Archive for the ‘Facilitation’ Category
Posted January 26th, 2014 by The Steve Alexander Group
We thought we had been completely clear on our dinner order. Then everything quickly tumbled out of control, with tempers flaring and a rush headlong into the ‘right/wrong’ paradigm I teach about in my coaching and teambuilding training. “Okay, here it comes,” I thought to myself, as others around the table seemed to grasp for help.
We started out for our last dinner with the team I was training in Florida. I’ve been working with them for over a dozen years, so lots of history and warm camaraderie around the big round table. We asked, given it was an unusually nice French restaurant in seemingly the middle-of-nowhere, if anyone wanted or had ever tasted escargot. With mixed replies, some willing to try, some salivating and others with a nonverbal cue to keep it far from their plate, we asked the delightful French waiter – a short, squat, grey-haired 70-plus year-old gentleman who spoke his English with a great French accent – right out of central casting, if we might have enough escargot to share among nine of us. He wrote it down and disappeared into the kitchen.
The wine was selected, conversation deepened, time passed and out came the owner of the restaurant with nine separate servings of a half-dozen escargot in each dish!
Eyes widened around the table (no one of the decliners lurched for the restroom, however you could see it in their faces) and the nonverbal responses entered into a din of dialogue that quickly turned to finger-pointing!
“Who ordered all this escargot?” “I didn’t want any.” “We can’t eat all this!” The noise level rapidly shot up. And, of course, the level of ‘listening’ went down right along with the comprehension. After a brief point, everyone turned to me and begged, “Steve, you’re our facilitator, please fix this!”
I turned to the owner and said, “There’s been a misunderstanding. We wanted enough escargot to share among nine of us, not separate servings of nine each.” To which he replied, “No, you did not.”
Our journey begins.
I suggested, due to the miscommunication, how about he leave us with four or five of the servings, to which our delightful French waiter replied something along the lines of “You are wrong! You absolutely ordered nine servings.” (My command of French is slight; my study and reading of human body language allows me to conclude there are certain universal ‘words’ that are clear no matter the spoken word!)
He pointed to his pad and with great emotion told us we CLEARLY ordered nine servings of escargot.
At least the point of this post should be clear by now. How quickly communication can be confused, how miscommunication can arise. And how quickly we jump to that ‘right/wrong’ paradigm (if I am right, you must be wrong, and vice versa).
Of course, once the dialogue (shouting, pleading, etc.) settled down, and the Frenchman came over to me and confided how difficult it was to work for the owner, who was often quick to allow his temper to rise, and how much trouble he was in, I assured him we would do all possible to help.
After time passed and temperatures cooled, and the main courses were delivered and deemed with perfection, I called over the waiter and announced that we’d had the best service of any of our experiences while gathered in this little corner of the world, and felt a part of our Frenchman’s family. Our group gave him a loud, heartfelt round of applause, to which everyone in the restaurant turned to see what was happening. We thanked him profusely for his patience with our language, and left him with a warmth and gratitude that was as important to us as it was to him.
I brought him close and whispered to him that I would talk to the owner and explain as well.
When the owner came by at the end of the meal to ask how it was, we told him, out of everywhere we’d been (the irony being we had other dinner plans and only selected his because the place we were going didn’t seem suitable), this was truly the best, and what made it so was our delightful, personable, engaging and dedicated waiter, who, in spite of the miscommunication, OUR miscommunication, made our evening the most memorable of all.
Ms. Communication actually turned into a great hostess who gave each of us – team members, waiter and owner – a glimpse into our own ability to unwittingly make communication blunders. It became a positive experience in how, instead of seeking blame, fault or cause, we may instead focus on the desired outcomes and the purpose of our communication. We even perceived the broader context of why and how we were gathered together and the potential to learn from one another and our circumstances.
When we move to cause and blame, we too often lose sight of the bigger picture. And everyone goes away a loser. With a less-than-positive experience and a ‘having-missed-something’ outcome.
Our French waiter became our teacher. We, part of the classroom that now extended from the retreat center to our evening dinner. Each of us was in some way affected, appreciative and better for it.
What’s happened in your life recently where Ms. Communication has visited? Where are the opportunities, in both big and small ways, to take a breath, self-reflect and find your way, with others, to better understanding, patience, insight and growth?
We all have those ‘escargot’ moments in our lives. Keep searching for how you can better approach the moment so the outcome leaves everyone satisfied, even enriched for having been a part of the experience.
P.S. If you’re curious about how we actually resolved the escargot quandary, let us know!
