Standing in the Fire

Leading High-Heat Meetings with Clarity, Calm, and Courage

Larry Dressler (Author) | Roger Schwarz (Foreword by)

Publication date: 03/01/2010

Standing in the Fire

Shows that the key to leading difficult meanings lies in mastering yourself.

  • 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.

Read more and meet author below

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Overview

Shows that the key to leading difficult meanings lies in mastering yourself.

  • 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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Meet the Author & Other Product Contributors


Visit Author Page - Larry Dressler

Larry Dressler is president of Blue Wing Consulting. He has designed and facilitated high-stakes meetings in large corporations like Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Starbucks since the early 1990s. He has also assisted in important community deliberations involving diverse stakeholders: farm workers in Washington State, homeless artisans on Skid Row in Los Angeles, and indigenous leaders in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

To learn more about Larry and his work, visit his website.



Foreword by Roger Schwarz

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Roger Schwarz

Preface

Introduction: The Power of Fire

Part One: The Fire

Chapter 1: Fire for Better or Worse

Chapter 2: We are Fire Tenders

Part Two: Six Ways of Standing

Chapter 3: Stand with Self-Awareness

Chapter 4: Stand in the Here and Now

Chapter 5: Stand with an Open Mind

Chapter 6: Know What You Stand For

Chapter 7: Dance with Surprises

Chapter 8: Stand with Compassion

Part Three: Practices

Chapter 9: Cultivate Everyday Readiness

Chapter 10: Prepare to Lead

Chapter 11: Face the Fire

Chapter 12: Reflect and Renew

Conclusion: Stepping into the Fire Circle

Notes

Suggested Reading

Web-Based Resources

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Index

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Excerpt

Standing in the Fire

INTRODUCTION
THE POWER OF FIRE

CAN YOU REMEMBER THE MOST intense high-heat moment you’ve faced working with a group? One of my most memorable moments happened fairly early in my career, but I remember it vividly. Catherine, my consulting partner at the time, and I were working with a group of federal law enforcement officers. A conflict between two divisions of the agency had escalated over several months, and just prior to our first meeting, a few employees were caught vandalizing the vehicles of their co-workers by scratching the car doors with keys. People could hardly remember the origin of the conflict, but both factions believed they were in the right. The rift had taken on a life of its own and was now being played out in a cycle of revenge and retaliation.

At the first meeting everyone arrived on time, and as the officers sat down and positioned their chairs, the seating configuration started to look more and more like two circles. The geography of the conflict was clear from the outset, and the tension in the room was palpable. As they waited for the meeting to begin, people sat with crossed arms and legs, hardly able to look at members of the other group. Just as we were about to begin, Catherine and I noticed that everyone was wearing a gun.

All I could think about in that moment was the twenty or so guns strapped to people who were really angry at each other. My heart was beating fast, and my face felt flushed. I remember looking toward the exit for reassurance. In that moment, I had no idea what to do or say, and Catherine looked only slightly more composed.

What Gets Ignited

It doesn’t take firearms to remind us of our vulnerability when we step into the room as the convener of a high-stakes meeting. Sometimes it takes only a skeptically raised eyebrow from a powerful person in the room; other times, a realization that the group will run out of time before achieving its goal. What creates heat for each of us depends largely on our personal hot buttons.

When these buttons are pushed, two kinds of energy can be ignited. One kind of energy connects to an age-old human survival instinct, the self-protective reaction. It’s habitual, often emotionally charged, and designed to bring us back to our comfort zone. The second kind of energy can be accessed only if we can ask ourselves, Who do I want to be right now? This question ignites the energy of deliberate choice and wise action. This book is about building our capacity to ignite the second energy, even when our fears and ego encourage us to do otherwise.

What Is the Who?

