Managing Dysfunction: How to Draw In Participants that Fight the Process

By Michael Wilkinson, Certified Master Facilitator, Managing Director ofLeadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company, and author of The Secrets of Facilitation and The Secrets of Masterul Meetings

“Your agenda doesn’t make any sense at. We don’t need to spend any time talking about the current hiring process. That’s a waste of time. We’re not go to do the old process any more. This series of meetings is suppose to be about developing a new process, not focusing on the old one. If you are going to insist on wasting the group’s time, I’ll just leave now and you can call me when you are ready to do the real work.”


What do you do when, in a meeting you’re facilitating, a participant attacks the process…your process…the one you spent weeks developing and additional time gaining the approval of the sponsor to use?

A Traditional Response

This is quite a challenging situation, isn’t it? On one hand there is the traditional school of thought that says, “The facilitator is responsible for the process, the participants are responsible for the content.” In this framework, it is perfect logical for the facilitator to say the following.

Facilitator: “I certainly can understand why it may seem that talking about the current hiring process is a waste of time. In our work with numerous other organizations, we have found that it is essential for everyone to be clear on how things work today. My request is that you ‘trust the process’ and give the agenda an opportunity to unfold. If in the next 30-60 minutes you are still feeling the same way, we can revisit this. Are you willing to do that?”

This traditional response may very well be effective in a number of cases. The facilitator is asking the participant to suspend judgment and trust that there is solid reason for the process design. However, in our work we have found that people are more likely to trust the process when they have an opportunity to buy-in to the process from the start.

A Prevention Strategy

You can prevent many challenges to the process by gaining buy-in to the agenda up front. In the “Getting the Session Started” module from our facilitation training course, we teach facilitators the secret to gaining buy-in to the agenda.

Secret #9 – The Secret to Agenda Buy-in

Gain buy-in to the agenda by linking what the participants want to the agenda for the meeting.

  • Involve participants as early as possible in the session by asking them to give their personal objectives for the session, to identify the issues they want to see covered, the challenges that must be overcome or some other topic that contributes to the overall goal of the session.
  • After reviewing the agenda, go back to the participants’ personal objectives. Ask the participants to identify under which agenda item each personal objective should be covered. Circle any personal objective not covered by the proposed agenda. 

After reviewing all personal objectives, go back to the personal objectives that were not covered by the agenda. Determine with the group whether these items will be saved for a later session or if the agenda should be modified in order to ensure that these topics are discussed in the current session.

Asking the participants to link their personal objectives to the agenda serves two powerful purposes.

  • It helps ensure that the participants understand the agenda items.
  • It also increases the participants’ buy-in into the agenda by showing participants where their concerns will be covered.

If The Challenge Still Comes

Of course despite your efforts to gain buy-in to the agenda, you may still have process challenges like the one that started this article. So what do you do? We recommend the following approach.

If you are in favor of the change, consider the following steps.

  • Thank the participant for the suggestion.
  • Indicate to the group that you favor the change and ask the group’s permission to execute accordingly.

If you are not in favor of the change, consider a different set of steps.

  • Acknowledge that the participant may be right and give at least one advantage to making the change.
  • Explain why you believe it may be better to leave things as they are. (Note that, by first giving an advantage to doing what the participant suggested and then saying why you believe it would be better to leave things as they are, your words will most likely be received as an explanation rather than a defense of the process.)
  • Indicate your willingness to following the group’s direction.
  • Ask the group if they agree with the requested change. (Note that, to avoid the perception of bias, do NOT ask if they agree with leaving things as they are.)

Below is a sample of the dialogue.

Facilitator: “You may very well be right. We may not need to discuss the current process. And if we don’t, it will certainly save us time. Let me share with you why I thought it was a good idea. By discussing the steps in the current process and identifying the problems that occur in each step, we will be better able to ensure that those same problems don’t occur in whatever new process we create. However, if you would like, let’s put it to the group and see how the group would prefer to handle it …”

You may find that, when a process challenge is handled in this way – acknowledging, identifying an advantage, giving an explanation, and offering to have the group decide – the person may even withdraw the suggestion. But no matter the result, we believe this type of response from the facilitator avoids confrontation, leaves the participant feeling respected, and acknowledges the willingness of the facilitator to be flexible.

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Interested in learning more facilitation techniques?  Check out our course, The Effective Facilitator.  

Michael Wilkinson is the Managing Director of Leadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company, and a much sought after trainer, facilitator and speaker.  He is a Certified Master Facilitator and a Certified Professional Facilitator.  As a past president of the Southeast Association of Facilitators and a board member of the National Institute of Facilitation, Michael is a national leader in the facilitation industry.  You can get more tips from either of Michael’s books, The Secrets of Facilitation or The Secrets to Masterful Meetings. You can receive a signed copy through our website.