All I Really Need
I Learned on the
Walls of Our
BY CYBÈLE ELAINE WERTS
Several years ago, our friend and colleague Bill Baker commented that organizations have been training
the wrong people. Instead of spending time and energy developing more skilled facilitators, he said,
they should develop group members’ skills as the way to improve practice and success. Our experience
bears out the wisdom of this success. When group members are knowledgeable and skilled, anyone
with simple knowledge of facilitation principles and moves can facilitate constructive group work.
—Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman
The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups
hen I was young, my parents It was in that state of mind that daylong staff meetings.
W had a copy of one of Ogilvy
and Mather’s early books on
advertising. Ogilvy and Mather were
I was introduced to the Norms of
Collaboration by our Site Director Jane
Nesbitt. Jane had observed some of
“Yuck”, I thought. I hate when good
behavior is taught to us with signs on
the wall like in kindergarten: “Share
stars in the marketing world and our sister offices using these norms your crayons with your neighbor,” and,
inspired me to work in that field. I saw in an explicit fashion, and wanted to “No yelling,” and so on. I figured we
myself on Madison Avenue in a sleek bring that especially effective group were all professionals—not to men-
grey suit and stylish spectator pumps. communication style to our office. tion grown-ups—and didn’t need this
Thirty years later, I’m actually wear- The norms were developed by silliness. I won’t go into detail on the
ing the spectator pumps, although I Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman norms; they’re in the sidebar. None of
wouldn’t be caught dead in anything in their book The Adaptive School: them is particularly striking anyhow;
as dull as a gray suit. I do have a fairly A Sourcebook for Developing in fact, they all seem like the kinds of
conservative approach to the workplace Collaborative Groups. Jane encour- behaviors that most of us figure we’re
in that I don’t take to touchy-feely-love- aged us to use them in our work doing anyway.
bug stuff being bandied around. together and particularly during our Garmston and Wellman make that
30 INFORMATION OUTLOOK V11 N11 NOVEMBER 2007
observation in their book: “Each norm
is deceptively simple. Most are skills
that people regularly apply in one-to-
one communications. The irony is that
these seemingly simple behaviors are
rare in many meetings. Pausing and
paraphrasing are often missing, espe-
cially when things get tense. Probing
for details is forgotten when members
presume to understand others’ mean-
ings. This can lead to later confusion
and complication.” THE SEVEN NORMS OF COLLABORATION
One of the interesting things we
know about change management is PROMOTING A SPIRIT OF INQUIRY
that you can’t just introduce some- Exploring perceptions, assumptions, beliefs, and interpretations promotes
thing, and hope it’ll take. You have the development of understanding. Inquiring into the ideas of others before
to be like one of those little dogs that advocating for one’s own ideas is important to productive dialogue and
grabs onto somebody’s ankle and just discussion.
won’t let go.
Jane turned out to be quite the terrier. PAUSING
Over the next three years, she brought Pausing before responding or asking a question allows time for thinking
those norms up at every monthly staff and enhances dialogue, discussion, and decision making.
meeting. I sighed inwardly. I rolled
my eyes. I fiddled with my organizer. PARAPHRASING
Jane had us do all kinds of exercises Using a paraphrase starter that is comfortable for you—“So…” or “As you
that she described as “scaffolding” are…” or “You’re thinking…”—and following the starter with an efficient
on things that we’d learned already, a paraphrase assists members of the group in hearing and understanding
concept which is also a part of effective one another as they converse and make decisions.
long-term change management. One
meeting we’d have a buddy and share PROBING
the norm we would focus on for that Using gentle open-ended probes or inquiries—“Please say more about…”
meeting, and after we’d follow through or “I’m interested in…” or “I’d like to hear more about…” or “Then you are
with how well we did. Another meeting saying…”—increases the clarity and precision of the group’s thinking.
we’d watch as staff played out a dif-
ficult situation and how we might deal PUTTING IDEAS ON THE TABLE
with that most effectively using the Ideas are the heart of meaningful dialogue and discussion. Label the inten-
norms. Then there were the posters tion of your comments. For example: “Here is one idea…” or “One thought
everywhere. Okay I got it, I’m probing, I have is…” or “Here is a possible approach…” or “Another consideration
I’m putting my ideas on the table, I’m might be…”.
