Overcoming your instinct: the many contradictions in being a moderator

30 maart 2017
Categorieën: Art and value of moderation
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Meetings (at least the successful ones) are about change. The only way to get change, is to do things differently and to find a new perspective. For the moderator, this means being brave and in many cases, going against your natural instinct. It is a profession full of contradictions.

© Twycer / www.twycer.nl

© Twycer / www.twycer.nl

If there’s danger, you flee. If you can’t beat them, you join them. If there’s a fire, you extinguish it. Right? It’s the logical, sane thing to do. But not for a professional moderator. He or she will fight the danger, confront the opposition and keep the fire going (or even stir it up).
That is what we’ve learned over our long years of moderation. That’s what we teach our students in our workshops. That’s what we believe to be most effective in getting better meetings.
These are the most important instincts every moderator (and in his slipstream, every meeting owner) should overcome:

Serve, to be the boss: meetings are not (we repeat: not) about you, the moderator. They are about the meeting owner and even more about the participants. Yet, they need you to help make it about them and their objectives. Someone needs to take responsibility for all and to be in charge. And that person is you, mister or misses moderator!
This will leave the moderator balancing two completely opposite things: being in the background and very present at the same time. Being a leader as well as a servant. Having charisma and modesty.

Play to be serious: It is a hard to beat misunderstanding, that people only feel they are being taken seriously, if you act serious. Deep inside, every grown up still loves to play. Science shows that being playful enhances learning. So, treat serious business like fun!

Interrupt, to be polite; it is a misconception, that interrupting someone is always rude and that you should let everyone finish their statement. There are a few reasons for interrupting every few sentences. If only by asking ‘why?’, ‘how?’ etc.
The first one is: for most people, it is natural (science shows that in day-to-day conversation we interrupt each other all the time). So, it will make the interview feel more like a conversation than an interrogation.
Secondly, it will put the moderator in charge: with these interruptions, you allow your interviewee to continue or you stimulate him to elaborate.
And finally, to help the person talking to make choices: an interviewee/expert in general has enough knowledge to talk for three days. He will thank you for narrowing down the options for him, helping him keep time, for keeping an eye on the objective of the conversation or on the participants.
Basically, an interruption can be a very stimulating and effective way to have someone talk. It is nothing less than helping them tell the best possible story. Not doing that part of your job, that would be rude!

If it’s stuck, don’t push: It will happen to every moderator every once in a while, that participants seem to have no intention of interacting … whatsoever. It’s a nightmare, no questions from the audience, no response to your questions. The natural reaction is to push for engagement. And the strange thing is, the harder you try, the tighter the shell will be shut.
The trick is to accept things are stuck, to take time to reconsider, to closely observe the process & participants and then to ‘massage’ them into opening up. And that takes time and requires patience, lots of it!

Love the sound of silence: as a moderator, you are there to get the conversation going and to get energy into the room, right? But that doesn’t mean that you have to fill in every silent second, like most moderators do. There’s two reasons to love the sound of silence.
First, there’s the fact that people need time to come up with something to say or ask. After all, the speaker had weeks to prepare, as did the moderator. But participants get put on the spot all the time. Why expect them to come up with a brilliant question or reflection within 2 seconds after the speaker is finished? Please give them some time to reflect. Or even better, design space and/or work formats to help them do so.
Secondly, there’s the introverts. And there’s many of them! The easy option for the moderator is to turn to those who have no fear of speaking in public and are always ready to give an opinion. But that will prevent you from getting the input of the introverts. And beware: they are silent, not stupid! Therefore, every moderator should learn how to ‘open up’ these introverts and make them feel safe to speak up.

If there’s bad news, make them tell it: by habit, meeting owners always want to ‘keep it positive’. We tell ourselves to see the opportunities, not the problems. And that, in our view, is counter-productive. By denying bad news, negative results and awkward information, you will not get sustainable results. Potential problems should be recognised and taken care of.
By nature we want to be liked. But as a moderator, sometimes that is not the part you play. In order to learn, delegates have to be challenged. That’s why the moderators need to play the part of the devil’s advocate every now and then … even if it gets you a low grade on evaluation.

Celebrate the pain in your ass: if you want an easy ride, talk to the ones who will give you the desired response or who will come up with the ‘correct answer’. If you want a result that is feasible and supported by all, look for the pains in the ass. Because the obstinate ones, are the ones who will bring you new insight.

If it hurts, cut deeper: sometimes, a meeting will get ‘unfriendly’. On occassion, participants will get verbally hostile; with the speaker, with each other or even with you. The typical moderator’s first response will be to pacify. You want to tell people to keep it friendly, to listen to each other etc. Sound familiar?
Unfortunately, that will only make things worse. Telling someone who’s angry that he can’t be angry, will only make him angrier. So, the trick is to allow it to happen. Maybe even to arouse some more negativity at first, for instance by asking questions. And then at some point, you will find that the energy and the anger will fade (a bit). At that point, you’ve gained the trust of the audience and they will be open to talking in a more civilised way.

Be radically neutral: we all have opinions. And we express them by speaking up or in our body language. A moderator nevertheless needs to hide his/her opinions. For the simple fact that the meeting is not about you (do we have to keep on saying this?). And by showing your opinion, you might alienate some of the participants from you, preventing them from taking full part in the conversation.
Does this mean you can’t be provocative? Not at all. Simply make sure that if you introduce another opinion or viewpoint, you make it clear it is not yours. You should stir things up, but not by having an opinion or by taking a position. You do it by being on everybody’s side and by addressing all perspectives

Chaos is good: Like any human being, moderators love it when things go smoothly, in a predictable planned fashion. But is that effective and engaging? Not always. Create streamlined chaos, rather than fight it!
For instance: if you have participants talk to each other about a subject, it might be hard to get them to listen to you again. And that’s great! It simply means they are ‘on’, so you should be happy with this chaos.
Another example: at some point in the day, you feel energy is getting low. You can choose to simply execute the agenda as planned and hope it will get better … which it probably won’t. So, instead how about changing the seating, the order of speakers, the format. Will that be chaotic? Yes! Will it raise energy? Yes!

Know, but don’t tell: as a moderator, you need to be very well prepared. You need to know what’s going on and you need to have all the information, to be able to help participants reach the objective of the meeting.
But in the heat of the moment, you need to keep yourself from showing how much you know. Because the meeting is not (Yes, we will keep on repeating this) about you. Because showing off irritates people. Because showing an opinion based on your knowledge might alienate you from part of the audience.
What you can use your knowledge for, is to ask the right question at the right time. It will make you look an intelligent moderator, not a fully informed expert. And that’s how it should be.

Forget time, to be on time: Yes, of course one of our main jobs it to keep track of time. But that doesn’t mean: execute the schedule to the exact second. Time should be on your side.
Being a moderator means timing, without the pressure of time. You need to design and execute for a smooth rhythm, time to breath and think. You need to be aware of the designed programme and at the same time be flexible enough to change the timetable, if the objective requires that.
Constantly emphasizing time makes the day feel ‘tight’. By managing time (in cooperation with speakers and event managers) in a more subtle way, people will feel they have ‘all the time in the world’

In conclusion: sometimes the long way home is faster. On occassion the high hanging fruit is tastier. And Confucius was right when he said: ‘If you’re in a hurry, you need to sit down for a bit’.

Kim Coppes
Jan-Jaap In der Maur