Posted February 18th, 2012 by The Steve Alexander Group
In the communications world, we’re constantly looking for those anecdotes and stories that help others learn about the importance and challenges of communicating to our audiences. One recently occurred with a little friend of mine (‘little’ meaning 10 years old!) in trying to help her solve a problem. It helped underscore the importance of using language that has meaning to the receiver, and of making sure our communications are audience-focused.
She called me, as a family friend, from her mom’s mobile phone to tell me they were having trouble with their new television and video-streaming reception (not that I’m an expert by any stretch, however, I’m a practiced tinkerer and have some talent in unexpected areas beyond my day job!). It seemed like nothing was working. Because they had one of those full-service, one-provider arrangements, I asked if the house phone worked. She didn’t know (and rarely uses it), so I asked her to pick up the phone and listen for the dial-tone. Her response was startling!
“What’s a dial-tone?”
At first I thought she was teasing me (something she learned from me and at which she is now well-practiced). I repeated my question, and asked if she could hear the dial-tone on the house phone. For context, this is someone with an iPad, iPod and notebook computer, and who uses her mom’s mobile phone for voice communication. Once she knows your eddress, you’re a regular in her ‘Contacts’ list, and are sure to be updated on her life activities via email, texts, etc.
I was a bit taken aback and started to describe what a dial-tone was when I realized she was of a generation that had no real experience with the concept, and that I’d lost my ‘audience’ because I was unable to speak in a language and with words, symbols and substance that she understood. In my inability to explain and attempt to grasp for comparisons, this thought came to me: How often do we communicate in a language, at a time, with an emotion or intent that makes complete sense to us, but leaves our audiences, our listeners, totally disconnected (pardon the pun!)?
We act based on what WE think WE know, rather than taking the time to understand what our audiences/listeners know and need. It’s a focal point of a lot of the professional coaching I do as well. Often my counsel (when clients present a challenge in communicating with someone) is to slow down, think about the person they are communicating to, and ask them to apply the old ‘put yourself in their chair’ exercise. For example, what is that person thinking? What experiences do they bring to the conversation? What are their needs, wants, desires; fears, apprehensions, anxieties? Apply the “Seek first to understand, rather than to be understood” lesson. In other words, focus on your audience.
When we train speakers, it’s the same advice. Ask, why are folks sitting in their chairs listening to me? Why are they there? What do they want? (Rather than the classic speaker’s mistake of asking: What do I want to tell them?)
This little 10-year old is pretty sharp, and eventually I was able to help her with her problem. It made me aware that a mobile-phone generation may NEVER hear a dial-tone, and that word, like so many others, illustrates the need for changing language, symbols and substance as we communicate to others who may have a different perspective, background, culture, history, etc. than we do. We need to understand what others need and want from the communication, presentation, meeting, or other interaction they’re having with us, and help understand their ‘language,’ and where they are coming from in the midst of their challenge, or solution-seeking.
And remember, we may be speaking ‘dial-tone,’ and they may be speaking ‘mobile phone,’ and we both may lose out on making an important connection!
Posted November 18th, 2011 by Steve Alexander
I recently attended another Cinema Society of San Diego event run by my friend Andy Friedenberg. I’m not sure how he does it; his timing is impeccable when it comes to delivering movies just right for our times. Thanks, Andy!
After posting my recent blog about dysfunctional group dynamics, and receiving so many responses about how useful it was to folks, personally and professionally, Andy delivered with a touching, tender, poignant and timely movie called “Being Elmo” that was right on point!
So, why Elmo? The movie (releasing late December 2011, and you won’t want to miss it) is about an eight-year-old boy’s dream; a dream to become a puppeteer. More than that, it’s about the soul of this boy and how his character, whom we later learn is Elmo, reaches full expression in his life. Through Elmo, he touches a world of children and adults with love, compassion and care. His message is one of acceptance without judgment. No labels, criticism, put-downs or name-calling. How refreshing. And how timely.
The heart and soul of Kevin Clash, the tender, compassionate, caring boy whose dream actually becomes Elmo, is the heart and soul of this character we see develop on screen. We learn how congruent this is for Kevin and Elmo’s lives, if you will. By the way, Kevin is not a ventriloquist, putting a voice into a lifeless puppet, he’s a real, live human being putting his own heart and soul into Elmo. Touching lives. Caring. Carrying a message that says, “We’re basically all alike, regardless of who we are and where we come from; take the time to see that in others, see their dreams and hopes, and encourage and care for them.”
I never watched Sesame Street, Elmo’s home, only because I was from a different era. Learning about Kevin Clash, and his “Elmo,” gave me an appreciation for how much we could use his message in our tension-filled world, and in our distracted lives. How much we could all use a little compassion, unconditional acceptance and positive regard.
