Burning question: I want to create this meeting dynamic back at work – but they weren’t here and don’t get it. How on earth do I do that?

You’ve just been part of an intense offsite experience on communication styles. YOU get the value of uncovering diverse perspectives, being willing to be changed, and taking risks so you can learn together – but next week, you’re facilitating an important conversation about emotion-rich issues with people who weren’t here. How do you get them to see the importance of being actively curious and open, especially around different – and deeply held – points of view?

There’s the real answer, and there’s the cheater version (and it’s worth saying that I use the cheater version all the time). But first here’s a quick scenic turnout: one of my own ahas about what we’re up against, here.

Sitting in the Land Rover under the glaring sun of Serengeti National Park, we watched a troop of baboons. Next to me sat Liki Likindokoki, a superb naturalist and 25-year warden of Tanzania’s national parks, including 13 years in the Ngorongoro Crater.

“Do you see what’s happening?” he asked. What I saw was grooming and shifting about and guttural baboon talk. I suspected he saw more.

He pointed to a young male sitting on the ground. The male’s eyes were fixed on the largest baboon, a huge fixture in the center. “That’s the leader, the alpha,” explained Liki. The young male, never taking his eyes off the alpha, edged toward a nearby bird carcass. “The alpha decides who eats what, when,” Liki explained.

All at once, the young male lunged for the bird. In the same blink of an eye, the alpha lunged for him. There was a loud scream, a tornado of dust and feathers flying, a heavy thunk. When it cleared, we saw the alpha sitting casually a yard or so from the bird, looking absently into the distance as if bored. The young male was cowed off to one side, glancing around nervously at everything but the alpha.

When work groups come together, there may be fewer feathers but there is a similar dance. Group dynamics experts and neuroscientists would add detail, but the bottom line is this: under the surface, at the unconscious level, there is something primal happening. In a well-established work group, many patterns are already set. Some help the group function, while others get in the way of what they want to achieve.

The Deeper, Funner Facilitation Cookbook

Think big-picture: How long did it take to create the culture of interaction that currently exists in your group or organization? If it took more than an hour, un-creating it won’t be accomplished in a PowerPoint slide, a list of new norms, a team-building day or even a month. If being actively curious and open about difference is a new culture of interaction for people, getting them on board means doing the slow, complex, fascinating work of embedding that value – and the behaviors and skills that go with it – into the DNA of your organization. That takes no more, and no less, than any other significant cultural shift (leaders walking the talk, dedicated skill development, aligning key processes, hiring for and rewarding new behaviors, and so on).

“NOT HELPFUL,” you might be thinking. “Did you hear the part about my meeting being next week?”

So here’s the cheater version: stealth norming.

By stealth norming, I mean intentionally creating a real-time experience of the working dynamic that will get them the best results during the session. In my experience, stealth norming can work like pressing the reset button on a group’s interactive patterns for a finite period of time. The exact flavor of stealth norming you choose depends on the dynamic you want to create.

There are loads of ways you can stealth norm around surfacing diverse perspectives, but here’s one of my go-to’s, from Stanford innovation professor Jim Adams’ information-rich book, Conceptual Blockbusting:

After a brief welcome and overview of desired outcomes for the meeting, tell the group you’ll start by doing something to help you with your task. Make sure everyone has a pen and something to write on.

On a flip chart or slide, show this:

A          EF

—————–……….

BCD

Instruct the group to find a way to complete the pattern.

Once they’ve done that, probe for more: “Over the next 3 minutes, find as many different ways to complete this pattern as you can.” When they run out of steam, urge them to keep looking for different ways.

Then, ask for a volunteer to share one pattern they came up with. Capture this on the flip chart so everyone can see it visually. For example, they might describe continuing sequentially through the English alphabet, putting vowels on the top and consonants on the bottom, like this:

A          EF            I                     O

————————————————-……….

BCD         GH         JKLMN

Continue drawing out different ways of answering the question until you’ve exhausted the group’s ideas, or have a good sample. Feel free to add your own as well.

(I am always amazed by the array: all letters that appear as first letters of European capitol cities on the bottom; letters with straight lines above and curves below; not letters at all, but rectangular white space in different widths…and many more.)

Poll the group: “Did anyone hear at least one approach they hadn’t thought of?” Hands will go up; people typically express genuine wonder, even awe, at the diverse ways of looking at the “issue.”

Then, land the take-home:

  • “In your mind, how does this connect to our conversation today?” They usually talk about the importance of drawing out different ways of looking at things to arrive at the best solution.
  • “What can we do to ensure this kind of interaction today?” Capture a list. You might simply keep these on the wall as a visual reminder, have the group pick three to try for this meeting and do a self-evaluation afterwards, or call a time-out and try something from the list if you see signs they are falling into old, less useful habits. Here are five I keep in my own back pocket:
    • Call a 5-minute pause for individuals to capture their thoughts, then share with the group to get the full range of thinking out on the table.
    • Enforce a 10-minute “questions only” rule to support listening. (Courtroom questions don’t count. The person who asks, “Isn’t it true, Colonel Mustard, that you were in the living room with a candlestick…?” doesn’t really want to hear what Colonel Mustard has to say.)
    • Take a scenic turnout and play a collaborative improv game to shift the dynamic. Improv encyclopedia has loads of options.
    • Introduce the ladder of inference, and challenge the group to help each person get their ladder about the issue out on the table by the end of the meeting.
    • If the group needs to make a decision together, break the meeting into two parts. During Part I, focus solely on unearthing different perspectives (no decisions until Part II). Select a collaborative tool like Levels of Agreement to use during Part II, but discuss the tool right up front. “What kind of conversation do we need to be having now to use the tool successfully in Part II?”

Bonus: Although stealth norming does have a half-life, the shared experience and vocabulary, plus getting different results in the conversation, will impact your organization’s DNA well beyond the meeting. A taste of interacting this way typically creates a big appetite for more.

What else might you do to facilitate the open, collaborative, curious interactions you’re after?

This Burning Question post is part of a new series that answers the rich questions leaders ask that we just didn’t have time to tackle together.