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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GROUP FACILITATION – An Action Plan for a Public Board

A couple of years ago, I was asked to facilitate a series of meetings involving the members of a public board appointed by a City Council in Colorado.  The Board was going through a period of transition, with a few new members having been appointed to the Board whose styles and values differed from their predecessors.  Furthermore, a new Board member was soon to become the chair, and the Director of the staff of the organization over which the Board had authority was soon to retire.  Many things were in flux, and Board meetings had become laden with conflict and less productive than in the past.  The goal of the meetings I was hired to facilitate was to develop an Action Plan to allow the Board to have more civil and productive deliberations and operations in the future.

After conducting a personal interview with each of the Board and staff members, I facilitated two planning meetings with the Board members, as a group.  After agreeing to a set of ground rules for their meetings (something I always help the members of any group to do at their first meeting), the group discussed the issues that had brought them to the table.  I was able to suggest an agenda with potential topics because I had already spoken one-on-one with everyone there.  Although the details of each interview were kept private, it was understood by everyone that I would produce proposed issues for discussion based on those interviews.  I made detailed notes at each group meeting, noting areas of agreement when they happened.

Finding the time for these special meetings had been a challenge for the Board.  Other business had to be postponed, and getting everyone on the Board to the table for the meetings was difficult.  The Board also wanted to complete the discussion process as quickly and economically as possible.  Therefore, the members avoided a third meeting to finalize their written agreement (an “Action Plan for the Future”) by asking me to find the areas of agreement among the notes from their first two meetings and to use them to draft the Action Plan for everyone to consider and sign at a future Board meeting.

When making flip chart notes during a facilitated meeting, I always make note of the main issues of concern, and I highlight the areas of group consensus when I transcribe the notes.  All of the Board members had been given copies of the transcribed notes – so they had seen those areas of agreement.  Thus, I was able to review the meeting notes, find the areas of agreement and draft the Action Plan, as requested.  I presented the draft Action Plan to the Board members at their next regular meeting.  The plan was for them to discuss the agreement on their own, make minor modifications and then sign the document.  Since my work as a facilitator was complete once the Action Plan was produced, I do not know the final fate of my draft Action Plan.  I do know that I was able to create a credible agreement document based on my understanding of the issues facing the Board and the notes I made at each meeting.

This is not a standard plan for producing an agreement after a series of meetings; however, for this case, it worked!

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