And maybe a re-visit to Sesame Street.
One of the many benefits of Cinema Society is we often meet the writers, directors, actors, producers and others connected with a film. We did that night. And also met 51-year-old Kevin Clash, who fulfilled his dream, and still carries that heart and soul on his sleeve, and, of course, in Elmo.
Listening to him talk, watching him connect with the audience, both in and out of character, was an inspiration. I’d like to take him to a few meetings with me; the tough ones I facilitate, where opinions and egos get in the way of sharing, caring and collaborative, mutual gains problem-solving. Kevin (in the character of Elmo) has a lot to say, and do, to help us in these challenging times, when communication has become so tragically dysfunctional.
I walked away that night with a refreshing sense of hope. I was touched by Kevin, even more, his Elmo. And it made me wonder if he couldn’t inspire in all of us a little more, to find that place in our hearts and souls, for reaching out to someone, friend or foe, and practicing in our own lives a little more… of Being Elmo!
Posted October 30th, 2011 by The Steve Alexander Group
It’s a shame that phrase has become so trivialized and impugned because of the circumstances under which it became part of our modern-day vernacular. Otherwise, it could truly serve as a plea for sanity at a time when dialogue between reasonably intelligent, well-intentioned people has veered off into a world of unbelievable disrespect. I’m not the first to comment about the condition of today’s public discourse, and I won’t be the last. Hopefully, however, with some easy-to-apply tips, we all might challenge ourselves to a higher standard.
I was recently asked by a reporter to comment on a situation involving a community planning group and the level of apparent dysfunction they’ve reached, including personal insults, name-calling, nasty emails and the like. The article, “Political infighting plagues Alpine panel,” appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune and explains the kinds of behaviors that often occur in today’s public arena, whether it’s an advisory group, governmental body, in blog posts in response to news stories, etc.
I recently read somewhere that much of what has happened is that, due to the growth of electronic communications, we’ve learned to treat ‘people’ represented at the end of those communication venues as if they were themselves machines. Unfeeling, unconscious, unaffected machines. Thus, an email isn’t to a person. It’s the pounding away on a keyboard, with all the anger, frustration, ill-will and worse that gets conjured up inside us at times. Were folks sitting in the same room, face-to-face, it might just temper the words we use and the sometimes strength of emotion we use to convey them.
A few questions to ask yourself next time you communicate:
- How would I treat this person if they were my best friend?
- What can I say or do that would actually help in this situation?
- Is it possible I’m not seeing something that might give me a different perspective on the issue?
- What can I learn from someone who doesn’t think like me, doesn’t share my values, life experiences and world-view?
- If I let go of who’s right and who’s wrong, and instead focus on doing the right thing, how does that change my actions and words?
A few tips, many you’ve heard before, however, worth repeating:
1) Stop, take a deep breath (or three) before saying or doing anything. Just this pause alone will give you time to think, maybe even lower your blood pressure and act more kindly and thoughtfully.
2) Consider the difference between a reaction (quick, thoughtless, emotional, gives control and responsibility to the other person, blames, diminishes the likelihood of a resolution to conflicts, etc.) vs. a response (strategic, thoughtful, unemotional, seeks resolutions, puts you in control of your emotions and actions), and seek always a response to events and conflicts.
3) Take FULL responsibility for your part of the interaction and relationship (more on this in another post) instead of blaming or seeking change in the other person.
4) Remember, you are emailing, talking, blogging, tweeting, etc. a REAL HUMAN BEING, a person with feelings, albeit their world-view may be different than yours, they are of the same species, and like you, they mostly want to be heard, understood and appreciated for who they are.
5) Avoid the right/wrong paradigm (if they’re right, I must be wrong and vice versa), and instead, look for the nexus in your ideas; in the case of this story about Alpine, for example, what do we have in common in our love for our community, our vision for the next generation and what they’ll inherit from our hard work and dedication, etc.?
6) Remember, you can’t always be right. Sometimes you have to ask yourself if being right is more important than being happy and protecting your own serenity. After all, being at peace with what’s happening is within your power and it’s your decision, not someone else’s.
Granted, it’s not easy to be the first one to take the high road. However, with a new way of approaching our discourse, perhaps we’ll have healthier discussions, greater self-respect as well as respect for others. If it even nudges us slightly away from the aggressive tone we’ve adopted in our public discourse, won’t it have been worth it?
