I’m up in the mountains today and even though the calendar and the weatherman predicted it, one of this year’s first blasts of wintery weather caught me off guard. It also looks to have altered the clothing choices of most folks – including me. A nice, warm coat is definitely this week’s hot fashion accessory. The chill also served to remind me that for effective Facilitators, keeping one’s cool is always in fashion.
In my last article, I noted how contentious the 2012 US Presidential election debates had become and what a challenge it must have been to facilitate those dialogues. I gave you the first five items on a list of eleven ways Facilitators can “keep their cool” when group gatherings threaten to get out of hand. Some of these ideas were focused on the Facilitator’s actions and some were focused on the things we can ask participants to do.
A. – Allow people to vent – especially those who are not being heard.
B. – Breathe and pay attention to your own emotions so you don’t inadvertently influence the group by sighing, yawning or gasping!
C. – Capture the information which lies within the emotional conversation, with an emphasis on the material more than the emotional way it’s presented.
D. – Don’t take it personally. (Easier said than done, but critical...)
E. – Emotions = Energy. It’s easier to channel emotional energy – even if it’s rough around the edges – than it is to create interest and engagement out of thin air when people don’t care about the topic at hand.
Today I’ll finish the list with 6 more ideas that have worked for me over the years to diffuse the negative energy that sometimes spins off of an emotional outburst. In homage once more to the politically endangered Big Bird, today’s list of six more things to try is brought to you by the letters ‘F’ through ‘K’:
‘F’ is for “Facts”:Underlying most emotional conversations will be a set of facts. The Facilitator’s job is to dig these facts out and build awareness of them within the group so they can be used to solve whatever problem the team is facing. Use the whiteboard/flip chart process I described in my last article to capture what is said – minus the emotional component. In addition to capturing this information – be sure to guide a discussion that verifies which information is factual, and which is based on inferences and opinions. Opinions and inferences are not necessarily without value – they just tend to be less germane to solving problems because sometimes they don’t hold up as well over time, or under close scrutiny by folks outside the room.
‘G’ is for “Get Up & Move Around”: I usually advise group Facilitators to do their job standing up when possible. Standing up gives you a more effective vantage point from which to monitor the room. It also helps you keep your cool by enhancing your ability to breathe deeply and physically express yourself with your hands and your full body.
It’s also less distracting to the group if you remain standing for most of the meeting rather than bouncing up and down to write on whiteboards. (Try getting up and down 30 times in your next 60 minute session and you’ll know what I mean.)
As for participants, I rarely advise facilitators to call a full room-clearing “time out”, but when the conversation turns so emotional that you sense the physical tension in the room rising as well, you may deem it necessary to have everyone just stand up and stretch a bit. Maybe take a bathroom break or allow people to step outside and get some fresh air. (… along with a fresh perspective.)
Asking probing questions to fill in the gaps in a discussion can help a group account for more of the considerations involved in addressing a problem. End-to-end process walk-throughs can help people recognize critical, hidden details within steps of a process they are working to improve – including the downstream steps that individual members don’t necessarily own.
Another technique that I have used here is to play the “devil’s advocate” and hold people accountable for answering questions that group members may not feel comfortable asking. All of these techniques help to keep the holistic picture of the discussion in focus.
‘I’ is for “Intervene”: Facilitators must be ready to intervene when the situation calls for it. They should not be shy about playing their role in a purposeful way. Keeping your cool is easier if the group is used to having you jump in from time to time to maintain order. If you wait too long to do so, or fail to take your role seriously, it will become progressively harder to feel comfortable standing up when the moment calls for it!
In the case of an emotional outburst, actively intervene to peel away the layers of rhetoric and expression that cover the underlying data that drove the emotion. You’ll need that detail to solve the problems that caused the outburst. If the group doesn’t go into the weeds on their own, you may need to take them there with open-ended questions, proposed interpretations and rephrasing of statements they’ve expressed. You’re looking for clear agreement as well as clear disagreement here, so don’t be shy about sounding like a novice. I sometimes use my “newbie” status as a license to verify things that others may find obvious, only to discover that the point wasn’t so obvious to everyone!
‘J’ is for Joking Around: It can be a tricky thing to do well, but I often use a bit of humor to diffuse group tension. A carefully-worded, non-offensive wise crack can often generate a range of positive emotions that creates a small opening in a negative situation. A belly-laugh is great, but not required. Sometimes even a smile or a groan can help cut the level of stress.
As always, you’ll need to be very careful with the types of humor you apply in difficult situations. Be sure not to offend anyone or belittle anyone’s contribution. If you must make fun of someone – make it yourself! A simple rule of thumb that has worked for me is to first try a self-deprecating joke and see if anyone else follows suit. Whether they pile on me or voluntarily submit themselves as the butt of a light joke – the positive effect is usually about the same.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you… …Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”
That’s some of the best advice I have ever read regarding facilitation. And while I cannot promise you the untold riches mentioned in his poem, I will assure you that the ability to “Keep Calm and Carry On” is a fundamental trait of great Facilitators the world over.
Questions for Chatter:
- If you’ve ever struggled to facilitate a group through a challenging situation, what would you do differently if you could have a do-over?
- What other techniques have you employed to let the air out of a tense situation?