From High-tension to High-performance: Facilitating a Difficult Meeting
As consultants, we are often engaged when organizations are experiencing a strenuous business issue. Often when we arrive, the situation has been ongoing, leading to mounting emotional tension and frustration, whether it’s from ineffective processes or muddled technology. It’s natural for consultants to find blame being thrown around, and people can be defensive or angry.
Unhappiness and anger are not desirable when you are conducting a meeting. This is especially true in meetings where creativity and collaboration are important. A study by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer of the Harvard Business School found that “positive feelings increase creativity,” and vice-versa. Tension and negativity generally have the opposite effect.
We occasionally end up at the front of a conference room full of upset people. As facilitators, our first job is to address this tension when it threatens success. As uncomfortable as it can be, this type of situation has led us to develop some useful skills and insights. We want to share the first two things that you need to do when getting ready to facilitate a difficult meeting.
The first thing you should do to address the tension is to ensure that all the usual, basic rules of good meeting preparation are followed. Provide and facilitate a meeting agenda to keep the discussion moving and to prevent the group from dwelling on that one painful topic. Any presentation aids or technology should be tested beforehand. An awkward moment fumbling with a projector becomes ten times worse when the audience is already exchanging death-stares about something else.
The second thing you need to do as the facilitator is considerably more difficult, and relates back to that Harvard Business School study. You need to put participants at ease. Reminding everyone of a shared challenge or past group accomplishment can be a great way to initiate this and has the added benefit of creating a sense of unity between participants, and yourself. Often, stating the goal of the meeting while emphasizing the benefit to each individual (especially if you can explain how this meeting is a start to alleviating the tension) will inspire the team to put their current feelings aside. Humor is almost always a key tool for accomplishing this. You might not be a comedian, or even a very funny person at all, but you need to think of something to get everyone to at least chuckle. Stay up all night if you have to or steal a joke from the internet. Whatever it takes.
If you have an upcoming meeting you’re dreading because of tension, then good luck! Stay positive, be well prepared, and your meeting should accomplish its goal.