanticipated outcome. You may therefore need to rethink your process and plan backwards to ensure that you get where you need to go.
The pivot is an essential skill. The root of facilitator is the Latin facile. The facilitator is the person that makes an action or process easier. If you are truly in service to those in the room, you must pivot to ease the complexity of the system within which you are working.
The pivot is also one of the hardest facilitation skills to master. There is a thrill and agony to shifting precisely and fluidly in real time, creating instability while staying true to your core. It is Lebron James looking for the open man while keeping the ball of his foot firmly anchored on the court. It is Peyton Manning going off the playbook to make the play. Pivot successfully and those in the room will become your greatest fans.
If you’re ready to be an MVP facilitator, join me for the next Georgetown University Facilitation Certificate program, opening for enrollment this summer, with classes starting November 2016. scs.georgetown.edu/
Rae Ringel is a certified executive coach and founding President of The Ringel Group. She is a faculty member at the Georgetown University Institute for Transformational Leadership and is the founding director of a new program at Georgetown – a Certificate in the Art of Facilitation and Design – which will launch in winter 2016.