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Reaching the Finish Line: Using a Neutral Facilitator Can Help Lead the Path to Resolution

JAMS ADR Blog by Chris Poole

In my 25 years of running marathons, I have learned a few critical lessons: Don’t go out too fast. Practice the art of fueling on the run. And, most important, be proactive in stationing your spectators at points on the course where the race gets difficult. For me, this is typically miles 18 through 20, those miles when I am thinking about how long 26.2 miles feels, worrying about my pace and asking myself why I decided to run this race in the first place! My support crew offers me a few things. First, they give me external and objective encouragement that even if things are getting difficult, I need to trust my abilities and training. Second, they provide me tools to help me achieve my objectives, which often means an orange slice, jelly beans and flat Coca-Cola. Third, they remind me of my goal: to put one foot in front of the other to get to that finish line.

Support is Essential

I think of my role as a facilitator as similar to the role of my support crew in a marathon. As a facilitator, I provide objective support when it is most needed. Recently, I facilitated workplace conversations for a service-oriented business that, like so many businesses, has been indelibly impacted by COVID-19. The first months of the pandemic were focused on damage control: how to keep everyone on the payroll, how to best communicate and work with clients and how to institute protocols for reopening. With those protocols in place, the organization then went into overdrive to open its doors, enforce mask and social-distancing guidelines and provide exceptional service to its clients. It wasn’t easy, and it took a toll. The head of the organization recognized that the team members were not collaborating as effectively as they could, and he took action. As a leader, he understood two critical things: He was too close to the challenges to see things clearly, and if he were leading the effort, then the solutions would be leader-driven rather than team-driven. He called me in to facilitate workplace conversations. As an objective third party, I worked with team members individually and collectively to understand what was working well and what could be improved, as well as to solicit suggestions for changes. The answers were there. The team just needed the space to express its suggestions and brainstorm the next steps. As an objective outsider, I created the space for them to do just that—to share concerns and ideas so that when the doors did reopen, the team was ready to take that next step together.

Communication is Key

As a facilitator, I also employ tools to help teams accomplish their goals, often in communication. Communicating effectively is tough to do, especially in the midst of the challenges we’ve encountered over the past year. This is compounded by the fact that much of our communication now happens on a screen, over a phone and even through a mask. Pandemic communication is different, and even people who are completely aligned in their goals sometimes have a difficult time talking and listening to each other. Enter facilitation. Last summer, I facilitated workplace conversations for an organization that is confronting a complete reimagining of its work and how to deliver that work to customers. The organization had become siloed in recent years due to location and work division, a model that was functional but would not suffice in meeting the demands of the moment. As it worked to break down the silos, the team encountered challenges to sharing critical information and insights, which led to a breakdown in communication and trust—and a brewing conflict. The leader of the organization acted swiftly to enlist support. She knew that the team needed tools to wade through the distrust and engage constructively. I first spent time with the leader to identify the stakeholders who could offer insight and ideas. I then worked with the stakeholders individually and collectively to understand the significant issues that needed to be addressed and the obstacles to addressing them. I heard loud and clear that the group needed to have tough conversations and felt deficient in the communication skills to do so. Our dialogue was structured accordingly. We first spent time understanding that communication is so much more than exchanging messages.

It is recognizing that constructing a message necessitates going beyond its substance to consider your perspective and the perspective of those on the receiving end of the communication. It is working hard not just to hear the content of what someone is saying, but also to listen to the tone and the emotion of the person communicating. With that as the foundation, I facilitated conversations around the brewing conflict, the need for change and strategies to move forward. The cumulative toll of avoiding difficult conversations and conflict was eye-opening for the group. The team recognized that this is not sustainable and committed to addressing communication challenges and conflict sooner rather than later. And while the team knew that this commitment would not remedy all future challenges, the commitment underscored for them what was important: their desire to work as partners to help the organization survive today and, more importantly, thrive in the future.

Goal Clarification is Beneficial

Finally, as a facilitator, I help people clarify and reaffirm their goals. With both of those organizations, that was easy to do. The first organization was managing a sense of fatigue in the face of the daily challenge of operating in a pandemic. That weighed heavily on their narrative—the stories that people were telling themselves about their organization—anchoring it to a negative storyline. There was a need to change and clarify the narrative. To start the facilitation, I posed a simple question to team members: Why do you do what you do? The answers were astonishingly positive and powerful, with themes of perseverance, community, connection, evolution, hope and impact. The narrative of fatigue and challenge was replaced by continuity and teamwork, which aligned with their goals to continue working together to deliver exceptional service and thrive.

For the second organization, the weight of the mistrust and brewing conflict obscured the alignment over goals. I asked each stakeholder to tell me about what they do and the why behind it. Every stakeholder responded with an individual narrative of passion, appreciation and purpose. They made it abundantly clear that they loved their organization and wanted to make it the best place that it could be. Interweaving the individual narratives into a collective one made the goal articulation very clear: The team wanted their organization to continue to do impactful work and make it the best place it could be. There were different visions on what that might look like, but the endpoint was the same. Amid challenge, it can be easy to lose sight of the shared passion and purpose. Facilitation allowed team members the space to reflect on and reaffirm their goals. That enabled them to put one foot in front of the other to work through the past, understand the present and focus on the future.

Crossing the Finish Line

By the time I ran my last marathon in Boston in 2014, my pace didn’t matter and I was fueling while walking rather than running. But my third lesson—stationing my support crew on the course—took on even more importance because I knew I needed help and I was not afraid to ask for it. I had my husband and kids at mile 18, my dad at mile 20 and my sister at mile 22. Enlisting this support did not mean that I was failing in any way or that I didn’t want to do the work. In fact, it meant that I wanted to succeed by equipping myself with the tools to be the best that I could be in that moment. Ultimately, I was the one who had to put one foot in front of the other to get to the finish line. But just as with facilitation, there is sometimes a need for assistance along the way.


Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher

Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher, Esq., is a JAMS panelist with 24 years of experience as a mediator, facilitator, and ADR consultant. She facilitates dialogues in the private and public realm around a range of issues, from workplace dynamics to management of natural resources. MORE >

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