How product managers can get people talking
Today we are talking about being a better facilitator. The ability to get a group of people to work together, exploring a problem, coming up with ideas, making a decision, and more, is a valuable capability for an organization. It is also a great capability for product managers and leaders. If you are not good at this yet, this discussion is perfect for you. If you are already an accomplished facilitator, I’m sure you’ll find some insights as well, to be even more effective.
Our guest to help us with this topic has prepared many senior leaders, VPs, and CEOs to be more effective facilitators.
He is an executive coach and started his coaching business, Essential Communications, in 1990, and also hosts the podcast “The Look & Sound of Leadership.” The list of companies with names we would all recognize where he has helped to improve leaders is too long to go into, but know he is the person behind many senior executives. His name is Tom Henschel.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[5:33] In your recent interview with Don Miller, you did an excellent job actively listening. How can we get better at active listening?
[10:54] What makes you a likeable person?
I’ve worked really hard to be willing to focus on the other person. I’m happy if I listen to you for 30 minutes and you never know anything about me. As a coach, I turn the focus on my clients, but it’s not just for my job—if we met at a party, I would listen to you. My mother taught us how to chat with people by asking about them, so I’ve been doing it since I was a kid.
[15:31] What are the benefits of being a good group facilitator?
You get better results if you can facilitate the group. Otherwise it’s like a bunch of people driving in a bus where no one has the steering wheel.
A good facilitator gets people talking. You can facilitate something you don’t know anything about. As a professional facilitator, I never know the content or jargon of the meeting, but I don’t need to. I’m only there to drive the bus; I don’t pick the road.
[18:13] What are the characteristics of a good facilitator?
- Be fearless of rooms full of people.
- Stop being a participant and separate yourself from the team.
- Be able to track the content and emotion happening in the room by answering questions like, What are we supposed to be talking about? What are we actually talking about? What is the emotional content in the room?
- Be non-judgmental. Your job is not to scold, approve, or correct. Your job is to get to the goal.
[21:00] What is a good outcome for a facilitator?
Have a clear goal. As a facilitator, I have the wheel of the bus. I don’t own the outcome, and I’m not contributing, but my job is to get the group to the goal. I’m always paying attention to whether we’re moving toward the goal.
[22:35] How can product managers be effective facilitators when they have a vested interest in the decision?
Be transparent. When you’re a participant and not a neutral facilitator, don’t lead the conversation and then at the end state your opinion. Instead, start by sharing where you’re coming from and saying you would like to hear what everyone has to say. Then stop talking so everyone else can talk about it.
[24:04] How can we make sure everyone’s voice is heard?
This is always a challenge. It’s our job as facilitators to ensure everyone is heard, including those who are reticent and don’t seem to have the tools to share information. You need to give these people tools. One simple tool is breaking people into groups or breakout rooms of about three people each. Most people who won’t talk in a large group will talk in a small group. Before you split into breakout rooms, pose the question you’ll be discussing. Then put everyone on mute for 60 seconds to give them a chance to put their thoughts together before going into the discussion. Once they’ve had time to think and are in small groups, reluctant people often are more willing to talk.
Be willing to manage people who talk too much and go off topic. Don’t get caught up in your emotion and don’t judge, but be courageous in managing the conversation. If someone is talking to much or going off topic, simply address them by name and say something like, “I want to be sure everybody has a chance to be heard” or “I really want to be sure we stay on the topic of . . . .” Then address someone else by name and say, “It looked like you were ready to speak.” I gave myself permission to interrupt by remembering that my job is not to make people feel good; it’s to get the group to the destination. Instead of disapproving of one person, I’m advocating for the bigger team.
[32:02] What other tips do you have for facilitators?
Give clear instructions.
Use Liberating Structures. This is a free online resource that provides 30+ exercises for facilitators to get people talking. Some of them are simple and others are deep. They give you the gift of structure, so you can tell the team what to do and how to do it. You take control of the team, and the team is grateful to know what to do.
It’s your responsibility to prepare to facilitate. Do your homework on the outcome you want to achieve, and learn how to run an exercise.
Action Guide: Put the information Tom shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Listen to episodes 137 and 162 with Tom Henschel
- Listen to Don Miller’s interview with Tom (Business Made Simple, episode 48)
- Learn more about Tom and Essential Communications
- Get free facilitation resources at LiberatingStructures.com
“What have you changed your mind about lately?” – Dave Stachowiak
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.