When people are emotionally distracted upsetting world events or by internal organizational disruptions, it is essential to manage group meetings in a skillfully sensitive way.
Start by conducting a group "check in."
- Ask each person to comment on how they are feeling about the events. Have them express any concerns they have, and comment on how they feel about being at the meeting.
- Ask each person to say if they feel they can be involved in discussions about the agenda items. Make it safe for them to say they don't feel that they can.
- Look at each person closely while they are speaking to judge for yourself how "present" or emotionally distracted they are. During war time there will probably be several people with relatives or friends in combat and some people very upset about the war.
If the majority of the group says they don't feel that they can focus on the meeting, then table all agenda items that require open discussion until a later date. Limit the meeting to essential information items that are very time relevant.
Late on Tuesday afternoon September 11, 2001, for example, I was facilitating a meeting of a Board of Directors of a non-profit foundation to help them develop long-term plans. A meeting of this kind requires a relaxed atmosphere conducive to open discussion. We needed to identify values, issues, resources, and purposes, develop a list of possible ways to accomplish the purposes, and create a long-term action schedule.
It was obvious to me from talking with the board members before the meeting that they were strongly affected by the day's events. When the president of the Board turned the meeting over to me, instead of going to the agenda I asked each person in the group to speak about how they felt about the terrorist attacks and how they felt about being at the meeting. Every person said they felt upset, were distracted, and did not want to be there, but felt a commitment to the Foundation's future. When it was clear that they were all feeling the same way, I suggested that we postpone the planning meeting for a month. They quickly agreed, spoke more about their feelings and concerns, and then adjourned.
To me this was a matter of ethical professionalism. I could have pushed ahead, "covered the agenda", and made them make some decisions. But I saw that my higher role as a facilitator was to have them see that it was best to not hold their meeting at this time.
This way of handling meetings during emotional times is both compassionate and practical. The resiliency research shows that feelings of distress, anguish, anger, and anxiety will constrict and narrow cognitive processes. Feelings of relaxed enjoyment, pride and satisfaction in the work being done, and some playfulness have been found to broaden and expand cognitive processes. Postponing a meeting is a rational course of action when involved group discussion, analysis, problem solving, and goal setting is required. The outcome of the meeting next month was much more useful and productive than what we could have accomplished on the afternoon of 9/11.
To facilitate well means you must deal with your own feelings first and not impose your feelings and values on others. I know a group therapist who sharply criticized her therapy group for not being as emotionally upset as she is about our government's actions against Iraq.
When people are feeling emotional about organizational or world events, focus on their feelings first, before trying to cover agenda items. In emotional times it is important to not let distressing emotions dominate our days. Acknowledge people's feelings, don't suppress them, then focus the group on the things that must be done.
© 2003, Al Siebert, Ph.D.
Al Siebert has studied mental health for over thirty years. He is the Director of The Resiliency Center and author of The Resiliency Advantage and The Survivor Personality.