Crucial Skills®

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Balancing Safety in a Group

Dear Joseph,

I work as a consultant with churches. I recently had a participant in a group who kept pushing her agenda. Her pressure was impeding the group’s progress. I gently told her she seemed unwilling to move her stake. I acknowledged that we all go there from time to time, then asked her to open up a bit. She was silent from then on. I approached her later to ask how she was doing. She said she felt hurt and shut down. She said I had singled her out and embarrassed her. I apologized, but also told her that when we have strong opinions, we sometimes fail to make space for other people’s ideas. I also asked her how I could have handled this better. She suggested that in the future I should not single someone out but speak to the group as a whole. To me that seems disingenuous.

What could I have done differently so I could serve the group without embarrassing an individual?

Facilitator’s Dilemma

Dear Facilitator’s Dilemma,

Your question gave me a flashback. I once had a chemistry professor try the tactic your participant suggested. A friend and I were cracking jokes during class in a large lecture hall with over 200 students. The professor abruptly stopped her lecture and said in an imperious voice, not unlike Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter, “Horseplay during my lectures is rude and unacceptable!”

She knew whom she was addressing. We knew whom she was addressing. Everyone else knew whom she was calling out. In fact, they all turned to see our response. I’m sure my face was a deep scarlet color. I know my friend’s was.

I find specific feedback disguised as a general statement to be disingenuous, manipulative, and ineffective. These statements are disingenuous because you aren’t saying what you really think. They are manipulative because they are an attempt to moderate someone’s behavior without overtly acknowledging that motive. And they are often ineffective because they substitute monologue for dialogue and problem solving.

The real issue is that the woman felt embarrassed. And the real question is, how can you create conditions for candor while minimizing the likelihood of embarrassment while in a group?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Normalize mistakes. People don’t feel embarrassed because they make a mistake. They don’t even feel embarrassed about making a mistake publicly. Embarrassment comes not when we conclude we made a mistake, but when we believe we are a mistake. It is the belief that our identity and worth are threatened that provokes shame. You can help minimize this possibility by doing things early on in a discussion to normalize mistake-making. For example, if you’re facilitating a group where you suspect people will have strong and opposing opinions, you might start by saying, “I fully expect that we will have some vigorous debates. You are here because you have both influence and opinions. We need your opinions. We need you to advocate them as strongly as you feel them. Please do so! And we are also here to make a unified decision. What could get in the way of that?” Involve the group in a discussion about the behaviors that will impede group decision making; behaviors like villainizing others’ views, arguing without listening, etc. Having made this list, I would say something like, “Trust me—all of these are likely to happen in the next few hours. And that is okay. That is normal!”

2. Ask for permission. Coaching feels less provocative when it has been invited. Following your attempt to normalize mistakes, ask for permission to offer real-time coaching. For example, you could ask the group, “What would you like me to do when these behaviors happen—as they inevitably will?” Or, “May I have your permission to gently stop the discussion and offer coaching to you personally if it looks like you could use it?” I would then ask for a positive confirmation from each participant. People are less prone to defensiveness if feedback is given on their own terms. Research on perception of pain shows that if a patient chooses the timing of it, they perceive it as less painful than if it comes suddenly and unannounced. If this is true of physical pain, it is even more so of psychic pain.

3. Start small and soon. Finally, establish the norm of offering feedback quickly in your facilitation. Doing so lets the group know feedback is healthy and normal, not menacing and rare. It’s likely the woman in your group felt more offended because she was the only person called out—so the call out seemed intrusive. With all this said, defensiveness is a choice. You cannot keep people from making a choice to take things personally. Some people carry so much shame with them that even the most skillful facilitator can’t bypass their proclivity to personalize. However, you can make it easier on them if you’ll use these simple tools.

Good luck!

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9 thoughts on “Balancing Safety in a Group”

  1. Gladys

    I agree that the shotgun method (shoot in the crowd hoping to hit the right target) is disingenuous and can offend people you weren’t aiming at and be ignored by those you are. If you addressed her behavior in front of everyone that could be why she felt hurt. Sometimes it’s better if at all possible to “take a short break” and speak to the person one on one instead of in front of the whole group. If done in front of the group essentially you did single her out. Appropriate if she was the only one causing the problem. If she FELT she wasn’t the only offender that could also contribute to the feeling of being picked on. Follow-on discussions should be done to determine if it was just being called out in front of everyone, and/or feeling picked on for the same behavior (perception not necessarily reality) that you let slide in others.

  2. Glenn Dickens

    Love it!
    Great feedback.

  3. Donna

    This letter/response is very timely for me as I just had a similar issue in a focus group. I lightly reminded everyone that we’d agreed to share ideas in headlines, not paragraphs, and asked the specific person if she could work on that a bit. I could see that she tried to modify her behavior as she continued to participate. However, in the future I’m going to build in your second step (permission) to make it clear at the outset how I might handle it. Thanks for the helpful tip!!!

  4. S.

    Both scatter shot comments to a group and the method of asking ‘permission’ to coach someone seem like they would put people’s backs up. A better method would be Gladys’ approach or perhaps saying, ‘That’s a good idea. Let’s put that down. Then we can hear some other views and come back to your comment for more discussion.’ Write the comments on a whiteboard or something and save a few minutes at the end of the seminar to discuss. That way the person won’t feel ignored or shut down, but the rest of the group can also be heard.

  5. Brenda

    I’m reminded of an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, when the choir director made a blanket statement to the church choir about someone being off key. The entire choir knew that it was Deputy Barney Fife who was singing off key, but Barney didn’t realize the director was talking about him. He even offered to walk around during the song to try to spot the offender. Don’t preach to the choir.

  6. Adonia Dickson, PHR

    WOW!!! This was fabulous and some very useful advise. I can’t wait to put all 3 suggestions into practice. Asking for permission is a game changer!

  7. Brooke Kozak, PHR

    I always enjoy the VitalSmarts newsletter, but I thought this one was especially good. I love the proactive approach and the specific tools provided. This is very useful advice. Thank you!

  8. Cynthia Vermillion-Foster

    Thanks Joseph. This provides a much deeper and connected way of engaging people in mutual agreements and holding them accountable to them.

  9. Vida Luzadder

    Good article. We also do another thing when a conversation gets out of hand, goes on too long or gets off discussion. Create a fun code word to use.
    We used “buttercup.” It made people giggle, but got the message across to get back to business.

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