Should I do something?

Five key questions to help you decide when to intervene.

Approximate reading time: 4 minutes, 30 seconds.

People reading the paper or checking their phones during a workshop. Crossed arms or a sea of silence during a staff meeting.  A small group that always seems to gather during breaks in a strategic planning session.

During any facilitation effort, you experience all kinds of individual and group behavior, sometimes feeling the need to do something about what is happening. The critical question is simple: should you?

In his excellent primer, The Skilled Facilitator, Roger Schwarz offers five critical questions to guide us in determining whether or not we should intervene.  I offer them below verbatim coupled with my own commentary.

Have I observed long enough to make a reliable diagnosis? 

Patience really is a virtue when it comes to effective facilitation.  You will notice many things, but you have to spend enough time with them to consider their possible meanings. 

Remember the distinction between observations (the facts of what is happening) and inferences (your interpretation or judgment about your observations).   The ladder of inference illustrates how we move between the two.

You bring your own “lenses” and mental models into any facilitation effort, filtering what you see through all of your life experiences and cultural layers of identity.  Take time to thoughtfully consider the various interpretations of what you observe before assuming you definitely know what it means.

And you can always check out what is happening by simply sharing your observation without offering any inferences: “I'm noticing a lot of side conversations happening right now.”  The group will tell you what it means.

Is what’s happening a problem?

This has to be one of the most critical, but overlooked self-assessment questions.  Just because you notice something and understand what it likely means, doesn't suggest you have to do anything about it. 

Is the one person reading USA Today during your workshop a problem?  For whom?  You?  Get over it.

The goal isn't to intervene anytime an opportunity exists to do so; the intent is to do so only when necessary and even then, with restraint.

And be careful to consider organizational culture and group norms in determining whether or not something is a problem.  Behaviors that for some people would indeed be a problem are often commonly accepted in other settings.

What are the consequences of not intervening?

Effective facilitation helps group participants manage themselves, not do the work that rightfully they should own.  The default setting on your intervention software is best left at “do nothing” so that you only activate your involvement after considering if you absolutely must.

Or to think of it another way, consider your interventions like lifelines in Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  The group has a limited number of opportunities to access them.  Does this situation really require them using one of them up? Or can you wait and see how any individuals in the group might address the dynamic that has caught your attention or if the group continues to progress despite of it?

Is it my role to intervene as I am thinking?

You've notice something happening.  You've observed it long enough that you're sure of its meaning.  It is presenting some challenges for the group, and you've deemed not intervening as undesirable.  You're poised to do something, but is what needs to be done part of your role?

Many considerations may be associated with your role and this question: organizational hierarchy and culture, previous actions of others performing it, the shared norms and expectations the group developed, and the perceptions the individuals you are facilitating have for you and your contributions, among others. 

Clarify your role and participant expectations at the onset of any facilitation.  Different understandings are best addressed then and not in the middle of the workshop or conference call.  

Sometimes you might feel the need to intervene even when it is not a part of how your role is defined.  In those instances, you are best served by asking for permission to do so.  “My role today is primarily to help manage the conversation, not be a participant in its content.  But given what is happening right now, I feel I could make a useful contribution to help you achieve your objectives for this meeting.  If you would like me to do so, I will step out of my facilitator role momentarily to share those thoughts and then resume managing the discussions.”

Do I have the skills to do so?

Don't forget this one.  Just because you've answered yes to the previous four questions doesn't mean you're always prepared to do what needs to be done.

In these moments, I find it helpful to simply share that with the group, explaining what I have noticed, what I think it means, and why I think we need to do something about it.  “We have an increased number of side conversations occurring and people reacting negatively to what's being discussed. I sense tension and frustration rising as well.  I want to help us refocus and reconnect as a group, but I'm struggling with how I can best help you do so.”

Concerned that sharing you're not sure what to do or how to help will make you vulnerable in front of a group? I'd like to suggest the opposite. It's a statement of strength because it is honest, open, and authentic.  What would be most vulnerable or risky is you choosing to intervene in some particular way when you lack the skills to do so.

Bottom line?

As Trevor Bentley, so aptly notes in Facilitation: “If there is any aspect of facilitation which sets facilitators apart it is the ability to intervene in the group process in the right way, and at the right time.” Schwarz's five questions can help us do so.


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

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