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Standing in the Fire

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Shows that the key to effectively leading difficult meetings lies not in acquiring more tools and techniques but in your state of mind
Offers dozens of stories, exercises and practices to help readers cultivate a grounded, compassionate, purposeful presence
Draws on Dressler’s interviews with 35 distinguished experts in facilitation, negotiation, organizational development and leadership

High heat meetings seem to be happening in more and more organizations these days. Situations where participants are polarized, angry, fearful, confused. If you facilitate meetings for a living, all your well-learned techniques won’t help you in volatile and unpredictable situations like this. If you lead meetings as simply one part of your job, you probably feel even less able to cope.

The answer is not another technique—not something you do to people. Veteran facilitator Larry Dressler has learned the hard way that when stakes are high, outcomes uncertain, and emotions running wild what makes the crucial difference is the leader’s presence. To work with people in high-heat meetings you have to work on yourself.

Standing in the Fire shares not just Dressler’s experiences but also the insights of 35 iconic facilitators, leaders, conveners, and change agents, all with an eye to helping you stay grounded and focused enough to make the kind of inventive, split-second decisions these pressure-cooker situations demand. He outlines the mindsets, the emotional and physical ways of being that will enable you to master yourself so you can remain firmly in service to the group, and offers dozens of practices for cultivating these capabilities before, during and after any meeting.

In meetings as in the natural world fire can be creative rather than destructive—but only if handled skillfully. Standing in the Fire gives you everything you need to keep from being draw into the inferno yourself and instead become a masterful fire tender.

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1 Fire for Better or Worse


It was a familiar feeling—tightness in my chest and the back of my neck. This told me it was time to breathe, trust, let go of attachment to outcome, listen deeply to what was going on, and test things that might or might not go well.

—Gibran Rivera
Senior Associate,
Interaction Institute for Social Change

GROUP FIRE IS THE STATE IN WHICH a situation feels uncomfortable, emotionally heated, intense, and perhaps quite personal. Fire is as pervasive in human interactions as it is in nature—and just as necessary. In this chapter we will learn to recognize different forms of group fire, appreciating both the productive or destructive qualities of high-heat meetings. We’ll also examine the ways in which our habits of thinking, emotional hot buttons, and egos make us vulnerable to unwise thoughts and actions when we are standing in the heat of human interaction.

We see fire in the halls of government and in the hallways of our elementary schools. It shows up when the leaders of our churches, synagogues, and mosques gather. We feel the fire at town council meetings and industry conferences. When historic adversaries, diverse ethnic groups, and world leaders come together, we expect and usually get fire. When industry leaders, elected officials, scholars, social activists, and citizens come together to deliberate pressing issues like hunger, climate change, and national security, we witness the fire.


2 We Are Fire Tenders


I get paid for two things. First is my ability in difficult and scary moments to pay attention to spoken and unspoken dimensions. Second is my willingness to feel overwhelmed and confused, and move into that rather than to sidestep it.

—Saul Eisen, PhD
Developing Human Systems

IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO BE A knowledgeable and insightful leader with adequate meeting-management skills. We must become masterful conveners. Among the most challenging aspects of convening —bringing diverse people together to achieve a common purpose—are the struggles and tensions that will inevitably arise.

In any collaborative effort, people bring widely different and often conflicting points of view to the table. To make things more challenging, they usually feel very attached to their points of view. They also come to the conversation with different levels of hope and doubt, a range of interpersonal skills, and varied agendas. As described in the previous chapter, discomfort, frustration, and confusion are bound to show up as people make honest efforts to find common ground amid their differences. They need people in the room who can shine the light of calm presence and clear purpose when others are escalating or shutting down in the heat of a challenging moment.


3 Stand with Self-Awareness


The existence of limiting beliefs and thoughts is good news. It means that reality, as we experience it when we are stressed or angry or stuck, is more malleable than it often feels.

—Caitlin M. Frost
Facilitator and Coach,
Harvest Moon Consultants

AS FIRE TENDERS, HOW DO WE AVOID being swept away in the heat of a group? More accurately, how do we minimize the heat we create for ourselves when interactions in the group become intense or personal? This chapter is based on a simple premise: Self-awareness is the foundation for wise action. The better observers we become of our mental, emotional, and physical states, the more mindful our responses will be when we are standing in the fire. In other words, the more intimately we can come to know our emotional hot buttons, the better we are able to act from choice rather than impulse. The more we recognize our habitual and ego-driven ways of thinking, the more likely we are to speak and act in ways that serve the group.

