Facilitator’s Guide to When the Group Says “Hell No”

It was 3:30pm. We were seven hours into the first day of a two-day leadership team offsite and the afternoon coffee break had already come and gone. Half of the group of 25 executive leaders were staring at the ceiling while the other half were engaged in a lively debate when I energetically pronounced, “We are all going to stand up and yatta, yatta, yatta.” Crickets. No one moved. It was as if I had just told them to remove their pants and do an interpretive dance. 

Now what?

I believe that if a group suddenly refuses to do work, it's always for a good reason; you just have to discover what it is and ask for their permission to move through it. Often, if you listen correctly, you won’t have to stop the music to find out. You may already know. It can look like magic when it happens, but it really just requires a certain kind of listening. 

Step One: Fall in Love
Every time I begin work with a group, I make the conscious decision to fall in love with them. I offer them unconditional positive regard and total confidence that they can do what we’ve set out to do in the conversation. I believe it until it pours out of me. 

Step Two: Notice When/If You Fall Out of Love
This is the hard part. It requires you to remain “on the balcony” viewing the process of the group as a whole and leading them through a process. Simultaneously, you must be “on the dance floor” yourself, noticing the small moments that take you further from love. Did someone step on your foot? Is the room too hot? Do you feel scared? Do you feel bored?

Step Three: Get Curious. Is It Me, or Is It Us?
In its most basic form, it is deciding between “Yes, it is too hot in here and we should turn down the heat so people are comfortable,” or “I’m just hot because I’m standing in front of the room moving a lot.” Sounds easy enough, but it gets trickier when you need to discern if other people are bored. If so, is it because we are not at the right elevation? Should we be asking a different question? Do we need a different structure for this?

Back to the offsite, I asked myself, "In the last 30 minutes, what happened, and how do I feel?" The answers came to me in this order: I recalled feeling frustrated when one person asked a question that seemed to pull us into a larger organizational question, pulling our attention away from solving the question at hand. I felt scared when people kept asking a lot of questions about extremely detailed nuances because I felt like we would never get to resolution. I felt bored, like I just didn’t want to look at it anymore. I suddenly felt like I was struggling to finish a term paper I didn’t want to write. This was the strongest feeling. All of this information was just below the surface for me, underneath the role of facilitator that was telling me to keep pushing them forward.

Step Four: Form a Hunch and Test It
A bit of a disclaimer here, I would suggest testing this step in some low-stakes situations to get the feel for it. Authenticity is a powerful tool.

I started by naming the observable behavior in the room. “I invited you to stand up and yatta, yatta, yatta, but most of you are still seated. I am seeing some people slouching in their chairs and looking around the room.”

Then, I stated my hunch and asked for confirmation. "My hunch is people are feeling saturated and kind of bored with this conversation; we might need to take a break from this content for a minute and come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. Does that sound right?”

It was as if I had just told them to reach under their chair to find an envelope with $100 cash in it. Faces lit up around the room; heads nodded vigorously. Finally, a "hell yes."

Step Five: Turn Left
Or right. It doesn’t matter. Just go somewhere. Believe in them. Fall back in love.

We changed our location in the room, we shook out our arms and legs, and we hunkered down to work on content we were planning to start the next morning. An hour later, we returned to our previous task and realized we only needed to make a few tweaks, and we were ready to move forward. We just needed to step away for a moment to be able to see it.

And, they knew it before I did. I just had to get curious about the experience in the room and be willing to use all of the information available to me, including myself.