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A Game Changing Speech by the FBI Director

On February 12, 2015, the day before yesterday, FBI Director Comey gave a seismically important talk about race relations. In a short 22-minute speech, the nation’s top cop talked about implicit bias among the police and everyone else, the need to for police to look seriously at their historic role in colluding with the oppression of communities of color, the on-going difficulties/criminality of males of color, and the need for a new type of dialogue.

This is the kind of speech that should change the terms of the discussion. My prediction is that now that it is more difficult for people like the head of the police union in NYC to lambast any discussion of police bias as throwing cops under the bus, folks who tend to deny racial bias will simply ignore the speech. This is why this is a critical time for the racial reconciliation and equity community to step forward.

Right now, we need to be pressing folks in philanthropy, religious leaders, educators, and of course law enforcement to start discussing the implications of this speech and the ideas therein.

He also called for more data collection, which is what happens at meetings that use SPEIK* technology. We can see how are experiences and perceptions vary by who we are.

it’s just been two days, but I am finding the response underwhelming to say the least.

Already sick and tired of the upcoming calls for “dialogue”

#blacklivesmatter #PeaceinFerguson I expect that the verdict in the Darren Wilson case will prompt the nation to hear more calls for a dialogue about race. I expect to be frustrated once again with people’s unsophisticated notions of how this might take place. In any dialogue, especially about racial issues, it is vital that the process be constructed to allow everyone to make their feelings known. Until we spread techniques for doing that that are rather well known but vastly under-utilized, deep divides based on race, gender, or other categories will continue.

Audience Polling: A Particularly Useful Tool for Diversity Practitioners

I have been re-reading some interviews I did a few years ago about the power of audience polling, and I have been strongly reminded of the special role that polling plays in helping groups deal with topics related to social diversity, equity, and the like.  The biggest factor to overcome in these situations is the combination of unawareness and resistance. Specifically, people – especially those in historically dominant groups but hardly only them – are often not aware of the severe gaps in current lived social experience and in status based on historical position. Our patina of equality – a laudable American quality – makes it easy for us to believe that the ghetto-living teenage barista who catches the bus to the suburbs is, down deep, just the same as the football quarterback who gets his latte from her in his dad’s BMW at the other side of the Starbucks drive-through window.

But in addition to not seeing the differences, many folks feel so bad when structural inquiries is pointed out. This bad feeling can look like confused silence, or a desire to change the subject. But some folks are getting tired of that, and will attempt silence those who raise these issues about structural inequality.

One of the powerful features of audience polling is that it can lift statements about inequities in experiences or outcomes from the realm of educator’s remarks or statistics to the realm of the hear and the now. It is one thing to say that in racial profiling is a problem, but quite another to be in a room where a poll of those present shows that race has a powerful effect on who has gotten pulled over by police, or the various bad outcomes that can emerge from such an encounter.

Polling is about helping the group see itself more clearly. One could make an easy argument that while this is also what facilitation at its best is about, the collective reflection impact is particularly true for helping a group examine diversity issues.

What is facilitation, anyway?

I stumbled across a fantastic 4-minute video today that was titled: What Do Facilitators Do? It was simple, brief, but I thought very robust. In a nutshell, the video frames facilitators’ work as having three roles. First, the facilitator is an architect, how develops a plan for the meeting that is based on good principles and that will hold up to stressors and, perhaps unexpected ones. Second, the facilitator is a pilot, who makes sure the vehicle is in order (room, staff, equipment, etc.) then takes command of the process with a clear eye toward landing the plane at the intended destination. Finally, a facilitator is a tour guide, who recognizes positive as well as potentially undermining shifts in the group (for examples, disagreements, doubts, confusion) and helps encourage the group to maintain its own belief it its eventual success.

“Brilliant!”  I first thought and still do. I even tweeted it so many times that my account was temporarily suspended. The metaphor is helping me rethink and potential reframe my ongoing examination of what audience polling does. Perhaps one value is that because it involves a technological interface that must be established, one subtle value of the keypads is that they force the facilitator to be more rigorous about his/her planning. Yes, you can make up questions on the fly – and often these add the most value – but most of your questions will be prepared beforehand. You must have done some thinking about who the audience is, where you and they want to go, and what will be the likely impact of asking questions at particular time. Spontaneity yes….but you can’t simply wing it. This goes back to what I was thinkging a few weeks ago about the way that the technology is an extra nudge to facilitators to display the discipline we need to have anyway.

The guide metaphor made me think of the way that polling allows a level of clarity of check in during a facilitated process. A polling savvy facilitator can check in with the group about its level of satisfaction, engagement, agitation, or all matter of issues at any time. Indeed, this is the realm in which on the fly questions may be the most on point.

The pilot metaphor seems most apt with respect to closure. Polling allows me to get the participants assessment of the degree to which we actually arrived at the designation. And depending on how the polling is done, this may be done transparently. If many of us think we missed the mark, everybody knows this if a poll is done with the results displayed.

It would be great if there could be one metaphor can carry throughout this explanation. Both pilots and guides help people on journeys, but an architect builds building. But maybe if the architect is one who builds planes, it all works……

Who, me?

I was recently listening to some interviews I did a few years ago after I did an opening keypad “Who’s in the room?” session to open a conference. The National Multicultural Institute had convened the 3-day gathering, and I had put a fair amount of effort into the session. My session integrated the surfacing of important conference themes and explaining and illustrating the capabilities of the keypads. I even had a two-round trivia game as an energizer when the energy flagged a bit. At the end of the day, I did a short session to help the group clarify its priorities on key issues for the field.

Since the session had such great energy, I conducted some short interviews the intention of which was to get participants’ reaction to the idea of doing keypad session as conference openers. One particularly striking themes from these folks – who could certainly be considered “diversity practitioners” among their other roles – was how they talked about the benefits of anonymity of the keypads. They did not fight me on the idea that polling helps conferences, but when asked what were the primary benefits of the keypads, several of them focused on some aspect of anonymity. For example, several of them mentioned that when the topic is a “sensitive” one, people often will admit to holding opinions that they think/know are not politically correct if they can do so anonymously. One of them said that in the context of a workshop, people will often be reluctant to write down their opinion, even if their names are not attached to the submissions.

A few of the interviewees talked about the way that the quick turnaround nature of the responses makes it more likely to get people’s top of mind answers, which they thought would be more candid than responses that might be more considered and internally processed.

One gentleman had an interesting take on polling that I had not thought about exactly that way: he said that in the context of a diversity discussion, there will be people who will want to reject observations made by a trainer who looks different than them, but they might be open to seeing those truths if the data in the room shows the same results. I was reminded of the time I did a poll about people perceptions that they had been treated unfairly by the police, and then showing the way that racial identity was strongly related to how people answered this question.

Overall, my review of these interviews reminds me that part of the challenge in promoting more audience interactivity is framing the advantages differently for different audiences. It is the very flexibility of the tool that creates more work in clarifying why the tool is helpful. A hammer is a hammer, but how you would talk about it one way to a fortunate repairperson and another way to a guy who builds wrought iron sculptures.

The Deeper Impact of Keypads, Part 4

For the past several days, I have been wrestling with my mind has been mulling over the keypads, and trying to see if there is something deeper going on than I talk about in the first draft. The last few blog entries answer that question, and fit somewhat neatly into the little boxes based on the three major stakeholders: participants, presenters, and sponsors.

For the last couple of days, I have been thinking about one more impact that does not apply to one or the other stakeholder so neatly. And it might be the most important impact of all. It has to do with the perhaps is the most important question in any a group besides “who is a member?” That question: Who decides what we do?

Keypad questions do this in two ways, one of which is obvious, and one less so. In putting up a polling question, someone is directing group attention toward a particularly issue, framed in a particular way, and is doing so at a particular time. If you do your job very well, very few people will challenge the question and its options, especially if they are new to polling. But people get hip to the game pretty quickly. I have been to meetings where even though the questions were reasonably well constructed, and folks still squawked. People recognized that even though the polling suggests a level of democratization in process by elevating the collective opinion of the group, the construction of the question is in fact very undemocratic. Some person or people have made this decision about how to focus the group’s attention, and this decision is not run by the group. Who gave them the right to decide?

This issue of who decides the group’s process, while important, only has so much importance. But this question has echoes of deeper questions related to the level of democratic decision-making of the group: now that we have instant polling of the group, which decisions do we put to the group? Which decisions do we leave to a small set of leaders? Which members of the group do we go to for what kind of decisions?

Clearly, these ideas are fuzzy, but I think I am getting closer to why I am so enamored of polling. In theory, we can put any decision to the group in a way that is very efficient. Because we have that capacity, we must ask ourselves: how do we make decisions?

And this question is fundamental to groups functioning as groups. My sense is that the ability to instantly poll a group will force groups to wrestle directly with this question.

And that seems like certainly a very good thing.

The Deeper Impact of Keypads, Part 3

In the current draft, keypads are positioned as benefiting from keypads because they get usable information after the meeting that they can act on. This information might be of the evaluative sort – how meeting attendees felt about the meeting – or about issues of  more direct relevance to the on-going management of the group. And this is a significant value added.

But I am wondering whether there is still something deeper for meeting sponsors. Just like with the presenters, there is an issue of intentionality that the capacity to poll the group raises. Because I can find out with good detail how the participants felt about the meeting or, more importantly, how they thought about the issues facing the group, I am pushed a little closer to asking myself the question: what am I trying to get out of this – or the next – meeting? Put differently, what is my intention with the meeting? The keypads allow me to know with some precision what impact the meeting is having on participants. Since I can ask this question, I almost have to ask myself, what is the goal here?

The Deeper Impact of Keypads, Part 2

The current book draft positions the impact of polling on presenters as giving them more information about what is going on with the participants in order to make better choices in the moment.  A speaker or a trainer can find out what the audience thinks or knows and make adjustments. A facilitator can let the audience have some influence over some facilitation decisions. A conference organizer can probe how attendees are feeling about the conference on issues they can influence, and potentially make adjustments to any number of things – length of sessions or breaks, temperature of rooms, duration of question and answer segments, et cetera.

This is all well and good, but there is something deeper I must pursue in the re-write. It has to do with intentionality. Even though you can make up questions on the fly, for the most part, polling questions are created in advance, which means that if you want to use the technology, it is important to think through in a detailed and specific way a few questions that are relevant to that particular moment of the participant experience.

  • Given my objectives for the gathering, what do I expect to be the participants’ emotional, intellectual, and energetic focus at this moment?
  • What does it make sense to ask the group to confirm that I need to stick to my designed process, or perhaps make an adjustment?

Both of these questions underline the idea of intention: when I planned the gathering, what was my intention for this moment? What is my intention now? Facilitators should always be very mindful and clear about their intention, but the explicit process of focusing the group on a constructed question – and all the perils that accompany doing so – is something that focuses the mind.

It’s one more thing that pushes presenters away from just winging it and toward thinking things through.

The way the keypads force me to think through a question is more significant than the fact that I can get good information from the answer.