What Do You Do When the Group You’re Presenting to Turns Hostile?

'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.' — African Proverb

 In one of my first assignments as a senior consultant, I was given the responsibility to lead one of our firm’s largest clients in a strategy clarification process. I had both air cover and ground support from the firm, but this was a challenging assignment because the industry was under attack from foreign competitors, and the firm had not fared well in the fight for differentiation in tough markets. I was new in the lead role which proved at times to be a steep learning curve. Needless to say, there was a lot riding on the outcome of our strategy, not only for our client but also for our firm and me.

The strategy team was bright, engaged, and committed. But there was one team member, a senior leader, who liked to challenge everyone’s thinking. This role was usually helpful for the team until decisions had to be made. It was during these critical decision-making meetings when the senior partner would come to help and offer perspective. As the project leader, those meetings usually fell to me to facilitate. For whatever reason, this senior leader always acted worse when the senior partner showed up. I never knew if it was to make me look bad or to make him look good, but it caused the team to stall and I got frustrated.

I couldn’t remove him from the team, and I knew our solutions would go further if we could make decisions as a team. So I explained to the senior partner the dynamics I had witnessed. He listened and said: ‘You need to play organisational jiu-jitsu with him.’ He explained that I needed to listen to this leader’s concerns and then use that energy to walk him through each assumption to where ultimately the argument would break down and hit a wall. Then I should act graciously despite his derailing argument so that he felt safe and whole. Why? Not only would our relationship improve, but the team would trust me in the future to do the same with them if they had a concern. It worked! It took time to develop the skill as a ‘go-to’ strategy. But looking back, I realised that I have relied on this skill a lot.

Recently, a client asked me how I might handle facilitating a difficult group with team members who are both sceptical about the direction of the firm and the content of a meeting. We’ve all been in situations like this and we often encounter meeting participants who range from asking a question for understanding to those who appear to be attacking.
Reflecting on my 25-year consulting career filled with situations like these, I shared with my client five ways to make these meetings go better.

Five ways to handle meeting participants that seem sceptical or challenging

1. Mindset. A helpful perspective to have is to remember that the sceptical person is not challenging you. More often than not, meeting participants are resistant because something else hasn’t yet been resolved, and they need to verbalise their concerns. Patrick Q. Mason said: ‘Most people don't really want to be solved. They want to be heard, valued, and as much as possible understood.’ Listen to the concern knowing that they are challenging something else, not you.

2. Ownership. Don’t take ownership of an idea, take ownership of arriving at the best idea. If all meeting participants have the same goal in mind, then you will be fierce about the process and not defensive about your position. Socrates said: ‘The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.’ Think of yourself not as a bridge builder that connects ideas into something bigger and better because of the synergy of the group.

3. Skill set. Facilitation is a skill and takes practice. Bridge builders can understand an idea with no personal agenda, integrate pieces into a larger whole, and engage people in the process so at the end, meeting participants will say ‘we did it’. Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.’ That’s a great process for achieving synergistic solutions.

4. Credibility. There is a fine line between having expertise and believing you are the expert. The differentiator is humility, and your relevant application to the business situation gives you credibility. Larry King said: ‘I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening.’ In this way, you will come across as a partner in the process and people will ask, listen, and believe your expertise and give you credibility.

5. Jiu-jitsu. When all else fails, play out their argument but remember to help them save face. This will build trust and you will develop a reputation as one more interested in getting to the right solution. Jeff Daly said: ‘Two monologues do not make a dialogue.’ Real dialogue requires listening, reflecting, and sharing. It includes going towards the challenging person, engaging with them, and asking important questions. If understanding and dialogue is your intent, it will be felt by all and you’ll arrive not only at a better decision, with relationships intact.

Martin Luther King Jr said: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ When you feel you are being challenged, step back and remember these five tips. They will enable you to stand as a professional facilitator and builder of consensus—a great measure of a true business partner.

R. Kendall Lyman and Tony C. Daloisio are the authors of the new book Change the Way You Change! 5 Roles of Leaders Who Accelerate Business Performance. As members of the Duke Corporate Education Faculty Network, they help leaders around the world navigate change, improve employee engagement, transform culture, and increase leadership capability.