We just completed our second delivery of BossaNova’s Advanced Facilitation Skills for Consultants program. We saw once again that a consultant’s biggest fear when it comes to facilitating client events is, hands-down, dealing with difficult group dynamics – you know, managing the client who’s overly talkative, highly argumentative, prone to ramble, stubbornly skeptical, and the like.

To some extent, the answer to dealing with these difficulties lies in practice (which is why our training program includes a simulation where each participant gets to successfully deal with his or her worst meeting nightmare). To a large extent, though, group dynamics issues can be mitigated and even avoided long before the client event begins.

Here are some examples of what you can do at various stages of the Planning and Design phases of an event to turn your worst nightmare into a dream come true:

Partner with the client. Be thorough with all the discovery questions you ask. Don’t be afraid to take the time to ask the tough or potentially sensitive ones about the history of the group, such as, “What’s the history of the group? What has occurred that might impact its work together?” “Are there any underlying problems or external forces that might impact this event?” “Are there any special characteristics of the group or its members?” “How will decisions be made in this group?”

Define event purpose and outcomes. Make the effort to get agreement on these in advance with as many event participants as possible.

Identify the event team. Involve more than your client sponsor; make one or more members of the client organization an integral part of your planning team. Concerned that a particularly belligerent or resistant event participant will derail the entire effort? Then make friends with the enemy – make him or her part of the team early on.

Gather data. Engage all event participants in some way in advance of the event. Bare minimum: send multiple communications about the event before-hand. If constraints make it impossible to interview everyone (for example, the group is too large or the budget won’t allow for it), develop a quick and dirty email survey to solicit input from as many participants as possible. Inviting their voices to be heard before the event will have a dramatic impact on how they participate during the event. Don’t shrink away from the ones you most fear. The “pay me now or pay me later” principle applies here, for sure.

Develop event design. Be strategic about the activities you choose and the way you group people throughout the event. For example, use “max-mix” breakout groups to diffuse tension and promote a diversity of perspectives and views.

Extraordinary facilitated events – and happily engaged participants — are as much about great planning and design as they are about skilled execution.

Originally published by BossaNova Consulting Group, Inc.
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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).