GROUP FACILITATION – What if, down deep inside, some parties just drive you crazy?

As Group Facilitators, we are devoted to the process of helping people communicate about the issues important to them, typically related to the dynamics of the group (e.g., a public or non-profit board) or surrounding an issue (e.g., a citizen task force convened to advise elected officials about a current dispute).  However, we are all human, and some people will just get to us.  They may push our individual buttons, they may attack us directly and personally, and/or they may be continually disruptive to the group.  In other words, some folks just drive you crazy while you are trying to present the persona of the calm, unbiased coordinator of the group process.

Non-verbal activities and subvocalizations are a typical cause of irritation to both members of the group and its facilitator.  Sometimes the parties engaging in these behaviors are doing so with intent (to disrupt the group, show distain for others who don’t share their views, or to gain power in the dynamics of the group process).  Others are not at all conscious of their behavioral quirks.  In either case, the behaviors can be disruptive to the group’s deliberations and a direct challenge to the process authority of the Group Facilitator.

So, what can a Group Facilitator do?  As a part of the first meeting, I always assist the group in finalizing a set of ground rules.  A typical example is the set of ground rules for my current work with the Adams County Stormwater Utility Task Force These ground rules always have statements involving respect for others group members and their right to state their opinions and ideas without interruption.  Once the group has approved these ground rules, they own them and will enforce them, if given the chance.  So, the person who theatrically sighs, rolls her eyes, folds his arms and loudly pushes his chair back, mumbles a sarcastic comment or engages in behaviors that demean others in the group can be called out by the members of the group, if the ground rules are an integral part of the group’s deliberations.  So, post the ground rules, “writ large”, where everyone can see them!  This gives members of the group the opportunity to correct disrespectful behaviors.

The Group Facilitator can also use the ground rules, without necessarily turning the focus on one disruptive member.  When this kind of behavior crops up, I will address the group as a whole and say something like: “I have been noticing a number of probably unconscious behaviors by several group members.  These behaviors can make others feel like they are being treated without the respect that you have all agreed you all deserve.”  After a nod to the posted ground rules, I can then enumerate a few such behaviors without directly attributing them to any one individual.  Going on: “I would ask that you all consider how you would like to be treated when you present your opinions and do your best to treat others with whom you disagree the same way when they present theirs.”  I do not single out any one person, unless they make it absolutely unavoidable.  I need to be a process facilitator, not someone embroiled in my own conflict.

In this article, I have focused on process solutions to this issue.  This is because Group Facilitators are process people, and we should use the facilitation process to ease the bumps in the road.  It doesn’t matter how I feel about these people (and I always acknowledge those feelings to myself – and sometimes to my spouse – because, if I simply push them away, they only get worse and impair my judgment) – that isn’t relevant.  What is relevant is demonstrating, by how I manage the group, that the facilitation process works to assist people in making sound group decisions.

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In response to public outcry over the imposition of a stormwater fee on landowners in unincorporated Adams County, on April 1, 2013, the Adams County Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution creating the Stormwater Utility Task Force.  A diverse group of 22 citizens were selected from people who answered the call for volunteers for the Task Force.  The Task Force has been charged with developing recommendations to be given to the County Commissioners concerning alternatives to the fee as it is presently constituted.  The County Commissioners placed no restrictions on the scope or content of the recommendations they expect.

I was selected to be the contract Task Force facilitator for its eight (and perhaps up to ten) two-hour meetings.  The schedule for these meetings and the topics for each are given at the Adams County website given above.  Two of the meetings have already occurred (on 5/22/13 and 6/12/13).

The first introductory meeting allowed the Task Force members to be greeted and then briefed by the County Commissioners on the expectations for the group.  The members all introduced themselves, and I introduced myself to them as the facilitator of the Task Force.  A discussion of the various members’ questions and concerns followed.  I described the concept of consensus decision making to the group, and they agreed that they would use that method to arrive at group decisions.  Then, the members considered a general set of twelve ground rules I proposed to them and discussed tailoring them specifically to this Task Force by adding a rule number thirteen about the role of non-member observers.  The group arrived at a consensus for ground rule number thirteen (to be finalized at the second meeting).

The first thing the Task Force did at the second meeting was to ratify ground rule number thirteen, thus completing the adoption of the entire set of ground rules for their meetings to come.  There was controversy concerning whether or not the County should continue to provide dinner at each meeting.  So, I facilitated a discussion about this question.  Although the group was not unanimous in its feeling on this matter, the overwhelming consensus was for the provision of dinner to continue.  The rest of the meeting was devoted to presentations by guest speakers from the EPA and the Colorado Water Quality Control Division.  I moderated the questions and answers during these presentations, recording them on a flip chart.  Then, as is planned for every meeting, the group had a dialogue about what they had heard and what was to occur during the next meeting(s).

I will continue to facilitate the work of this Task Force during its meetings to come.  I expect a challenging time when the group considers its recommendations in September.  Group Facilitation of a public task force discussing a complex and controversial issue such as this is indeed a challenge, but it is one that I have met several times before in my career as a Group Facilitator.  I look forward to the upcoming meetings and to assisting the members of this Task Force in reaching consensus on their recommendations.  I commend the Adams County Commissioners and staff for their excellent judgment in seeking this type of public input on an issue that affects the lives and pocketbooks of all of their citizens.

For more information about the Adams County stormwater fee, the conflict about it and the development of the Stormwater Utility Task Force, please refer to the following Denver Post articles:

Denver Post Article

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