No Heroes, No Villains

Oct 23, 2012 8 Comments by

One of my all-time favorite movies was released 25 years ago this month. People who love The Princess Bride would tell you there are few movies more packed with heroes, villains, action, romance, intrigue and humor.

For those who don’t get what all the fuss is about…  I encourage you to grab a bowl of popcorn and try watching this gem again with a good friend and an open mind.  It might just grow on you…

A Burning Question: In one scene, the hero Westley guides the Princess through a dangerous Fire Swamp to avoid being captured. Huge flames appear to shoot from the ground randomly. How would the young heroes make it out alive?

A Clever Answer: Through careful observation, Westley deduces that each flare-up is preceded by a subtle clicking noise. They avoided being burned alive by adding this information to their path-finding process and the pair quickly navigates their way safely through their ordeal.

…And My Point? Watching their peril reminded me of how important it is for Change Agents to recognize the subtle hints that may indicate when a group they’re facilitating has wandered into the swampy, potentially explosive morass of overly emotional behaviors.

“What? Me freak out in the Big Meeting? That’s INCONCEIVABLE!”

OBTW: I’m not saying Facilitators shouldn’t allow participants to be passionate – just recognize when it’s damaging the team’s chances of progress.

To illustrate my point… Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I was facilitating a client meeting that devolved into a disruptive finger-pointing blame game. When the situation erupted into an emotional exchange between several participants, it became clear that the original goals for the workshop would fly out the window unless we first found a way to interact civilly.

I quickly stopped the proceedings and asked all the combatants to consider this question:

“What if there were no villains and no heroes in this story?”

(Yes, I actually said that at work…)

Everyone stopped and looked at me with puzzled expressions. I explained that once upon another time, I had pulled a truly villainous move in a big meeting. I blurted out a judgmental statement only to discover that my opinion had been based on incomplete data.  I felt sheepish, and tried to apologize, but the damage had been done. While my intentions were noble, I looked like a villain to some of my peers.

I continued: “So… What if the person you disagree with isn’t really a villain?”

“How could we better understand their intentions?”

In other situations, I had played the role of “hero” by rushing in to smooth over a conflict, promising to do other people’s work or stepping in between warring political factions to force progress. In each case, my playing the hero had actually thwarted the group’s process toward solving a problem for themselves. Again, I had noble intentions, but the results could have been much better had I not intervened to take over.

I asked: “So… Do we have the right people doing their part to solve the problems we are trying to solve in this meeting?”

Sounds like dark magic Kid – but Hey, if it works…

Tip #52: Assume There are No Heroes & No Villains

My interruption allowed us to hit “reset” on our meeting. We got back on track when I:

  • … let them briefly vent – in a very purposeful way.
  • … asked each side to summarize the other side’s rationale.
  • … pointed out several areas where the two opposing sides actually agreed.
  • … and reviewed a couple of team ground rules that addressed ways to show mutual respect.

It didn’t necessarily result in a perfect fairy tale ending to our workshop, but we did manage to get our work done.

Now You Try It: I recommend against blindly hoping your next emotional flare-up will end in a magical “kumbaya” moment. Instead, take assertive action as a Facilitator. Consider the following lists of Five things that don’t work and Ten things that might work to diffuse emotional outbursts:

Tip #53: Five things that typically don’t work to diffuse emotional outbursts:

1.  Ignoring the conflict.
2.  Choosing sides / joining in (playing the hero for one side and the villain for the other).
3.  Allowing people to ignore team ground rules covering basic expectations for constructive behavior.
4.  Shutting the conflict down by overpowering dissension.
5.  Allowing the conflict to replace your original goals as the primary focus of the meeting.

Tip #54: Ten things that might work to cool down after a heated exchange: Instead, try some of these techniques that I have found to work well for dealing with overly emotional conflicts in meetings:

1. Remain neutral at all costs.

2. Speak in even, steady tones – avoid showing anger, frustration or bewilderment through your voice or body language.

3. Move people along gradually – park issues that may take more time and don’t try to facilitate too aggressively.

4. Diffuse the finger-pointing and emotional over-reactions by reminding people that being passionate about their work is a good thing.

