In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.Theodore Roosevelt (1858—1919)
26th President of the United States
Suddenly a certain situation arises and we don’t know how to react to it. Then instead of our brain our instincts pop up. That means either a fight or a flight reaction. As workshop leader we can not leave the scene. Consequently, we might react aggressive – much more aggressive than ever needed. Accordingly, it’s worthwhile to think about certain situations and possible reactions in advance. Thus, we won’t be unprepared and we can act upon (not react). In Dealing with disturbances we address emotional reactions due to logistical issues, while in Dealing with difficult participants we speak about special needs individuals might have. On this page “What should I do if” … we clarify situations other than the previous ones. We suggests few actions. I am glad to hear and to collect more of those. So, let me know what you experienced yourself!
Different “ifs” and what you should do about
…there is too much unrest in the group at the beginning
In the opening stages there can be a lot of talking and a lot of moving about (people getting a glass of water, going to washrooms etc.). This is because people often arrive mentally sometime after their physical arrival. What should I do if I encounter this situation? Let them arrive! It wouldn’t be very wise to start with the programmed sessions as nobody is focused yet. Instead you could begin with an exercise or game for calming people down and sharpening their focus.
Or you may feel that there is need for communication. Ask your participants what’s going on. The unrest is a kind of disturbance and should be dealt with as a priority.
…one individual is talking too much
Have you made the basic rules of moderation clear? If yes, it’s clear that you can interrupt and give others their equal right to participate — not only when the talker pauses to take a breath! What should I do if he or she doesn’t stop. One possibility is to sum up his statement and to lead back to the question. You could also write it on a flip chart by asking whether you understand his point correctly. Someone who sees his point has been understood doesn’t need to repeat it constantly.
Another way would be to ask if the rest of the group is interested in the detail of his explanation.
You could also — with the consent of the group — lead back to the subject with reference of the time: Should we come to our main topic so that we can have our break on time or would you prefer to go into his point in more detail?
…the same people are always talking
The right balance is a question of sensitivity. There are people who like to talk more and others who prefer to listen. Nonetheless, all participants have to have a fair share of opportunity. So although it might not be a problem if few people dominate the conversation on a certain issue, if you sense that others are being denied the chance to contribute you should interrupt.
You could then just ask for the opinion of those who haven’t said anything so far. Or you could do a Flashlight. Another way would be to do some group work where everybody’s input is gathered by assigning roles: Jigsaw, Six Thinking Hats and World Café.
…two people get into a verbal fight
Stop it! Interrupt it! It could ruin the atmosphere of your whole group! When you have brought it to a close, then clarify what is relevant for the content for the workshop and what is personal. Personal conflicts should be settled by the two individuals outside — you could offer your help as mediator but don’t force the issue.
If the fight breaks the group into two opposing factions, it is necessary to deescalate the situation. First of all make sure that everyone is aware the conflict is not a question of personal animosity but rather two conflicting points in relation to the content of the workshop. It might help to utilise the Squares of Values [see Communication/Squares of Values] for participants to better understand the other position.
…nobody says anything
You are the workshop leader and you mainly lead by questioning. So, if there is not much energy and input you could either do an energiser or ask more concrete questions — for example using Flashlight [see Moderation Techniques].
In case there is an existing problem within the group you will have to settle the conflict first.
…your boss is present
This might be difficult. Often bosses tend to overrule your moderation. If you know that she/he is coming beforehand, please clarify in which role he or she will be there: either he is a part of the session for her-/himself or she/he is an observer. You and your boss need to make the choice. If she/he just wants to peek in and be an observer, make her/him agree that you are leading the workshop.
If the visit is unannounced it’s very likely that she/he wants to see you performing. Mostly, this refers to observation. So, relax and do your business as usual (as if she/he were not there).
Sometimes, the boss will interfere no matter what. Then, you’ll need some flair. Either you let her/him talk for a little while before taking over again by interrupting at a strategic point or let the interruption happen and relax. If worst comes to worst, you could interrupt by relying on the authority of the group — summarising your boss’ point and referring to the need to allow other participants to give their input. Then you could directly use the aFlashlight technique on another participant. But you shouldn’t do this too often with your boss…
Often bosses don’t have enough time to stay for hours and as their time is rather limited they may well stop by themselves…
…participants need more information to discuss
In order not use too much workshop time you could send preliminary information. This should be short and precise. Otherwise you run risk that nobody will read it.
Another way is to have a short input session: either you give presentation or you have an external expert.
A classic way is to lead the group to read a specific text, although this might require much workshop time.
Additionally, you could prepare some posters with the relevant information. The best way would be with a visualisation so that you don’t have to spend too much time on it.
If learning is a planned part of the workshop, guided techniques like Jigsaw are a wonderful way to achieve group learning.
…sessions are longer than planned
The only consistency in plans is that they will always change. Don’t worry, this is quite normal. Mostly we don’t schedule enough time in our planning. Only very experienced moderators can estimate quite perfectly. So, if you realise that you won’t finish in time then clarify the issue with the group. Would participants agree to extend the session at the cost of the following session, the break or perhaps the free evening? Could everybody agree to shorten their statements or reduce their own input? How would the group like to prioritise, i.e. to skip some scheduled sessions?