How to manage tough facilitation

Imagine this: You’re in the middle of a tough facilitation. It seems to be going fairly well. You’ve managed to keep the outrage from boiling over. So far.

Suddenly, an angry person leaps up, face red, voice raised, and screams “This is rubbish! You lot aren’t listening! I’m sick of it!”

The project manager shakes their head and mouths at you, “Do something. Now.”

Your perfectly crafted engagement plan and polished key messages are suddenly useless.

It’s just you, your wits and a trickle-turned-stream of sweat running down your spine.

You’re standing there, frozen and speechless. Everyone who’s not yelling at you is watching you, expecting you to take control.

So what do you do?

How do you facilitate the tough stuff?

What is tough facilitation?

Tough facilitation is when you have the sort of session that’s either off the rails, full of strong emotions, or where it feels impossible to get a resolution. Where there’s polarisation, highly charged politics, or high conflict.

The top 5 facilitation scenarios most likely to be described as tough by participants in the Articulous course, Facilitating the Tough Stuff are:

  1. Situations with strong emotions (often anger, grief or trauma)
  2. Losing control of the agenda or the room
  3. Being heckled or abused and not knowing how to respond
  4. Being in control of your emotional response
  5. Personal safety.

Whether it’s a community forum of 100 or a focus group of 5, when the going gets tough it’s up to you as facilitator to keep cool, keep calm, and keep in control.

By ensuring you have the right skills and mechanisms in place, you will be able to succeed with any tough facilitation.

Tough Stuff facilitation training in Victoria

Articulous delivers engagement training, facilitation, and training in facilitation around Australia.

Our Melbourne office’s Shoshanna Berry-Porter joined senior trainer Amanda Newbery for a recent Tough Stuff training session with a Melbourne-based engagement team.

When asked “what makes some facilitations tough?” this is what they said:

  • Strong emotions – anger or emotive stories
  • Loss of control when things don’t go as you plan
  • Surprises
  • Heckling and having to improvise
  • Keeping the conversation going
  • When you don’t have anywhere to run or hide – when it’s in a one-on-one
  • My mood or emotion on that day
  • How the situation is affecting us
  • Knowing yourself and your triggers
  • The venue, environment, the weather – the physical setting
  • Thinking on your feet
  • Understanding the mood the community is in
  • Other engagement experiences
  • Reading the room and striking the balance between your objectives and are the community ready to get there
  • My reactions: will I get angry or cry?
  • We’re empathetic
  • Setting our boundaries about how we look after ourselves
  • Personal attacks / abuse

By exploring their facilitation fears, the team members were able to workshop their responses to potential scenarios, develop strategies for when facilitation gets tough, and build resilience, agility and confidence in their facilitation skills.

Shoshanna, already an experienced facilitator, shares her insights from this session.

Shoshanna’s top 5 tough facilitation tips

Hi there! Shoshanna here.

I had a blast working with our Victorian client during our Facilitating the Tough Stuff session. One of the best parts was hearing some of the tips and tricks people use in their facilitation. And that got me thinking about some of my own.

So, without further ado, here are my top 5 tips for tough facilitation!

1. Put your facilitator hat on

Your facilitator hat is your hard hat, your crash helmet. It protects you from the emotional shelling you might have to endure. From the moment you enter the room, you are the facilitator. You are not the sensitive petal that likes to sob at sad movies while sharing ice-cream with her cat (this example may or may not be relevant to you).

Because when you put on the facilitator hat, you’re strong. You’re resilient. You’re flexible. You’ve got this.

2. Prepare some responses

Sometimes a comment can be a real curveball. It comes out of nowhere. Maybe it’s nasty, maybe it’s off-topic, or maybe it comes from a community member who up until now has been completely silent.

Regardless, it’s left you momentarily lost for words. In this situation it can be helpful to have pre-prepared a few responses so you’re not standing there, frozen, like a wallaby in the headlights. Here are some of my go-to one-liners:

    • Hmmm…That’s a tough one…I don’t have the answer for that right now I’m afraid. Maybe we can find out in the break/after the forum
    • So, what you’re telling me is [insert what they just said – the main points will suffice], is that correct?
    • Can we unpack that a little further? What do you mean by [insert word/phrase here]?
    • I’d like to bring us back to the main point/question at hand, which is [insert main point/question at hand]
    • Thank you. [And now quickly turn to the other side of the room and say something like “I’m going to ask some questions from this side of the room. There are some people over here I’ve not heard from yet”]

3. Have a facilitator’s pack ready to go

Feeling prepared helps me keep calm. And part of being prepared is having a bag/box full of facilitation goodies ready at hand.

    • Sharpies of every size and colour
    • Giant sticky notes
    • Lollies to keep you energised (or break the ice!)
    • Water
    • Tissues (for you but ideally for anyone else)
    • A note pad and clipboard. Sounds weird but hear me out:
      • Holding a clipboard makes you look professional.
      • You can have a couple of notes written down to help you along.
      • You can hold onto it really tight if you’re feeling nervous
      • You can use it as a little tray to put snacks on
      • If somebody hands you a bunch of printed out photos as evidence, you can put them in your clipboard
      • If somebody insists on giving you their name, number and email address, you can get them to write it down on your clipboard
      • It makes a good substitute umbrella if you forgot to bring one
    • A few activities for kids, like coloured pencils and a colouring in book
    • Panadol. Because you never know.

4. Use your body

Studies suggest that body language can account for over 50% of all communication. I find that using my whole body to facilitate helps me to connect more with the crowd. I make sure I:

    • always make eye contact with the person I am talking with or listening to
    • nod my head to show I understand
    • use up the whole room rather than just sitting or standing in one spot
    • gesture with my hand to help get my message across or draw something out of the person I am engaging with.

And as much as anything, getting my body moving helps me feel less nervous.

5.    Balance the emotion

You can’t change how people are feeling in the moment. But what you can change is how you respond to it. Because your response can make all the difference. It can balance the room, neutralise anger or create a safe space for solace.

For instance, when I’m faced with a room full of angry homeowners, my response is curiosity. I’m curious to get to the bottom the issue, to understand exactly who, what, when, where, why, and how. As you delve deeper, and begin to examine things, suddenly the anger starts to dissipate. Things begin to look more objective. People feel heard.

On the other hand, if somebody is telling me about a traumatic event or experience, my response is compassion. I want to create a space where they are supported. Where it’s ok to cry. Where, together, we can work through the issue.

By balancing the emotion room, you create a space where community can feel the way they feel and you can still achieve the results you were hoping for.

So, that’s my top 5 tips for tough facilitation! Next time you’re facilitating the tough stuff, don’t forget your clipboard! By the way, if you’re interested in working on your facilitation skills, I highly recommend our course. Find out more about it here.

Written by Shoshanna Berry-Porter
Shoshanna is a project officer with a varied skillset across marketing and communications and engagement. She has a flair for creating compelling narratives that resonate with audiences across platforms through text and design.