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Facilitating in the Groan Zone

You know how it goes. The meeting starts and everyone is excited, apprehensive, curious. Problems are identified and the way forward is sought. Ideas bubble up and are captured on flip charts or Post-it notes. This divergent thinking is exciting and rewarding.

Then it gets tough. There are many ideas out there but none seem to exactly fit the needs. Various opinions emerge, but there’s no agreement.  Things can get heated, or people get frustrated. Confusion reigns,and it seems there is no way forward. Participants may feel ‘this meeting is not going well’. Body language changes and the mood in the room shifts.

Congratulations. You’ve entered the Groan Zone. It can be the crucible in which deeper issues are explored,  and new ideas are forged. But it can also expose underlying differences and difficulties, requiring participants to go deeper, think harder and persist in problem solving longer than is comfortable.

One characteristic behaviour of a group in this phase is to jump on the first sensible sounding idea that emerges, taking them to more comfortable ground. But if you shortchange this phase of the process, there is a high risk that the meeting will underachieve. The role of the facilitator in the groan zone is to provide maximum clarity for participants, while keeping the meeting in an emergent state. Push through the discomfort to find underlying issues, and make sure these are addressed, getting the highest quality outcome for the group.

Here are some things to try if you find yourself facilitating in the green zone:

  • Provide reassurance that this is normal, and important. Gently inform people where they are in the process, and that their feelings of unrest are not a sign of the meeting going badly, but rather a sign that the meeting is doing its work.
  • Get creative.  At this stage people need a new way of looking at things. As a facilitator you can accomplish this by such apparently simple measures as changing the language you’re using (for instance talking about aims rather than goals), engaging a different part of participants’ brains (for instance ask people to visualise what they are discussing, instead of using words).
  • Go backwards to go forwards. Getting stuck in the groan zone can be a symptom of  competing frames of reference coming into play. Try to surface this by moving the conversation back to an earlier stage, or up to a higher level – for instance discuss the principles of a policy, instead of the wording of the policy. Keep asking ‘And why is that?’.
  • Allow time for quiet reflection. The groan zone can be a hurly- burly place where people literally cannot hear their own thoughts. Techniques such as journalling, intensive listening in pairs or triads, or even simply sending everybody out for a silent walk can help individuals tune into their inner voices and get a perspective on the bigger picture.

These apparently simple steps appear to take time out from the melee of the meeting, but can actually be a really productive use of time.

The Groan Zone cannot go on forever though. Your meeting needs to conclude and find constructive ways forward. As a facilitator, stay tuned for this moment. It may be the point at which alignment is emerging in the room. It may be that underlying issues are now clear, and good choices can now be made amongst ideas generated.  Or in some cases it may simply be the dictation of time – that you have to end the meeting by 5 o’clock !

When it’s time to leave the Groan Zone you’ll need to help your group refine agreements  and define ways forward. If your groan zone has been productive, this convergent phase of the meeting will be satisfying to participants, providing high quality outcomes.  Taking a meeting to this higher level is challenging – but worth it. So next time you’re in a meeting – embrace the Groan Zone!

With thanks to the many instructors and practitioners in the Art of Hosting Community.


Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay