We often speak too soon. Especially when we are facilitating a group discussion, we often cut off discussion too early. We can benevolently assume consensus so as to both reduce tension and move discussions forward in a short amount of time. And we can be victims of our own confirmation bias, assuming consensus and buy-in because we are hearing only what we want to hear.
Often, we don’t want to see people struggle, so we jump in and offer advice, or provide an answer. Uncertainty, silence, and difference can all be threatening. I've mentioned before that David Rock, in Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, explains that it actually requires more cognitive energy to refrain from voicing our opinions: “[P]eople rush to dish out solutions because waiting for someone to come up with their own ideas requires effort … you have to hold back your desire to solve the problem yourself, which takes inhibition, an energy-hungry process.” And sometimes, we simply rush to judgment. We respond emotionally, defensively, and way too quickly.
Let’s call this tendency toward speaking too soon “premature articulation.” Premature articulation leaves all conversational partners dissatisfied.
Here are two ways to end premature articulation, especially when facilitating groups.
Ask for evidence.
Don’t accept statements of opinion as generally agreed-on fact. Rather than simply accept general statements, particularly when participants apply them to groups of people, provide or ask for evidence and appropriate experiences.
Recently, I was facilitating the first board retreat of a newly merged organization, No Barriers. Three nonprofits had merged under one umbrella organization, and this was the first meeting of the newly combined board. Our goal was to develop one common narrative and to enable all board members to explore how their individual stories supported that narrative. At one point, a participant stated, “If you were to ask everyone in this room to define the No Barriers mindset, you’d get sixteen different answers.” Every head in the room nodded with consensus. It was easy for the group to agree on disagreement. In this instance, consensus was immediately comforting and supported the group’s agreed-on value of unification.
I refused to accept consensus. I asked everyone to spend ten minutes writing his or her definition of the mindset. After the time spent free-writing, the board members shared what they wrote. There was, indeed, consensus—they supported and reiterated each other’s beliefs and definitions, and provided a solid foundation for the remaining exploration.
Allow for complexity and paradox.
You can also end premature articulation by resisting the urge to simplify. Probe for details, depth, and disagreement. Our quest for efficient communication can leave many issues only partially discussed and many people unheard.
Although we share more values and experiences than not, the reality is that there are no easy or universal answers. In fact, according to communication professor Dietram Scheufele, “The same information means different things to different people.” People may take the same action and come to the same conclusions for many different reasons. Even agreements may consist of multiple points of view, varied pathways toward understanding, and complex arguments.
Scheufele says that disagreement is good, in that it forces people to spend more time thinking about issues. If people know they are going to have to discuss information, they are much more likely to carefully process it.
Be fearless. Challenge your assumptions. Go searching for details and depth. Ask people to recall experiences. Ask for stories about what happened to them when…
Allowing for complexity can lead to more honest conversations. Asking people for examples and experiences that inform their thinking can lead to ownership and long-lasting decisions. It can open the group to empathy. Employing both practices can help put an end to premature articulation. And when we cease premature articulation, we allow ourselves to truly hear and understand each other.