It has happened to me plenty of times.
I am present. I am eager. I have a fresh highlighter in tow.
Still, I have found myself once again in that terrible place where I have no idea what the people around me are talking about. Feelings kick in. Lots of them. They are not really pretty, of course: Self-doubt, shame, anger and annoyance are common after years of learning differences and feeling stupid.
This was – and sometimes continues to be – a common story line for me.
I also happen to know it is not unique.
Luckily for me, my naturally curious brain asks many questions and continues to return to gratitude.
This means that recently, when I found myself lost at a monthly committee meeting for a women’s group I am a member of, I noticed myself going down a path towards negative emotions and was able to redirect.
I thought about my own role in this problem, what power I carry (always more than we think), and how I could best shift the dynamics in a way that honored everyone.
As I considered this, I looked around the table I was reminded of something I already knew.
So often we find ourselves in groups where the processes we have constructed are not conducive to learning for all, leaving many feeling left out of the learning process. This de-motivates people, decreases productivity, quality, and connectivity; both to each other and to the mission of our organizations.
Using my own gifts and power, such as my ability to confront difficult conversations, discuss observations, ask questions, establish rapport as well as build upon my long-standing relationships with more senior people in the group, I was able to voice my concerns and my needs openly and in a way where the response generated a very healthy dialogue about what to do moving forward.
This was positive but is not always the case. Power dynamics in groups are of real concern when an individual is afraid to voice their needs as an “only,” such as the only woman in a traditionally male field, or even if a person with a different mode of learning expresses lack of understanding and does not want to henceforth be seen as weak in some way.
In my case, the group is a training organization and yet, the women in charge of my committee were not doing very well training those of us in the room ready and eager to learn. Instead the two content experts would talk to one another while the rest of us listened without much engagement. To their credit, they themselves were not trained to be trainers.
Luckily, once addressed we were able we were able to have a very open and productive conversation about our current processes and needs. Leadership was wonderful at hearing concerns, asking more questions and inviting advice. But, again, this reaction is not the norm. Often, the reaction can be a negative and defensive one.
I took for granted that as easily as some of these women could speak fluent “stock and bondanese,” I speak training, process and skill transference. Our gifts are unique to us and sometimes we forget that what one knows instinctually, another must be taught; often more than once.
This is why we live in community; to come together and offer ourselves and our differences.
What can you do to be a better teacher, guide or facilitator from wherever you sit in whatever type of system- organizational, familial, or otherwise?
Here are a few tips:
1. Avoid assumption-making.
Ask more questions than you may think prudent. These should continue over time but are especially important up front. What made your team members want to be a part of this work? What are their individual strengths? Do they have areas they most hope to grow in and how do they most appreciate support or feedback?
Be mindful of your words. Careful not to make statements such as, “I thought everyone knew what a (blank) was,” or “since we all know that X plus Y equals Z, then….” Imagine how much phrases like these unintentionally decrease self-worth and motivation.
When you ask the question about if everyone knows what something is, likely this is because what you are checking in about is somewhat high level. Ask someone from the group to define it, rather than just going with the implication that the audience knows.
For example, when you are in a meeting any you are asked does everyone know what sexual assault is? Likely, people are going to typically remain quiet, nod their heads, or raise their hands if you ask them to.
To ensure clarity, it is best to find ways to have literal definitions or to take the time to discuss nuanced definitions and why they exist, in an intentional way.
2. Create a supportive learning environment.
Assign roles and rotate them. These may include timekeeper, facilitator(s), process observer, note taker, and so forth.
Pay attention to the needs of the entire group based on the answers to the questions you continue to ask, as well as what keeps people coming back or engaged. In a similar vein, encourage and genuinely invite questions.
Another good trick is to give members of the team mini-projects to complete, even if in small groups. This allows your team to take ownership of the concepts you hope will take root.
Make a glossary of terms available and have it posted in a visible place during meetings; also point to the word on the wall if you are working to learn the acronyms. Critics may call this practice “elementary,” but that is the point: We take for granted these terms and buzzwords but they may need to be taught again and again to foster true inclusion.
Assign people a “buddy” or pair for when they miss a meeting, so they can be caught up in a personalized way and to avoid delay in the next meeting due to catch-up time.
3. Prepare well.
Have your agenda items clear. In fact, send them out in advance so folks can also prep, research what they have questions about and consider ideas. This practice is especially nice for introverts or those with processing needs.
Have all materials well-organized in advance and be sure to locate and send out past meeting minutes ahead of time for review.
Draw on individual strengths.
4. Remember your purpose.
Balance relationship building and task. By this I mean take time to check in with everyone to see how they are doing, conduct an ice breaker, or spend some time building community in a meaningful way. Relationship allows the other work to get done more efficiently and creatively because you know what strengths to draw upon. You also have less conflict delaying progress.
Factor purpose into pacing and goal-setting. When planning, be sure to make time for those with less formal knowledge to have space for growth, failure, learning and mentorship.
Ask most expert and senior people to take a back seat as much as is appropriate, dependent upon setting and mission. Doing so makes it easier for others to contribute without fear of being disrespectful.
Take thorough notes as a group. This can be another way to ensure everyone understands what is being discussed. Minutes are key to capturing historical knowledge but also to ensure everyone knows what is happening in real time.
Review action items prior to dismissal to increase accountability. Reviewing this list together as a group might also encourage folks who otherwise might not to step up because the group can see who is taking on a lot and who is taking on nothing. It also adds clarity to the meeting and a sense of closure.
Teaching, training, facilitating and leading can be learned skills, like anything else. Of course, some people will naturally be more successful than others. Still, no matter what, throughout life we are often in the role of teacher or learner. If we can do it a bit more thoughtfully, this is great news for egos everywhere.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for humanity either.
Still confused? Or want to talk this through a bit more? I’d love to; this stuff is my specialty.
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