By Joe Wynne

Consultants are often frustrated when clients expect them to “get results,” without giving the consultant the necessary authority over all the players. But there is one advantage, surprisingly, to this lack of authority: When tasks or decisions have reached a snag, your “neutral” position often allows you to act as a conflict resolution facilitator. In essence, from your perspective in the “balcony,” you can influence what happens “on the stage.”

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Has your group reached an impasse?
It is common for groups involved in a project to come to a point where progress stops: A decision can’t be made, a consensus can’t be reached, and the next step can’t be determined. Often, the root of the obstacle may be unclear to the players.

You might hear something like this:

  • “We are on our third meeting and can’t agree whether we can add this function on-budget.”
  • “It looks like we will be a little late again letting you know the schedule for the next phase.”
  • “There seems to be some disconnect between what the analysts are saying is possible and what we can deliver.”

You might also experience something similar to these situations in meetings or during project work:

  • There are continuing comments, pro and con, related to a course of action—but no decision.
  • The group can’t stick to the agenda of a normally focused meeting due to continuing discussion and analysis.
  • Progress slows down, participation wanes, and interest fades.
  • There is constant complaining, with no effort at resolution.
  • The group can’t seem to move to the next step in what you would deem a logical sequence of actions.

Impasses can also occur between departments collaborating to complete a task. You can see the symptoms in meetings, e-mailed messages, and teleconferences.

As a project manager, impasses can be damaging to your career. A group—especially one associated with the critical path—that cannot maintain progress, can blow the schedule, no matter what the combined level of technical and business expertise. A culture of this kind of paralysis can crush both a project and the project team’s morale.

Enable and support group participation
Because you do not have a stake in the specific outcome of a decision due to your neutral position, you can obtain the level of team trust and influence needed to get things moving. Keep your focus on how teams or workgroups are functioning rather than on the actual decisions and details that result from their interaction.

The following situations can signal major obstacles to group progress:

  • The concerns of all involved in decisions are not being addressed, resulting in nonparticipation.
  • Members of the group may feel a strong need for “approval” before proceeding to the next decision-making step.
  • There is inability to determine the next step, due to lack of experience, unknown procedure, or lack of confidence.

To remove these obstructions to workgroup progress, you should always strive to enable full participation and prompt group members toward transitions—between decisions, steps, etc. A gentle prod may be enough to advance them to the next stage of the game.

If those general approaches aren’t working, you may want to take a look at some more specific tactics used by professional facilitators, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

Use facilitator tactics to get individual input
A workgroup is made up of individuals, all of whom must agree to extend their effort. A facilitator works to get participation from all individuals to get beyond obstructions. Here’s how you can use a facilitator’s tactics to improve performance in your project team:

  • Reduce the impact of the “openly opinionated.” In any particular situation or meeting, there are going to be those individuals who will be comfortable doing most of the talking. This tends to overshadow the opinions and input of the more shy participants. You know all too well that there is no correlation between the quantity of talking and quality of ideas, so don’t let the participant who drank the latte grande skew the dialogue into deadlock.
  • Look for snags that are caused by individuals who are not participating to complete the task or finalize the decision. Their individual views may have been expressed but not incorporated into solutions. Also, decisions may have been made by majority vote, resulting in nonsupport by those who were outvoted.
  • Ask questions that get needed answers. For example: “What do you think about this issue?,” “What should we consider when making this decision?,” and “What do you think we should do to get back on track?” If few agree on the answers to these questions, you will need to facilitate a resolution.
  • Actively bring out new and opposing opinions. This information can be controversial but may be important to the decision or outcome, so don’t let it go unsaid. Ask questions like, “Who disagrees?” and “What are other ways we can proceed?” Instead of “Let’s move on to the next agenda item,” ask “Does anyone have anything to add on this agenda item?” or “Are there any other comments before we decide what action to take?”
  • Show good listening skills. This will make it easier for you to obtain the collaborative process information you are looking for.

Getting the group’s complete involvement is a key part of breaking through obstructions to complete a task or make a decision. Your neutral influence can be a powerful intervention tool in achieving that involvement.

Joe Wynne is the subject matter expert for the Workforce Management department on

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