Meeting Meltdown! Part 1 (of 2)

What could you have done to prevent these?

Imagine – you are the facilitator for a meeting of a newly appointed group convening for the first time to plan the use of an outdoor public space in the community. The following three things happen in the meeting with and between group members.

1. You are presenting a few meeting guidelines to get the group started. They include:

    • Treat others with respect
    • Think before you speak
    • Stay on point and on time

Brook says loudly “these are totally culturally biased. I can’t go along with this!”

2. Riley is one of the first to speak and goes on at great length about a concern about dog usage in the space, in a broader discussion allocated on the agenda for 15 minutes. No one else can get a word in edgewise, and you’re almost out of time for this item.

3. Mark and Jean lock horns, polarized over different ideas on which members of the community should be prioritized in having access to the space. Others are shrinking into their chairs, or reddening and attempting to jump in.

Which of these makes you most uncomfortable? Is there anything you could have done to prevent these particular dynamics from erupting?

The good news — for your next meeting — is that you can set the stage for productive communications and reduce the potential for many meltdowns through your meeting design.

To avoid the first meltdown, you could have elicited and developed desired group agreements from and with participants, perhaps after having completed a lively opening activity that got people talking to each other. Engaging in your own diversity, equity and inclusion learning journey could also support your ability to suggest or summarize inclusive, rather than dominant-culture, practices and language.

To make it unlikely that someone monopolizes a discussion, you could have provided some simple structure that makes space for all voices (and creates group norms for this kind of participation). Examples include a go-around (everyone is invited, in turn, to briefly offer a thought); or a focus question to discuss in pairs for a few minutes and then a sampling of highlights from pairs discussions. Or you could have everyone jots something on a sticky note or a page posted on a wall. “Popcorn” discussions — free for all’s on a topic, seldom result in even participation or a thoughtful dialogue early in a group process.

And finally, you could have minimized the likelihood of people getting into a pitched battle with polarized positions by sequencing an exploration of people’s values and interests on a hot topic (in this case, priorities for accessing and using the space) before inviting and allowing discussions of policies or solutions. When it is time to talk about solutions, providing ways to gather and hear a full range of ideas before evaluating them is an important step. Then, you can help people assess options together through identifying and applying criteria, polling, gradients of agreement exercises, etc. This involves group members in a more transparent and shared thinking process, tends to lighten people’s emotional identification with particular positions, and promotes more thoughtful decision-making.

In spite of your best laid plans, what do you do when meltdowns inevitably occur? See Part II for tips on how to intervene effectively.