What do you do when...? It depends!

Mark Twain reminds us that often the best answer to “What do I do when . . .?” really is “It depends!

Often when people talk with me about using HSD to facilitate conversations, decisions, or meetings, they eventually get to the basic question: “What do I do when . . .?” And then they describe their own worst fear about facilitating a group.

  • “What do I do when someone hijacks the floor and won’t give it up?”
  • “What do I do when there’s clearly conflict between individuals or groups in the room?”
  • “What do I do when difficult issues come up (i.e., race, gender, culture, political, etc.)?
  • “What do I do when people ask lots of questions that others don’t seem interested in, or that go beyond what I was intending to share?”

How would you fill in that blank, as a person who facilitates or leads meetings, provides training, hosts labs? What is your greatest challenge when you are the person at the front of the room, at the head of the table, or sitting between the conflicting factions?

The answer to, “What do I do when . . .?” really is, “It depends.” 

Facilitation is a job that asks you to step into the middle of extremely complex situations. You are responsible for helping a group of individuals reach a decision, learn new skills, plan something important, or just live and work together every day. Each person deals with forces that complicate their lives in ways you can’t see or comprehend. Each person is unique, bringing individual experiences, perspectives, skills, strengths, needs, fears, and battles into that space of conversation. Finally, you know that people depend on each other in ways they may or may not realize. They most often need each other’s information, collaboration, attention to move toward the completion of their shared work.

And there you are—right in the middle of all that complexity. There are several good reasons not to give pat answers to the “What do I do when . . .?” question.

  • No matter how similar the tasks are, how closely aligned the people are, or how closely they might follow your great instructions, no two complex systems will ever behave or respond in exactly the same way.
  • You are not at their workspace with them and cannot possibly know all the factors that are at work inside that group.
  • You won’t be there in each moment to coach them through your intervention if it starts to go awry.
  • Remember:  Giving an answer that tells someone “What to do when . . .” is like giving that person “a fish” The answer never really prepares them for the longer game. They need knowledge and insights that help them find their best answers to their own questions.  
  • Finally there’s an adage about the hammer and the nail. If you only give them one answer, that’s the only answer they might have—and it cannot possibly work in every situation that seems similar.

So rather than giving answers, I try to offer a set of questions a person can use to try to see the dynamics at play in the situation they face. Here are some sample questions and a bit of explanation about them:

Is this personal or public?
Ask yourself:

  • Is this challenge about a personal issue, or is it applicable / relevant to the larger group?
  • For whom is it personal? How personal is it?
  • If it’s more public, how ultimately relevant is it to the rest of the group?
  • How relevant is it to the desired outcome of the engagement?
  • In what ways might my response enhance the task of the day; in what way might it distract or change the day’s work?


  • If it seems to be just about that person:
    • Let the person know they were heard and that you’d love to talk with them about that issue at break or another time
    • Use the idea of a “parking lot” or “bike rack” to hold the question until later
    • Find a way, if you can, to relate that person’s issue to the concerns of the larger group in the task at hand
  • If it seems relevant to the larger group as well:
    • Bring the challenge to the larger group through inquiry, personal stories, discussions about barriers and opportunities, relationship to the day’s task
    • Focus on outcomes and impacts and how to leverage any tension or energy that lies hidden in the question
  • Else

Is this my question or theirs?
Ask yourself:

  • Is this something the group really needs to know?
  • Is this something I just want them to ask?
  • What is the question they need to ask and to what end?
  • What question will help them see their system more clearly?
  • What question will help them move closer to the outcomes they seek?


  • How the question can be used to move the discussion forward
  • How the question points to complex issues that need consideration
  • Else?

Is this surface or substance?
Ask yourself:

  • Does the individual or group need more broad-based applications of an idea?
  • Do they need a deeper exploration of the substance of the topic at this point?
  • What is it they are really asking?
  • What do they need to understand to be able to do the work they are charged to do?
  • How deeply do I need to go in sharing my understanding to be able to facilitate their work?


  • What can best inform their work—more depth and/or more breadth
  • What they need in this moment, and what they might be willing to put on hold for a more useful time
  • Else?

Is this for now or later?
Ask yourself:

  • How is this challenge blocking this person in this moment?
  • Is this question something I can respond to in the moment to help relieve tension?
  • What is my hesitancy in moving forward? In moving more slowly?
  • Is the individual or group who bring up a difficult challenge or question trying to avoid something else? Is there really a need to tackle that at this instant?


  • How to use aspirations or the assignment to focus on the immediate task
  • What you see into the dynamics of the participants to know who needs to move forward and who needs more time
  • Else?

Is this about control or freedom?
Ask yourself:

  • Is the person or group who creates the challenge trying to exert some sort of power over the group? Over you?
  • Is the person or group really trying to open a door / opportunity I never realized was there?
  • Are the people in the room battling each other? Are they battling me? Whose battle is it, really?
  • How can I create a balance between loose connections (those that are less frequent, less compelling, less directive) and tighter connections (those that are frequent, specific, directive)?


  • Whether this is a “push,” a “challenge,” or an attempted “all-out coup”
  • What you can do to open the space to engage them more broadly
  • Action that will engage the challenger to move with the room, rather than against it
  • Else?

There are so many questions like this that you can ask, depending on the challenge and the context where it emerges. HSD offers a number of tools, and perspectives that can help you see, understand, and influence these kinds of challenges. Join us next week February 15 and 17, 12p - 3p CST, to explore 5 Simple Rules for facilitators. Learn to leverage your facilitation challenges into productive, generative engagements. More Information and Registration

Hope to see you there!


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