Interestingly, guess what the most common response is to my comments in this recent article from friends, colleagues and clients who read it! “Can’t you and those who do what you do descend upon Congress and get them to practice this stuff? They really need your help!” Well, we may not be able to do that. What each of us can do, however, is make an individual commitment, and since, as it’s said, ‘we elect the government we deserve,’ perhaps we can make a change in the discourse there, too. It can’t hurt to try.
Posted August 8th, 2010 by Steve Alexander
A common issue in my work with boards and chief executives is the challenge of micromanaging. It’s something that happens as well with parents, supervisors, co-workers, peers and others. What’s at the root of it all and how do we know when it’s happening? Truth be told, micromanagers are often aware of what they’re doing; like any addictive behavior, they just can’t seem to help themselves!
If you’re a micromanager, ask yourself what the underlying emotion is that drives the behavior. Using the ‘think, feel and do’ exercise from an earlier post, call a meeting with yourself. How we act is more a result of what we feel rather than what we think. If we’re ‘feeling’ frustrated, for example or overwhelmed and out of control, we’re more likely to ‘think’ we can ‘do’ something about the little things, and sometimes even the big ones, however, these are not often the important things.
So, we ‘manage’ the details instead of stepping back, recognizing what’s really going on…and most importantly, and letting go. Empowering, rather than managing, others.
We all have our tell-tale signs. I bet if you take that meeting with yourself, you’ll be able to write down a few of yours.
And if you’re the one being micromanaged, remember, it’s not about you! Work with your supervisor, board, spouse, parent and ask the more critical question: What is the result or outcome we need in this situation? Then, when you’ve created clarity about that, encourage the micromanager to empower you to come up with some acceptable solutions (not how you get there and myriad of details along the way!) and offer an agreeable timeline for delivering results.
Let me know how it goes next time you experiment with your new behavior!
Posted June 6th, 2010 by Steve Alexander
I was recently asked to attend and facilitate a small planning meeting. Before we got started, one of the attendees asked the question, “Why am I here?”I could tell it was not about the meaning of life nor was it rhetorical! It actually startled everyone, and I realized immediately not everyone was on the same page as the person who ‘called’ the meeting (in our business that’s commonly referred to as the ‘convener’).
Meetings are one of the biggest issues I hear folks in my world talk about, question and criticize. In fact, the word ‘meeting’ and the phrase ‘waste of time’ are often either synonymous or at least heard in the same sentence. Rarely do people seek my services because they have such great meetings and just want to make them even better. Usually, as part of the executive coaching, team-building process and overall improvement program, they want to know how to make their meetings work.
The question was one of the most direct ways I’d heard of asking that series of questions we should all ask when we’re planning to attend or, if it can’t be done prior, actually attending a meeting. Why am I here? What value do I add? What value will this meeting add to my work, what I need to produce for the company, how I support my peers, satisfy my customers, enhance my skills, etc.? Is this a meeting I need to be in face-to-face? Can the results be achieved in some other manner that’s less costly and time-consuming and more effective? What’s expected as a result of my attendance? What will I do differently, more of/less of, as a result of this meeting? You ever ask yourself these questions? Out loud? In front of your peers? Try it.
It’s the convener’s job (remember, that’s the person who calls the meeting) to be crystal clear about the meeting purpose: what key outcome(s) need to be achieved that warrant(s) those in attendance being there to achieve that purpose. The second job of the convener is to select the right participants. Who is, and why are they, necessary to achieve that purpose? This isn’t determined by title or even the job they hold in the organization. It’s more important to consider what ‘value add’ each participant will have to achieving that meeting purpose. Another key question for the convener is what exactly do we need to accomplish in the meeting, and how should the meeting be structured to accomplish that, in order to fulfill the meeting purpose? Finally, ask what materials and information participants need to have in advance and/or at the meeting to wisely use their time and produce the outcome. (This is guided by the proviso that a meeting should never be used to ‘read’ information to participants!)
If you’re a convener, don’t call your next meeting without answering these questions. If you’re a meeting participant, don’t be afraid to startle your colleagues and the convener with this critical question, “Why am I here?” If you want to be part of effective, high-energy, high-impact meetings, apply this simple question and encourage a business culture that supports it. Your company, co-workers, customers and you deserve it!
Posted May 2nd, 2010 by Steve Alexander
A client and friend recently sent me a Harvard Business Review article, titled “The Acceleration Trap.” Important reading if you’re leading a company or organization and you’ve gotten caught up in the ‘more is more’ addiction and find yourself multi-tasking and using technology to ‘stay in touch’ at all times. The reason the concepts they highlight are so startling is that the authors have studied the impact all this 24/7 ‘in-touchness’ can and is having on the work environment. What we think is making us more productive is actually hampering our effectiveness… and there’s a big difference between being efficient (for example, staying in touch at all times with lightning speed response to e-mails, tweets, texts, etc.) versus being effective (actually achieving productive, meaningful, tangible, mission-driven results).
