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Lessons Learned: Why Communication is Key in a Tough Situation

Contributed by management expert Greg Giesen

I was asked to facilitate a two-hour focus group comprised of six people to discuss a proposed recycling program in a nearby town. “Sure,” I said, “how difficult could that be?” Granted I have never facilitated a focus group before, but six people…come on! Little did I know that in addition to the six people in the focus group, there were over 150 angry community members who felt compelled to attend the meeting as well.

Note to self: Never assume anything.

The topic of recycling wasn’t so much the controversial issue to the community members…it was the mandatory part that seemed to bring out every anti-government entity around, including organizers from out of state.

As I walked into the city hall that night, the event coordinator ran up to me and said that the recycling issue had become somewhat heated in the past few days since we had talked and that in addition to facilitating the small group of six, I also needed to open the meeting in the big room and address the growing crowd of over 200.

A Tough Situation Gets Worse

“Me?” I shouted, barely able to be heard with all the commotion going on, “I thought you were going to do that?”

“I think you’d be better since you are a neutral party. Just explain the format and the ground rules,” she insisted.

I looked at my watch. It was 6:25pm, just five minutes before the start of this town-hall-meeting-gone-bad was about to begin! This is going to be the longest two-hours of my life, I thought to myself.

And it was.

Before I could even introduce myself to the rowdy crowd, a number of people began yelling and screaming at me. The loudest voice came from the back of the room, “Who’s paying you?!” By the second time he yelled it out, the room got uncomfortably quiet, as people waited to hear my response. I said, “I don’t think that is relevant…” Oops, that didn’t go over too well. Now they got louder. Then three or four people screamed together, “How much are you getting paid?!”

Clearly, I was not viewed as a “neutral” facilitator by the now angry crowd; instead I had unknowingly become “one of them!”…you know, a representative of the city government. Fortunately, there was a member of city council there who felt compelled to engage himself into the fury by defending the proposed recycling program. The good news was that the focus was finally off of me. The bad news was that the crowd was quickly getting out of hand. I looked at my watch…it read 6:35pm. It’s only been five minutes. How am I going to survive this night from hell? I whined to myself.

Eventually, the six focus group members and I were able to escape to another room, but not without members of the angry mob continuously disrupting our meeting by barging into the room and verbally attacking anything and everything we were doing.

When time was finally up for our focus group, I had the ugly task of going back to the larger room and reporting on our findings to the growing crowd. And, as expected, the moment we walked into the room the angry crowd began shouting and essentially preventing me from being heard whatsoever. It was at this time that my mind drifted to my car in the parking lot, wondering if I’d come out to find a broken window or dented fender. How did I get myself into this position, I cried.

Why Communication is Key

In the end, people dispersed peacefully and I was able to drive away with my car intact…but not without learning some valuable lessons:

  • The city council did a poor job in involving members of the community in this process from the get-go, causing a build-up of frustration.
  • What triggered the community was not the recycling program, but the lack of openness and honesty around the recycling program. Even the questions we were discussing in the focus group implied that the recycling program had already passed.
  • Despite the lack of communication on the part of the city council, I was embarrassed and ashamed for how people resorted to communicate (or not communicate) with each other that night.
  • The purpose of at least five people in that meeting was to prevent us from having a meeting. The rest of the crowd just played off of those five individuals. Have you heard the term Groupthink before?
  • Here’s an odd one. As the night went on, I found myself agreeing more with the angry crowd. In fact, I had my own issues with the city for not being open and honest with me about what to expect.
  • From now on, I need to be involved from the very beginning, before I ever agree to do one of these again. And guess what, I’d never let this communication gap that occurred from ever occurring.
  • Whatever happened to genuine conversation and constructive debate about sensitive topics? Who have we become as a country?
  • And lastly, always park away from the building at night, especially when I’m facilitating. You just never know.

Greg Giesen is a management trainer, coach, conflict mediator, college professor, radio talk show host, and author of the award-winning management book, Mondays At 3. Greg can be reached at www.greggiesen.com.

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