A number of years ago I was facilitating a roll-out meeting of about 70 employees with my colleague Kerry Anne Ridley of Momentum Leadership. We were introducing a new procurement process that would change the way supplies are ordered throughout the company. Because huge amounts of supplies and heavy equipment were needed on a regular basis, an improved procurement process was overdue. The strategic rationale for the change made good sense. Senior executives understood the extent of the initiative and supported it. However, the new process required significant and unwelcome changes of behavior for many people throughout the organization.
During the meeting a vice president standing in the back of the room proclaimed her dislike for the new procurement approach and its implications on her team. The room trembled. Next, the Director of Procurement standing across the room directly responded to his colleague defending the necessity and eventuality of the change. Air rushed out of the room. Everyone braced for a flaming eruption. Anxiety rolled through the staff. I stood there, front and center, waiting for what my gut told me to do next.
Whenever people convene, there is the mixing of ideas, the potential for action, and not far behind, the emergence of emotion. It’s the role of the facilitator to balance these three so creative forces can move the group forward productively. Good facilitators observe and modulate the emotions that bubble up in the room. Positive emotions such as happiness, excitement, satisfaction, interest and optimism help people stay open to possibility. When people’s minds are open, their curiosity about the situation deepens. They tend to be forward thinking and goal-focused. Positive emotions breed productive work interactions. A good facilitator seeks to tap into and bolster the positive emotions people are feeling.
Yet the other set of emotions often lurk under the table. It doesn’t take much during group conversation for doubt, rejection, anger, isolation, confusion and anxiety to rear up. In my example, anger about a new procedure change threatened to quickly throw a 70-person meeting off the rails and into the ditch of distrust and sabotage. If left unmanaged, negative emotions close down people’s capacity to think creatively and shatter the opportunity to work collaboratively. Negative emotions take people’s focus away from the shared task and toward protecting their individual interests.
We learn from brain science that social threats like those experienced during meetings are perceived by the brain with the same “fight, flight or freeze” response as physical threats experienced when we’re in physical danger. People stuck in meetings start feeling anxious when their status and sense of control is threatened. A few poorly phrased comments can have big impact. The neurological threat response taxes the brain’s ability to process information, both of individuals and of groups. Just when we need our brain working at it’s best, anxiety impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving. It is the enemy of productivity and generativity.
Once anxiety hits participants, it can easily spread to the facilitator. Anxious facilitators are not effective! The toughest role of a facilitator is to manage anxiety, both of the participants’ and of their own, and convert it to productive action..
Here are two sets of strategies for when emotions run high in a meeting room:
- Self-Management Techniques
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Hone your ability to observe your own internal feelings without making judgements about them. Notice when you feel good about a group’s dynamics. Notice when your gut tells you there is something awry. When you notice your internal landscape without casting judgement on yourself, it simply becomes information to help you make better facilitation choices.
- Guard against absorbing the group’s anxiety. Anxiety can be contagious. If you’re getting drawn in, physically move yourself in order to gain another perspective. Walking to the other end of the room or stepping between the tables helps break attachment to their anxiety and to see it with objectivity. With a fresh point of view, you will be more resourceful, clear headed and helpful about transforming negative emotions to productive energy.
- Contain your own anxiety. When your heart races, face flushes and breath quickens, there are three things to do:
- Feel compassion toward yourself. Take a long full inhale and exhale, while relaxing your shoulders, neck and jaw.
- Deepen your total awareness. Expand your focus from what is happening inside you to include that of the group. Ask “What’s happening? What is wanting to emerge in this moment? How can I clear the path?”
- Call on courage. Decide that your fear is lower priority than the group’s outcome and then take action.
- Group Process Techniques
- Be honest. When rooms are hot with emotion, it’s obvious to everyone. Don’t ignore the obvious and think people’s feelings will go away. Acknowledge the emotions you are feeling. Then ask the group if the emotions you are sensing from them are accurate. When people’s experiences are validated, they are free to move forward.
- Make it normal. Explain that any change involves experiencing a series of emotions (see my blog “Four Rooms of Change”). Because emotions are often shunned in the workplace, people often feel shamed about the passion they feel for an idea or position. As a facilitator, you can normalize the experience and expression of emotion.
- Let people talk about their concerns. Fully charged anxiety can dissipate when people have an opportunity to share their concerns and the emotions that surrounds it. Unless there is a real threat to someone’s safety, avoid expressing judgement about people’s concerns or how they express it.
- Repeat the concerns to ensure accurate understanding. It’s best if you can ask someone in the group to repeat as best they can what they heard their colleague say. Continue the exercise until the person with the concern feels sufficiently understood.
- Seek areas of common ground. Look for and identify any area where there is shared thinking or feeling. Avoid having a ‘lone wolf’ in a work group. Instead, look for an ally who can relate to the person’s point of view or emotions, even if it has to be you.
- Shift the group size. Alternate between large and small groupings, like an accordion, helps to differentiate the perspectives, then integrate perspectives in the room. Shifting group size allows participants to understand different points of view and see their perspective as part of a larger whole.
During the tense exchange between the two vice presidents, I stood in front of the meeting room waiting for my instinct to guide my next action. I realized that as the outside facilitator this was not my problem to solve, but it was my job to provide a problem-solving framework and to provide it fast. I mustered the courage to take decisive and calm action. I asked someone from the group to repeat what the first VP had said and another person to repeat what the second VP had said. When both VPs were satisfied with the playback of their position, I asked participants to work in small groups. Every table created a list of where there was common ground and shared interests and where there were differences. Each table came to the front of the room and wrote their thoughts on three flip charts. At the end of this exercise anxiety had receded from the room and the whole group was involved in solving the problem.