Holding the Power of the Process

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to the center of the universe, which every fellow Canadian will recognize means Toronto.

During the 48 hours I spent there, I had occasion to catch up with some folks I’ve known for years, as well as meet some people with whom I’d only recently exchanged a couple of emails.

The return to the world of face-to-face conversations is refreshing, and five meetings over two days allowed me to speak with people about the work I do and how I approach it a number of times.

These conversations had me rehashing a story I’ve shared many times when speaking with people, but have yet to write about here.

That changes today.


Facilitation Is NOT About the Content

Let me share that story now to set up my point.

Years ago I was in the board room with a family for the first time, and about an hour into things the matriarch stood up and began using very colourful language to berate her nephews and sons.

As she began to put on her coat and gather her things as she stormed out, I suddenly felt that all the eyes were on me.

The specific words that this woman had used with me weeks earlier, about wanting me to “referee” their family meeting, were coming more into focus right then.

That was when I needed to summon all of my strength to just sit there and watch, silently.

It has become my real life, lived experience of “don’t just do something, sit there”.


Hat Tip for the Inspiration

That type of occasion, where not doing something is what’s best, is very rare when presiding over a meeting.

The idea to write a blog about this came from a LinkedIn post by a colleague a couple of months ago.

Dr. Stacey Feiner shared a story about a meeting she was in where things suddenly got heated and everyone stared at her.

She had the perfect one-liner that got everyone back to reality and eased the tension, allowing for productive work to continue.

Going back to my story above, that meeting also continued, minus one person, for many hours of useful discussion, and in which my referee’s whistle remained in my pocket.


Reading the Room and Holding the Space

Not everyone is suited for this type of role, because there’s a weird power dynamic that you need to deal with.

In some ways, it seems like the person presiding over the meeting has a lot of power, because they’re guiding all of the process.

However, assuming that they are there because a process person is needed, then they actually don’t have any power at all, and are really there to allow all the other people to be as powerful as they can be.

This entails lots of observation, reading the room, especially the emotional field, and really holding the space for productive discussions to take place.


Intergenerational Discussions Fraught with Emotions

Let’s also not forget that I’m talking about meetings that involve family members, often from more than one generation.

We’re talking about the crossroads of family and business, with a lot at stake, and some power dynamics that can make things tricky in a hurry.

There are always plenty of important subjects to discuss in any business, even more so in a family enterprise.

But having those discussions go well and be productive is not always easy.

While I didn’t necessarily like the idea of being seen as the “referee” of the meeting, sometimes that’s what’s necessary.

I did referee hockey for a few seasons decades ago, and also umpired baseball games for a number of years too.

Little did I know then that these activities would give me some much needed experience that I could call upon in my 50’s.


Learning How to Be Together

When family members also work together, they sometimes fall into communication patterns that don’t work very well, especially for members of the rising generation, who may have difficulty being seen as responsible and mature enough for their roles.

In cases like these, they almost have to learn a new and more appropriate way to “be together”, in a way that works for everyone.

And never forget the saying that you know a game was well refereed when it’s over and nobody even remembers the ref’s name!