“PAC₃E”: Control the room

We are progressing through INIFAC’s (inifac.org) six overarching facilitator competencies: Presence, Assessment, Communication, Control, Consistency and Engagement.

Number 4 is Control. “Master Facilitators create and maintain a productive and safe environment in which participants with diverse styles and culture can engage in interactions that stay focused on achieving the goal. They maintain control of the session and an appropriate pace. They understand causes of disagreement and can effectively guide a group through conflict. They consciously take action to prevent, detect and resolve dysfunctional behavior.”

Mmmm…dysfunctional behavior.

Alaska, 2017. Complicated three-year government project with all the challenges Alaska can throw your way. On this particular day, the challenge came from two brothers who owned a gravel and sand company and were the sole suppliers in this part of the State. They were Jekyll and Hyde, good-cop and bad-cop. And the bad cop was BAD. Unpleasant, insulting, strong willed and outspoken. He talked over his brother, who let him. They had filed a big claim that threatened the project’s budget and if unresolved, the schedule, too, since bad cop had declared all material shipments would stop until he got what he wanted.

The builder’s executive and I had flown in the day before the big meeting to resolve this. The exec, we’ll call him Terry, told me all about the dynamics of the two brothers and warned me of the likely difficulty of obtaining a resolution. He said the bad brother would hijack the meeting, yell and threaten and generally make life miserable for all attending. He had done it a half-dozen times before.

The exec and his team had come up with a compromise solution that was clever and fair, but he had no confidence they could break through the unyielding loggerhead position the brothers were taking.

I had an extra glass of wine that night before the showdown.

Day of… the meeting began with my standing while the ten others sat. The two brothers were next to each other, so I stood nearest the potential disrupter. Slight physical advantage standing as he’s sitting. I used my most commanding voice to start the session. Outlined the purpose of the meeting, and the steps I suggested we go through to clarify what everyone already knew were the positions. And then, moving to a position directly opposite the bad brother and looking right at him, I told them I had the best job in the room: “I get to be the jerk in the room. I get to interrupt you when I think you’ve said the same thing three times. I get to stop you and summarize what I think you’re saying using different words so we all can understand each other clearly.” (See what I did there? I seized the “jerk” role the bad brother was accustomed to playing.)

Almost immediately the bad brother stood up and started walking around lecturing. “Just a minute, please,” I interrupted, “I’m not done. Please stay seated until I’m finished.” He sat. And for the next fifteen minutes, I outlined my understanding of the positions and kept turning to him and asking him if I was portraying his position correctly. With a few adjustments the answer was yes.

The rest of the one-hour and fifteen-minute negotiation was polite, civil and the offered breakthrough settlement of the issue and the claim was resolved. It really wasn’t that hard because the offer was a win-win.

It’s rare for a facilitator to need to exert that kind of Control over a meeting, especially from the start. And if that kind of Control is used, it must not violate the facilitator’s Neutrality. (The win-win agreement at the end, demonstrates that it did not.) My usual style is much lighter: velvet glove. And I can get away with that light touch by starting with that speech about me being “the jerk in the room”. But the facilitator must create and maintain control from the beginning. In so doing, we can create the physically and psychologically safe space – the neutrality – in which a high-performance team can do its best work.

We are the grown-ups in the room.

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