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I am sometimes warned when planning an event of this or that person being awkward participants. Their behaviour may be challenging. They may not play. There may be conflict, they might seek to dominate and grab more than their share of the airtime.

It’s always an interesting moment. I seek to understand my clients’ perspective, the history, and examples of the “unwanted” behaviour showing up. Then I start to think about what to do.

Here are my rules of thumb:

Stay cool and focused on the outcome agreed with the client and invent the best way to achieve that.

Don’t let any single person or small group derail the event, be it consciously (rare) or otherwise (less rare but still rare).

Ask “what is the positive intention of their behaviour?” Can I be ready to assist them to get the good result without creating a bad experience.

What is this person’s approach telling me diagnostically? Are they being heard? Are they a lighthouse warning about danger? Or do they have problems interacting?

Build an alliance with them in advance. Call, meet to ensure they are heard. Talk about the purpose of the meeting and the need to stay constructive.

Consult with the group on how they need to interact and what they need to do to make the day brilliant. If needs be, record it as a benchmark.

If “the behaviour” occurs, draw out the golden nugget playfully (if that is likely to work). If not, ask seriously and in an adult way questions such as:

“How are you seeing this issue?” “Can you outline an alternative for us to consider?” “Lone voices often have a valuable message. What is your message on this?”

If the behaviour seems to offer little value, there are a number of courses of action:

Acknowledge then reduce their input: “You’ve had a good run on this topic. Can we get some more views please?

Have a word with them at a break. Ask a positive question. “What, if anything, can I do to make this event valuable for you?” If they ask why you are asking them, enquire on how they are experiencing things so far: “How have you been feeling, what’s been going through your mind?” Don’t assume. Ask really lasered questions to unearth any discontent. Change what you think is useful to change in response to what they say. Don’t promise to change things that you can’t or shouldn’t or ought not to change without a conversation with the group.

Go with their flow. Only once in 20 years have I had notoriously awkward person refuse to join in. Thier objection was mostly about getting attention. So that’s exactly the reward I didn’t provide.

As a facilitator, it’s important to not get phased by these instances. It’s about them, not about you. I give my attention to the group and what we are trying to achieve. We have important work to do.

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