Standing In The Storm
Storms are those places when working with a group feel uncomfortable — for you or for them. But standing in it together is a profound way to transform discomfort into something more productive and thoughtful.
In this article we’ll learn ways to cultivate self-awareness and management to stay in the situation.
STARTING THE PRACTICE
Not so long ago, a newly-minted facilitator was leading a large workshop of 35 participants from different groups across a very large organization. There were multiple stakeholder groups represented in the room, each with their own agenda regarding the decision to be made.
The group was stuck in a debate. Heat was high, emotions were fraught, and there was very little alignment. And then, the sponsor and ultimate decision-maker in the room slammed his hand on the table. He said, "I’m not comfortable with where this is going, and we’re going to stop this conversation here and now." With that, he shoved his chair back and left the room.
In hindsight, the facilitator could clearly see that there was an underlying issue that was larger than the topic being discussed. But in the moment, the facilitator was frozen ad sweating. His heart was pounding and he was completely uncertain of what to do. The room had been full of debate and conflict seconds ago, and now it was just stone-cold silence. Did he do something wrong? Should he make a move? Should he ask the group what to do? Should he keep going and pretend that guy didn’t just have a temper tantrum in front of all of these people? Should they take a break?
The facilitator took a deep breath and said, "Let’s stop here for a moment and take a break."
He went out of the room, and in speaking with the sponsor he learned that the sponsor wanted him, as the facilitator, to change the topic. The sponsor remained in disagreement with the direction the conversation had taken, and stood firm in his desire to simply shut it down.
When the facilitator reconvened the meeting, he honored the sponsor’s request by moving the group on to a different topic altogether.
This story is a great example of a storm: there was high hear, there were high stakes, and there was a lot of energy. In a situation like this, there are no right or wrong ways to navigate the meeting, but there are intentional choices to make that lead to more or less productive outcomes.
Lesson 1: CULTIVATE SELF-AWARENESS AND MANAGEMENT TO STAY IN THE SITUATION.
In the scenario above, the sponsor requested that the facilitator move on from the high-heat topic altogether. Because the facilitator complied, this group missed the opportunity to carry their conversation to the next level: a place of more informed understanding around differing perspectives.
Furthermore, the group likely learned a lesson about norms in this setting They likely learned that differences of opinion and perspective would not be welcomed in the space, and that compliance and agreement would get rewarded.
People likely learned that speaking their true thoughts would be a waste of time.
WHAT IF . . .
What if this facilitator has taken a different path? What if he had said to the sponsor:
"I’m hearing that the conversation has wandered into a space you’re not comfortable with. That’s totally fine. You get to make that call. However, I need for you to find the words for how you want to share that with the group so that they will understand what’s happening and why me are going to move on from this conversation. If I just reconvene the meeting and change the subject, that’s going to leave residue on this group. They won’t know what’s happened, and might spend the rest of the meeting thinking they have done something wrong. I need you to comeback in and be clear about the following things:
- What are you hearing? What’s happening for you right now?
- What’s the boundary that’s being crossed and why?
- What’s the next step for this topic?"
What if the facilitator had then helped the sponsor determine the clearest way to communicate with his team? It might sound something like this:
"I am hearing lots of passion and energy around this topic and it’s clearly something that you’re all very vested in. I’m not at liberty to make a decision about this and that instruction has been given to me by my leadership. I don’t want us to continue this conversation because I’m worried that it might give the impression that this group get o have input on this. I would like to move us away from this conversation right now so that we don’t use our valuable time together talking about something we can’t influence. I will take you concerns back to my leadership, and I would be willing to share any updates with this group once I have something."
What the facilitator is asking for is more context. He is asking for the individual context (the sponsor’s personal perspective) so that the group can understand why the sponsor reacted the way he did and why the topic is off limits.
If the first step is establishing context, the next step is clarifying what happens moving forward.
- What will happen to this topic?
- Who will make the decision, by when, and how will the group know?
The important thing to recognize when learning to stand in the storm is that staying with situations and group dynamics can feel difficult. So start practicing in small ways to help you prepare you for the big moment.
If you run into a situation with a group where your immediate reaction is to change the topic or take a break, practice being curious instead! Make a statement of fact, without judgement, about what’s happening in the room. And then just ask a simple question about it. For example, It seems like there is a lot of heat around this topic. What’s creating the energy?
Carve out time after a meeting to reflect on what happened during a storm:
- What did you do?
- What were you aiming to achieve in that moment?
- What was the impact of your action?
- What are some other ways you might have acted?
In an upcoming issue of ISE magazine, you’ll learn to press “pause”, deepen your understanding of group dynamics, and more.
Resources and Notes
This article contains excerpts from Acker’s book The Art & Science of Facilitation: How to Lead Effective Collaboration with Agile Teams.
About the Author: Marsha Acker is a professional facilitator and an executive and team coach with 25+ years of experience supporting leaders as they tackle complex challenges and spearhead change in their organizations. The Founder and CEO of TeamCatapult, she uses systems thinking, structural dynamics, dialogue, and agility, to help teams collaborate and align with clarity, purpose, and vision. Connect with Marsha Acker on Twitter @MarshaAcker and LinkedIn. For more information, visit theartandscienceoffacilitation.com.