As a group facilitator in the Denver Metro Area, I am usually in a room with upwards of twenty people who are there because they disagree to a greater or lesser extent concerning the topic under discussion. Often, despite ground rules, many decide to talk at once. This makes for poor understanding and lessens the chance of any decisions being made. Usually, over the years, I haven’t had the luxury of an amplification system. So, when I speak as the process manager for the group, the members need to listen. For some groups, an appeal to their sense of fairness and decorum may be enough. At other times, more is needed.
Several years ago, I was tasked with facilitating a group of rural homeowners who lived on “ranchettes” (typically 5 or 10-acre horse properties) and representatives of a mining company wishing to expand its clay mining operations located on the other side of a steep ridge. The purpose of the meeting was to allow the mining representatives to tell the nearby homeowners about their plans and to allow those neighbors to ask questions about the proposal and express their concerns with it. The homeowners had the usual concerns about noise, dust, vibration, light pollution, hours of operation, and general disruption of their quiet, semi-isolated living environment.
Most of the residents of this community had resided there for many years and knew their neighbors well. Some got along, and others did not. Although they were united in their unease with the proposed change to the nearby mining operation, they were in some disagreement about what concerned each of them. This resulted in continuing loud discussions around the table.
My attempts to appeal politely to everyone to tone down the level of the dialogue to allow the intended exchange of information were ignored in the din. Being relatively new to the conflict resolution business, I wanted to stick with “the book” and try to not overtly insert myself into the discussion. However, since there was no real organized discussion going on, I decided to use the “stage voice”. I did not quite shout, but I projected clearly over the din and said something like “Hold on, here!”
I was somewhat surprised when the room quieted almost completely. I then advised the group that the meeting could not proceed in this fashion if anything was to be accomplished (allowing the volume of my voice to diminish from the level of my previous attention-getting statement, but not back to a conversational level). One or two of the group pointed out that they had been meeting about one thing or another for years, and that the simultaneous shouting was how they always conducted their meetings. My reply was: “Well, that’s not how I conduct my meetings, and I’m in charge of this one!”
After that, the meeting went forward as originally intended. The miners informed the residents of their plans. The residents informed the miners of their concerns. By the end of the meeting, everyone had reached an agreement that the mine could be expanded if certain conditions were met (restricted hours of operation, dust control, etc.). This not only made the miners and the residents happy, it made the County Commissioners very happy when no one attended the ensuing public hearing except the representatives of the mining company and citizens who endorsed the plan being presented.
Although I have very seldom since had to resort to the full “stage voice”, I have learned that a commanding tone from the facilitator can go far in helping people talk to, and listen to, each other in a meeting. Then, things get accomplished!