19 Jun Facilitator Tips for Unexpected Uncomfortable Conversations
I often get text messages from friends who are excited to share that they are planning to run their first workshop-style meeting with their team—a strategy session, a mini-offsite, a retro or an ideation session. They ask for tips and tricks, and I’m happy to share (in return, my happy hour drinks are free 😉). However, the next time I see them they’re sometimes less excited than before their meeting. They reveal that something unexpected surfaced—usually within the first 10-15 minutes—that they hadn’t planned for and totally didn’t see coming. A boss couldn’t let go of the old way of doing things. A teammate brought up a big missing strategy piece. The group vibe felt way off and couldn’t be ignored.
If you’ve facilitated internal meetings, chances are you’ve also found yourself in a similar situation: an uncomfortable conversation pops up and throws a wrench in your plan. (And, if you haven’t yet experienced one of these scenarios, let me be the one to tell you that my Magic 8 Ball says, “It is certain,” that you will soon.) I must note that these types of conversations are not about the person(s) who bring about something unexpected or their actions when doing so—it’s important to separate behaviors from personalities. In fact, addressing any uncomfortable conversations or underlying unmet needs is a critical step in creating a trusting, collaborative environment. So, when something comes up while you’re facilitating, it’s your job to guide the group in addressing it without pointing fingers.
And, because I have a future-seeing source, let me pair that knowledge with some facilitator tips and advice for how to handle scenarios when, as we like to call it, an “unexpected elephant in the room” pops up. No matter how well you’ve prepared and planned to be the best facilitator your team has ever seen (for more on that, check out our piece on the Top 11 Skills of an Effective Facilitator), moments like this can pop-up in a second and throw you off course.
These are tips our team has used in the past to navigate “unexpected elephants” and found success with. As with all facilitation tips, they are meant to be techniques in your toolkit, not silver bullets. Every group is different and will respond (or not) to various activities. Let us know which ones work for you or if you have additional tips to share—we’d love to keep adding to this list for the facilitators that follow.
CALL A TIMEOUT
Put on your facilitator-as-referee hat, blow the whistle and call for a timeout. Put a pause on the conversation to address the situation rather than continue to let the “unexpected elephant” lurk on the field unannounced. Tell the group you’re sensing or hearing an important topic continuing to surface that you want to acknowledge and decide together how to address it.
Naming a topic that’s being talked around, but not directly about, is essential in getting the group to talk honestly about it. So give your elephant a name! Not a made up name, but clearly identify the topic. You might say something along the lines of, “I want to be clear that we acknowledge and identify this topic. I’m hearing the topic as _________. Is that correct?” Make sure the group agrees before moving on.
Because the elephant wasn’t in your original game plan, refer back to the agenda and outcomes you’ve set with the group and discuss whether or not you want to spend the time on the new topic, or continue forward as planned. Communicate the trade-offs, but don’t steamroll the group into completing your agenda if the group really needs to get something off their chest or address another topic before getting to the work. Redirect back to the agenda if you can, but make a plan for when to discuss the topic at a later time or date. You might even consider sending out a calendar invite on the spot to indicate that you’re committed to making the time and space for that topic.
TIMEBOX THE TOPIC
If you do decide to discuss the topic during the meeting, give it a set time and put the timer up, just like you would with other activities. Whether it’s for the next 15 minutes or the rest of the allocated time, continue to manage the groups time effectively. You might turn the floor over to someone else to navigate the conversation, but you can still get the group out on time as you originally planned. People will appreciate your flexibility as well as commitment to honor the groups time.
WRITE BEFORE TALKING
When a touchy topic comes up, it’s best to allow for processing time before anyone shares. Verbally processing while sharing often leads to more confusion around the topic and can lead to a spiraling conversation. Instead, give the group 5 or so minutes to silently write out their thoughts, feelings, points of view, etc. in their own notebooks. Let them know this is a personal activity and their process notes won’t be shared—it’s just their scratchpad to gather their thoughts before a discussion. They can refer to their notes if they’d like when it’s their turn to share.
GO FOR A WALK
Depending on how much time you have and how important the topic is, getting out of the room for a while could help to diffuse a situation and allow folks to return with more energy (and perhaps a bit of perspective) before diving into the uncomfortable conversation. Going outside would be best, but even just a walk through hallways or a couple flights in the stairwell can do the trick. You may choose to have people go alone to think and recalibrate, or, if you have a large group, it could be helpful for people to go in pairs to begin socializing their thoughts before coming back to the larger group. Either way, the group will get the benefits of walking while thinking.
Facilitator Pro-Tip: use the time while the group is out of the room to process your own thoughts and plan for how to best proceed once they return.
GIVE THE CONVERSATION SPACE
Even when you’ve made time for people to do a “processing write” before they speak, it can be helpful to space out the conversation that follows. Try changing up the format so that each person gets a set time to speak—say, 2-3 minutes—but there is an intentional 1 minute of silence between speakers. This will help the group be more thoughtful in their responses instead of immediately reacting to the last thing they heard the previous person say.
If the elephant was surfaced in the room by one person, be sure to follow up with them 1:1 afterwards. Depending on how long your meeting is, this could be on a break or at lunch, or might be the following day. If the group chooses not to discuss the elephant, the sooner you can debrief with that person the better. And, even if the group decided to discuss the elephant, there might be some lingering thoughts you’ll want to capture.
While these are all tips for facilitating an “unexpected elephant,” they also work well as techniques if you are planning a meeting around an uncomfortable topic. And while I don’t wish any unexpected elephants in the room upon you, I do wish you luck if they arise!
Illustrations by John Kutlu