Dealing with blocks in the process

Time pressure

Time constraints on finding a solution to an urgent problem leads to stress. We need to allow enough time in the meeting for issues to be dealt with adequately. Prioritise which decisions need to be taken there and then and which ones can wait a while. Some decisions could be delegated to smaller groups.

Lack of focus

Avoid having meetings in which several issues are being discussed at once. State clearly what the issue is and what needs to be decided about it. Explain when the other issues will be discussed and stop people from going off on tangents. Make a note of any new issues that come up and park them for later in the parking space.

Example Problem – problem process

The group has been talking about the current agenda item for well over an hour and still doesn’t seem to be anywhere near a decision. It doesn’t feel like any progress is being made.

Underlying causes
  • Maybe the group doesn’t have all the information it needs to make a well informed decision.
  • Perhaps the group is tired and unfocussed.
  • If it’s a complex issue, maybe the range of possibilities is confusing the group. The group may be nearer to a solution than it realises, but isn’t hearing its own common ground.
Possible solutions
  • Check with the group whether everyone feels well enough informed. If not, ideastorm a list of questions that need answering and work out who will do the necessary research. Can the meeting be put on hold briefly, whilst someone does research on the web, or do you need to come back to it another time?
  • Take a break or do an energising activity, then try one of the other solutions.
  • Have a go-round to check where each person is in relation to the discussion – what do they think the obstacles are to making a decision? What are their favourite solutions? Then summarise.
  • If the discussion is complex, break it down into its component parts. Maybe use small groups. Each small group can take one component part or possible solution and explore it in more depth before reporting back.
  • Use your active listening skills to summarise the discussion so far – what have been the main concerns? Is there any agreement (no matter how small)? Stating areas of agreement can lift the group’s spirits.
  • Restate the aims of the discussion to refocus the group.

The group can’t reach a decision

A real consensus comes only after bringing differences out into the open. Encourage everyone to present their viewpoints, especially when they may be conflicting. This requires broad discussion and enough time.

Listen carefully for agreements and concerns and the underlying issues. What’s at the root of people’s worries? This helps with drawing up a proposal that takes them into account.

Test for agreement periodically. This helps to clarify disagreements. State the tentative consensus in the form of a question and be specific. If you are not sure how to phrase the question ask for help.

When there is time pressure or the group has lapsed into nit-picking, it can help to state the perceived agreement in the negative: “Is there anyone who does not agree that..?”

When no agreement can be reached, try the following:

  • ask those disagreeing for alternative proposals;
  • propose a break, silent thinking time, or postponing the decision to give people time to cool down and reflect. If the decision is postponed it is often a good idea to engage conflicting parties in conflict resolution before the issue is brought up again;
  • agree a process for taking a decision that all parties can sign up to.

When one or two people are blocking consensus, ask if they are prepared to stand aside, to allow the group to proceed with the action (standing aside = not being involved in implementing a decision and its consequences). It may help if the group assures them that the lack of unity will be recorded in the minutes, that the decision does not set a precedent and that they won’t be expected to implement the decision.

Don’t mistake silence for consent – insist on a response from every participant. The group should be conscious of making a contract with each other. If an agreement is reached too easily then test to make sure that members really are fully supportive of the decision and do agree on essential points.

If there are limits to the level of participation available to individuals, make these clear right at the start of the meeting. Are people simply being consulted, or asked to make a decision?

Facilitating problems

Step 1: active listening for the underlying issue behind the problem.

Step 2: choose an appropriate facilitation tool to deal with the underlying issue.

Step 3: the underlying issue is dealt with and the problem is solved.