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Facilitating Outliers

Laird's Blog -

As a professional facilitator one of my most difficult tasks is working with individuals who are out of step with the rest of the group and feel strongly about the validity of their views.

Even though I do my best to make sure that everyone is heard, when there is little to no resonance with the outlier's views it is depressingly common for them to claim that I have been biased in how I facilitated the conversation—that if I hadn't skewed things there would have been more support for their ideas. (Actually their thinking proceeds in reverse: the fact that the group didn't respond well to their thinking is evidence, in their eyes, that I must have skewed things, because that's a more palatable explanation then that the group heard what they had to say and the earth didn't move.)

While I try to be careful to make sure that outliers have been heard (by giving back a summary of what they said until they report that I got it), a complicating factor is that I'm an active facilitator, who will rein in repetition, redirect off-topic comments, and name any disturbance in The Force. Commonly enough outliers have had a lifetime to perfect their craft and they don't particularly appreciate my cramping their style (for example, by limiting their opportunity to repeat their views, or by not allowing them to hijack the topic on the table to flog their agenda). They will conflate my active management of the conversation with my being biased. When they are the main ones acting out, it may look like I'm picking on them. Never mind that I told them up front how I would facilitate and got their explicit buy-in to do so. 

[Caution: This pattern does not obtain with all who find themselves in a minority position: I am only describing the dynamics when it does.]

Because we're talking about humans, it's typically more attractive to blame others for what's not working than to look in the mirror. So it's not surprising that it plays out this way—yet awareness of the pattern doesn't make it any more fun being the object of the outlier's frustration. 

Another way this plays out for the outlier is this: I've been acting this way consistently and I never got push back about my behavior until you (Laird) showed up. Because you are the different element, the problem is you. You can follow how they got there, but this simplistic analysis neglects to take into account how group members may have been cowed by the outlier's behavior, to the point that they're reluctant to voice objections—either about their views or their delivery. Many people in cooperative groups are conflict averse and will choose to suffer in silence rather than risk being in the outlier's crosshairs. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but it happens.

Ironically, I could be the outlier's best friend in being heard—precisely because I'm neutral on the issues and see it as my job to make sure that everyone's views are being taken into account. This tends to be of little solace, however, when the outlier's perspective is not persuasive. When I summarize responses and the preponderance of opinion slants away from the outlier's position, the outlier may question the validity of my summary—rather than to reflect on what they may have missed in their analysis.

In the extreme, the outlier may know ahead of time that their position on a key issue is not widely shared and will strategically choose to skip the meeting at which that issue is discussed and then weigh in after the fact, expecting their late input to be honored—even though they have completely sidestepped the concomitant responsibility to listen respectfully to the views of others. Essentially they want their views taken seriously but haven't extended the same courtesy to others. This goes over about as well as a turd in the punch bowl.

As a facilitator, I'm caught among a handful of imperatives: a) protecting everyone's right to be heard on the topic at hand; b) calling people on their behavior when it's out of alignment with the group's process agreements; c) naming what's happening, even when it's painful or awkward; and d) trying to see that no one feels isolated, even when no one else agrees with their position. If the outlier takes the view that calling them on coloring outside the lines is a personal attack and will only accept agreement as evidence of support, it can be damn near impossible to deliver on all four imperatives.

Unfortunately, an outlier with their heels dug in comes across as someone who is both holding the group back and doing so in pursuit of a personal agenda. A double whammy. That is, they are not generally perceived as having the group's best interest at heart—which may or not be the case. It is a common error in logic for people (independent of whether they are in the majority or alone in their perspective) to think: I know that I'm thinking of what's best for the group; therefore those who think differently may be doing so for suspect reasons. What's missing here is that reasonable people can disagree about what's best for the group. In fact, in my experience, it's rare that people don't have a way to tie their views to common values. Typically, they have an novel way of interpreting common values, or may be emphasizing one at the expense of another, but there's almost always some legitimacy to their position.

I have often pondered what this might look like from the outlier's point of view. It amazes me how commonly outliers come across as unshakable in the worthiness of their position—even in the face of overwhelming evidence that no one (or very few) are persuaded by their thinking. How does that work? Do they really believe that they alone can see the truth? That everyone else is shallow in their thinking or misguided in their analysis? While it's a possibility, I have rarely seen it play out that way. It's much more likely that the outlier is off about something than that everyone else is, yet it doesn't appear that that even occurs to them as a possibility, and that seems off. How can you agree that the best interests of the group is paramount and not consider that possibility (even to the point of feeling threatened or disrespected when I suggest it)?

I know If have to speak up about what I see (I can't let the threat of awkwardness stop me from doing my job), yet I'm still working to find better ways for that to land well with outliers. It's a tough nut.


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