Real World Facilitation Techniques
By Dan Hogan

Posted February 15, 2009

Preventions and Interventions

As group process people, we know that there is no one right way to facilitate real world team building. Facilitators use a portfolio of essential tools and two of the most important are preventions & interventions.

To identify the preventions and interventions for your group session, first collaborate with the meeting sponsor to articulate clear desired outcomes. Next, think about what could possibly go wrong. Is this being negative? Not at all. By pinpointing potential issues, you create the opportunity to put preventions in place to mitigate them. Going a step further, you also plan for how you will intervene if the preventions don’t work. Thinking this way avoids the situation in which you must try to be creative in that critical moment when participants begin to act out. Finally, discuss and get agreement on the preventions and interventions before the group session and remind people at the kick-off. You’ve just increased the likelihood of having a successful session.

Digging deeper into preventions
When you ask, “what could go wrong?” the answers will fall into one of two buckets: people and process issues. Allow yourself and the folks who are planning the session to be negative in order to find the potential things that could go wrong…don’t worry about the discussion but do make it somewhat private.

Examples of process issues might be:

  • Unclear roles and/or authority
  • Unclear decision-making / governance, and/or communication protocols
  • Ambiguous organizational structure / reporting relationships and/or team meeting processes and procedures

Examples of people issues might be:

  • Folks not making their thinking / feelings visible
  • People using a resistant and/or debating communication style
  • People demonstrating an attitude of “I’m right and you’re wrong!”

There are many prevention strategies so be creative and think of how you and the leader will partner to mitigate them. Here are a few of my favorite preventions:

Ground rules / behavioral meeting agreements
Presented and agreed upon at the beginning of the meeting. Sometimes it’s best to cover them before the meeting if you anticipate participants who might be resistant. Some examples:

  • Park issues…if they are relevant but off topic
  • Stay on topic
  • One conversation at a time, no lengthy side bars
  • While dialoguing difficult issues we will use “ally” tone of voice, words and body language
  • No one is as smart as all of us

Decision-making approach with fall back
Present at beginning of meeting but workout before meeting. Example: Consensus with fall back that the leader will decide

Identify side issues that could sabotage the meeting
Before the meeting sometimes the team leader or sponsor will need to ‘run a trap’ so as to take away potential participant resistance / attempts to derail the meeting by bring up marginally legitimate issues. For example, the sponsor will find out before the meeting answers to questions like these and then report out those answers at the beginning of the meeting:

  • Will more resources be available to the team?
  • Will production schedules be extended to account for the unexpected delays?
  • Will project managers from the customer & contractor agree to create a joint ‘integrated’ organizational chart?

Conflict resolution agreements
When groups of people work together for extended periods of time to reach a common goal, it is not a matter of if, but when, conflict happens. It is far better to create agreements how you will mitigate & recover before you experience an actual conflict.

A conflict agreement could include factors like: use facts – i.e. what you saw or heard, check out assumptions, use mature / ally tone, body language and avoid toxic words, control emotions while staying passionate, argue principle not position, if you cannot resolve pull in a 3rd party for support….and agree on a fallback person to make the final decision if you can’t agree.

The intervention escalator
When a prevention doesn’t work it’s time to intervene. As with preventions, discuss and agree among the planning folks what interventions will be used and who will use them. Most of the time the facilitator will do the intervening but on occasion it might be best for other participants to take the first step.

Let’s use the example of two meeting participants who are engaged in a persistent side-bar conversation, in spite of the ground rule that was stated at the beginning of the session. Think of interventions as a series of escalating steps. At the first sign of the issue, start with a low-level intervention such as walking over to the people who are talking amongst themselves without saying a word. If they keep up their talking, lean down and whisper to them to complete their thoughts. Let’s say they continue to talk on the side. Escalating a level, wait until the break and ask them to keep the length of their side bar conversations to 10 seconds. Assuming none of these steps are effective, confront them in public and ask others if their sidebars are ok. Usually the others will say no and now you’ve used some respectful peer pressure to intervene.

Learn from your mistakes
Becoming a master at interventions takes practice and occasionally failures. Here’s a true story. I was facilitating a group of twenty PhD scientists and everyone was passionate about their version of the truth. One group was telling the other group that their data model was wrong and that this group’s was right. The other group responded that no, their model was right and they could prove it. They went on for close to an hour, sounding like school children arguing on the playground. I finally lost it and said in a scolding parent tone, “come on guys, grow up”! Well, they stopped attacking each other and started attacking me! I failed my role and their meeting. I’ll leave it to you to ponder how I might have handled this situation more effectively.

As facilitators it is important to keep growing our skills, and in my view we will always be learning new ways to use these two key tools – preventions and interventions – to help our clients meet or exceed their team building expectations. Good luck and be creative!

Posted by Dan Hogan