Helping a Group Resolve a Problematic Discussion


A couple of weeks ago I flew into an overseas city on a Sunday afternoon in advance of a week at a client’s site. That evening I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, which is something I don’t normally do. While I was enjoying a quiet dinner ahead of the week, a group of 8-10 people behind me were engaged in a heated discussion. There were two people in particular who dominated the discussion, and basically threw the same lines back and forth at each other.

The first – by far the loudest and most dominant (domineering, even) – essentially said this for 20 minutes:

You’re wrong.
You’re wrong.
You’re wrong.
And if you do what you say you’ll do, I’ll slap you.

I was trying to enjoy a quiet dinner with this cacophony happening behind me, so I turned around and frowned at the table a few times. My frowning made no difference.

The other person in the discussion was a lot quieter than the first, but no less tenacious. Their response repertoire was some variant of:

I disagree.
I don’t think that’s true.
If that happens, I’ll take X action.
I don’t believe you.

Seriously, this went on for 20 minutes.

By this time I had finished my main course and the excuse for a dessert I ordered, and sat there listening to the end of the discussion. The main idea I contemplated was where I would find a whiteboard with some whiteboard pens, or even a flipchart and some markers. I didn’t bring any with me, by hey, I’m at a hotel; I’m sure the front desk could help me with such conference supplies.

What that group needed was a bit of collaborative coaching on how to formulate a discussion, how to respond appropriately to a question or challenge, and why the current inner-structure of the discussion was ineffective, downright boring, and was probably damaging the group’s capability to have a subsequent discussion. All bad things that could be helped with a bit of in-the-flow coaching, discussion modelling on the whiteboard, and directed questioning to draw out the right range of responses (“When she says this, what valid options do you have for responding to her assertion?” etc.). I imagined their initial shock at me turning up with the whiteboard, and hoped that they’d quickly see the wisdom of correcting their ineffective ways.

That group needed some serious help. However, I took the other approach of escaping such an ineffective discussion and walked back to my hotel room. Maybe next time …

Categories: Scenarios

1 reply »

  1. I think many of us have heard of situations like that before. I heard about a story from an acquaintance of mine about a board of directors who already had several meetings but were hopelessly deadlocked in various issues due to various peoples agendas and popularity bias/political bias etc. The only thing that they could agree on after these meetings was to hire a facilitator to assist in the discussion process so they could actually make some decisions. But it would be totally awkward to hear such issues over a client dinner… I’m glad you managed to escape!