The Virtual Bubbler Continuing Education Blog

Using Facilitation Techniques to Move a Group in Conflict to Ideas and Action

by Joe Goss

Many years ago, a colleague called me to discuss a challenging problem. “John” described a series of outages in a campus-wide information technology service, which was intermittently affecting thousands of employees. Members from the three support teams responsible for that service had so far been blaming one another for the problem. Meetings had been unproductive. Trust had disappeared and frustration was rising. I could imagine from his description each support team on their own side of the conference table, confronting one another, using phrases like, “If you would only…,” and endlessly wrestling some point of disagreement. John asked me to help.

After our conversation, I reviewed my notes and thought about the core problems the team faced. Interestingly, it didn’t have anything to do with technology. The challenge the group truly faced had everything to do with a failure to listen, understand, respect, and trust. I needed to figure out a way restore those behaviors and create a space where an innovative solution could be found.
The next day, I called John and proposed we hold two one-hour meetings with the whole group. Attendees would include software developers, system administrators, AND their managers. Having managers in the room created a special challenge – their presence could potentially limit the sharing of information and disruptive ideas from staff. I clearly needed to plan carefully for these meetings.

When I walked into the meeting room, I noticed small clusters of people were already seated facing each other at the long narrow table crowding the room. I had imagined the scene correctly! I shared copies of the meeting agenda and sat down at one end of the table next to a dry erase board.

Now like many people in IT, I’m an introvert. I’m typically a bit nervous about meeting new people, particularly if I have to convince them to do something. My fears rose – what if there is conflict? What if they revolt against my approach? Nevertheless, I had confidence in my skills as a facilitator and I had a good meeting plan.

John kicked off the meeting by briefly describing the symptoms of the problem. He introduced me as someone who could help the group find a solution.

Taking my cue, I welcomed the group, smiled, and sincerely thanked them for inviting me to facilitate. The first thing I had to establish was “trust” – trust in me and trust between the attendees. Since there were faces I didn’t recognize, I asked everyone to briefly introduce himself or herself – first name and support team name. As they spoke, I jotted down each name in sequence around the table, a technique which made it possible later for me to call on each participant by name – a good first step in establishing trust in me.

As the last person finished, I realized members of each support team were clustered together on opposite sides of the table, facing the other two! I began to wonder if I might be entering contract negotiations.

While I fretted about that, I acknowledged to the group the difficult challenge that lay ahead. I recalled my own experience with similar problems – intermittent, persistently non-persistent, complex, and with many moving parts. I also acknowledged the frustration everyone felt. I truly empathized with them, helping to build more trust. I also reminded attendees about something important – namely, there was no one better suited to solve this problem than those in the room. Despite their frustrations with each other, I think it helped to show I had great confidence in their abilities.

Now it was time to begin work. After briefly describing the plan for our two scheduled meetings, I spent a few minutes introducing the “brainstorming” techniques we would use right away.

Before we began however, it was critical to create a safe place for attendees to share ideas. I did that by helping the group establish ground rules. Using a flipchart pad next to me, I wrote down a few “seed” suggestions for ground rules (e.g., “Everyone has an equal voice” and “No interruptions when someone is speaking”). I asked the group to contribute their own suggestions. Doing so created collective buy-in for the rules they established. I left this list plainly displayed before everyone. I knew I could refer to a list if someone violated a rule.

Now I pulled out another secret tool. John had shared helpful information about the issue from which I developed a draft problem statement. Once we were done writing ground rules, I moved to the dry erase board at the end of the room and wrote a problem definition where everyone could see it. I intentionally wrote it from the perspective of their customer – “Our users sometimes cannot display PDF documents using a browser through our information portal.”

By writing this statement on the board, I moved attendees’ focus away from their conflict toward the problem that united them. I asked team members to improve this statement. They considered it and concluded that it accurately described the problem from the user’s perspective.

You’ll recall there were both staff and managers in the room. I ask you, what is the chance a staff person will volunteer a controversial idea in front of his or her manager? I needed a way to level the playing field, make sure everyone had an equal voice, and to the fullest extent share knowledge and insight. My secret? 3”x5” notecards – a way to share anonymously all hand-written observations and ideas.

Using these cards, I wanted everyone to record observations about the symptoms of this problem. I had several objectives:
1. Collect as many observations as possible,
2. Don’t limit the free flow of observations, and
3. Create a pool of unique observations

I asked everyone to imagine themselves as a scientist observing this problem. Questions shared in this context are commonly transformative: What have they noticed? When does the problem occur? What else is happening at the same time? When is the system working well?

I encouraged them to write statements in a neutral tone and to make them short and clear. I asked them to write as many observations as possible, one per notecard, working silently and independently. To support their work, I distributed several stack of cards around the table.

After about 10 minutes, attendees had produced perhaps 40 cards. Next, I asked them to move the cards to the center of the long table. I asked three volunteers to sift and sort the cards, creating groups of observations by common theme. By the way, this facilitation technique is called “Affinity Mapping.” After several minutes, we had six theme groups of observations. I asked the volunteers to give a title to each group and to eliminate any duplicate cards. We now had an exhaustive set of observations, which would become the basis for our next task.

I’ll stop there in this story. These facilitation tools and confidence in handling conflict made for a very successful first meeting and created an excellent foundation for our second and final meeting. Together in this first meeting we built trust, created a safe place to investigate and resolve a thorny issue, and completed a critical step in that journey. There is much more to tell in this story and I’d like to share it with you. Please join me on November 29 and 30 for “Facilitation Techniques for Eliciting Requirements and Achieving Consensus” at the UWM School of Continuing Education. With hands-on labs and rich class materials, you’ll learn roughly 20 proven facilitation techniques, AND you’ll build confidence facilitating in a safe, supportive classroom experience with your peers. This class is an excellent learning opportunity for project managers, business analysts, consultants and new managers. For more information, visit the course page for Facilitation Techniques for Eliciting Requirements and Achieving Consensus.

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