Staring into the heat of a challenging group dynamic, we instinctively want to do something. We attempt to find just the right intervention that will make things easier for the group or perhaps for us. With little awareness of our internal dialogue or our emotional state, we take action. And too often that action turns out to be either the wrong choice or a reasonable choice poorly executed. Too often, no action was needed at all. What was needed was a facilitative leader who could serve as a steady, impartial, purposeful presence in the room, holding the space of the conversation with good humor, resoluteness, and compassion.

Who we are in these moments of fire is in itself a powerful intervention. We do not need to be the picture of charisma or Zen-like detachment. Instead we need to stand in a way that has integrity for us and is in service to the group we are there to assist. Our power comes from the realization that we always have a choice about which who shows up.

IN SEARCH OF HOT SPOTS

Without passion, conviction, and yearning, there would be no human fire. And without fire, groups would produce very little of interest or positive impact. We need fire to progress, but we also need to help people channel its heat. That’s the job of fire tenders—people who know how to bring out the life-generating, creative potential of group fire.

Cultivating the creative potential of fire is the only useful approach, because fire suppression doesn’t work. Too many leaders and institutions avoid or stifle the critical conversations that need to happen, and the results are often disastrous. Many case studies have been written about Enron and its predominant culture, in which challenging the status quo or raising concerns was simply not acceptable. Dissent was discouraged in a wide variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The policy of suppression ultimately led to the demise of the company. In order to create organizations and communities in which people feel safe speaking their truth, we need leaders who are both skillful at process and who possess the capacity to remain self-aware, open, and fluid even as others struggle with dissent, confusion, and fear.

Fire tenders are drawn to the hot spots of social existence because they know that where there is heat, there is the possibility of transformation. Though they seek out and cultivate heat with great skill, they know their most important tool is their interior self—their mindset, emotional state, and the way they occupy their bodies. They understand that no matter what is producing heat “out there” in the group, they control their own thermostat.

Standing in Service to the Group

Standing is a word with many meanings. When we say, “My decision stands,” the decision remains valid or effective. When we say, “I can’t stand it,” we mean endure or tolerate. When we “stand up,” we are rising to our feet or picking ourselves up. When we communicate “our stand” on an issue, the word refers to an attitude or outlook. “Standing in the fire” encompasses all those meanings. As leaders, we must remain effective in our facilitative roles. Often we need to endure situations we experience as uncomfortable. Inevitably we are knocked off balance by the intense energy of others and must pick ourselves up quickly and regain our equilibrium. When we stand as fire tenders, we are choosing a particular set of attitudes—a way of seeing what is happening and who we are in the moment.

This book explores six interrelated ways of standing in the fire. You will learn what it is like to stand with self-awareness, presence, receptivity, intention, fluidity, and compassion. For each of these ways of standing in the fire, this book describes the capacities you need to succeed.

A Lifetime of Practice

Masterful fire tenders have a set of personal practices aimed at cultivating self-awareness and effective action. These practices help us choose our way of standing when we face the fire. Every moment, whether inside or outside a meeting, is an opportunity to practice. We can develop ongoing practices that aid us in developing everyday readiness. We can engage in special practices for our arrival at meetings, and we can use practices that help us recover during a meeting when a hot button gets pushed. We need practices that help us to reflect and to renew ourselves after we have come through a human firestorm. Contrary to the popular saying, practice does not “make perfect.” Instead, practice is where we can break through the illusions of perfectionism and control as we learn to become present to our own wisdom during moments in which others find it difficult to access theirs.

Inviting Fire

As we engage in practice and derive new insights from our experiences in groups, we come to realize that destructive fires like distraction, fear, and aggression are all self-inflicted. As we develop greater mastery, we learn to recognize dissent and confusion as old, familiar friends. We welcome inconvenient surprises as useful fuel, and we come to view group breakdowns as the natural precursor to breakthroughs.

The more we work with fire, the more we see it as a source of transformation not only for groups, but also for us as agents of change. Each time we invite dissent, possibility, suffering, passion, or confusion into the room, we must also invite that which is calm, clear, and courageous within us—our wisest, most centered self. Each time we accept this invitation, we honor a proposition as old as humankind’s relationship with fire—that conversation and human connection will change this world for the better.