Jane explains her approach. “One of PAYING ATTENTION TO SELF AND OTHERS
the important ways that I helped to inte- Meaningful dialogue and discussion are facilitated when each group mem-
grate these norms into the office was to ber is conscious of self and of others, and is aware of what she or he
encourage all of us focus on them over is saying and how it is said as well as how others are responding. This
time. I believed that all staff, from tech- includes paying attention to learning styles when planning, facilitating, and
nical assistance to administrative and participating in group meetings and conversations.
information staff, would benefit by cul-
tivating the norms. I thought that all of PRESUMING POSITIVE INTENTIONS
us needed to become skilled with them Assuming that others’ intentions are positive promotes and facilitates mean-
in order to support an effective group ingful dialogue and discussion, and prevents unintentional put-downs.
process to accomplish our work.” Using positive intentions in speech is one manifestation of this norm.
Though Jane provided leadership in
use of the norms early on, over time, Reprinted with permission from The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups, by
Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman, 1999. For more information see The Adaptive Schools Web site, www.
facilitators at our monthly meeting
adaptiveschools.com, and “The Seven Norms Toolkit,” www.adaptiveschools.com/pdf/SevenNormsToolkit.pdf.
incorporated them too and continue
INFORMATION OUTLOOK V11 N11 NOVEMBER 2007 31
Change takes a long time, not to mention why I do what I do. The result would
have been so different: They would
a terrier nipping at your heels keeping have known so much more about
that change on your radar screen. what we can do for them—which they
missed out on entirely—and really, they
to do so. There were early adopters what was really going on there, I real- would not have put me in the position
of the norms and then, as now, many ized that this company wasn’t working of wanting to knock their block off!
of us use them regularly with clients with the norms as a foundation of their It also was clear that they also
and in other types of meetings in our collaboration with me. So, for example were not presuming positive intentions
office. They became part of the way instead of probing for specificity (Norm (Norm #6) about me as they had many
we do business and part of who we #3), they simply dismissed the care negative judgments about my work.
are, although maybe I wasn’t aware and thought I put into many of our Most of us realize that there are
of it yet. projects. It never occurred to them many ways to do the same thing and
I say this because one day, a funny to actually ask me anything about my that, often, many of them can be
thing happened on the way to a client approach or how it might relate to what right at the same time. This client felt
meeting. I was out of town working with we were doing. They simply stated up that because I had taken a different
another company and I found myself front that it was irrelevant and not at approach than theirs, my way was
seriously defensive and actually crack- all useful. unprofessional, low quality, and other
ling mad, if I’m to be totally honest. I’m It would have been so easy for them choice words that I shall not repeat.
usually pretty even tempered, so this to take a different approach, to maybe Their opinion of me leaked out not only
surprised me. After I thought about ask me a few questions about how and in their written feedback but also in our
THE NORMS OF COLLABORATION AT WORK
When I was working on this article, I my role as evaluator more than some of
asked some coworkers at WestEd two Karen the other norms. This seems to help in
questions about they integrate the Norms Mikkelsen, communication with colleagues as it pro-
of Collaboration into their work. senior program vides a prompt for them to think about
associate assessment of their technical assistance
Tom Hidalgo, I am a natu- activities. I think the most difficult Norms
program ral paraphraser relate to advocacy and inquiry. It’s a
associate because I really stretch for some not to become defensive
I’m usually not want to under- and/or overly assertive when advocating
that talkative stand what peo- for self, while also inquiring about others’
in most formal ple are saying, but “presuming positive positions.
groups; never intentions” is a stretch for me. Maybe
have been. it’s because I’m uncomfortably competi- Jane Nesbitt,
So lately, I’ve tive, a trait I wish would vanish, so I often senior site
focused on the interpret other people’s comments as a administra-
norm of “putting ideas on the table.” This challenge rather than a contribution to tor, Learning
can be difficult however, when there are be considered. I know that’s how I would Innovations at
other group members who seem com- want my comments to be perceived. WestEd
pelled to talk constantly. I’ve experienced I am working on
this in many different forums. The “talkers” Pat Mueller, the on the “bal-
blurt out comments on every topic or issue evaluation spe- ance between
that comes up, and then they comment on cialist (NERRC inquiry and advocacy.” I think that I’m
everyone else’s comments. I believe the consultant) fairly good at inquiry, but I’m still work-
inability of loquacious group members to I tend to focus ing on being a better advocate for my
follow the norms of “pausing” and “paying on “probing for own ideas. It reminds me of Steven
attention to self and others” is a huge chal- specificity” since Covey’s well-known comment: “Seek
lenge to a group’s effectiveness. that seems to fit first to understand, then to be under-
32 INFORMATION OUTLOOK V11 N11 NOVEMBER 2007
It would have been so easy for them to
take a different approach, to maybe ask
me a few questions about how and why I
do what I do. The result would have been
of private ranting) was have to a con- porate gray suits did think that I was
versation with those colleagues—a overly sensitive, but you know what? I
direct one—and ask them to just get can live with them thinking I’m sensi-
on with the project in an impersonal tive if that means they’ll make the effort
way. I knew I had to be very specific, to be nice to me. The truth is, you can’t
so I asked them to keep their opinions introduce the Norms of Collaboration
of me to themselves and stay away to people who don’t have this frame-
from the personal commentary. On work and expect them to reply “Oh
the positive side, I asked them to Cybèle, what were we thinking? We’ll
speak and work with me in a respect- change our behavior immediately!” As
ongoing conversation, which dripped ful way, based on kindness. I said, change takes a long time, not to
with arrogance. I recognized how much of a love mention a terrier nipping at your heels
My response to all this (after a fair bit bug I sounded, and Mr. and Ms. cor- keeping that change on your radar
stood.” I want to do both and I think both to replace the more rigid set of meeting sometimes judge them as being not fast
are important. It is difficult when I am rules we had been using in our workplace enough on the uptake. So you have to be
with others who don’t pause, whether it with a more genuine set of principles with careful about the situation sometimes.
