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Embracing the Elephant: How Great Facilitation Can Get You Amazing Results

We’ve all been there. You know, that dreaded moment when you’re running a problem-solving meeting with your work team, and one person brings up the dreaded, emotionally charged issue that everyone’s been tap-dancing around for the first hour, the infamous “elephant in the room.” People gulp and fidget nervously. Arms cross. Heads turn away. Everyone freezes. And there is silence <crickets chirping>. Everyone is hoping that you, the team leader, will do or say something. And there you are, in the hot seat, trying to remember to breathe.

Alternatively, and perhaps even more of an obstacle to team success, is when no one brings up the elephant, and your team’s energy is spent avoiding the real, honest conversation that needs to happen in order to get to open dialogue, problem analysis, brainstorming and solution-finding. Consequently, you’re there for two hours, and maybe even come up with a solution; but many team members leave the meeting silently unhappy with the solution because the “real” issues weren’t really addressed.

The Opportunity the Elephant Presents

In my facilitation skills training, I lovingly refer to these challenging team moments as the “AFGO”, “another freaking growth opportunity” (and, ahem, you might imagine that the “f” could stand for something else sometimes!). Notice the “G” for "growth." Yes, while excruciatingly uncomfortable, those moments hold incredible potential for growth and for movement. That elephant is your friend who can help you unlock the honesty and creativity that will take your team to the next level; and, on the flip side if you don’t explore it, and talk about it, it will just stay in the way and hold your team back.

That being said, to leverage the potential that this "elephant moment" holds, and to get you through the “storming,” you need someone facilitating the meeting who has the experience and skills to manage that moment and move the team forward toward positive outcomes. In other words, you need a facilitator who knows how to invite the elephant into the room, or better said, to uncloak it (since it’s already sitting on the middle of your conference table), to embrace it for the gift it brings, and to then to dialogue about it and, ultimately, get it out of the way.

Why Facilitation?

The word “facilitation” derives from the Latin word “facilis,” which means “easy.” Therefore, “facilitate” means “to make easy,” and “facilitation” is a guided process that will make your group outcomes, collaboration, and productivity easier. Good facilitators have an uncanny knack for making the “elephant moment” easier and more productive for teams, including leadership teams, project teams, and work teams.

When I ask myself why I find myself strangely drawn to (and excited by) the opportunity to facilitate these tough moments on teams, I realize that my life trained and prepared me for them. You see, I was raised in conflict and chaos, and to face and navigate it, I regularly assumed the role of mediator and facilitator. So, facilitating just started coming naturally to me. And, after many decades of facilitating hundreds of meetings, not only have I become comfortable uncloaking and examining the elephant, I have learned how to stand confidently and comfortably in the face of that magnificent creature, to welcome and embrace it, and to help a team unlock the potential it holds.

Tips for Managing the "Elephant Moment"

For those team leaders who regularly facilitate meetings, I’d like to share a few key strategies from my toolbox that can help you handle that "elephant moment" more effectively and role model effective dialogue skills for your team:

  • Breathe! Remember to embrace the elephant as an opportunity (an AFGO)!

  • Acknowledge the discomfort and reassure folks that there will be greater relief once you talk about what you’ve been expending tons of energy avoiding.

  • Ground yourself in (and remind the team about) ground rules that guide how people will talk with each other.

  • Promote the use of dialogue skills by encouraging restating and questioning before “counterpointing.”

  • Help people unpack their thinking by using respectful open-ended questions.

  • Reassure the team that you will focus on the future and collectively architect your path forward.

  • Be sure that you DO, in fact, focus on the future, and get commitments from everyone as to what they will to contribute to keeping your team on the identified path forward.

  • Create a plan for accountability and follow up. Decide together what will happen if things start to become problematic again.

  • Assign a “process monitor” from the team who others will recognize and respect as the person who will monitor status and who will reconvene the team around the issue as needed (and you can rotate this role over time).

Remember, in addition to helping a team work through sensitive or emotionally-charged topics, good facilitation can help leaders:

  • Increase accountability and ownership

  • Stimulate creativity and minimize groupthink

  • Explore more and better solutions during problem-solving

  • Improve participation and contribution

  • Remain focused and on task

  • Improve efficiency, effectiveness, outcomes and follow through

Make your team's success easier, leverage team members' talent and creativity, and get better results from your meetings through skilled facilitation.

Pathways Consulting provides top-tier facilitation services to help you achieve better results from your important business meetings:

  • Mission, vision, and values discovery

  • Strategic planning and execution/action planning

  • Process improvement and problem-solving

  • Processing employee survey or 360 feedback (e.g., in focus groups)

  • Conflict resolution and interventions, including mediation

  • Change management planning and execution



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