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Facilitating Change with Dennis Skinner

George Grombacher March 24, 2023

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Facilitating Change with Dennis Skinner

LifeBlood: We talked about facilitating change within organizations, taking the messiness of people head on, understanding why and how conflict happens between people and teams, finding solutions, and how to get started, with Dennis Skinner, Facilitator, Coach, Trainer and Speaker with Many to One.   

Listen to learn the role environment plays in an effective facilitation!

You can learn more about Dennis at and LinkedIn.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher

Dennis Skinner

Episode Transcript

george grombacher 0:02
white blood. This is George G. And the time is right. welcome today’s guest strong and powerful Dennis Skinner. Dennis, are you ready to do this? George, I am ready to do this. I’m so impressed with what you have created with this podcast. I’m just thrilled to be a part of it. Well, thank you, sir. Let’s go. Dennis is a facilitator, a coach and a trainer. With many to one. He is a speaker. He’s helping organizations solve problems, experienced engineer better processes, map out strategies, and design effective organizations. Dennis excited to have you on tussled about your personal lives more about your work, why you do what you do. Thanks, George. Yeah, you said it. I am a professional group facilitator. That’s how I identify.

Dennis Skinner 0:44
My mom always complains that it’s difficult to explain to her friends what I do, because I’ve tried, and it’s a little complicated, but let me let me start with the problems that I help organizations solve. You know, teams, organizations, companies every now and then encountered challenges. It’s just gnarly. It’s just multilayered transcends the normal day to day, the answer isn’t obvious. The stakes are high, people don’t always agree on how to solve the problem. There’s a chance that emotions will run high. And these are things like, you know, our competitions nipping at our heels, we need to figure out a strategy to when our employees are complaining about their experience at our company, maybe our customers are complaining about their experience about products and services. Maybe we need to reorganize, maybe we are merging with another company, maybe our leadership team isn’t getting along, you know, the list goes on and on. But again, common elements are, there is not an obvious answer. And people may not play well together in trying to come up with with a response to the challenge. And usually these things don’t end well if people try to solve them on their own. And so that’s where a professional facilitator comes in. That’s where the work I do comes in somebody who can bring structure to the process of answering these kinds of difficult questions, somebody who can pick a process, somebody who can draw the best thinking out of a group help groups kind of avoid the hardwired biases that we tend to bring to these kinds of discussions, especially somebody who can help people navigate disagreement, so they can get to the other side of it with an agreement everybody feels good about and can be committed to. And then really Finally, somebody who is deft at the art of group dynamics, and just helping people talk to each other in a way that’s constructive, where everyone’s voice gets heard. Whereas dysfunctions arise, they can be navigated and sort of calmed down so that people get to a decision that they’ll feel good about. And that’s what I’ve been doing for 23 years. I did that for six years at Intel at the end of a 23 year career there before decided to launch my own practice about 17 years ago. And I’ve been doing that for companies of all sizes, Fortune one, hundreds, Intel, Comcast, Nike, HP, Capital One, all the way down to mom and pops and a dozen or so nonprofits. I work with, I’ve worked with dairy farms and lumber mills and an International Society of neurosurgeons. So the list is the list is broad. But the commonality is there’s a really challenging problem to solve that they can’t do on their own. So that’s what I do.

george grombacher 3:46
I love it. Wherever there’s people.

Dennis Skinner 3:49
Pretty much back people have asked me like, what’s what, how are the other groups you work with? like or not like? Ours? People are always like, wanting to know how they stack up. And I’m like, they’re all the same? Because they’re all people, people are people. And it’s our wiring that leads us to need to have somebody to kind of help us get through these things.

george grombacher 4:12
It’s messy.

Absolutely, absolutely. And these, these kinds of problems are messier than most right.

When you say wiring, what does that mean? What do you mean?

Dennis Skinner 4:23
Yeah, well, you know, there are these circuits in our brain that were laid down in us as a species in the savanna where we needed to like protect ourselves from tigers, hiding behind a bush, and leaves wood rattling we would immediately be like, my life is in danger I need to run or I need to fight. And those wires no longer serve us because we’re not often faced with tigers behind bushes, but we are faced with other things that show up as a threat. Like somebody just said something about my performance but Somebody just questioned my organism, my team’s ability to do what they said they’re going to do. And so that feels like a threat. And we go into fight or flight mode, and we don’t show up in ways that are constructive, we get defensive. And, you know, we literally go into into attack mode, rather than realizing that it’s not really a threat. Actually, this is a problem that we need to solve together. And there’s other wiring, you know, if you, if you Google cognitive biases, you’ll find a Wikipedia page that lists them. And there’s like 150 to 200 of these things that are literally brain wires that get in the way of our ability to show up in ways that are productive. But one example of which is optimism bias. And people always think things are going to go better than they really are going to go, which is why every project probably in the history of mankind has been over budget, and you know, and late. And so that’s an example where a group facilitator can hold up a mirror and say, well, maybe we should be thinking not only about the best case scenario, but let’s paint a picture of the worst case, and maybe something in between and see, we can generate a plan that will mitigate the risks that are going to get in the way of that worst case plan, even though I get it well, we think it’s gonna go well, but maybe it might not. So let’s talk about that. Right.

