The situation is familiar to most company secretaries. They hear a piece of bad news and decide that it must be communicated or see a situation that they get involved in to make things better. They then get caught in the crossfire of a predicament that they neither created nor have the power to resolve. Company secretaries may think that taking the occasional arrow goes with the territory, yet others may dread acting as the arbitrator and the neutral link between the various personalities both on the board and outside it.
Many of the things that land company secretaries in hot water can be avoided by simply not doing something. This does not mean avoid getting involved where they might be able to support a resolution, but that they need to be conscious about how they take part in a worsening situation. To live to help another day, company secretaries must be clear about the role they are about to take in the unfolding scenario.
Most of the time things move too fast to formulate a strategy before becoming involved in a dispute, which is likely to lead to unexpected reactions in the people they are setting out to help. It is critical however that our involvement in such situations is useful and that we make conscious choices about how we are behaving. Because situations and the feelings that they prompt in us are dynamic, it is easy to find ourselves taking on a role that we never intended to. We may have set out to simply pass on a message of bad news to our chairman and then find ourselves becoming the apologist for the absent object of frustration. We have now moved from messenger to advocate, in a matter of seconds.
Choosing what role to take in a dispute takes practice. Slowing down enough to be able to reflect can lead us to become a ‘facilitator’. This is rarely a position that people come to without conscious effort or substantial training. This role requires us to be close to the action but not involved in it, like a rugby referee overseeing the correct protocol of a scrum. The person who assumes this role has developed the ability to not be drawn in while being able to care. They will neither agree nor disagree with either party, nor will they offer advice, but will nevertheless grasp the opposing points of view.
There are three things that facilitators do that make them able to achieve results:
Firstly, facilitators work with what they find, not with what they wish was there. If the person in front of them becomes annoyed or worried then their first port of call is to understand what is behind it. They do this by listening empathically rather than by asking lots of probing questions. A less experienced helper might be tempted to soothe fraying nerves with kind words, or worse still, with the suggestion that the feelings are unwarranted.
The second habit that a facilitator will have developed concerns how they create room for people to think independently. Many of us might resort to proffering advice based upon what we have seen work elsewhere, however, people who need facilitating are rarely in the right frame of mind to accept even the best quality counsel. A good facilitator will withhold their own ideas to leave room for those of the person being helped. The skill is to help the person to sift through his or her own insights and hunches, presenting a critically important opportunity to reflect. More ideas at this stage can only get in the way. Here, the facilitator turns out to be a sort of empathic, efficient corporate paramedic for the intellectually and emotionally out of sorts.
The third defining characteristic that facilitators share is their tendency to stay out of the way. This requires the person to stay close to the action without getting in front of it. Being involved, but not directly, is both a component of empathy and a valuable way of helping people who are handling stressful situations. Almost immediately I find myself thinking of the boxing coach who is close enough to see and hear the blows landed but not so close that he incurs any personal injury. Where the analogy falls down is that the facilitator knows better than to climb into the ring, at any point, to give advice or to cheer on the person he or she is helping.
Dr Paul Furey is CEO of Paul Furey Limited