Crucial Conversations QA

Balancing Safety in a Group

Dear Joseph,

I work as a consultant with churches. I recently had a participant in a group who kept pushing her agenda. Her pressure was impeding the group’s progress. I gently told her she seemed unwilling to move her stake. I acknowledged that we all go there from time to time, then asked her to open up a bit. She was silent from then on. I approached her later to ask how she was doing. She said she felt hurt and shut down. She said I had singled her out and embarrassed her. I apologized, but also told her that when we have strong opinions, we sometimes fail to make space for other people’s ideas. I also asked her how I could have handled this better. She suggested that in the future I should not single someone out but speak to the group as a whole. To me that seems disingenuous.

What could I have done differently so I could serve the group without embarrassing an individual?

Facilitator’s Dilemma

Dear Facilitator’s Dilemma,

Your question gave me a flashback. I once had a chemistry professor try the tactic your participant suggested. A friend and I were cracking jokes during class in a large lecture hall with over 200 students. The professor abruptly stopped her lecture and said in an imperious voice, not unlike Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter, “Horseplay during my lectures is rude and unacceptable!”

She knew whom she was addressing. We knew whom she was addressing. Everyone else knew whom she was calling out. In fact, they all turned to see our response. I’m sure my face was a deep scarlet color. I know my friend’s was.

I find specific feedback disguised as a general statement to be disingenuous, manipulative, and ineffective. These statements are disingenuous because you aren’t saying what you really think. They are manipulative because they are an attempt to moderate someone’s behavior without overtly acknowledging that motive. And they are often ineffective because they substitute monologue for dialogue and problem solving.

The real issue is that the woman felt embarrassed. And the real question is, how can you create conditions for candor while minimizing the likelihood of embarrassment while in a group?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Normalize mistakes. People don’t feel embarrassed because they make a mistake. They don’t even feel embarrassed about making a mistake publicly. Embarrassment comes not when we conclude we made a mistake, but when we believe we are a mistake. It is the belief that our identity and worth are threatened that provokes shame. You can help minimize this possibility by doing things early on in a discussion to normalize mistake-making. For example, if you’re facilitating a group where you suspect people will have strong and opposing opinions, you might start by saying, “I fully expect that we will have some vigorous debates. You are here because you have both influence and opinions. We need your opinions. We need you to advocate them as strongly as you feel them. Please do so! And we are also here to make a unified decision. What could get in the way of that?” Involve the group in a discussion about the behaviors that will impede group decision making; behaviors like villainizing others’ views, arguing without listening, etc. Having made this list, I would say something like, “Trust me—all of these are likely to happen in the next few hours. And that is okay. That is normal!”

2. Ask for permission. Coaching feels less provocative when it has been invited. Following your attempt to normalize mistakes, ask for permission to offer real-time coaching. For example, you could ask the group, “What would you like me to do when these behaviors happen—as they inevitably will?” Or, “May I have your permission to gently stop the discussion and offer coaching to you personally if it looks like you could use it?” I would then ask for a positive confirmation from each participant. People are less prone to defensiveness if feedback is given on their own terms. Research on perception of pain shows that if a patient chooses the timing of it, they perceive it as less painful than if it comes suddenly and unannounced. If this is true of physical pain, it is even more so of psychic pain.

3. Start small and soon. Finally, establish the norm of offering feedback quickly in your facilitation. Doing so lets the group know feedback is healthy and normal, not menacing and rare. It’s likely the woman in your group felt more offended because she was the only person called out—so the call out seemed intrusive. With all this said, defensiveness is a choice. You cannot keep people from making a choice to take things personally. Some people carry so much shame with them that even the most skillful facilitator can’t bypass their proclivity to personalize. However, you can make it easier on them if you’ll use these simple tools.

Good luck!