Groups in conflict; a few members spreading discord to the entire team; passive team members perpetuating problems; active team members recruiting others to “their” side. Whatever the specific nature of a group’s conflict, it is essential that it be handled effectively – and sooner rather than later. Letting it fester only erodes morale and productivity. Group facilitation can help address the underlying issues that run through the behaviours that are affecting the work environment. While time is of the essence, it is critical that all parties be prepared before setting foot in the facilitation room.
The type of group facilitation that I handle, which closely resembles what some might call a multi-party mediation, requires a different approach than typical facilitation. Because there is a negative dynamic and a lot of acrimony, the most important aspect of preparing is to sit down with each person, who is going to be involved with the process one-on-one. This is something on which conventional facilitators might not spend as much time because the disagreements are not burning so hot. These pre-meetings accomplish 3 important elements of a successful resolution before the facilitation even starts:
- Establishing what is at stake. Because each group member has a role in the conflict, whether passive or active, it is essential that I hear from them all. I clear time to meet with each one, and I try not to limit it. I don’t allot 15 minutes and then pull out my stopwatch. It is important that everyone feel heard. What I am trying to determine through these meetings is what is at stake for each individual – how they see the situation. The process helps people clarify what is important and what they need the facilitation to address.
- Giving group members a chance to be heard. These meetings give participants a chance to blow off steam so, hopefully, they don’t have to do it in the group setting. Even if they do get upset during the facilitation, it is more constructive. They feel they have been heard and understood by me. That alone is incredibly powerful. Being understood is a source of catharsis when you’re stuck in conflict, and everyone has that opportunity for release without reprisal.
- Helping set an agenda. A third benefit is that these talks allow me to identify an agenda for the group facilitation. When people walk into the group meeting, they have some structure in place. This can relieve some of the anxiety and give them a sense of confidence that this is going to be orderly (as much as possible!) and effective. The Agendas are usually very loose and I always allow for modifications as necessary, but people are usually just delighted to have some direction and hope that there might be and end in sight.
Preparation is the key in this type of facilitation, and this is where I spend the bulk of my time. If you don’t get this part right, conflict and “F-bombs” will be the guests of honor at the facilitation. Instead, when people have had the chance to discuss their interests, express their feelings, and feel involved in the process, the way is paved for progress.