Facilitated meetings often address the most contentious, divisive, and emotionally charged problems within an organization. Obviously, if the people involved could work these issues out by themselves, they wouldn’t go to the expense of bringing in a consultant to help.

Many rookie facilitators are petrified that the meeting they are facilitating is going to explode into conflict and spiral out of their control. But conflict is not all bad: It indicates that people are involved and care about the issues at hand. By using techniques for managing conflict, facilitators can help the team work through emotional and political issues and can help turn controversies into solutions. In this column, I’ll give you my own tricks for recognizing when conflict is unhealthy and unproductive and how you can turn that conflict around and use it to power a solution.
A facilitator is hired to sit in on clients’ project meetings and focus the team on the objectives at hand, provide structured techniques for achieving those objectives, create an environment that fosters participation and consensus, and manage any conflicts or issues that arise. This installment wraps up Rick Freedman’s four-part series on facilitation. Don’t miss the first three parts of this series:

  • Part one—Learn why facilitation is a valuable part of an IT consultant’s repertoire and know the techniques that facilitators use to set clear goals and objectives for every meeting.
  • Part two—Understand the preparation for the facilitated meeting and the methods used to help teams make the best use of the time at hand.
  • Part three—Know the methods used in the actual facilitated session.

Set goals and ground rules in advance
The most important time to stop unproductive conflict is before the facilitated session starts—in the planning and goal-setting phase. Start off with these guidelines:

  • Ensure that the goals of the facilitated session are unambiguous and action-oriented. This will keep the session from drifting into unproductive areas and becoming a general gripe session.
  • Establish the ground rules beforehand. This will set the session’s tone and communicate in an unmistakable way that personal attacks, arguments, aggression, domination, digression, sarcasm, and put-downs are off-limits. The rules also create a baseline of acceptable behavior that can be used as a touchstone to refocus the meeting if it goes astray.
  • Make certain that the right people are invited to attend the session. This will guarantee that the room isn’t filled with folks who are not committed to the process, who are itching to get back to their regular duties, or who are resistant to the team’s efforts.

All the preparation in the world, however, cannot forestall resistance and conflict in a facilitated session. These sessions are designed to work out disagreements and issues, of which conflict is a natural and unavoidable aspect. The question then becomes whether that conflict is healthy and productive. Many conflicts end up well, by bringing those with divergent opinions together to reach acceptable compromises that are good for the team and the organization. Others, fueled by hidden agendas, personal animosities, blame, and cynicism, can leave everyone in the room feeling unmotivated, angry, and frustrated, and will often result in a more hostile situation than existed prior to the meeting. Managing meetings to ensure they foster productive debate rather than counterproductive argument is one of the central roles of facilitation.

Look for warning signs
When I talk about “unhealthy” activities in the work session, these are the kind of incidents and circumstances I’m referring to:

  • Sarcasm—Team members use a sarcastic tone of voice or roll their eyes and elbow their neighbor every time a suggestion or comment is made.
  • Argument—Two team members engage in a separate, heated discussion, ignoring the ground rules and moving from debate into personal conflict.
  • Domination—A team member jumps into every discussion and monopolizes the floor, preventing other team members from participating.
  • Aggression—A team member uses aggressive body language or tone of voice to intimidate or ridicule other members.
  • Digression—Team members can’t stay focused on agenda issues and want to discuss other items that are not the focus of the session.
  • Put-downs—Team members say “yes, but” to every suggestion that other members put forth.
  • Resistance—Team members refuse to participate.

These are just a few of the manifestations of conflict in the facilitation setting. In general, when open exchange turns into closed-mindedness, when listening turns into shouting, when cliques form and opinions harden, and so on, the session is veering in the wrong direction and it’s time for the facilitator to help the team get back on track.

Remain neutral and defuse the emotions
There are two overall guidelines that facilitators should consider when facing conflict: Remain neutral and defuse the emotions. Neutrality is the facilitator’s central ethical position. Facilitators must have the emotional maturity to realize that, whatever their opinion on the merits of the discussion or the personalities of the participants, only by maintaining their neutrality do they maintain their moral authority. Once facilitators are tempted into displaying a bias or an agenda, their ability to be effective is diluted and can be impossible to regain.

Separating the emotional content from the subject-matter content is the key requirement for using conflict to generate positive results. Here are some guidelines for achieving that goal:

  • Restate the ground rules. Remind team members that they agreed to follow certain ground rules and emphasize—in a nonjudgmental manner—the rules that you feel are being violated.
  • Highlight the session’s purpose. Remind team members that they agreed to solve a particular problem and that they have a responsibility to the organization and to the departments they represent to come to a solution that’s best for the enterprise.
  • Put on the brakes. By decelerating the action, facilitators can grab the group’s attention and reassert control. Tell team members that you can’t capture ideas and concepts that are shouted out in rapid succession, so ask them to repeat their arguments and points and take your time to rephrase and capture them.
  • Assert your authority. Don’t be afraid to play the role of a referee. Don’t get embroiled in the emotional content of the argument, but don’t be a passive spectator as your session goes awry, either.
  • Test acceptance. If the debate is raising meaningful points, use your facilitative skills to turn them into team results. Rephrase the points and test the team members’ acceptance and then work with team members to turn debate points into action plans.
  • Call time-out. When the content of the session becomes inflammatory or controversial, refer the session participants back to the process. Call a time-out and take the pulse of the participants. Ask for feedback on the approach, the atmosphere, and the progress. Even calling for a short break can give the participants a chance to step away from the inflammatory situation.

Conflict is not just an operational hazard of the facilitation process: It is the process. Facilitation requires the shaping of divergence and discord into compromise and agreement. Those facilitators who are mature enough to avoid getting embroiled in the emotion of the moment—and can lead their session participants through the thicket of personal agenda and passion toward concession and cooperation—can change the course of events within the enterprise.

Rick Freedman is the author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship and the upcoming The Internet Consultant, both published by Jossey Bass. He is the founder of Consulting Strategies, Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills.

Do you facilitate meetings for your clients? How have you helped them resolve conflicts and reach consensus? Post a comment below or send us a note.