by Steve Roche

What to do when things go wrong

If you notice any of these signs, what you are doing may not be working:

  • Lots of side conversations – or a stony silence
  • Increased restlessness, with people in and out of the room
  • Signs of boredom, tiredness, fidgeting
  • Excessive argument, taking longer than expected.

Admit that things are not going well and confront the issue. Check with people, for example:

  • Can we review what we have achieved and if we are still on track?
  • I feel this approach is not working, what do you think?’

Do this just before a break, so you have a bit of time to think through the change. You may have some ideas, but it will always be helpful to understand from the group why they don’t like the current approach or what they want to see happen next. Discuss it openly and get agreement on how to proceed.

If an individual ‘throws a wobbly’, stay calm and be aware of your own feelings. Ask a question to give yourself time; perhaps chunk down to get more information: for example, ‘What, specifically, are you upset about?’


When things go wrong

What might the facilitator do to resolve these situations?

Come up with your own ideas before looking at the suggested approaches.

  1. Two people in head-to-head conflict
  2. Arguments and bad feeling all round
  3. Process is not working or people are straying from the agenda
  4. Unable to reach decision/consensus
  5. Lacking vital information/input/people
  6. Danger of overrunning
  7. Disruptive or uncooperative people
  8. Senior person getting in the way.

Sample answers: when things go wrong

Below are some suggestions as to what a facilitator could do to resolve the situations listed above.

1. Two people in head-to-head conflict

  • Invoke the five-minute rule. If the problem is still not resolved, park it on the issues board or note it as an action to take outside the meeting.
  • If it’s a serious dispute, stop the meeting briefly for some Conflict Resolution.

2. Arguments and bad feeling all round

  • Remind the group of the objectives and ground rules.
  • The feelings may actually be the key issue (in other words, the objectives may be wrong).
  • Call a short break for cooling-off time. Talk to individuals to calm and reassure them.

3. Process is not working or people are straying from the agenda

  • Check with the group: if they feel it’s off track, find out why and what they want to do instead.
  • Call a break to give yourself time to change the process or check with individuals.
  • Check that you are not imposing your own agenda, process or input.

4. Unable to reach decision or consensus

  • Check that this forum has the authority and information it needs to make the decision.
  • Use the five-minute rule to push for a conclusion. Park as an issue or action, if it can be deferred.
  • Refer to the owner of the meeting for an executive decision.
  • As a last resort, abandon the event and decide if a further event is needed.

5. Lacking vital information/input/people

  • Watch out for people trying to duck the issue.
  • Decide if this is a ‘show-stopper’: don’t be afraid to terminate the event, if necessary.
  • Get consensus on what to do: can the situation be remedied in time to carry on and do something useful? Do you need to change the scope and objectives?

6. Danger of overrunning

  • Don’t just allow it to overrun. Stop and check with the group: do they want to negotiate extra time?
  • Review the agenda: deal with top priority things first.

7. Disruptive or uncooperative people

  • Invite personal views from those not contributing.
  • Challenge unhelpful behaviours in a non-confrontational way.
  • Remind people of the appropriate ground rules.
  • Ultimately, refer to the owner for guidance or a decision.

8. Senior person getting in the way

  • Have the courage to say what is happening without being intimidated.
  • Refer to the ‘all views have equal value’ ground rule (if you have it).
  • Take a break and talk to the person individually.
Key point

A general strategy for dealing with difficulties

  • Notice what is going on.
  • Call attention to the problem.
  • Enlist the help of the group.
  • Make required changes to process, agenda and agreements.
  • Refocus on objectives, outcomes and priorities.
  • Continue.