I facilitate a lot of medium to large meetings, retreats, team-building and training sessions, strategic planning events and other types of in-person meetings, including some with just one or two people. For years we’ve been applying some common-sense ground rules about the use of technology in those sessions, the importance of being ‘present’ to have effective interaction with peers and team members and how to productively engage with others in a way that creates meaningful outcomes. Technology, and its applications that try to keep us in touch with what’s happening ‘outside the room’ can actually be a big deterrent in those settings. With some playful and thought-initiating exercises and ground rules, we establish an important commitment from participants to connect with those in the room.
I’ve had more friends and colleagues admit their e-mail addictions recently than ever before. So, what can we do to make ourselves the master of the technology we have at our disposal rather than how it’s become/becoming our master? How do we avoid the pitfalls of multi-tasking and re-learn how to focus and regain effectiveness (and our sanity!) and how to be present in the moment?
Some simple tips: 1) Read the HBR article. It will get your attention if you’re responsible for your or others’ results and the achievement of goals and priorities. 2) Ask yourself, when you’re with someone else or in a group setting, how important is it really that I check the latest e-mail, news, tweet or some other external information source? How will that add value to who I am with and what I’m doing at this moment? 3) Learn to be present… in the moment, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, to ensure you are truly (intellectually and emotionally) connected to the person(s) with whom you’re supposed to be communicating and interacting. 4) Disconnect on purpose. Plan some times when you are completely off the technology grid. Use the time with family, friends, peers and colleagues. Or even invest in time to be alone. 5) Build a habit of shutting off your ‘connected devices’ when you’re in a meeting and invest instead in actively listening and engaging in the discussion. You were asked to be present because your presence matters. Make it matter intentionally. 6) When you find yourself getting caught up in the ‘acceleration trap’, ask yourself if doing more is the same as achieving more. Create and apply a litmus test that will guide you to determine if more and faster actually equals better.
Bottom line: It’s up to you to make time to take a break from the pace and impact that our technological connection has created. Stop to smell the roses. Just promise you won’t snap a picture of the roses on your iPhone and tweet it to your Facebook friends!
Posted February 24th, 2010 by Steve Alexander
The Steve Alexander Group celebrates its 10 year anniversary with the launch of its new Web site at alexanderpa.com. We welcome you to take a test drive to see what you think. If you like the experience, let us know. Your feedback about what works and what could be done better is part of our commitment to improvement. After all, the site is about you, our clients, colleagues and supporters, and the chance we’ve had to serve on behalf of the good work these many individuals and organizations do for their clients, customers and constituents.
And, of course, if our service lines, strategic partners and client testimonials inspire you to contact us, we’d love to have the opportunity to see if we can help you meet your challenges, contribute to your success and collaborate with you as you grow in the coming year.
We’ll also be offering tips, tidbits, advice and insights to challenge your thinking, and stretch yourself, your employees and your organization through our blog. We invite you to opt-in so you can keep abreast of the latest information, articles, resources and other opportunities that can benefit you.
So, thanks for taking the time to experience our new home. We look forward to continuing our work, and our commitment to the best professional services in an array of areas where we can provide value and collaborate in the coming years.
Posted January 31st, 2010 by Steve Alexander
Just finished reading Daniel Menaker,’s “A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation,” and I’m not sure what to make of it. Recommended by a friend who’d read a review, I’m waiting for his assessment as well. There are a few good tidbits about how a conversation develops between people, the stages Survey, Discovery, Risks and Roles, which I found interesting and am now paying attention to when meeting new people, and observing my/our conversations. Menaker using an interesting technique of taping one of his own conversations with a friend/colleague (with their permission, of course!) and breaks it down into these component parts; that is somewhat fascinating. There’s some history on conversation that’s mildly interesting and he casts about quite a few stereotypes. Be interested to see what others think if they pick up the book.
In the meantime, I’ve had a lot of flying this month, so it gave me a chance to catch up on something even as a bit esoteric as this. Probably not for most except those most fascinated by the study of human interaction.
As usual, available on my favorite, half.com and amazon.com.
Posted January 21st, 2010 by Steve Alexander
All You Ever Wanted to Know About Boards – Whether serving on one, serving one or considering either, BoardSource is the definitive site for information. If you’re one of our clients, we use them all the time to help with best practices, training info, books and related tools. They’re customer-service driven and we love the range of information they make available to use to help you and your organization.
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