Intervening as a Holacracy Coach

The 3 Ps: Provoke, Pose Question, and Pace

Note: This is one of the longest posts I’ve written, but each piece is necessary to understand the whole. For readers looking for a tactical meeting equivalent to “A Better Way to Facilitate Governance Meetings,” this content will be of particular interest.

A good Holacracy coach needs patience and timing as much as Holacracy-specific knowledge, because some of the most powerful coaching opportunities come when you have to intervene into a conversation uninvited.

And by “intervening” I mean — imagine you’re facilitating a tactical meeting and Amy (Lead Link) says, “Ted, as Secretary, can you cancel next week’s meeting? I’ll be out that day.” To which Ted responds, “Sure thing.”

Now, as a coach you probably want to investigate what just happened because chances are good that Ted isn’t making a conscious choice about the meeting. He is just doing what Amy says. Somehow you have to “intervene.”

But the problem is, at this point neither Amy nor Ted feel any tension about this issue. Their issue is resolved. So, what do you do? Just start talking at them? Bring your own agenda item? Ask them an awkward question which makes it clear you disapprove?

None of these work well and while most coaches can sense something is off, they are unaware of why they don’t work well, and more importantly, what to do instead. So, let’s clear this up.

Now, before I tell you my approach (described later as the “3 Ps”), let’s look at the strategies most coaches use and why they don’t work. They are:

  • Stopping
  • Scolding
  • Prattling

Note: Everything in this article applies to coaching inside and outside of meetings, but I use a lot of tactical meeting examples because they require less description.

1. Stopping

Stopping means the coach tells the participant what they can’t do, but fails to clarify what they can do. This is usually followed by awkward silence as everyone justs stare at each other. It paints the participant into a corner and then just leaves them there.

I commonly see timeouts used for this in meetings. As in, “Timeout…actuallydomains don’t prevent others from impacting it, they just require that they must ask the domain owner first…OK, time back in.” Not only is that an unfair use of timeouts, but it also creates awkwardness because the coach apparently wants them to do something, but they aren’t saying what that is. It’s an incredibly unhelpful message because the message is incomplete. As such, the silence that follows suggests the participant should know what to do, which is just added insult to injury.

Later, you’ll see 3 completely different ways of doing this, but that doesn’t mean “stopping” is necessarily a bad way to start. If you notice something is off and the best you can do is blurting out why it’s wrong, fine. Just remember before you finish speaking, to at the very least highlight what they can do instead. Figuring out how to get your work via the rules shouldn’t be a guessing game or a process of elimination.

2. Scolding

Scolding is when the coach explains why the participant shouldn’t have done something they’ve already done. If that seems silly, it is. But it’s one of the most common things I see.

Example: handling reactions during clarifying questions like this; “OK guys, now come on…remember this is just clarifying questions only…so let’s stop it with the reactions. Questions only.” The problem here is making the participants responsible for the facilitator’s job. It’s the facilitator’s job to keep things on track. Not the participants.

Just like in sports. A player who steps out-of-bounds isn’t misbehaving. Often those individuals who are playing the hardest that step out-of-bounds. Interpreting process-violations this way makes it’s easier to stay focused on facilitating the process (rather than the people) while redirecting participants to the proper pathway.

And you’d be surprised how scolding can leak out. For example, even an innocent explanation like, “Objection. NVGO. As I said in my reaction…” suggests the proposer did something wrong, as they would likely infer you’re telling them you’d prefer not to repeat yourself. But rather than worry about specifics, just ground yourself in the principle: it’s impossible for the participants to be bad and your coaching will likely improve intuitively.

3. Prattling

Prattling means trivial or inconsequential talk. In this context it means throwing out coaching advice even though no one’s willing to receive it. I’ve found prattling usually follows phrases like, “I like to offer some coaching here…” at which point participants eyes glaze over.

Prattling is inconsequential because the coach’s intended audience isn’t feeling any tension about the issue. Remember when Amy asked Ted to cancel the meeting and Ted easily agreed? At the very moment Ted agreed, neither Amy nor Ted felt any more tension about the issue. And even though the agenda-item owner now has their tension resolved, that wouldn’t stop many coaches from awkwardly intervening with something like, “Well, um…you know Amy, Ted as Secretary gets to make that decision…[awkward silence]…”At which point Ted would probably speak-up with something like, “Yeah it’s fine. That makes sense to me.” And then the coach has nowhere to go and looks completely out of touch.

And this is why I call it prattling. Because essentially the facilitator is trying to address a tension no one feels but themselves. And even if the facilitator brings their own agenda item (which is at least following the rules) there is very little he or she can do with it other than just talk at people and hope something magically sticks.

