I am sure you have been here…

Early on at the team retreat, things start to go sideways as people come out of the gate “hot.”

While you may be focused on an opening agenda item, people quickly jump ahead to get their stance out on the table.

(Indeed, how much of a meeting takes place in people’s minds before they even arrive?)

We experienced this as facilitators recently and took four important steps to help the group move forward in an equity-centered and collaborative way.

We were facilitating a full day retreat for a coalition who had only recently started meeting again in-person post-pandemic. In the last few years, with some delays in achieving their mission, it was hard for folks to agree on their common goal. It was easier to see themselves in opposition as they each brought what was important to each of their constituents to the discussion.

The retreat started out well enough, but it quickly became apparent people were chomping at the bit to advocate for their position.

Only a few voices dominated the conversation. Emotions became heightened. Some people sat dumbstruck, unsure what to say.

So what did we do?

1) We called a pause.

At the outset we asked permission from the group to allow us as facilitators to call a “pause.” And we asked for this to be quite literal – that when we asked for this the conversation would halt and we would take a beat before we as facilitators offered a path forward. The group consented and were prepared to respond to our call in the moment.

2) We asked for questions – not answers.

We asked folks to list the important questions they needed to answer to be able to move ahead in the discussion. We asked for people who had not had a chance to speak to be allowed to identify questions first. We asked for people to identify questions only – NOT to answer them.

3) We offered grace, not shame.

We offered gentle reminders and grace for folks who jumped in enthusiastically to answer in the moment. We encouraged folks to help each other formulate the right question.

4) We went back to the beginning.

Unsurprisingly, questions about their fundamental mission came up – did they all support their mission, and even more fundamentally, did they all agree their mission had value? We started with these questions, beginning with two of the most fundamental ones, and got a temperature check.

What happened?

In this case, it was revealed that the group had broad consensus on these two fundamental questions. You could feel and see the room settle. People relaxed. People breathed. People laughed.

The differences were still there, of course, in how to achieve the mission. But by establishing a base of consensus, they were able to speak to these differences with less judgment and anxiety. And by moving away from a scarcity mindset, they could agree that having multiple outcomes of the mission was possible – a “both/and” scenario that addressed all of their concerns.

Being able to hold space for these discussions and, more importantly, uncovering the important questions that need to be answered, is the work we do as facilitators.


common goals, conflict, mission consensus, questions

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