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Endorsements

“Larry Dressler helps us to increase our capacities and practices to lead meetings that are often a test by fire, enabling us to feel the burn and not be burned out but rather be inspired to achieve more effective outcomes.”
—Susan A. Bouchard, Senior Business Development Manager, Cisco Systems Inc., and author of Enterprise Web 2.0 Fundamentals

“Clear and potent,
Standing in the Fire presents a transformed way of being for conveners and facilitators of conflictual meetings. Learning to appreciate and apply its principles and practices sets the stage for breakthrough possibilities for today's challenged leaders.”
--Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, coauthors of The World Café

“Dressler offers a new perspective and a new set of tools to help channel fire into transformative outcomes. This is a must-read for anyone who must navigate through a sea of emotionally charged issues.”
—Russell Coff, Associate Professor of Organization and Management, Emory University

“Today's business leaders have to practice the capacity to stand with conflict and confusion in the kinds of challenges they face. Larry Dressler's fine book gives everyone a framework to understand what's going on in these moments and the skills to stand in a powerful combination of strength and sensitivity.”
—Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, coauthors of The Circle Way

“Larry Dressler writes with clarity and deep understanding. He provides an accessible perspective and practical wisdom for moving past the urge to react when things go scarily out of control.”
—Saul Eisen, PhD, Program Coordinator, Organization Development Program, Sonoma State University

Standing in the Fire affirmed for me that learning to lead others through uncertainty and conflict is, at its heart, a spiritual journey. Larry Dressler has written another provocative and inspiring book that I'll use and share with colleagues for many years to come.”
—Steve Fox, Executive Vice President, Central Conference of American Rabbis

“We mediators and facilitators pride ourselves in having a sophisticated understanding of group processes, of complex issues, and of what makes groups tick. But self-awareness, which is crucial in this profession, is sometimes elusive. Larry Dressler challenges us to look deeply at who we are and how we can best use ourselves in our work.”
—Mary Margaret Golten, Partner, CDR Associates

“The more complex the challenges, the more likely the solutions involve passing through the flames of change. Offering compelling wisdom from the inside out,
Standing in the Fire equips you to support groups in making it through. Step in with both feet!”
—Peggy Holman, coauthor and coeditor, The Change Handbook

“Larry Dressler has done a remarkable job of unpacking what it takes to walk thoughtfully, deliberately, and effectively through even the most challenging leadership moments.”
—Terry Kellogg, Chief Executive Director, 1% for the Planet

“One's being has as much impact as one's doing and Larry shares stories and insights that deepen one's capacity to be and do with integrity and intention.”
—Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, President and founder, AmericaSpeaks

“No matter what our job titles are, Larry Dressler teaches us how the toughest work 'out there' is always an opportunity to do the work 'in here'.”
—Jennifer Orgolini, Sustainability Director, New Belgium Brewing

Standing in the Fire argues that change requires not only the right tools wielded by skilled hands but more importantly the knowing heart of a facilitator to foster true transformation in people and institutions.”
—Paul Michalec, Program Chair, Curriculum and Instruction, Morgridge College of Education, University of Denver

“Larry touches the heart of the matter for those of us who are called to do the work of opening and holding space for learning and transformation. To be ourselves in the fire takes an inner strength that does not come for free. Larry's invitation to practice this stance in our own way is most timely.”
—Toke Paludan Moeller, cofounder, The Art of Hosting

“Eloquent, clear, and wise. Key distinctions in the Being of facilitation are grounded in pragmatic practices that really work.”
—Doug Silsbee, author of Presence-Based Coaching

“Dressler speaks not with the voice of abstract authority but as one fire tender to another. He shows us how personal practice transforms facilitation into an ongoing journey of self-discovery and self-mastery, and he offers a wealth of tips for strengthening our presence, agility, and joy along the way.”
—Susan Szpakowski, Executive Director, ALIA Institute

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