How to handle common conversational roadblocks

Part of the Facilitate Better "How To series

Approximate reading time: four minutes

“We've always done it this way.”

“That won't work.  We tried it before.”

I often hear these participant reactions to ideas in meetings or planning sessions.

No doubt some people in the conversation agree with these sentiments.  Some participants may feel personally rejected. Others will wonder if the group is not open to new ideas. 

Such responses could end discussion momentum or temporarily stifle progress. They appear as roadblocks to continuing the previous line of thought. They shut people down.

It doesn't have to be this way.

It is our role as facilitators to ensure that it doesn't.

We shouldn't experience these statements as barricades, but simply as another voiced contribution to manage.  We should treat them merely as temporary detours on the route to the stated outcomes for the meeting. 

If we've helped create a safe climate for conversation, it then becomes possible for us (and other participants) to challenge these statements, but in an impersonal and nonjudgmental manner. If that is absent, your attention must first focus on climate (re)creation, the subject of my next post.

Remember, facilitation literally means actions that make it easier ... for good conversation to occur, decisions to be made, and much more.  So here are some possible verbal actions we can take in response to these two common temporary roadblocks.

“We've always done it this way.”

1. Check out this blanket assertion with the groupCarlos says it's always been done this way.  Is that the sense of others?

Unless Carlos is the universal truth-teller, his opinion doesn't have to go unchecked.  You also can probe if individuals have ever experienced “it” being done another way in another organization, and if so, invite them to talk a bit about it.

2.  Respectfully push back a bit on the always: Has it really always been this way?

The time period individuals describe as always often relates only to their time in the organization.  Other individuals in the group may have different timeframes and experiences to share.

3.  Examine the implications of the actions: So what have been the results from this apparent longstanding practice? 

Effective facilitation helps surface underlying assumptions and unstated meaning.  Implicit in the assertion that “we've always done it this way” is that it's always been successful and no need for change exists.  Bring that to the surface.  Help people discuss the actual results to see if a need for change might exist and if so, in what area and to what end.

4.  Explore the future sustainability of the practice.

“We've always done it this way" is about the past and somewhat about the present.  But meetings and planning sessions often are about the future.  What conditions made this practice appropriate or work well in the past. Are those same conditions currently present and likely to be so in the future?"

5.  Invite the person who shared the initial alternative idea to talk about its potential: Susan, can you explain more about what you see your approach offering that might improve upon what's been done in the past.

Remember, sometimes our facilitation intention (ensure ideas are thoroughly explored) requires that we shift our attention (from the conversation blocker to the idea contributor).

“That won't work.  We tried it before.”

1.  Simply invite the participant to tell us more: Talk a bit about what happened with the previous attempts and any lessons learned from them.

Again, past conditions are not necessarily the future environment in which a group will operate.  Whether or not an idea will work depends on context, and context is not permanent.  Effective facilitation helps tease out the conditions or context so that potential ideas can be assessed against it.

2.  Have everyone mine the idea for potential value: Is there a variation on what was attempted in the past that you think might be more successful?  or What elements of this idea might have some potential despite past results? 

The statement as spoken is a blanket rejection of what's previously been attempted.  Help the group consider if some portion of the idea might have merit and how to build upon it.

3.  Pause or redirect critical thinking.

“That won't work” is a critical response.  If expressed during the initial creative thjinking portion of a brainstorming session, it's out of place and against the stated rules for conversation at that time.  Remind people of this:  Remember, we're only doing creative thinking right now.  We will critique ideas later.  What are other ideas people have?

Bottom line?

Effective facilitation can ensure that conversational roadblocks are merely temporary detours on the route to the stated outcomes for the meeting.


How else might you respond to these common retorts so that the conversation continues as opposed to be completely blocked?

Share some ideas in the comments so others can learn from your perspective.


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