Navigating participation challenges for better meetings

By Susan Johnston

Wednesday November 4, 2020


How can we work more effectively together, on our teams, across organisations, with our clients, stakeholders, and the public?

As public servants, we’re called upon to collaborate with one another, across jurisdictions, and with people from all parts of society to accomplish shared objectives. Facilitation can improve our conversations, meetings, events — any kind of gathering where people need to work together to get results.

Knowing how to ensure groups stay on track, or handle a situation where someone is dominating the conversation, is key. Let’s start by asking what to do when we observe someone behaving in a manner that we experience negatively.

It starts with a mindset

Sometimes people behave in a way that can be disruptive to your meeting or workshop. Personally, I find side conversations incredibly distracting, and have a difficult time facilitating while they are taking place. The participant or participants may not even be aware that their behaviour is distracting others or is disruptive in principle, as is often the case.

When confronted with this scenario, here are some questions you may wish to ask yourself:

  • What’s behind the participation challenge? Are there potential equity gaps?
  • How is the behaviour affecting the group, or people’s ability to achieve their outcomes?
  • If you need to address the behaviour, how might you do so in a way that’s respectful and compassionate?

Here’s a great opportunity to use active listening skills to clarify potential root causes, and how they may be appearing as symptoms.

First, you may need to take a breath. Approaching a situation with kindness helps keep the conversation open. Modeling what is sometimes called an MRI, or “Most Respectful Interpretation” helps others do the same, and can help build trust. Secondly, if you have already set guiding principles or ground rules, now may be an opportunity to refer to them.

Navigating common participation challenges

Building on the above principles, here are some approaches to addressing frequently cited challenges:

Meeting lacks focus

  • Ask in advance about participants’ needs and interests
  • Articulate clear objectives when scheduling the meeting and inviting people
  • Consider whether a meeting with that person is necessary, or could be an email.

Side conversations 

  • Invite those group members having them to share what they are saying, or ask everyone to focus on the larger conversation
  • Facilitating in person? Move toward the people having the conversation
  • Facilitating virtually? Draw people’s attention to a visual resource (slide, whiteboard). Consider sending an individual message to the individuals.

Dominating the discussion 

  • Consider establishing a standard length for comments (e.g. “I’ll ask everyone to speak for a minute, or two at the most, on this topic.”)
  • Stop the speaker, thank them and let the group know you would like to hear other perspectives. Consider summarising their view first, or asking someone else to do so
  • Consider engaging an impartial facilitator, particularly if there may be power imbalances.

Attachment to one particular topic, or personal agendas

  • Acknowledge the individual’s point and the passion they feel for it. Record it and move on
  • Ask the individual what they would like the group to do with their comments
  • Using the clock to refocus and not let de-railers keep talking. “The clock is telling me we’re behind schedule”.

Negativity, hostility

  • Use active listening techniques to mirror and reflect their points of view
  • Consider describing, non-judgmentally, what the person is doing. Pointing out the negative pattern, that it is distracting, and asking the speaker for a positive reframing
  • Ask for their opinion about how the group could potentially respond to their concern and/or what should be recorded as their perspective. Consider then asking the group how to respond.

Continuing the conversation and levelling up our collective skills

In summary, we can address most participation challenges by considering someone’s intent separately from the impact they may be having, and following the principles of demonstrating respect, acknowledging the behaviour, and addressing the challenge help groups stay on track and accomplish their objectives for the meeting. As facilitators, we work to ensure everyone able to share their perspective and contribute to a fulsome, mutual, understanding of the issues at-hand.

This post is intended as a first look at navigating participation challenges, and how doing so can help you have better conversations, in your own life or working with groups. Do you have other approaches you like to use, examples that resonate, or exercises you like to do?

By being intentional about how we respectfully acknowledge and address participation challenges, we can encourage full participation and increase mutual understanding, thus leading to solutions that last.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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