be after a question or comment or before which to strengthen our interactions. I
one speaks I think it’s because people know that when I collaborate one-to-one And, finally, a few thoughts of my own:
can be uncomfortable with silence. This or in a group with colleagues, or for that I tend to have a mind that just won’t stop,
tendency does not allow a moment to matter, with anyone for any reason who is so I have to work on “pausing” or I get
think and reply and this can be especially applying these principles too, it’s a very told that I’m steamrolling right over peo-
important for those who need a few sec- positive experience. ple. When I take the time to slow down
onds or even a minute to process infor- and make sure that my ideas are heard,
mation. It also doesn’t honor what’s been Norma Sheehan, then it’s much more likely that the things
said when everyone is just barging in to senior adminis- I’m advocating for are listened to. The
say what’s on their mind and not listening trative assistant thing I most often wish people would do
to anyone else. The norm I most in other groups is probe for specificity. It
often work on seems like people assume that they know
Cathleen is “pausing” why I’m doing what I’m doing, and quite
Palmer, because I have often their lack of data leads to a wrong
information cen- this tendency to assumption. People seem to like to ana-
ter coordinator want to interrupt lyze situations, but when you don’t have
I try to be mindful because I have enough information, then the conclusion
about the ways in some ideas I want to share. I think the you come to is bound to be incorrect.
which I respond concept of the Norms of Collaboration is The result I’ve found of this is some very
to others’ ideas a very useful one, but I admit that some- uncomfortable and upsetting situations.
and behaviors, so times in actual reality you can see that —Cybèle Elaine Werts
“paying attention people don’t have enough patience. For
to self and others” is something I’ve been example, if people really do take the time
working on. As I recall, we were looking to pause and paraphrase, the listeners can
INFORMATION OUTLOOK V11 N11 NOVEMBER 2007 33
screen until it’s absorbed it into your
system. CYBÈLE ELAINE WERTS is an information specialist for
Were my entreaties effective? To Learning Innovations at WestEd, a research, development, and
a certain extent, my blunt approach service education agency. She can be reached at cwerts@wested.
did kind of scare the black flies away org. Her personal Web site is www.supertechnogirl.com/ WestEd’s
and to date we’ve all been on our best Web site is www.wested.org.
behavior. But I can tell you that without
having the Norms of Collaboration to
guide our path, we will never be able
to perform the complex kind of work On the surface, they focus on col- And so it seems that despite myself,
that we normally do in our jobs, and laboration that we as information spe- I’ve come to appreciate a bit of that
that’s a sad thing. This project will be cialists might not immediately connect love-bug approach to collaborating at
completed on the scale of the least to our work. In fact, these norms are work. After all, it has for the most part
common denominator. present in every contact with peo- spared my own colleagues from my
What I came to realize here is the ple who need information from us. mad rants for nearly eight years now.
value of a developed corporate culture, Interacting in this way is even more I guess Garmston and Wellman have
and that these Norms of Collaboration important in the relationship between something pretty smart going there,
are an important and often explicit an information specialist and clients, so I’ve already started preparing two
part of ours at the Northeast Regional as the process of asking for informa- additional posters for our conference
Resource Center. In fact, Jane reminds tion can be complex on both a per- room: “Share your crayons with your
me that it is exactly this explicitness— sonal and informational level. Skip a neighbor” and “No yelling.” Maybe I’ll
not just on the walls, but in our plan- few of the norms and your clients may send them a couple of copies for their
ning of events and meetings—that leave their communication with you as own meeting room, and who knows
make them continue to be a part of hostile and defensive as I was, and you where that might lead?
our culture. may never even know it.
34 INFORMATION OUTLOOK V11 N11 NOVEMBER 2007