george grombacher 6:22
Yeah, I think that that makes a lot of sense. And I still do, I still feel like it’s a personal affront. When somebody’s tailgating me, or traffic or professionally, it was really bad when I was in my 20s, you know. And so I totally identify with everything you just said. And I can see that part of organizations where the battle lines get drawn, and that guy is a jerk, and that gals are another jerk and everything else. And it gets really messy. And I still have a pretty good chip on my shoulder, which I’m working to, I guess make smaller. You seem Dennis, in just the couple of interactions that I had with you to be this amazingly positive, easy to talk to person who is extremely well designed for this kind of work that you’re doing. Do you want to pull your hair out and smack people around? Or is this so so are? Are you fighting those impulses that we other humans have? Or have? Are you floating above them?

Dennis Skinner 7:28
I would love to say I’m floating above? I would love to say I’m 100% evolved as a human being. But of course not. Of course not because I am still a human being and will be until I dropped my last breath. But But I have, you know, I have found ways to be in tune with and in, in if not control of at least managing my emotions, when my job is to help other people do that for themselves and with each other. But on some days, it’s easier than others. And with some groups, it’s easier than others. But it’s definitely something I’ve had to learn how to pay attention to especially in the heat of the moment. The big one for me is defensiveness. Like I’ll be in front of a room and someone will ask a question like, Well, why are we doing that? I’ll be like a launch an activity will be Oh, why are we doing this? And my, you know, my inner my inner response is? Well, because I said so and because you hired me because I’m the expert. And because I’ve been doing this 20 years longer than you have. And maybe if you knew you wouldn’t have had to have me in the room. And you know, but but that when I can manage that I can ask myself, well, what might be the reason they asked that question? You may be my instructions weren’t clear. Maybe, maybe actually, there is a different way to do this. And if I asked the question, they could help me see a different path that’s maybe even better than mine. Right? So I don’t know, for me, the the secret tool for those moments has been curiosity. If I can ask a question, I can stop those voices in my head that say I’m right, and they’re wrong. Why did that person cut me off in the grocery store parking lot and take that space that I was going to take with my turn signal on? Is it because they’re a jerk? Or is it because maybe they just found out that their mother has cancer and they’re a little distracted? Or maybe they’re in a hurry? Because they got to pick up their kid at school when the kid is going to be by themselves if they don’t get there in five minutes. So maybe they actually deserve the parking spot more than I do. You know, the curiosity helps to sort of paint a different picture.

george grombacher 9:36
Yeah, yeah, I think that that makes a lot of sense. Recognizing that just because I’m experiencing this initial emotion of fight or flight doesn’t mean that I need to honor that and act upon it. I can go ahead and let it wash over me and then make a more reasoned, levelheaded decision about

Dennis Skinner 9:54
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. There’s a there’s a leadership guru named Jennifer Garvey. Berker, B, E R G are you I had the privilege of working with on a, together with a client on an engagement. And one of the things she says is, you should always and I’ve really cleaved to this, you should always carry three stories. There’s the one that popped into your mind. And then there’s probably two others. And if you just forced yourself to stop and say, Well, what might be two other stories for what’s going on here, you might find it your way to something that’s closer to reality. I just love that.

george grombacher 10:33
You I think that that’s super powerful. So it’s not your job. Maybe it is, I assume that it’s not your job to go in and fix everybody’s wiring during your engagement, you’re you don’t have the tools nor that you probably do have the tools, you don’t have the time to be able to do that. And you’re going to be encountering wounds that have been festering and and, and egos and problems that have been there for some time. And what what is what is the goal? Oftentimes?

Yeah, I mean, really, the goal is whatever the the gnarly problem is that led people to say, and this is one of the My Favorite Things to hear, we just need to get Dennis, let’s get Dennis because we just don’t know how to approach. So the problem, the goal of the of the group is the thing that I keep bringing people back to. And it’s almost like, you know, if you’re a meditator, which, by the way is another great way to learn how to take command of our emotions, but the meditators tool is to just keep returning to the breath. My thoughts were wandering, alright, that’s okay. Don’t judge yourself, just come back to your breath. And I find that coming back to the goal of the group is the thing that is most helpful. Like, we’re here, because the employees are saying they don’t like working for our company. Let’s just keep coming back to the well, what would the employees say? What’s What’s the employees experience? Right? Now? Let’s bring it back to that, because that’s the thing that we all we know, we all agree on. It’s what brought us all into the room. So we could disagree about how we can disagree about why they’re not having a great experience. But we know we agree that they’re not having a good experience. And we need to solve that together. That’s the breadth we keep returning to. If that makes sense.

It does. It does. Do you try and host people in a neutral sites? Or do you go to their office, their locations? What’s what’s what’s optimal?

