Resolving The Facilitator's Dilemma

In last month’s Planning Boot Camp newsletter we discussed the facilitator’s dilemma when dealing with difficult personality types in a typical facilitated session. As promised, this month I try to make sense of it all and offer practical tips to be successful with every participant type.

The Urgent Issue Type:
The best way to address this personality type in your next facilitated session is to embrace it. If you can conduct pre-session interviews, you will better understand what each participant’s main issue is, and can assure their concerns will be addressed out in the open.

With or without an interview, there are a few simple tips to consider. First, structure your agenda and your facilitation questions to uncover all the burning issues as early in the session as possible. Some people will blurt out what is on their mind during introductions!

The easiest approach is to simply ask every participant for their objectives for the session near the start of your agenda. Write each objective on a flip chart and promise to work toward all their objectives during the meeting. Tell people where their objectives will be met in your agenda and you will likely diffuse 90% of the burning issues.

The Controlling Type of Personality

The Fixated Type:
This person can either be harmless or they can be the most difficult for a facilitator to work with. First, be crystal clear about what your process will be at the start of your meeting. Take some time to carefully explain the context, the process, the objectives and the agenda in detail.

Also tell participants what to expect after the session…do this once at the beginning of your session and once at the end. For important sessions, I always share my principles for getting the most out of the session. One of those principles is to trust the process.

The Broken Record Type:
This person must be addressed head on. Each time they repeat the same issue, tell them directly when they will be able to address it in the agenda. I will often say to the person “please make a note of that so we don’t forget to address it when we get to opportunities…or obstacles…or wherever it will fit.” If the issue has already been addressed, you should look the person in the eye and say “we have already addressed that issue…does anyone else think we need to spend more time discussing this?” You will likely hear a resounding “No.”

The Controlling Type:
Try some of the tricks above, but often the most effective way to deal with this type of person is by calling a break. Take them aside and explain to them what they are doing. Ask them to stop trying to control the outcome and instead work on being a net contributor to your session. This may sound like a nuclear option, but they will destroy your session otherwise.

The Self-Centred Type:
By definition these participants are not particularly self-aware, so trying to reason with them in a facilitated session may prove to be difficult. Treat their inappropriate spotlight on themselves as you would any off-topic comments. Ask them directly to address the topic at hand or move on.

If you have one of these participants in your session, use lots of break out groups and change up the groups so they can only suck the oxygen out of part of your session at any one time. In break outs, put this person with your strongest group.

The Devils Advocate of Personality

The Paranoid Type:
Without a pre-session interview, there is not a lot you can do with a truly paranoid participant. If they think a session has a pre-determined outcome, the more you try to convince them otherwise, the more entrenched they will become. If their boss is in the room, ask them directly if there is a pre-determined outcome or foregone conclusion for the meeting. An unequivocal “no” might help.

The Expressive Type:
I have honestly never fared well with this type of participant. Calling out their outrageous non-verbal’s usually just makes them more upset and makes you look like a schmuck. Using lots of small group work limits the disruption this person will cause. If it gets really bad, call a break and ask them what’s on their mind.

The Silent Type:
This is an easy one, and for the sake of real shared wisdom, you have an obligation to make sure these folks have their opinion heard. Structure your facilitation with many options for people to express their opinion without speaking in front of the entire group.

In a large planning session, I will give people an opportunity to write down their answers individually and then share it with a partner and then take it up as a group. I will also make time for working in pairs and small groups. Sticky notes are great because everyone can visually see their ideas and thoughts in your output even if they are shy.

The Devil's Advocate Type:
Make it clear to this person that you are only accepting negative thoughts, risks, weaknesses and obstacles in a single part of the agenda. Tell them that every time they break your rule. When this doesn’t work, call a break and explain to them that their comments have become counterproductive to the session objectives. Ask them if they are able to take a more positive view or if they would prefer to leave.

The Facilitator’s Nightmare Type:
Engaging this person head on in front of the group is almost sure to feed them and make the situation worse.

Use every facilitation trick you can to limit this person’s exposure to the entire group. Break out in small groups and insist that everyone has a chance as spokesperson for the group. Like the devil’s advocate, you may need to quietly ask them to be more positive or leave your session.

Fortunately, extremely negative participants are rare and some simple facilitation tactics will work in most situations.

Valuable topics and templates for the business world

When you recognize you have an extreme situation, call a break for your own sanity and talk it over with the most senior person in your session. Then face the situation head on. Keep your cool and do not be baited to attack in front of the rest of the participants. You may lose them as your allies and you will make the situation worse.

Speaking privately and frankly to a troublesome participant is never an easy thing to do, but you will surprise them because they are used to getting their way. The surprise may be enough to turn them into a positive participant for the day.

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