Ultimately, this approach isn’t only ineffective, it can actually push against the paradigm shift you’re trying to make. It’s like trying to teach a kid the importance of taking turns, by interrupting his turn to tell him why it’s important to take turns. The method communicates more than the message. To that end, if you find yourself prattling on about something, at least finish by making a concrete request; e.g. “Blah, blah, blah…so as Facilitator, I’d like to request a project from All Circle Members to review their checklist items and remove any that are no longer relevant.” Or at the very least, make it clear you’re owning your tension by asking, “Does that make sense?”

Mid-Point Summary:

The reason stopping, scolding, and prattling don’t work well because the coach is essentially prioritizing their own tension over the person’s they should be helping. Meaning, the coach feels tension about how someone else is processing their tension. But instead of managing that boundary appropriately, the coach inserts and prioritizes getting their own needs met.

Before we go over the right ways to channel a coach’s tension (i.e. the 3 Ps), I want to highlight the three rules-of-thumb we just covered. If you remember nothing else, at least remember this:

1) Don’t tell someone what they can’t do without also telling them what they can do.

2) Participants can never be “bad.”

3) Never mic-drop a coaching point. If possible also make a concrete request or ask them a question.

The 3 Ps: Provoke, Pose Question, and Pace

Stopping, scolding, and prattling don’t work very well, but with a few adjustments they are salvageable. Their inherent disadvantage is that they are solving the wrong problem. They are solving the coach’s tension, not the participant’s. So, for facilitators and coaches who really want to serve, there are better options.

Note: The following aren’t mutually exclusive techniques. At any given point, you might weave several together.

1. Provoke

The primary reason coaching interventions feel awkward is because the coach is awkwardly pushing their agenda on someone who doesn’t feel any tension. But before we assume the best solution is to refrain from pushing, often the better solution is actually to create some tension for them. I call this strategy “provoking.”

For example, say you’re in a tactical meeting and Karen is clearly disappointed because Tim didn’t do something, but when you look at the accountabilities of Tim’s role, he actually isn’t accountable for that. So, how do you make the point clear to Karen? What’s the best way to reinforce governance?

A “provoking” response would be this: “Well Karen, since Tim’s Production Guru role isn’t accountable for that, you have no right to expect he’ll do it…[dramatic pause]…would you like the right to expect it? [Karen: “Yes”] Ok, great. Then let’s capture a tension for you to take to governance.”

Now, let’s break that down because there are a few things going on. First, is the actual “provoke” part: “Well, since Tim’s Production Guru role isn’t accountable for that, you have no right to expect he’ll do it…” As you can imagine telling someone they have no right to expect something is pretty dramatic. Which is a good thing. It creates tension for them. But that’s not all.

The dramatic pause that follows is equally important. It’s provocative. It almost seems like the coach is challenging or confronting her. But the pause is short. Just long enough to generate some tension-energy, which the coach then redirects to the correct pathway (e.g. capture a tension for governance). And that’s the whole point of the provoke intervention. The coaching is more effective because it’s helping them solve their problem (not the coach’s).

Note: All together this strategy would more accurately be called “Provoke, Pause, Pathway.” I shortened it to “Provoke” for convenience, but it should be understood to represent all three steps.

I should add that this is an advanced move. It’s not easy to invent the right phrasing in the moment, so I’ve found the best approach is to actually choreograph some common use-cases in advance. Here’s a head-start:

  • Amy: “Ted, as Secretary, can you cancel next week’s meeting? I’ll be out that day.” To which Ted responds, “Sure thing.”Coach: “OK, hold on Amy, you don’t have the authority to make that decision…[pause]…Ted, in his Secretary role has the authority to decide whether or not a meeting will take place…would you like to make sure he considers your opinion? [Amy: “Yes”] Great, you clarify that by using the word, ‘pitch,’ as in, ‘Ted, I’d like to pitch you cancel next week’s meeting.’”
  • John: “Tammy, can you get the sales report to me by the end of the week?” Tammy: “Yep, no problem.” Coach: “Actually Tammy you don’t have the authority to make that commitment…[pause]…instead, you can provide a projection of when they think something might be completed.”
  • George [as newly elected Facilitator]: “First, check-in round and it’s OK to have some crosstalk…” Coach: Actually George, you don’t have the authority to make that decision…[pause]…because as Facilitator, you’re bound to the rules, which means responses aren’t allowed.”

You’ll notice the provoke language is clearly framed around what someone can or can’t do, not what they should or shouldn’t do. And this is why it works. You’re not giving off an air patronizing superiority — you’re just pointing to the rules. Which gives everyone the felt sense (rather than just the philosophical argument) that the true source of your authority is the same for everyone.

2. Pose Question

Clarifying questions are one of the most elegant and powerful ways to direct someone’s attention to where you want it to go. Imagine, Claude brings an agenda item and just starts talking and talking. He hasn’t clarified why he brought the item, or what he needs from the group. Instead of trying to interpret or translate it for him, the coach simply intervenes into Claude’s dissertation by asking, “Interesting…so, Claude…what do you need?”

