The Delicate Art of Facilitation

I had an interesting experience that reinforced something that I knew but forgot to apply and consequently allowed a situation to drift sideways.

Here’s the scenario. You have an elected Board of a dozen partners who are faced with making an important decision. They have known for some months that this matter was on the table and have had some informal discussions amongst themselves and even amongst other partners in the firm. Each came to the table declaring to the others that they were unbiased and remained open to making their decision in the best interests of the firm.

The day of the Board meeting arrives and the agenda is now directed to having the Board determine whether to choose Option A or Option B. How do you approach getting to a decision?

In this instance, the Chair introduced the issue and then threw it to an open discussion, asking for individual Board members’ opinions. And the race was off.

We heard from one member who supported Option A and very eloquently articulated why Option A was the superior choice. This then prompted another partner on the opposite side of the boardroom table to begin a lengthy diatribe on the merits of Option B, quickly supported by another member at the end of the table adding some further important points as to why Option B would work most effectively. The discussions and advocating continued for some two hours until nearly everyone of the Board members had an opportunity to weight in on either Option A or Option B. The Chair then called for the vote, by secret ballot, and the vote was tied. What to do now?

This situation obviously deserved more discussion. The partners now vociferously advocating for Option A could clearly see and strongly believed that their counterparts “just didn’t get it.” And as many very intelligent people behave in these kinds of situations, they turned up the volume. They attempted to be even more persuasive, advocating ever more strongly for their favored position. Another two hours later; another secret ballot vote and nothing changed!

This process continued for six, straight hours and through three separate votes and still no one moved on their initial position. Why? The principle of consistency kicked in.

The principle of consistency is that once having taken a strong public position in support of any specific option, I am now bound to continue my support, irrespective of any secret ballot, because I feel that I must act consistent with my stated choice. In other words, allowing someone to engage in making a choice, publicly amongst their peers, can often serve to only harden their position in the midst of any subsequent discussion and advocacy – whether they fully believe that their initial stated position was the absolute best choice or not. After all, who wants to feel or even worse, be seen as being wishy-washy; continually flip-flopping on issues; someone incapable of stating a position and staying with it?

What could have been done?

The skill of facilitation is one of having to think through what the outcome might be of pursuing each and every question that you decide to ask of a group or utilize in any decision-making situation. In other words, if I ask my group this question, where are their answers going to lead us and how might that help us get to a decision without having people harden their views pre-maturely.

In this instance, it was accepted by everyone that neither Option A nor Option B was a perfect choice, but some choice had to be made. Rather than extolling the merits of each Choice, it may have been instructive to force (to the extent you can use that word) each Board member to articulate one area in which each Option falls short of being ideal.

What could have been said to the Board members is: “In a moment, I want to go around the room and hear from each of you. Staring with Option A, please help us identify one characteristic/attribute/area where this Option falls short of our collective ideal.”

Having then identified where each Option might not be the perfect choice, you might proceed to repeat the process of soliciting each Board member’s input, this time to identify any potential risks.

Once again, I want to go around the room and hear from each of you. Again, starting with only Option A before we also examine Option B, I want to ask each of you to please help us identify one possible risk the firm might face, be it ever so minor or remote, in choosing this option.

Once having identified all of the potential risks, it would then have been interesting to pose the question: “Now, before we proceed with any further discussion on these two options let’s vote.”

Upon reflection, my experience suggests that had we followed this approach, the Board would not have been deadlocked for hours. But then, hindsight is always 20-20, isn’t it?

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  1. Hi Patrick, a couple questions for you.

    1) How feasible was it that you could have got the group to build an Option C out of the two positions? Or were there fundamental aspects of the two positions that left it as a clear either/or choice?

    2) Assuming it was a group of lawyers, are you ever reluctant to offer only two choices?

    In my experience, offering two choices to a group of lawyers will almost always slip into adversarial gamesmanship. Especially if there are competing egos at the table. That’s what this situation feels like to me; only worse, because you gave them time to prepare. ;)

  2. Hi Steve: Nice to hear from you. Two very good questions. This particular situation was one where the choice involved the selection of a new firm leader in an AmLaw 100 firm, after the Board had gone through months of determining qualifications, calling for nominations and interviewing activities. And the Board started their proceedings with more than two choices. To go into any further detail should be by way of private discussion – so please email me if you’re interested. regards, Patrick

  3. Maureen Fitzgerald

    Hi Patrick,
    I have always wondered why more law firms do not use professional facilitators, even for regular meetings. Having written two books on “circle” process I know that without a “process person” or “guide” or “holder of the circle” things often go sideways and synergies are lost. Thanks for the example. Maureen Fitzgerald, LLB, LLM, PhD

  4. Hi Maureen.

    Thank you for those comments. I believe you are absolutely correct in that trained facilitators should be used more often in law firms.

    In this particular instance, it was not my role to facilitate the discussions and decision-making process, but upon reflection wish I had of intervened. Fortunately, we did finally manage to find an acceptable course of action which all of the Board members could support, but only after spending nine hours in a dysfunctional process.

    regards, Patrick

  5. A professional facilitator can help, so can calling on an internal person who may be knowledgeable about facilitation and decision-making. There are many different ways to design a meeting depending on the type of issue or decision to be made and who is involved in making the decision. One of the best meetings I’ve ever participated in was facilitated by an education student with a group of parent volunteers at an elementary school. I’ve actually borrowed some of her techniques and used them with lawyers (shh! don’t tell!)