How to facilitate delegates with different perspectives and challenging conversations to achieve genuine collaboration | The Big Bang Partnership

How to facilitate delegates with different perspectives and challenging conversations to achieve genuine collaboration

How to facilitate delegates with different perspectives and challenging conversations to achieve genuine collaboration

Photo: Dr. Jo North

Purpose of this article

I wrote this article to provide you with insight, tools and techniques to help you to facilitate sensitive or difficult group discussions between delegates even more effectively, if and when they take place in the innovation and strategy sessions that you lead, to achieve genuine collaboration between delegates.


In this article I’ll share with you my insights on facilitating groups to resolve difference, sensitive issues and conflict, and how creating an environment of high support and openness contributes significantly to active collaboration between delegates on those areas of difference.

You’ll think about how different people respond differently to conflict, and how your own preferred approach might be influencing your decisions and choices as a facilitator.

You will also reflect on the essential ingredients of trust in business relationships using David Maister’s Trust Equation, and the importance of delegates’ trust in you as their facilitator. Delegates’ trust in you, the facilitator, is especially when it comes to them having the confidence to speak up and proactively engage in resolving challenging issues with colleagues in your sessions.

I’ll also share the guidelines that that I have evolved over my last 10 years’ experience of facilitating groups in the UK and internationally.

Photo: Delegates from Costcutter enjoyed practising their collaboration skills at an event we ran at LockedIn Games in Leeds a few weeks ago

Top Takeaways

Some top takeaways are:

  • Both you and your delegates have preferred approaches to dealing with perceived conflict. Understanding these preferences and taking steps to develop your own leadership capabilities in this area will help you to take your facilitation of difficult issues to a new level of effectiveness.
  • There’s (usually) no such thing as a truly difficult person, just a person who really wants to be heard.
  • Truly understanding the key ingredients of trust in business relationships and working to build on these will help you to shape an environment in which people feel safe and confident enough to share their views openly.
  • Having clear, agreed guidelines will ensure that all delegate discussions happen in a climate of integrity, mutual respect and active listening.

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Facilitating difference

When you’re working with groups of people with diverse opinions, priorities and backgrounds, it is inevitable that you will need to facilitate sensitive and challenging discussions at times.

It’s actually really healthy and helpful for people to have different perspectives and views, as long as those views are always communicated respectfully, clearly and with empathy for others who don’t share the same opinion.

A great facilitator is highly skilled at making sure that differences are aired in a positive, ethical and effective way, so that the group can reach at best a shared consensus, or at least a way forward that everyone can accept.

A great facilitator is highly skilled at making sure that differences are aired in a positive, ethical and effective way. Click To Tweet
Photo: Dr. Jo North

Different people have different preferences

It’s the facilitator’s role to make sure that everyone is heard, including those people who prefer to avoid any conflict, however minor, and those individuals who more generally prefer to stay quiet.

We each have different preferences and interpretations when it comes to responding what we might perceive as conflict at work. Dr. Ralph Kilmann has carried out extensive scientific research into this subject, and it’s helpful for us as facilitators to understand those different responses that people might have in our sessions.

Firstly, let’s define “conflict situations”. These are situations in which the concerns of the people involved appear to be incompatible.

When we, and our delegates, are in a conflict situation, the two key variables that influence our behaviours are:

  1. Our assertiveness, or how strongly we work to protect our own needs and position; and
  2. Our co-operativeness, or how strongly we work to please others and satisfy their needs above our own.

These two dimensions, working in combination, generate five conflict handling modes:

  • Avoiding is moving away from the conflict
  • Accommodating is trying to please the other person or people at the expense of your own needs and wants
  • Compromising is trying to find an acceptable outcome for everyone, but this approach only partially satisfies the concerns of every person involved
  • Competing is trying to get your own way at the expense of other people
  • Collaborating is working together to find a win-win solution which completely satisfies everyone’s concerns

These five conflict handling modes are shown in the Thomas-Kilmann model below.

The most helpful space to be in is top right, in the collaborating zone, when the needs of everyone involved are met fully and equally met. It’s not always possible, of course, but as a facilitator, within the scope of the purpose of your event, collaboration may often be achieved through a balance of support and challenge and by opening up adult-adult conversations.

There’s (usually) no such thing as a truly difficult person

‘There’s (usually) no such thing as a truly difficult person’ is almost a mantra that I’ve used that has now become just my way of seeing the world, and I genuinely find the statement to be true.

By replacing the judgement and label ‘difficult person’ with the description ‘someone who wants to be heard’ it completely transforms how I interpret people’s intentions, and I respond much more effectively as a result.

Delegates can be perceived as being difficult when they repeatedly go over a point or refuse to budge their views, or when they seem to be moaning and complaining. I find that active listening and visibly writing up their key points to make sure that they are captured definitely helps people to feel heard.

There are times when we are all perceived to be a difficult person by someone else, and as long as the conversation doesn’t take over the session, giving people an appropriate amount of airtime helps move things along overall.

If someone does persist and keep repeating themselves, even when you’ve genuinely given them good opportunity to speak and captured their points, then be firm but still supportive and warm, say thank you for the really interesting and valuable points made, and ask for thoughts from other delegates on the subject to move on.

Remember that exceptional facilitators demonstrate just the right balance of strength and warmth simultaneously at all times, turning one up and the other down as needed, maintaining an even presence of both most of the time.