I love this question. Because the question behind the question, I think is how important is the environment, to group collaboration with a facilitator, and I think it’s absolutely critical. So yeah, if I can get people into a neutral area, especially like, you know, we call these things corporate off sites for a reason, because typically, they’re they’re done off site. And if we could do it off site, that’s great, we’re in a different building, if we can’t go outside a different building than the one people work in, just because we get anchored to visual cues. Right. And, and also, once we’re in the room, let’s make sure we have a room that’s big enough that we can move around and have activities were on our feet and maybe break into small groups that are in different corners of the room, working on something that we’ll bring back to the middle of the room, you know, and have the right sort of even something as simple as how are the chairs and tables arranged. You know, if it’s in a big U shaped like a lot of conference rooms, our it just already has people in it sort of protected us versus them, like you’re on your side of that table on that side of the room, and I’m on my side of this table, you only see me from the from the you know, shoulders up, and there’s this big chasm of space between me and you. And we’re really not a group, right? So I’d much rather like fill that in and have a square or around or even have people at round tables where we can have activities going on. But you know where we are and how the room is set up? Absolutely critical. Of course, this is the challenge we’ve dealt with, during the pandemic, and we’re still dealing with with virtual workshops, like how do we create an environment where we’re all on Zoom or teams that is as conducive as possible to good group collaboration? That’s been a challenge also.

Yeah. Or just get rid of all the tables and chairs and throw a bunch of fun noodles in there and just kind of let it go or pillows or something.

Yeah, you’re joking. But honestly, that’s that’s a great modality. Like I’ve had a group once where the challenge was our team isn’t getting along. And there was there were trust issues, and we needed to work through those. Before we could get to a place where we talked about things as mechanical as like, How often should we meet and What kinds of you know, things like that. And I ended up having it was off site, luckily, at a hotel, and I ended up having a hotel bring in just a bunch of comfy furniture. And that was set up in sort of a modicum of a U shape. But there were, you know, love seats and bit over overstuffed chairs. And it helps a lot for people to sort of just feel like we’re just in the living room together. Not at some boardroom. So, yeah, yeah.

Is there such a thing as a stupid question? No,

my joke is always there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Only stupid people who ask them, but of course, just being playful, because no, there is no such thing as a stupid question. And there’s no such thing as a stupid person. Like, always, always, always. There’s a kernel. There’s a kernel in even the thing that may seem like the most, you know, mundane, or, you know, or stupid question. No, no such thing. All right.

I don’t know. That is

the only stupid question, George is, is there such a thing as a stupid question? Just kidding. Just kidding. There isn’t.

I like it. So in terms of, of the wireframe, and in terms of, I guess, if you were to empower an organization to, before they bring you in. Have you tried this before? Before you bring me in before we do an off site? Have you tried this is? Is there something that that you would recommend?

Honestly, by the time people asked me, usually they’ve tried everything. So so I feel like there are very few complicated problems that wouldn’t benefit from having an of course, I’m biased, this is what I do for a living. And it’s also if they didn’t pay me, I would still do it, which is my dirty secret, I would only tell you, and however many 100 people are listening to this, right. But I really feel like everyone can benefit from a facilitator. If for no other reason than the fact that it allows the person that would have led the meeting to be relieved of those pretty weighty responsibilities to take a lot of cognitive load, that they can then instead train on participating. And being a part, you know, having their ideas being inserted into the mix. And just being able to not have to be that objective third party. So I think there are things people can think about doing before they come to a session like this. And I do teach classes on emotional intelligence and the ability to monitor and take command of your emotions and, and also, I give classes on crucial conversations and how to have a, have a conversation with somebody where your opinions differ, and your emotions are high in a way that it can actually be pleasant. And you can get to the other side, feeling more connected with that person versus less and having come to a mutually agreeable solution, even though you came into it gone, there’s no way we’re ever going to figure this out. So having those kinds of skills and muscle building before you come into a conversation where everyone’s in a room with the with the hotly contested issue in front of them. Those can be really helpful, I think, a lot. And there’s great work by Daniel Goleman wrote the book on emotional intelligence, if people are interested in that. That’s a great read. And then Kerry Patterson wrote the book, Crucial Conversations Kerry Patterson at all. But he’s the first name and just some really great, great reading that you can do to to, to build some of that muscle.

Beautiful. Well, Dennis, thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you? How can you engage?

Yeah, I mean, my website is M T. O And as in Mary Thomas, Omega Mt. Oh, they can email me at Dennis at MTO I’m on LinkedIn, reach out to me there. We’d love to chat with people whether they need a facilitator or whether they are facilitators just want to talk shop with with a peer. I love that.

Excellent. Well, if you enjoyed this as much as I did, so Dennis, your appreciation and share today share with a friend who also appreciates good ideas, go to M T. O as in many to one Check out the great resources, get in touch with Dennis. And finally move on from those problems that have been weighing you and your organization down. Thanks. Good, Dennis. Thank you, George. It was fun. And until next time remember do your part by doing your best

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