While a member of one of the national consulting firms (and before learning any of the material that now make up The Secrets of Facilitation), I was working with an oil and gas exploration company in the southwest. We had been called in to guide an in-house team commissioned to implement an executive information system. The executive information system had been requested by the new CEO. The CEO had been appointed less than nine months before by the parent company. The prior CEO had been demoted and was serving as the Chief Operating Officer. The system would be used initially by the top executives: the CEO, the Chief Operating Officer, and each of the eight vice presidents.

During the first phase of the project, we interviewed the executives individually to identify the type of information each desired in the new system. We aggregated the information from the various interviews and convened in a facilitated review session with the executive team. The purpose of the session was to confirm identification of all key information needs and determine which needs to include in the first phase of the system. I served as the facilitator for the group review.

Early in the session, I noticed that each time the Chief Operating Officer spoke, the CEO would shift in his seat, fold his arms or exhibit other signs of uneasiness. As the session progressed, I noticed the CEO becoming increasingly more irritated. Following a short break, the session continued. When the Chief Operating Officer made his next comment, the CEO exploded, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. It’s limited thinking like this that has caused us to be in the situation we are in now!” The room went silent. You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone looked at me, wondering what I was going to do. I had no idea what to do. So I simply asked, “Any other input?”

The session was a disaster.

Facilitators often have high anxiety around encountering major dysfunctional behavior in a session – and for good reason. We are typically poorly prepared to handle dysfunctional situations. We are rarely trained in and lack the tools and methods for addressing these difficult circumstances. And, when we do encounter them, we often do as I did in the situation described above: we employ the “ostrich technique” for problem resolution – we stick our heads in the sand and hope it goes away!

Unfortunately, as in the case study, ignoring dysfunctional behavior doesn’t often make it go away. Sometimes, it comes roaring back in a much worse form.

In the facilitation approach we use in our training, our principle for managing dysfunction is: conscious prevention, early detection, clean resolution.

  1. We believe that the best dysfunctions are the ones that don’t occur! Therefore, we attempt to consciously prevent dysfunctions even before they happen.
  2. The second best dysfunctions are detected early and addressed before they get out of hand.
  3. And, once we identify dysfunction, we want clean resolution. We want to resolve the dysfunction in a way that the participant doesn’t feel attacked and the dysfunction doesn’t return.

So, for the case study, let’s ask the question, “What could the facilitator have done? What steps could I have taken in conscious prevention, early detection and clean resolution?”

Conscious Prevention

I had done my preparation work and understood that the CEO was new and that the former CEO was now the Chief Operating Officer. However, I did not execute any prevention strategies.

To have prevented this dysfunction before the session even started, I could have spoken privately with the Chief Operating Officer in advance. As always, I would have remembered to empathize first.

Facilitator: It speaks volumes that you care so much about the company that you have been willing to support the organization in a secondary role. During the session, it may be important for you to give the CEO a chance to let his thoughts and desires be known. I would appreciate it if you would make it a point not to be the first or second person to speak on any issue. You should put your thoughts out there of course, but it might be helpful if you spoke third or fourth, rather than first. Are you comfortable with this?

Early Detection

I noticed the unease of the CEO. But, I did not address it. After the first or second display of discomfort, I could have asked the following:

Facilitator: Let’s get some input on what we are hearing. Joe, what do you think? Jane, what about you? Ray (CEO), your thoughts?

This would have helped the uneasiness to come out in a functional way rather than a dysfunctional way.

Alternatively, during the break that occurred prior to the blow-up, I could have pulled the CEO aside for a brief conversation.

Facilitator: I noticed what I thought was uneasiness about some of the things said – is there an issue? What do you think we should do about it? How about if… ?

Clean Resolution

I had my first chance to address the issue through conscious prevention prior to the session. But, I missed it. I had a second chance through early detection during the session, but I missed it. Because I missed prevention and missed the early signs of the dysfunction, when it came roaring back, it was quite ugly. I had a much bigger problem because I didn’t address it early.

But, once the blow-up occurred, I still could have addressed it by at least two ways. The first approach is direct and head on. I could have responded with the following.

Facilitator: Wow, you said that pretty passionately. Help me understand – what do you think we should be looking at? Why are these things important? Let’s go around the room and see if there are other things like this that we should consider.

After the round-robin, I would then take a break to meet with the CEO, who in this person’s case, would have been more than willing to come back and publicly apologize for his behavior toward the Chief Operating Officer.

Another way to address this issue is to respond as one would to an unexpected outburst.

Facilitator: Wow. You said that pretty passionately. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m a little uncomfortable right now. Rather than continue as though nothing has happen, if it is okay with the group, I think we should take a few minutes. I would like to go around the room starting with Chris and have each person answer a simple question, ‘Given what just happened, what are you experiencing right this minute?’ Some of us will be feeling a variety of things. But, please, share whatever is top of mind, and we will keep going around the room. Chris, get me started. Be as honest as you can – what are you experiencing right this minute?

Okay, we’ve talked about what’s happening with everyone, now let’s answer – what needs to happen to allow us to proceed?

Okay, we are clear what needs to happen for us to proceed. Why don’t we take a break now? When we come back, let’s see if we can proceed.

If I only knew then what I know now, I would have had the understanding and the tools I needed to consciously prevent, early detect, and cleanly resolve this dysfunction. At least one good thing that came out of this situation is a story that I can share with you and others to help ensure that this doesn’t happen to you!

Learn how to effectively manage dysfunction and employ other group facilitation techniques in the two-day training, Facilitating Masterful Meetings.