The better observers we become of our mental, emotional, and physical states, the more mindful our responses will be when we are standing in the fire


4 Stand in the Here and Now


It’s almost like I’m in an altered state of being. I am so in tune with the group that my personal thoughts and opinions—my internal dialogue—become very quiet.

—Sera Thompson
Process Facilitator

THE WORK OF LEADING GROUPS through difficult terrain can be overwhelming. Events move quickly. Voices are raised. It’s easy to feel inundated. Our thoughts can begin to wander to, What happened just now? or, What’s going to happen? The next thing we know, we’re not really in the meeting.

How do we stay in the present moment and avoid being distracted by thoughts of the past or future? Being present connects us to ourselves and to what’s happening around us. It sets the stage for us to see a difficult situation with fresh eyes, to make choices that are unclouded by emotion, and to feel an authentic sense of calm in the midst of a group storm. When we are able to draw on our present self, we can make the ongoing adjustments required to place our full attention in the here and now. Learning to be present in the fire begins with accepting the idea that the only place from which we can influence the future is in the present moment.


5 Stand with an Open Mind


I’m not listening with the idea of deciding whether they are right or wrong, but trying to see the way they construct their world.

—Roger Schwarz
Author, The Skilled Facilitator:
A Comprehensive Resource for
Consultants, Facilitators, Managers,
Trainers, and Coaches

THIS CHAPTER DESCRIBES THE essential quality of receptivity. How do we maintain a stance of openness and curiosity, especially when we are seeing behavior and hearing views that we find difficult to accept? At times, the facilitator is the only person in the room who is not closing down, rejecting alternative ways of seeing, and losing hope of what might be accomplished. Our ability as facilitators to hold an unwavering stance of not knowing— while maintaining a sense of inquiry and optimism—is often the critical factor enabling a group to move beyond conflict and distress.

Whether as change agent, meeting host, negotiator, consultant, or facilitator, we bring expertise to the table. In fact, a good part of our identity is based on what we have studied in depth and practiced for many years. But seeing oneself as “someone who knows” carries a double edge. On the one hand, we can walk into a room with a sense of confidence in the things we hold to be true. On the other hand, we risk becoming too invested in that image of ourselves, which can lead to a lack of receptivity to other ways of seeing and knowing.


6 Know What You Stand For


My orientation establishes the field so that when I am standing in the fire and a choice point comes up, it informs or reveals a range of choices that I might not otherwise see if I did not have a clear orientation.

—Doug Silsbee
Leadership Coach and Author,
Presence-Based Coaching

AS THE PRECEDING CHAPTERS suggest, we are creatures of habit. But we are also creatures of choice. In the disorienting swirl of group conflict and confusion, we need to know where our feet are planted. As we face what feels like overpowering pressure to comply with a group’s wishes, we need to know who we are at our core. As we feel ourselves succumbing to the pull of ego and pride, we need a higher, authentic self that serves as a solid anchor point from which to make good choices.

Every high-heat moment presents an opportunity to choose where we place our attention and how we use our considerable power as conveners. This chapter describes how knowing what we stand for enables us to choose to lead with consistency, integrity, and resolve in the face of pressures to act from self-defensive habit.


7 Dance with Surprises


If I can’t find a way to let go, it carries over into the gathering and I become very controlling— and I tend not to let things unfold.

—Chris Corrigan
Facilitator and Process Consultant,
Harvest Moon Consultants

A MEETING WITHOUT SURPRISES is a meeting in which nothing particularly important occurs. Without surprises we learn very little, because everything that occurs is exactly what we expected. Surprises are that disruptive spark that often lights the fire for innovation. But our human nature is such that when shocking or even merely unexpected events occur, we resent them.

When we can dance with surprises, we are able to welcome and work in concert with whatever is occurring. In the face of surprises, we embody an effortless grace and adaptability. We don’t hold on to preconceived outcomes, resist unforeseen events, or resent an unanticipated change in the agenda we worked so hard to craft. When we move fluidly in the fire, we are inviting the unexpected to be our dance partner. We view every person, every event, every piece of new information, and every expressed emotion as our partner in the creation of something new.


8 Stand with Compassion


Sometimes we guard our impartiality and professional distance at the expense of allowing compassion into our work.

—Sidney Wasserman
Professor of Social Work

BY THE END OF THIS CHAPTER I want you to be familiar with a way of standing with your heart wide open to yourself and to others. As change agents working in emotionally volatile situations, our goal is not to extinguish or become impervious to unpleasant feelings. Our goal is to learn to feel human fear and heartbreak without defaulting into a fight-or-flight mode. In this chapter we will explore how the capacities of emotional openness, self-acceptance, awareness of the whole person, and unconditional positive regard enable us to tend the fire in ways that invite human dignity into spaces where fear, intolerance, and aggression might otherwise take over.

