Several years ago I assisted a fellow conflict resolution professional in facilitating a two-day retreat of federal government safety officers and their mid-level and upper-level managers.  They had come to Denver from all around the western United States.  Their goal was to exchange ideas among the entire group (management and field staff) about resolving:

  1.  historical communication issues (mistrust and animosity between field staff and management, too much paperwork – not enough resources, ignoring field input, etc.)
  2. structural issues (empowerment of field staff, clarification of roles/responsibilities)
  3. decision-making (bottom up or top down, collaboration) and
  4. other long-standing issues resulting in ill will among everyone present.

A two-day, timed agenda was created (including brainstorming, small group dialogue, making consensual decisions and then developing an implementation plan).  There seemed to be plenty of time on this well-planned agenda to accomplish the goals of the group.  This turned out not to be the case.

During the first day, the attendees spent their time airing old grievances and venting long stifled hostilities.  This tension between the safety officers and their managers was evidenced by either tepid participation in the scheduled teambuilding and communication activities, or active sabotage of them.  The parties continually brought up old grievances or slights (perceived or real) and made it clear that they thought that certain segments of management were incompetent or ineffectual.  No real progress happened that day – in fact, the relationship between staff and management seemed to be regressing.

My co-facilitator was an employee of the same federal agency as the participants and was somewhat reluctant to intervene in any overt way.  During our debrief of the first day’s events, I suggested that, as a true outside party, I be allowed to begin the second day with a reality checking session.  He agreed.

I started the second day by asking the managers to retire to another room while I caucused with the staff.  I explained that, although this was not standard procedure in such a group facilitation, I had good reasons for my request.  They complied.  When I was alone with the staff (and my co-facilitator), I asked them if they felt much progress had been made the preceding day.  They mostly stated that they did not.  We agreed that there had been much hostility on display that day.  I then stated the following: “Today, you are being given the opportunity by your agency to shape your own future.  Your ideas about how the agency will change for the better and proceed productively into the future can be heard and implemented.  You had that same opportunity yesterday, and did little to take advantage of it.  You will not have that opportunity tomorrow, and there is no certainty that you will ever have it again during your time with this agency.  So, it is now your choice: Will you continue to pass up this opportunity to have a better workplace, or will you seize it and take your future into your own hands?  As your facilitators, we can’t do this for you – we can only help.”

There was a brief discussion, and everyone agreed that my comments were correct.  The managers were called back to the room, and the work of the second day proceeded.  The tension in the room was still there, but the staff and management were able to work together to devise a plan for the future on which they could all agree.  As a facilitator, I can’t judge the quality of the decisions made, but I can (and, in this case, did) try to shape the quality of the process.  Sometimes a bit of “tough love” is the only way to help folks find their way in the world of Group Facilitation.