Do Your Meetings Get Stuck in the ‘Groan Zone’?

I recently took a 3-day facilitation skills training at Community At Work in San Francisco. If you aren’t familiar with CAW, you might wish to get better acquainted with this terrific, 31-year-old consulting, training and organization development think tank organization.

Taught by masterful trainer/facilitator Sarah Fisk, a long-time senior consultant there, the Group Facilitation Skills: Putting Participatory Values Into Practice course was my second CAW training. Several years ago I took CAW founder Sam Kaner’s Organization Diagnosis workshop. Both multi-day courses were intense, empowering and inspiring experiences. Sarah and Sam are gifted at creating a safe learning environment for about 20 participants from the nonprofit, philanthropic, public and private sectors and hailing from across North America.

In this workshop, we were a group of learners diverse in almost every way. Though eager to learn the skills, some of us were apprehensive at the start. Sarah described and demonstrated each skill, then encouraged us to practice in small groups. While learning the skills, we got to know each other and ourselves. At the end of each exercise, we practiced the skills of offering and receiving constructive feedback non-defensively.

Getting Unstuck

A key takeaway was the “normalization” of a wide range of behaviors some might see as dysfunctional group dynamics. In particular, the term “groan zone” describes the inevitable period of a group process in which “divergence” arises. Often in the middle of a process, participants surface a wide range of viewpoints and may feel like they are nowhere near to reaching consensus on how to solve a problem—or even on how to define the true nature of a problem.

In challenging theory of change work, every group I’ve facilitated has experienced a “groan zone” during which it seems participants will never be able to reach a satisfactory agreement. In every case, however, the group always manages to find “convergence” –agreement on key decisions. In this workshop, I learned that it’s important to reassure groups that in order to reach a solid, workable decision for all, there is no avoiding this sometimes uncomfortable phase. To better manage the groan zone, we learned several tools, including best practices for using agreement scales.

Sarah also named the three main reasons group processes break down and don’t succeed. I’m guessing these will sound familiar to readers:

  • Unclear goal(s)
  • Lack of an explicit decisionmaking rule
  • Inadequate process management

Some of the workshop exercises were intentionally self-reflective, providing opportunities to learn more about the kinds of group dynamics and personality types that are most challenging for us when facilitating a group. By the end of the workshop, we were mentally and emotionally “full”.

Great Alternatives to Open Discussion in a Large Group

In addition to so many other strategies and tools, we learned a wide range of alternatives to facilitating large-group open discussion, which can easily get bogged down. We also learned when, why and how to use each. Here are a handful of the new-to-me techniques and their uses. I can’t wait to try them out in future meetings and retreats.

  • Employ the technique of a “gallery tour” to allow members of a breakout group to share their work with people who were in different breakouts
  • Try a “scrambler” to enable everyone to work in small groups with rotating, different partners
  • Use a “fish bowl” to allow one set of stakeholders (e.g., doctors) to listen quietly to better understand another group’s (e.g., nurses) perspective. The groups take turn being in the center of a circle, or “fishbowl”
  • Use a “trade show” exercise to allow 3 or more individuals to make simultaneous presentations to smaller groups of participants. After one round of presentations, each “audience group” rotates to listen to the next presenter

Please drop me a note about your favorite group process technique or anything else about your experience facilitating meetings or sitting through bad meetings. I’ll use some of them, anonymously of course, in a future post.

Illustration by Andrew Genn, iStock