Facilitation stories from the road: When things go awry

Recently, I had a situation in which one JAM Session participant verbally assaulted another in front of the entire group. Both of these individuals are highly educated, passionate, very senior individuals.

At first, I thought the exchange was a joke. I had been jotting a note, and when I looked up to see what was going on, I was greeted by a roomful of horrified faces. Immediately realizing that it wasn’t a joke, I attempted to redirect, at which point the individual became somewhat confrontational with me. The other individual provided a heightened, yet appropriate response, and again I attempted to redirect. The topic causing all of the commotion was already listed in the parking lot; I was able to get them to agree to list it in the parking lot again. If I hadn’t been able to regain control of the session so quickly, my next option was to force a break, dump the room, and address the participants involved in private.

After we concluded for the day, I had a participant ask me if I had ever had such an event occur before in a session. I had to answer an honest no. And, I hope it never happens again. In deconstructing the events that led up to the exchange, I realize I need to make a few tweaks to my setup and facilitation activities.

First, for each session, I always list a collection of JAM Session Guidelines. They typically look something like this:

  • Everyone participates
  • Only one conversation at a time
  • Silly ideas and dumb questions are encouraged
  • Have fun

Last year, I had been in the habit of adding a fifth item, “be kind”.

It evolved off of the list sometime over the fall/winter. After all, even if the participants were engaging in lively debate, they were appropriate. I felt, to a small degree, that “be kind” was perhaps too pushy. Certainly everyone knows to be kind to their colleagues? Aren’t we all adults?

My recent experiences would suggest that perhaps not.

I have added the “be kind” line item back to my list for the current sessions I’m running. It’s just above “have fun”, and as I reviewed the list with the participants, I made a light joke about how it had once been there, had evolved off, and now has been returned because a previous participant had not been kind. It definitely got a chuckle from the participants. Honestly, I added it back because a participant in the session in which it occurred said she immediately looked at the guidelines and determined that the insult-hurler hadn’t broken any rules. It made me realize that by not including it, I had, in a way, granted tacit approval for bad behavior. That is not at all what I want in a session, ever.

The fifteen seconds it takes to include it provides benefits that last far longer. By covering it in a lighthearted manner, I’m able to establish rapport with my group, and set the tone for the event. I intentionally approach it that way so as not to appear preachy, but by keeping the list of guidelines to five or less, I’m able to keep the message relevant and direct. I do think, though, that my participant’s observation that no rules were broken was what impacted me the most. It’s important never to forget that participants (and my clients) are looking to me to guide them and provide best value. If I allow bad behavior, intentionally or not, I’m not guiding appropriately or providing best value.

1 Comment

  • smcdowell
    February 17, 2011

    smcdowell

    What a situation, I would expect that from a Stage 1 Tribal Leadership participant but never from the professionals we work with. Goes to show everyone regardless of status, education, age or income has the potential to fall back into that Stage 1 behavior. Glad it all worked out. Thanks for sharing.

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