When planning a survey or a meeting, I tend to find starting positively works the best. Asking “what is going well, what gives you hope, what should we build on” frames the day in a way that is both pro-active and focused on possibility. The spirit of appreciative inquiry, positive deviance and solutions based therapy lives in our work.
But I also engage with difficultly and problems and pathology too – see the yin yang on page 7 of this older article of ours.
Oliver Burkeman describes the power of negative thinking in The Antidote. Whilst I think he over argues his case (more on that another time), I like the general principle that negative ideas, feelings and outcomes might be ok in our personal lives. And generally I believe that there is some wisdom in resistance, correction through opposition and that conflict is good. I am with Lencioni in being ok to talk about ‘problems’, not just ‘challenges’; dysfunctions, not just strengths.
A key application of all this for a facilitator is the trying to strike a good balance in designing a conversation – so the focus isn’t just on the potential but also the difficultly too, and vice versa.
A key skill for any group facilitator, is judging when a ‘negative’ response is productive and when it is likely to derail. In helping make this judgement it is worth thinking through the possible sources of the negativity. And here the psychodynamic literature on group dynamics is especially helpful.
Do you think that what someone said was a helpful correction – or motivated from something not related to the stated comment? Was it from something going on under the surface?
Two key concepts come up time and time again from this school of thought – power and anxiety. These lenses are regularly used to explain and help understand what goes on in groups, from jealous attacks to scapegoating by others; from feeling dumb to believing you are on a creative roll individually.
There are lots of ideas to investigate and some are a bit complicated, but they are worth persevering with and drawing on. However, remember this health warning when ‘diagnosing’ a group behaviour: First we can never really know what is going on – we can merely hypothesise. Secondly, what we notice happening might be just what it seems to be, and not some mysterious embedded current. For example, you might be criticised because you are not doing a very good job and not because someone doesn’t like the colour of your shoes! In the (misattributed) words of the father of group dynamics “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.
In a nutshell, projection can lead to being dumped on, blamed…and you risk projective identification if you take it in and take that persona on.
Transference is where you remind someone of another person (good or bad), with the associated risk of countertransference, when you take it heart. This can work both ways – you can also be told you were brilliant, when really it was the memory of someone else that was.
So the key insight is that when stuff happens (good or bad), it isn’t always about you. However, it can be hard to put on a protective shield from the flattering or threatening dynamics of a group.
Large groups can be especially tricky for a facilitator and bring out the worst in participants due to feelings of abandonment plus anxiety about significance, trust or control. This can lead to a powerful flight or fright response (down to leaving early, tricky questioning and passive aggressive responses from people who seem fine one minute and not the next.
I have an interesting article from the Huffington Post critical of the dynamics of a famous self-improvement course if you are interested…let me know.
How can you cope in large groups specifically?
a. Be human – the ‘blanker’ you are the more likely you are to receive projection. Actually, in group relations training it is common for the consultants to choose to be inscrutable to provoke this! So, being ‘professional’ might increase the risk of a hard time. Quirky authenticity might not be a bad thing.
b. Look calm – do not seem anxious, don’t stoke the feelings others will certainly have. Your tone of voice, facial expressions and way you walk even really do matter. Try to turn up calm, even before you are on stage. Don’t start your (and the venue staff) off on a bad footing by letting it out on them. I have, and really try hard to contain my anxiety now!
c. Avoid recommending some of the common ‘defences against anxiety’ such as working groups to delay a difficult conversation – think how you can seize the initiative and get stuck in. Even in large groups methods, such as fishbowls or careful plenary questioning, can be very powerful. Try to avoid nurturing a dependence on you – dependence is a form of collusion based on low responsibility, and one that might feel comfortable to you and them.
d. Working in a facilitation pair is powerful, and limits any projection to one of the pair usually, which leaves at least one of the two free to carry on working (though that isn’t much fun for the person who is scapegoated, and that needs careful debriefing, see below). A shadow consultant role (where one facilitator doesn’t do much up front) is another option. Think how you prepare in a new pair with this checklist.
e. Finally, there are some top notch methods and ideas for agendas in large meetings.
Other ways to prepare so you increase your insight and options for informed, resilience action include:
a. A key step is to acknowledge and try to reduce any group anxiety – maybe even by naming it.
b. Be aware of the possible power battles that may occur with you or others – maybe ‘irrational’ ones (eg transference, as you remind them of someone else).
c. Read around the topic such as this paper I commissioned in a role I did a few years back and this from a good book. There is lots online about large group dynamics too.
d. Do a course – there are lots, and I am happy to advise.
e. At the meeting, if things are tough, imagine you are in a glass chamber where the dynamics can’t reach you, but you and the group can see and hear everything.
f. Practice thinking under the surface, with various iceberg (and onion!) reflection techniques! Get into the discipline of thinking what might be going on that you can’t see – or that others won’t discuss (the proverbial ‘elephant’)
g. Rehearse Heron based tactics – what options do you see, for example .
h. Get into the best shape for the day – intellectually, emotionally, physically – taking care of your energy.
i. Use techniques that promote engagement and responsibility – open space methods for self-suggested sessions for example.
j. Never work with a group that has had a drink!
k. Maybe think of ground rules that are authentic to you and helpful to the group – eg “I have designed today to appeal to as many as possible, if things are not right for you at a particular moment try a bit of discomfort for a while, but tell me if you are close to panic”, “no side conversation please unless you are helping a non-English speaker” and “we are working to be balanced – between structure and freedom, chaos and control, big and detailed picture thinking, logic and emotion, positive and negative reactions – please say if that balance isn’t working for you”. You can then use SPOG (see two blogs ago) to guide your response to any challenges
l. Maybe try to be a bit playful – really! Play involves transitional objects, or toys. Children play to handle their anxieties, as adults humour, games, getting outside, being kinaesthetic can help too!
m. Journal your thoughts and feelings before, in breaks and after meetings. Try meditation too.
n. Undertake supervision as well – with an expert coach.
So, don’t fear the dark side – and as with de Bonos six thinking hats, the black hat can be the most useful.
It is all about balance. Try positivity first, but be prepared…
When you feel dumped on – think, what might be going on here?
May the force be with you! Do work to bring your hope and light and wisdom to bear.