Despite some older notions of the facilitator as someone “standing outside of it all,” we are in fact, a very real and connected part of the system.

Where there is group fire, there is often pain and suffering. And where there is suffering, there is nearly always the tendency for people to move into fight-or-flight reactions. Despite some older notions of the facilitator as someone “standing outside of it all,” we are in fact, a very real and connected part of the system. When things heat up, we have no heat-resistant suit to slip into, nor would it serve our purpose if we did.


9 Cultivate Everyday Readiness


I’m a strong believer in the importance of my ongoing practices for helping me be present, unattached, and calm in the face of whatever messiness shows up in the room.

—Peggy Holman
Process Consultant and Author
The Change Handbook

GREATDANCERS AND MUSICIANS invest thousands of hours practicing their craft before the curtain goes up. In order to ensure excellence during a game, athletes practice mental focus and technical skills well before they walk onto the playing field or court. Likewise, fire tenders must have an ongoing set of practices that prepare us to be at our best as leaders.

This chapter describes the value of ongoing inner-directed practices that assist us in achieving a relaxed and focused state of being, unburden us from limiting beliefs and stories, help us access our compassion, and remind us of our purpose and gifts. We will also examine the special challenges of starting and sustaining everyday practices as well as the benefits of such practices for preparing us to work in high-heat situations.


10 Prepare to Lead


If I’m to work successfully with others, I have to remember who I am. So before “we” show up, I do a bit of “me work” and remember who I am.

—Chris Grant
Process Facilitator, 14A Conversations

FOR MANY LEADERS AND FACILITATORS, what happens just before the meeting is largely a matter of agenda review, materials production, and logistics related to the meeting space. Those are important activities. However, there are other important practices related to preparing. These enable us to settle into our own rhythm and intention for the day, connect with meeting participants on a human level, sense the mood in the room, and do the little things that help to create a container in which people will be able to do their best work together.

Many world-class athletes and musicians engage in extensive rituals just before entering the playing field or stage. While some of their practices are driven by superstition, many serve the much deeper function of centering, focusing, and moving into the present moment. Fire tenders are expected to perform under similarly stressful and unpredictable conditions. How do we begin well? How do we arrive in ways that put us in a frame of mind to truly be with others? What are the practices and rituals for coming into a meeting space that support a grounded presence, clear purpose, and authentic way of leading? There are four categories of practices for preparing to lead, and to engage in them you must:


11 Face the Fire


When things heat up, it takes moment-by-moment awareness and adjustment to what you are feeling, thinking, and doing in the group. A brief lapse of awareness, and you can really set the process back.

—Myrna Lewis
Facilitator, Deep Democracy

MASTER FIRE TENDERS DON’T necessarily get triggered any less than others. But like championship ice-skaters, they seem to recover from missteps and falls more quickly and gracefully than the average leader. Most of the time, the in-the-moment self-correction occurs instantaneously, so that only the fire tender knows it occurred.

The self-directed practices in this chapter are specifically for use during meetings— in the heat of challenging events and difficult group dynamics. These practices for facing the fire assist us when we notice ourselves being pulled into a reactive or unbalanced state of being.

It is inevitable that at some point you will experience any number of strong thoughts and emotions—confusion, anger, fear, self-doubt, self-righteousness—on which you will be tempted to act. Practices for facing the fire are specifically aimed, first, at disrupting the natural impulse to act on those thoughts and feelings and, second, at replacing habitual reactions with more constructive responses.


12 Reflect and Renew


There are rooms in my head I don’t get to explore unless I spend time outdoors and with colleagues reflecting on my work.

—Mary Margaret Golten
Partner, CDR Associates

WHEN A MEETING ENDS, OUR intentional practices should continue. It sometimes feels as though we need every ounce of our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual energy to create and hold together the container for a successful high-heat meeting. We need practices that support our sustained learning and renewal. The practices described in this chapter focus on what we do after the formal meeting has ended. They are practices in which you:

Leave it behind

Harvest the learning


Restore yourself

Practices that foster reflection and renewal enable us to relocate the center of our internal gyroscope and recommit to our purpose and convictions. They help us learn to more clearly see our habitual blind spots and avoid repeating unproductive patterns. These practices enable us to clear our heads, put events into perspective, and reenergize body, mind, and soul. Reflection and renewal practices demand that we create space for quiet and stillness from which new insights and deeper wisdom emerge.



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