Kevin Fong - Organizational Design
Fundamentals of Facilitation – When Things Fall Apart
It is one of a facilitator’s biggest fears – the meeting is running beautifully and suddenly everything falls apart.  A few months ago, I facilitated such a meeting where “Lisa,” one of the newer staff, offered an idea that she was excited about.  “Gloria,” a veteran staffer sitting across the room, sighed and Lisa burst into tears.  I knew I had about 60 seconds to diagnose the situation and develop a cohesive response before I lost the group entirely.  Fortunately, I was able to pull it together by following these few crucial steps I have developed through facilitating a fair number of high-stakes meetings over the years.
The first thing to do when things fall apart is to pause and take a deep breath.  When people panic, they stop breathing.  So by pausing and taking a breath, you are reminding yourself and the group that there is no reason to panic.  The next thing to do is determine if the cause is due an individual, two people or the entire group.
If it is an individual, chances are he simply wants an audience.  Your response is to acknowledge, de-escalate and contextualize.  “Thank you for voicing your concern Josh.  What I’d like to do in the interest of the group is speak with you during the break and come up with some options.”  If Josh won’t let up, call for a break right away and ask a supervisor or advocate to deal with Josh while you get back to the group.
If it is between two people, check the temperature of the group.  If the issue resonates with the group through their body language, you may want to take a few minutes to acknowledge what is going on.   Such was the case with Lisa and Gloria, when the rest of the participants started nodding in response the situation.  It was an opportunity to acknowledge the issue and develop a plan to deal with it.  I checked with the president, who gave me the go ahead and we used some of the meeting time to talk it through.  Ironically, once the issue was named and addressed, we got back to business and finished the meeting on time.
If the issue between the two people is just that and the rest of the group is disengaged, say something like this – “This seems to be an important issue for the two of you, however it’s not the best use of our collective time.  Please find a time to talk outside of the meeting and if you need help, ask.” And get back to the business of the meeting.  You will likely win the group’s admiration and respect by doing that.
Finally, if it is an issue among the group at-large, stop the meeting and take ten minutes to figure things out with them.  Ask each person to take out a piece of paper and answer the following questions.  From your perspective,
  • What are the concerns?
  • On a scale of 1 (low) to 5(high), how serious are the concerns?
  • Should we take time during this meeting to talk about these concerns?
  • Give me two reasonable solutions to deal with these concerns.
Then take a break and triage these responses with your client or chair.  The feedback will determine whether you should scrap your original agenda or go ahead with the business at hand.
As in life, meetings fall apart, but they do come together again.  Just remember to breathe, determine if the cause was from an individual, two people or the entire group, take a break, and use the group to support and guide you.  Most importantly, speak and act from your heart.  And you will be just fine.

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