Have you ever been in charge of a meeting and right away, you get resistance? What do you do about it?
I recently led a faculty retreat for about 20 colleagues. Recalling with grim the past retreats with hours and hours of sitting and discussing and nothing gets resolved, I wanted another way to begin the day of working together on some core problems we face.
I have experience with groups and facilitation, and I brought those skills with me. It did not go as planned.
My plan to begin was based on a group work method developed by Patrick Cowden. After years of refinement, colleagues at the University of Applied Sciences, Zürich, tested the method. With this method, we get to the big picture right away, „why does this matter, what are we here for,“ and sharing these answers in small groups that then merge into bigger groups. It also entails colleagues giving each other quick, kind, valuing feedback. The method builds trust and momentum to continue to see possibilities in each other and in our ideas.
I have experienced the method myself and used it in groups I facilitate, including with Ph.D. scientists in high pressure industries. It always worked well, even among those allergic to „silly icebreakers.“ It’s not a silly icebreaker. It’s real useful content brought in about things we too rarely think about and even less often share but orient us to a common vision and connect us along our common humanity. Oh, and dopamines are triggered, so that’s always a good thing.
Well, nothing was a match for one of my very own colleagues on this particular morning.
After I introduced the exercise, immediately a male colleague within about 5 years of his retirement boomed his displeasure through the room, cutting in with harsh jabs of opposition and hostility. The atmosphere was suddenly charged, threatening, and alienating, exactly the opposite of what I, or anyone, wanted to achieve. Other colleagues resisted his interruption and tried to discipline him about his outbreak, but it was up to me to respond as the person in charge, the one for whom is venom was directed. I saw him reaching for eye contact around the room instead of at me; he was looking for support for his position. He got none.
I told him clearly and quietly, „I am in charge. If, someday, you want to take on this leadership position, you are welcome to run the retreat as you wish to. But I am in charge today. No one is obligated to participate. You can sit this activity out if you prefer. Let’s try again.“
I modified, shortened and simplified the exercise. The enthusiasm had gone out of the room. Participation seemed to be an exercise in taking sides rather than an activity that let us come together. The positive feedback portion of the exercise felt impossible, but the opportunity to share about why we were here, and who we were, never felt more important.
I cannot control the behavior of others. Only my own.
I got evidence that an alternative way of working together was the right thing to try, and the lesson of the day lies more with how we all got to see how the resistant colleague handled himself than it does with me.
The rest of the day, colleagues sought me out to tell me they liked the initiative. They felt better for having done it. There was respect for me for taking a new path and doing what I could for the needs of the group, even though it was hard and met with resistance.
A fresh start will always have a moment where it is completely new. That newness will feel refreshing to some, threatening to others.
Some of us don’t have the vocabulary to say, „I am uncomfortable, must I?“ And instead they may try to attack the bearer of the new way. Or the new way itself. They’re coming from a place of concern for themselves, whether they’ll look stupid to others perhaps, or feel unfamiliar in the new territory. It’s okay. Not everyone is ready for new things at any given moment. A good facilitator hears the fear behind the hostility and helps participants feel safe.
But when a critical mass is ready, beautiful things can happen on new pathways, and that is worth trying for.