How to handle "but what about the real world"?

Part of the Facilitate Better "How To" series

Approximate reading time: four minutes

Interesting idea, but that will never work in the real world.

Did you just make that up because there is no way that would work in the real world.

How about you climb down your ivory tower and share some real world examples?

These are actual participant comments from sessions I have facilitated.  Almost always dismissive in tone, they sometimes bordered on sneering.  The individuals sharing them often were successful in shutting down any further exploration of the idea or option to which they were reacting.

So what’s a facilitator to do when participants play the “real world” card.  Here are three considerations that help me navigate such moments.

1. Acknowledge that many “real worlds” likely exist.

When individuals say something won’t work in the real world they assert that the idea would not work in the world as they define it.  Presumably other participants also exist in the real world and are sharing ideas and options they see as viable there.

At minimum, real world definitions can vary based on:

  • our life experiences;

  • the diversity of examples with which we are familiar;

  • our role and responsibilities within our organization or community; and,

  • our own potential biases. 

Effective facilitation helps remind people that we each bring our own perceptions of what constitutes the world we define as real and to respectfully acknowledge and seek understanding of others’ definitions.

We also can encourage groups to identify what data exists (or can be collected) about the real world(s) related to the ideas under consideration and those whom they will affect. Introducing relevant data to augment individual’s perceptions and anecdotal observations is almost always helpful.

2.  Don’t (let others) take the bait of the comment’s dismissive tone.

As facilitators we need to avoid reacting defensively if the comment is made dismissively, particularly if it is directed at something we have shared.  We also can help other participants do the same.

Saying something won’t work in the real world is a judgmental response.  Applying the ladder of inference framework, effective facilitation helps move from the judgment or inference to the specific observations that led to it.  Once those are surfaced, a group is likely to have a more productive discussion.

The key is to separate the content of the comment from the manner in which it is offered:

“It sounds like you have some questions about how this idea might play out in a specific situation.  Could you offer a few examples of your concerns?”

“When you say real world, I’m guessing you’re uncertain about the practical implications of this option.  Could you share some of your specific questions?”

Another tactic is to broaden the conversations beyond the individual playing the real world card:

“Kevin has noted he isn’t sure about this idea’s potential.  What do others think or feel about it?”

“I’m wondering how others see the viability of this option.”

3. Help clarify criteria to evaluate the efficacy of ideas or options.

Whether playing the real world card or reacting in some other fashion, strong individual personalities sometimes overly influence what ideas a group fully considers.

Also, when individuals reacting to an idea based on their own standards or criteria for judging it, can result in a verbal ping-pong match of disagreement.

Facilitators can reduce the likelihood of this happening by helping participants develop and apply 3-5 shared criteria for evaluating ideas or options. This moves participants into more useful parallel thinking instead of less productive competing thinking.

Group members (as well as ourselves as facilitators) also now have objective terms to apply for individual accountability:

“Kevin, it sounds like you have some concerns about the practical implications of this option.  For which of the established evaluation criteria do you see it falling short, and how?”

Bottom line?

Focus on the substance of any objections to an idea, not the style in which is it raised and use process to neutralize individual power or personality.

© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2021. All rights reserved.

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