Participant says what?!

I wrote this for Training for Change’s November newsletter.  It is directed towards folks who facilitate trainings.

Have you ever been facilitating a training when a participant says something and a little (or big) voice inside your head says something like “What did they just say?  What in the world do I do now?!!” That happens to me sometimes. Here’s a story about that.

The first story is about accidentally avoiding conflict.  I was asked to do a training for a group of facilitators who wanted to increase their confidence and skills in addressing challenging comments in the training room. We framed the training as “moving toward conflict to promote learning.”  After exploring personal, cultural, and societal experiences of conflict it was time for some practice.  I decided to use a parallel line role play to practice how to respond to challenging comments.  I asked the group what kind of comment they wanted to practice with.  The group had been very self-reflective so far and had gone deep with exploring their individual comfort level with conflict.  I took this to indicate it wouldn’t be risky to ask them what content they wanted for their practice time.  I was wrong.

Most of the group wanted to practice fundraising conversations.  This felt out of left field.  While the organization has fundraising components, I was there to assist them in using conflict for learning while facilitating.  I had a very loud voice shouting in my head “Oh, no, what am I going to do?!”  I could feel some my panicky physical sensations: stomach turning, vision closing down, palms a little sweaty.  My brain also closed down a little and I said “Ok, let’s have you all practice fundraising conversations” and I continued with the set-up and ran the activity.  We went on with the workshop, had different formats of practice, folks learned some skills and increased their confidence in using conflict for learning.

After every training I look at the evaluations, write up personal reflections, and talk to the point person for the workshop.  During this process, I realized the comedy of the moment.  The purpose of the workshop was to build skill in addressing conflict, participants of this workshop avoided conflict, and I avoided conflict right along with them! When it came time to practice directly engaging with conflict most of the participants skirted around the topic at hand.   In reflecting upon my own conflict avoidance, by going along with the off-topic example and not addressing it, I realized that my socialization and social identities were very activated in that moment.  As a middle-class mixed Latina I was taught a lot of things about how to deal with conflict both within my groups and when interacting with people from different groups. Some of these things allow me to use the power of conflict for learning and growth, some of these things limit learning and growth.  In this workshop I was working with mostly white and mostly wealthy participants.  While I work with this population fairly frequently, I still sometimes get caught up (as I did in this moment) by the larger societal messages of not challenging white wealth. That despite me being explicitly paid to challenge the status quo, our oppressive system was present in the room.

Part of reflecting on the workshop was a brainstorm of alternative options for how to respond. Here are four:

  1. Meta-communication: “Oh, I’m noticing that you all picked something we haven’t been talking about.”
  2. Asking questions: “Hmm, how does a fundraising conversation fit into the workshop goals of increasing skills in using conflict for learning?”
  3. Being directive: “So, in our conversations so far, people have said what is hard for them to deal with most is racist comments in a workshop. Let’s work with that kind of comment instead, since this workshop focuses on facilitation.”
  4. Being confrontational: “You all seem to be avoiding practicing directly engaging in conflict, by picking an off-topic example. In my experience that is one technique some folks use to control situations and maintain structural power, by doing something off topic that looks like it is on topic.”

The moment was a small one, a good laugh afterwards, and reminded me how easy it is to get surprised in the training room.  By spending time reflecting on that moment, I got to understand the complexity of what was happening for me.  This deeper understanding gives me more room to both have a panic moment and still have options that are more aligned with my goals.

My second story is about working with a co-facilitator.  I was working with a curriculum that I didn’t design, with a co-facilitator that I hadn’t worked with before, for a group of folks from different organizations that wanted to learn more about a particular social justice topic.  This curriculum includes ground rules as part of the agenda review.  I am generally not a big fan of ground rules for non-intact groups (see Daniel Hunter’s article on ground rules for more thoughts on the subject). However, I have found that with some groups not having ground rules is so disruptive to their expectations that participants struggle to be present for learning.

Next in the workshop, both facilitators shared about their social identities and how they got into working for social justice. I went first, nothing interesting happened.  Then my co-facilitator shared her story of being an African-American woman growing up in the 1960s and seeing adults around her push for civil rights; rights that she has seen rolled back in recent years.  She then gave instructions for the next activity and asked if there were any questions.  A muscular white man in his mid 30s (who later shared that he is working class and in the military) raised his hand and said “You violated the first rule on the ground rules by not using ‘I statements’ when you said civil rights have been rolled back lately.” The room went tense and very quiet. This was 15 minutes into a four-hour workshop.

As the facilitator who was not actively facilitating I began to cheer for my co-facilitator in my head.  Things like “You can do this Mary (a made-up name for my co-facilitator)!  You can navigate this!  You can support everyone’s learning in this moment!! Yes, you can!!”

Mary responds, the room gets even more tense.  Her response seemed to lock the participant deeper in distrust.  I started to hear things in my head like “Should I do something?  Does my co-facilitator need me?  How can I support her in a way that doesn’t diminish us as a team? I don’t want one of the few working class folks to be verbally attacked by other participants.  I don’t want to let a white guy verbally attack my African-American co-facilitator. What should I do?  How should I do it?  I can’t believe this is happening!”

Without trying to quiet the noise in my head, I started focusing on why I was at the front of the room in the first place. I started thinking about how the ground was supporting my feet and about my goal of liberation for everyone.

Another participant, a white woman wearing one of the fanciest outfits in the room, said “When I work with my students I talk to them about not being too sensitive to things people say.”  The first participant half mumbled under his breath while looking at the floor and shaking a little bit said “Are you saying I’m being too sensitive?”

At this point I stood up, moved in front of my co-facilitator, and started talking.  I said “Let’s mark this moment for our learning. We have been given a gift by… (I lean towards the first participant), what’s your name? (Let’s say he said John). We have been given a gift by John as an example of one way to say ‘What you did impacted me in this way.’ And… (I lean towards the second participant) and what’s your name? (Let’s say she said Karen). These name tags are just so small to read (I give a small chuckle). Karen has given us some things she uses with her students.  Mary showed one way to respond to the gift of someone saying ‘what you did impacted me in this way’ and there are a lot of different options for responding.  So, as we start our time together there may be other times when we get to say ‘what you did impacted me’ and we may be able to practice how to say that and how to respond.  So please turn to your partner and talk about the activity Mary just explained, or talk about what just happened (I said this with a light energy and a bit of a chuckle).  We’ll come back as a group and some folks will have an opportunity to share and we’ll see what we have to talk about.”

When we came back as a large group I asked folks what they talked about and what they wanted to share.  No one shared anything about that moment.  People were very engaged in the workshop and seemed to learn a lot, including John and Karen. Briefly during the workshop, and after the workshop I checked-in with my co-facilitator.  She felt supported by my intervention, which I was really hoping she would.

These two stories highlight for me the importance of recognizing the moment, seeing multiple layers that are happening, and grounding myself in my goals (both specific workshop goals and larger goals).  When I got caught up in the moment in the first story, I wasn’t able to see what was happening and participants lost some learning opportunity. Taking the time to reflect gave me possibilities for the future.  The second story I was really able to have space for both the panic voice and my clarity of what I wanted to do. This ability to hold the complexity allowed me to access my flexibility and support learning.


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