Rather than prattling about how each agenda item is a tension to process rather than a topic to discuss, the question itself, “What do you need?” immediately directs Claude’s attention where the coach wants it to go. The mind can’t help but try to answer a question it’s asked, so the question gives Claude a felt sense of the abstract principle. In other words, posing a question is another way to create tension.

Of course, in our day-to-day social interactions questions are often used to express judgments (e.g. “Why did you do that!?” or “Do you have any idea what time it is!?”), so sometimes you’ll have to work a little harder to clarify your intent. For example, a good coach would pay careful attention to how Claude responds when asked, “What do you need?” to make sure it doesn’t seem confrontational. For example by adding something like, “…and if you don’t know, just say you need help getting clarity.”

Examples:

  • Participant: “I think we need a new training offering…” Coach: “As Training Design, are you looking for data to help you make your decision?”
  • Participant: “We need to do something about the late shipments.” Coach:“Who has the authority to make a decision about this?”
  • Participant: “Can I update our customer tracking form? I think it’s missing some information.” Coach: “Is there a domain or policy that prevents you from doing that?”
  • Participant: “Can you send me the participant feedback after each training?” Coach: “Is that something you’d like to expect on an ongoing basis?”

Again, in each case a coach could try to explain things conceptually. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing that. After all, if you wanted to verbally describe an apple to someone who’s never seen one, it would be perfectly appropriate to talk about its color or shape. But it’s nothing like physically handing them one. That’s the power of good questions.

3. Pace

Finally, we have “pacing.” As a technique it’s different than provoking or posing a question, because it’s not about the words — it’s about the energy. For example, imagine Andrew brings an agenda item and starts describing an issue with a dissatisfied client. It seems like a recurring issue and you’d love if Andrew would just explicitly refer to the governance to figure out who does what, but he doesn’t. He just keeps talking. Others jump into the discussion and you just feel like an observer.

You could try abruptly interrupting with a question like, “Which role is accountable for this?” but if mistimed, it’ll feel like a record-scratching interruption. The energy (i.e. tension) of the conversation could be lost. Even though well-intentioned, that interruption could easily feel like the coach is selfishly prioritizing Holacracy-practice over getting the work done.

So, instead of abruptly obstructing the discussion the coach “paces,” which could look like a few quick and subte head nods (conveying appreciation and comprehension), a few confirmatory noises like, “Uh hmm…” or “Yeah…,” all while someone else is talking. Then, once the coach has aligned with the energy, the coach simply jumps in over-top of anyone else who is talking with something like, “…Ok, this is great…Secretary, let’s pull up the roles in Glassfrog and see who has the authority to make a decision here.”

Pacing, in my definition, requires the one-two punch: 1) elegantly get control of the group’s attention and energy by aligning with it, then 2) confidently and unambiguously direct their attention to where you want it to go. When done well, it happens so quickly and fluidly it barely seems like a thing. It’s like Aikido. Rather than fight against the energy — align with and redirect it.

And while I call it “pacing” because of how the coach align’s with the group’s energy, in actual fact, the most important part is giving clear and direct instructions. Your directness allows you to stay focused on processing the original agenda item without spending any more time than absolutely necessary metabolizing your tension. It reinforces that you’re staying true to the original tension, while also using your own authority and knowledge to redirect the conversation. As facilitator, you’re driving the car on behalf of the group, so you can’t selfishly take everyone to a new destination just because it meets your needs. But at the same time, if you see a pothole, don’t ask for permission — just swerve around it.

Examples:

  • Scenario: While going over metrics, Frank starts to make a request. Coach: “…Yeah…OK…now, for anything you’d like to request Frank, let’s add an agenda item for you. Secretary, please capture something like, ‘George metric request…’
  • Scenario: During her agenda item, Gloria says, “Thanks, that’s all I needed on that item…unless others have related topics…” Coach: “…Ah-ha…great idea, Gloria. If your tension is resolved, then Secretary check on that item — now, yes, does anyone else feel tension about this issue? Let’s add your items…”
  • Scenario: Kelsie has stated a clear outcome she would like to request, but the group keeps talking. Coach: “…Um hmm…yep…so, let’s do this…[pause to ensure you have group’s attention]…Kelsie, you’d had a request, Secretary let’s write that down as a draft output then we can review it…”

Unlike provoking and posing questions, pacing isn’t about creating tension. It’s about not distracting from an existing tension. It’s about managing a perception, because it often seems like a facilitator is violating an agenda item owner’s space by shifting everyone’s attention to the facilitator’s own tension (i.e. a new destination), rather than decisively metabolizing their own tension into a safer alternative route.

Conclusion

Intervening into a conversations isn’t comfortable. It’s easy to mess it up because a coach walks a fine line between supporting Holacracy practice and violating it. Interventions work better when they direct existing tension, or first stimulate some before resolving it. Too often coaches blur the boundaries between their own felt Holacracy-practice-related tensions and the tensions of those they are coaching. In the end, the way we intervene probably teaches more than the content ever could.