5. Help draw out areas of agreement as a starting point for dialogue.

6. Build empathy by having each side articulate the other side’s needs.

7. Ensure that effective listening is taking place by having each side try to explain the other side’s logic.

8. Stick to the facts and recognize when people drift into opinions. (A simple working definition of a “fact” is something we all agree to be true)

9. Foster effective dialogue by having the group recommit to behavioral ground rules. (Such as the expectation that we’ll show mutual respect…)

10. Don’t be shy about asking for closure when the group appears to be getting close to an agreement. (PS: Don’t allow them to backtrack once they decide!)

Tip #55: Try the “No Jerks Rule”: Finally, as a matter of course, I try to assume that no one would hurt another person’s feelings at work just to be a jerk.  They might, however, do so unintentionally while trying to do what they believe is the best thing for their team, their boss, their customers or their organization. I encourage facilitators to try applying this assumption the next time that emotions run high… Maybe folks aren’t trying to be jerks, maybe they’re just getting a bit passionate about their work.

In my example story, I was able to diffuse a tense atmosphere by breaking a negative pattern. People saw the point, worked through a process and we moved on… But all of that effort would have blown up in my face if I had not maintained control of the situation by applying techniques like those above.

If you are unsure of your own ability to remain calm as a Facilitator in these highly-charged interpersonal situations, maybe you’d like me to share a few tips in my next post on how to keep your cool when those about you are losing theirs?

“As you wish…”


Question for Chatter:

  • What if a person in your meeting is actually being a jerk or they have a personal agenda against one of the participants?
  • What can you do when a key person in the meeting process simply doesn’t want to listen to a facilitator’s suggestions?

Incoming search terms:

  • no heroes no villains sparknotes

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

About the author

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

8 Responses to “No Heroes, No Villains”

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks Ashton,

    I’ve found that facilitation is so important for Change Agents that it may be the single most useful tool they can bring to their work. Hence my current series of blog posts that focuses on building this skill set.

    I’ve also experienced that deadlocked groups can really benefit from shifting the narrative even slightly in the direction of true listening, mutual understanding and open dialogue. By truly considering the other side of an argument, we can break open a log jam and move to new levels of problem-solving.

    PS: Let me know the results when you try this approach… I was pleased to hear others really adopt it within one of my client organizations. Just be careful not to give the appearance that you are “calling out” any specific individual… it could generate backlash!

  2. Steve says:

    Can’t argue with The Princess Bride being a classic…
    It took me a while, but I just had to find a way to work it into a blog post! :o)

  3. Craig Andrie (via LinkedIn) says:

    Great movie – even better book – hoot to read… :)

  4. Ashton Fourie (via LinkedIn) says:

    I think this is highly useful even in situations where there is no explosive conflict.

    If you are working in an organisation where departments are continually blaming one another for everything that’s wrong, the same little line could possibly really help people to just rethink the whole thing.

    “What if there really are not villains and heros – what if we were all just ordinary people doing our level best to run this organisation as well as we can.”

    I like this so much, that I’m going to start trying this very line tomorrow if I hear one department or divisional manager blaming another department again.

  5. Steve says:

    Wow! Thanks for the supportive feedback Lisa!
    It’s great to hear that you find some of my stuff useful.

  6. Lisa Rae Preston says:

    Steve, what great insights! I really like the part about there being no heroes, no villains. So many times we almost walk into situations expecting that there will be a villain. To enter a space without that judgment, open to both sides having merit – changes everything. Mutual honoring allows more creativity to flow, opening up more possibilities for growth. Love your sense of humor throughout the article! You’ve inspired me to reassess my listening skills. Thanks!

  7. Steve says:

    Thanks for the comment Scott!
    That line felt a bit risky for me to use in a professional setting, but my colleagues actually repeated it several times over the course of that assignment.
    The “boss” even referenced the “no villains” approach and asked people to quit trying to “be the hero” every time a problem came up and it sparked a bit of group problem-solving.

  8. Scott Carbonara says:

    When an article starts off with high praise and honor for The Princess Bride, I knew that I would enjoy it! Great insights, Steve. I’ll be sharing this blog with some colleagues who are in the strategy implementation space. Just yesterday we were talking about the balance between allowing NO NEGATIVE EMOTION and allowing TOO MUCH NEGATIVE EMOTION. I like your No Heroes / No Villains question. I’ll be quoting you on that. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.