Management Articles


Overcoming Resistance:
The Role of the Meeting Facilitator

By: Michael Goldman, M.H.Sc., CPF

Michael Goldman is President and a Master Facilitator for Facilitation First Inc.
Web:  Phone: 416-465-9494

A facilitator is typically brought in to develop and/or facilitate a meeting process. 'Process' refers to "a sequence of steps or discussions that have been strung together in a logical way to achieve a mutually agreed to outcome." Once the process is designed and agreed to by the key client then the facilitator is ready to conduct the facilitation. But wait! Sometimes the person who agreed to the process isn't necessarily the only person participating—sometimes it's his or her team, or the Board, or another stakeholder, etc. And, sometimes the facilitator hasn't had a chance to meet this group or get feedback on the proposed process.

Experience has shown that over and over again when people have a say in 'how' they're going to make a decision or resolve a problem, their degree of participation and commitment significantly increases. So, in order to ensure that the group buys in to a process the facilitator needs to quickly summarize what the group will be doing during the session. However, even the best-designed process may not be what the group wants. This lack of buy-in or resistance is a meeting facilitator's biggest challenge.

There are many reasons why participants may not want to buy into a process, including:
  • the reason they're meeting was not clearly communicated to the facilitator so the process reflects an outcome that is erroneous

  • the outcome belongs to the manager (who may also be the facilitator), not the group

  • the manager chose the facilitator and there's a lot of baggage between the group and the manager in terms of a lack of trust

  • participants have been mandated to be there and don't understand the benefits of participating (ie. the WIIFM - What's in it for me?)

  • some people just like to be provocative and challenge

  • the concerns are legitimate based on recent changes you aren't up on
Regardless of the resistance, the facilitator must work through it to ensure better group buy-in. Not doing this can result in participants either covertly or overtly sabotaging the process. This is where the supposedly clearly articulated meeting turns in to chaos!

If you ever end up in this position, while leading a meeting, here are the steps for dealing with resistance to a suggested process:
  1. Never get defensive; this will only stoke a small fire into a large blaze

  2. Specifically ask the group what the resistance is: "tell me what concerns you?" (i.e. allow for venting)

  3. Ask probing questions to ensure you understand what the specific concern(s) are. Demonstrate empathy. Paraphrase back what you heard to clarify your understanding and to validate their concern(s). State: "so Joe, I think what I'm hearing is ".

  4. After the person has vented, ask: "what will help you get over your concerns?"

  5. Attempt to incorporate their suggestions when realistic
Sometimes, however, their suggestions may be unrealistic or not useful. If this is the case, then:
  1. Validate the person's suggestions by paraphrasing them back to him or her

  2. State your concern. State: "my concern is that if we brainstorm any more we may not have enough time to prioritize."

  3. Go back to your original process, but specify a timeframe in which you're willing to stop the process and reflect on whether it's working. State: "in light of the remaining concerns and time left for the meeting, let's start with my process for 20-30 minutes and then let's stop and see if we're making progress. If not, let's modify or add to the process. Can we therefore begin?" Make sure the group ratifies (agrees to) this before moving on."

    Note: This approach tends to satisfy the naysayers as you're providing them a chance to challenge the process should it not be working. Once the process is started, and if your process makes sense, the likelihood of being challenged significantly decreases.

  4. Once the facilitation begins, always make sure there is an "out" for the group to vent concerns around your designed process steps. This occurs by making a 'process check' where you ask the group "is the structure for the meeting making sense?", or, "is the sequence of activities logical?", or, "is this process helping us to get closer to your desired outcome?" Make changes where applicable.
Bottom-line, the more a group participates in the process management of their issues, the more likely they will be to commit to their decisions/outcomes.

© copyright Michael Goldman, Facilitation First Inc., 2005

Other Articles by Michael Goldman, M.H.Sc., CPF

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. ManagerWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. ManagerWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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