The Facilitator's Dilemma

Whether you are a professional facilitator or it is just a small part of your job, you know that things do not always run smoothly. Over the years, I have learned that doing your homework is the best way to be prepared. So whenever possible, I insist on individual phone interviews with my session participants in advance. This helps build a basic rapport with each person, while helping me understand what their hot button issues are. More importantly, these interviews get the participants thinking about the objectives of the session ahead of time so we can hit the ground running.

Unfortunately, pre-interviews are not always feasible. With or without them, every major facilitated session has at least one of the following difficult participants:

Urgent Issue Type Dilemma

In any major facilitated session, this tends to be the most common feature among participants. During a session, almost every person will bring up an item or issue that they need to get off their chest. In fact, they are not fully engaged or contributing until they do so. Most participants can move on and fully contribute to the session once they say their piece. This usually only happens the first time a group gets together for a specific purpose.

By conducting pre-session interviews, you are able learn about each person’s main issue, which will help keep things moving forward.

The Fixated Type:
This one is also almost always harmless. Some participants get wrapped up in the agenda, the timing, and the facilitation methodology, to the point that they are no longer engaged contributors to your session.

Some individuals have a natural affinity for process and a genuine desire to help the session run better. Others think they can do better than the facilitator, and want to show how smart they are. People who are uncomfortable with the content will question the process and the agenda to avoid the session’s actual objective.

Every participant will use this tactic minimally as a coping device at some point during a session if the content becomes particularly tough. But I’ve learned that if you call out this behaviour as a facilitator, you will look like a jerk.

The Broken Record Type:
This kind of participant is the exception to those that can let their burning issues go. Instead, they will work their concern into the answer of every question, and can be a net detractor in most sessions as a result. This becomes clear when even the other participants request that the person moves on.

Many of the issues listed here are just human nature and the reason we need facilitators.

Controlling Type Dilemma

The Controlling Type:
Similar to the fixation type, this person wants to control the agenda, the process and the content, but in order to get the conclusion they want from the session. While pushing for their desired outcomes, the controlling type are unable to engage properly and contribute positively to the outcome of the group. This is immediately obvious to everyone in the session but themselves.

The Self-Centred Type:
This person may be just humorous or they may be a major distractor from your session. Typically they go beyond self-importance to become the center of attention that continually takes the entire session off track. Fortunately this type of participant is rare. We all deal with people with big egos, but I see the extreme version of this only once in every 50 sessions.

The Paranoid Type:
A little paranoia can be beneficial. Do the organizers of this meeting have a hidden agenda? Is there a pre-determined conclusion being pushed under the guise of an open discussion? We all have experiences to merit a healthy paranoia. However, this becomes unhealthy when the person cannot be a net positive contributor because they feel others are against them or that the session is rigged - no matter the evidence against it.

The Expressive Type:
This participant usually expresses one or two of the other behaviors on this list. When they aren’t speaking, they are muttering, or shaking their head, and making facial expressions to show their disagreement with other participants. We all have non-verbal expressions that can get away from us sometimes, but this person takes it to the point of making other participants uncomfortable.

Silent Type Dilemma

The Silent Type:
Some participants can be shy or won’t speak up in large groups. Putting them on the spot can be cruel and will not help you meet your objectives. By placing them in a pair or a small group, they can turn into your best contributors. This type of participant has important things to say and a great facilitator can make sure their opinion is represented in the session outcomes.

The Devil's Advocate Type:
We conduct facilitated sessions to harness the power of diverse and contrary experiences and opinions. The outcomes of this can be powerful. Some people like to be known as a Devil’s Advocate and I welcome them in my sessions because they prevent groupthink and contribute to better session outcomes.

Then we have people that are just contrarian because they enjoy the attention, or because they do not have much else to contribute to the work of the group. This is tiring and counterproductive to the work of the group. Occasionally we run across the extreme contrarian that uses negativity to get attention and tear down a group.

The Facilitator’s Nightmare Type:
Finally, there is the special nightmare of every facilitator. This person exhibits most of the behaviors above - minus the inability to say anything in a large group.

The nightmare participant arrives angry and leaves angry. During the course of your meeting they exhibit almost every negative behavior to tear down a group. Unfortunately, they will break every agreement of the group and continue to try and undermine any positive outcomes long after the session is over.

Professional Facilitator

As a professional facilitator of more than 1000 sessions over 20 years, I have only come across a handful of these special cases. Last week I had two in the same session. No matter how good the facilitator is, they cannot handle this type of participant alone. It takes the sustained effort of the entire group to try and achieve a positive session outcome.

I have written extensively about helping diverse working groups and committees be successful and I will continue to take on special sessions to help groups form, grow and achieve positive results. The Planning Boot Camp contains all the tips, tricks and tools you will need for expert facilitation of every possible strategy and planning session.

In our next newsletter I will try to make some sense of these challenges and offer advice on achieving positive outcomes with each type of behavior outlined above.