Effective and open communication within a group is a core feature of any high performing team. Facilitating group decision making, negotiating consensus, and ensuring we get the benefit of diverse viewpoints are critical skills for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, Product Owners, and Agile Leaders. But, unfortunately, it’s all too easy for communication to appear effective […]
Effective and open communication within a group is a core feature of any high performing team. Facilitating group decision making, negotiating consensus, and ensuring we get the benefit of diverse viewpoints are critical skills for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, Product Owners, and Agile Leaders. But, unfortunately, it’s all too easy for communication to appear effective on the surface while underneath a host of anti-patterns are keeping us from understanding each other. Here are my three favorite facilitation techniques to help a group have more effective interactions:
Have you ever had the experience of discussing something to a point of resolution, and then a day or two later finding out that everyone involved had a radically different understanding of what was agreed? It’s surprisingly easy for that to happen, even in a small group with a high degree of shared context and an apparently functional level of open communication. Typically, this results from slight misunderstandings that are picked up and compounded in the course of normal conversation. It’s as simple as when a listener doesn’t realize that they’ve misheard or misunderstand some aspect of a speaker’s point. Or maybe the listener realizes their own confusion, but doesn’t feel like they can interrupt the speaker for clarification.
A good facilitator can help avert these problems by using the techniques of mirroring or paraphrasing (also called “active listening” or “positive listening”). In both techniques, the facilitator allows the speaker to proceed to a natural pause point – say the end of a sentence, or thought – and then leaps into the brief gap to restate what the speaker just said. Then, the facilitator asks the speaker to confirm if the restatement matched the speaker’s understanding. In mirroring, the facilitator would repeat, as closely as possible, the exact language the speaker used. In paraphrasing, the facilitator would restate the speaker’s message in the facilitator’s own words. An example of a facilitator using paraphrasing might sound like this:
“Hang on Chi… just so I’m clear: you’re saying we have to either patch the existing version or upgrade to the next version within next 30 days. Do I have that right?”
By using either approach, the facilitator is giving the room and the speaker a chance to make sure the message is being received clearly. It gives everyone a chance to catch and correct any misunderstanding that’s being picked up along the way.
For mirroring and paraphrasing to work, the facilitator has to be careful to simply reflect the speaker’s message. If instead it feels like you’re inserting judgement or, this technique can feel like an attack, condescension, or pandering. As to which technique to use, both serve essentially the same purpose. Some people respond better to one or the other, and some facilitators find one is a more natural.
Sometimes a group seems to quickly reach a place of unanimous consensus around a choice or pattern of facts. Sounds great! But do they really all hold the same idea? Or are some people holding back a different take because they don’t think it will be honored? Has prior dissent been squashed by a superior? It can be really hard for a facilitator to tell whether an apparent consensus is genuine or the if group members are pretending to agree as the result of internal or external pressures.
Balancing is a technique we can use to help figure out what’s really going on. When a facilitator uses balancing, they recognize the consensus in the room, but then they offer up an alternative idea, choice, or position to the group. This is essentially ‘playing devil’s advocate.’ An example of a facilitator using balancing might sound like:
“Okay, in considering whether to patch the existing configuration or upgrade, we all seem to like the upgrade idea because it’s quicker and easier. But should we talk about what risks we run by staying on the current version? What benefits would we gain by upgrading?”
What’s important here is that the facilitator isn’t actually advocating for the counter position. Instead, by offering it up, the facilitator is making it okay for the counter position to exist in the discussion. If someone in the group felt that way but wasn’t comfortable sounding like a lone dissenter, now they have cover. It’s generally easier to voice agreement with an already expressed idea than offer a new one yourself. If the source of the original idea is a bully, and people are just agreeing because they don’t want to go through the motions of an argument they assume they’ll lose, now the bully has to justify why the other considerations don’t merit thought.
When a debate around a choice gets really polarized it can be easy for the parties to lose sight of their real objective (finding a good path forward for the whole group) and instead focus on ‘winning’ the argument. When this happens the conflict of conflict in the group quickly shift from constructive and task-focused to destructive. This is a problem for a team because destructive conflict behaviors build a kind of emotional inertia over time that can play out in all sorts of anti-patterns.
When a facilitator realizes that this is happening, often they can rescue the interaction and pull it back into a constructive mode with the use of listening for common ground. This technique starts with the facilitator pausing the current discussion and restating the currently opposed positions (often using mirroring or paraphrasing methods also described in this article). This ensures that all participants have a shared understanding of the positions. The facilitator then finds some shared premise of each position that can be highlighted to remind the entire group that we all share the same overarching goal or value. In practice, it might sound like this:
“If I can interject for a second, just to summarize: Tom, you feel we should patch rather than upgrade because it’s quicker and that will let us get back to building more new features. Swathi, you feel that we should upgrade instead because, even though it will more work now, that will free up more time in the future for new features because we’ll have less future maintenance issues popping up. Am I understanding both points of view? Great! Before we get back into it, I just want to highlight that we’re coming from a place of wanting a stable, safe environment and being able to concentrate our effort on building cool, new stuff and not on maintaining infrastructure.”
In listening for common ground, the facilitator is reminding the group that we are trying to reach a shared goal, and what we’re disagreeing isn’t purpose but tactics. This can help to de-personalize the discussion, so it’s not about who wins or loses the dispute.
We train people in these – and many more! – facilitation techniques every day in our Advanced Certified ScrumMaster (A-CSM) and Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) courses. We’d love to bring those skills to your teams, too. NextUp Solutions is the leading provider of Agile training and coaching services for public, private, and non-profit industries. Whether you’re just beginning a transition to Agile practices or well along a journey to mature business Agility, NextUp is ready to support your people with experiential learning and hands-on practitioner support that will give your leaders and teams the tools they need to succeed.
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