As A Rule: Keep Your Cool

Oct 27, 2012 2 Comments by

Ugh.  It’s election season in the United States and the rhetoric is flying in every direction. Since I live in the “swing state” of Florida, it’s nearly impossible to watch television for five minutes without being told who’s going to raise my taxes or destroy my future.

Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t take sides in political discussions…

But if our ballot has an option for “none of the above” I fear it may start to look tempting to some voters by November 6th…

Like many Americans, I tuned in to the debates between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney to learn more about their plans and positions. I was struck by how quickly the dialogue became contentious and how their tone, body language and facial expressions impacted the opinions of voters who were interviewed afterwards.

The voter feedback also reminded me of how critical it is for Change Agents to “Keep Their Cool” when facilitating! (Imagine the hubbub that would have sprouted up if the moderators had joined in on the mud-slinging…)

Based on the candidates’ rancorous exchanges in the three debates, I wonder if I should have emailed my last few articles to Bob Scheiffer, Candy Crowley & Jim Lehrer a month ago?

So as a follow-up to my last post on how to deal with contentious exchanges that flare up when you are facilitating, today I’ll offer the first five of my eleven ways to keep your cool as you guide discussions that could become less than cordial…

 Ways to Keep Your Cool While Facilitating

Since the candidates seem to be fixated on Big Bird and the future of public television, this list will be brought to you by The Number 11 and the letters A through K

‘A’ is for “Allow”: Allow contentious people to vent – within reason. You can impose a “campaign limit” on their lobbying efforts by using a round-robin technique. You can also try asking folks to start by sharing the one thing that they find most important. It’s important to spread out the air time so quieter folks in the room also get a chance to vent because emotional contributions rarely occur in even, symmetrical ways. (I’ve often wondered if one possible motivation for loud people to behave as they do is because it tends to overpower the quieter folks.)

I’ve noticed how sometimes strong-willed actors try to use boisterous, intimidating displays of opinion to shut down their opposition. Facilitators should apply their neutral position and implied authority to step in and draw out the unspoken opinions of the team’s more subtle players.

‘B’ is for “Breathe”: When things get hot, try to relax and stay as loose as you can. This will send a signal to others in the room that they don’t necessarily need to overreact or join the tide of negativity.

Something else about breathing: Sighs, yawns and gasps are all unhelpful forms of non-verbal communication when you’re facilitating. They are also physical attempts to get a quick shot of oxygen into your body. Decrease the risk of such involuntary physical reactions by maintaining effective breathing techniques as you facilitate. Standing up and moving around can help. It may seem like a small thing, but being relaxed (and showing it) can make a big difference in how others perceive the mood of the room and it can be hard to mask your physical state when you’re standing in front of a group!

‘C’ is for “Capture”: Capture the information that lies beneath the emotional outbursts. Use flip charts, white boards or other “public” documentation methods to write out the text that’s embedded within the verbal display. By doing so, you remove the emotional component and leave the raw data on the wall for the entire group to evaluate based on its stand-alone merit.

Remember that your purpose for capturing this information isn’t just to have it for the record, but to demonstrate that the point has been noted… This can help alleviate the tendency for emotional discussions to circle back to the same topics over and over. (I often ask the team as I write: “Got it… Anything else?“). “Public display” methods are far more useful for capturing data than typing up notes on your laptop or scribbling on a notepad and reading it back to participants.

‘D’ is for “Don’t Take it Personally: I know this can be very, very hard to do. I myself have felt the sting of emotional outbursts directed at me – and it took everything I had not to respond in kind! I’ve facilitated meetings where participants have publicly denigrated me, ridiculed my skills or my facilitative role, used foul language for shock value, or openly challenged my authority to lead the discussion.

In each of these situations, my ability to shake it off came in handy. A few times, I’ve even repeated this silly mantra in my head as things unfolded: “I’m a duck, I’m a duck! This negative stuff is rolling off my back just like water off a duck.” It might sound silly, but it works for me… Try it sometime and let me know if it works for you or if it just makes you feel goofy.

‘E’ is for “Emotions = Energy”: Emotional outbursts and highly-charged exchanges are going to happen when highly-engaged people see things that bother them. Sure, the social/emotional part can cause some stress, but look at the flip side: at least they CARE!

It could be worse. They could be checked out! I often think of the occasional behavioral manifestation in this potentially positive way:

“It’s easier to channel existing energy – even the negative kind – than it is to light a fire under a group of unmotivated people. The challenge for you as a Facilitator is keeping that energy focused on the goal you entered the room to achieve.”

If you also watched the Presidential debates, you may have seen the moderators try to use at least a few of these techniques – with mixed results. So just as I mentioned last time… these are things to try. They might not always work, so be ready to adapt your approach based on what works best with your group.  In my next post, I’ll complete this list by adding six more things you can use as you seek to keep your cool while facilitating through challenging situations.

– Steve

Questions for Chatter:

  • Have you ever been openly challenged in a meeting that you were facilitating?
  • How did you react?

Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

2 Responses to “As A Rule: Keep Your Cool”

  1. Valerie K. Lazarus says:

    An American educator calls out Big Bird: “Can you say the Pledge of Allegiance?” This year’s election shows why learning about American history and politics is just as important as learning the alphabet http://wp.me/p2oYd3-hI

  2. Cool is Always In Fashion | theBigRocks of Change says:

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