Exceptional facilitators demonstrate just the right balance of strength and warmth simultaneously at all times, turning one up and the other down as needed, maintaining an even presence of both most of the time. Click To Tweet

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Know your own preferences

You may find it interesting to reflect on your own typical conflict handing mode and consider if this is connected to your view of challenge when you’re facilitating, maybe even taking the TKI (the Thomas-Kilmann Inventory) which helps you to identify your preferred response to conflict. It’s helpful too to know that Kilmann’s research shows that conflict handling approaches are developable rather than fixed which means that you can work to improve and strengthen your skills.

It’s essential to appreciate that your delegates will have different preferences, too. By being sensitive to those and setting a tone of openness and true collaboration as it’s defined in the Thomas-Kilmann mode, will ensure that you get the best possible overall outcome for your delegates on the day.

Photo: A Lego task gets everyone collaborating and warmed up ready for the day

Trust is paramount

Delegates’ trust in you as the facilitator, in your intentions, motivation and ability to handle the situation appropriately makes a huge difference to how well those discussions will go. Without trust in you to lead the group constructively, fairly and with integrity, people will be much less likely to share their views honestly.

Have you ever wondered why you trust some people in business and not others, or why some people don’t trust you the way you’d like them to?

The answer probably lies in the Trust Equation, from David Maister’s book, The Trusted Advisor.

The Trust Equation is really useful for understanding the essential ingredients for trust in business relationships. Here’s a quick 60 second video if you’d like an overview.

Trust is made up of a combination of how credible and reliable we perceive someone to be, and how intimate, or close, our relationship is with them.

Credibility is the person knowing their stuff, and showing sufficient experience, knowledge and expertise to give us confidence in them.

Reliability is the person demonstrating that we can count on them, that they are consistent and will deliver on their promises.

Intimacy is how close we are to them.

The more strongly we perceive a person to be credible, reliable and close to us, the more we are likely to trust them.

Underneath all of this is self-orientation. The more we perceive a person to be motivated by self-interest alone, the less we are likely to trust them. So, the higher the self-orientation, the lower the trust.

The difficult or sensitive issue may be why the session has been called in the first place, or it may be something that arises organically from the discussions that in your role as facilitator you can see needs to be addressed for the group to be able to progress positively.

Creating space for delegates to have difficult discussions

Delegates’ trust in each other also helps a lot, but where their trust for each other is limited, as the facilitator you can still create space for difficult discussions as long as you’re confident you have the facilitation skills and ability to manage the process appropriately.

Having these conversations productively with each other can actually help your delegates to build mutual trust.

If you have prior insight that some conflict is likely to happen, you can create time in the agenda for some trust-building activities early on in the process, remembering that some issues do run long and deep and that trust is not always rebuilt quickly. Your aim is to create a space for your delegates where there is high support for each other so that differences can be aired and resolved in a healthy way.

It is important that teams address sensitive, difficult issues openly and constructively so that they can deal effectively with what is holding them back or getting in the way of achieving their full potential.

Sensitive, difficult issues left unresolved fester, lead to misunderstanding and sometimes resentment.

That said, if discussions in sensitive areas are not handled well, the outcomes can vary from wasting people’s time to creating even more issues and damaging relationships. So, it is the facilitator’s responsibility to lead the group to create an environment in which delegates not only feel that they can talk, but also recognise that they are expected to talk about the key issues in a constructive, open and respectful way.

The role of emotional intelligence

It is important that you, as facilitator, demonstrate exceptional levels of emotional intelligence, to role model and set the tone for how delegates should ideally manage their own emotions. This especially includes active listening, lowering defences and communicating with clarity and respect. You can find more information on creative facilitation and emotional intelligence in my article Creative Facilitation – an Introduction.

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Get agreement from delegates on some discussion guidelines

Recognise with the group that, given the issue, the session may be uncomfortable at times, and that it will be helpful for the group to agree to some guidelines for the discussion to follow, suggesting some along the lines of the ones included below.

Also ask the delegates for their thoughts on these, and if there are any that they would like to add. Setting the tone for upfront is really important and will pay dividends in how well the discussions take place as a result.

These sample guidelines are:

  • Aim for constructive discussion.
  • Actively listen with curiosity and a desire to learn from others’ perspectives and experiences.
  • Assume that every person’s contribution is well-intentioned and describes what is real for them.
  • Drop any need to be right, or to ‘prove’ that someone else is wrong.
  • Speak for no-one else other than yourself. 
  • Stay engaged and do not withdraw into yourself if and when it feels tough or uncomfortable.
  • Say what you have to say, right here and right now.
  • Avoid interrupting, side conversations, checking phones, and other distractions.
  • Describe your feelings openly and genuinely.
  • Encourage others in their efforts to share what is on their mind, especially if you sense that they are finding it tough to do so.
  • Keep everything confidential.
  • Once things have been said and resolved here today, don’t carry any disagreement or resentment outside this room and this discussion.

Keep each other accountable for sticking to these guidelines.

Additional facilitation top tips

Three additional top tips for you as the facilitator are:

  1. Don’t jump in too quickly if it all goes quiet. Silence can be a good thing. It gives people space to reflect on what they have heard and consider how to express what’s on their mind. If you interrupt the silence too early, you may prevent something potentially useful being expressed.
  2. Make sure that you ask the quieter delegates for their views, and create space for them to be heard, especially if the group contains a number of outspoken people who could dominate discussions.
  3. Close the meeting constructively and positively. Acknowledge the tough work that the group has done and emphasise that although conversations such as these can feel uncomfortable at the time, they benefit overall by making the group stronger and resolving challenging issues. I also recommend asking the group to reflect on how the discussion helped, and what they have learned as a result, to give them the opportunity to process the event, mentally close off the discussion and prepare to move on from it positively.
  4. Finally, don’t forget to take a moment for yourself to pause, reflect on the work you have done, and give yourself some mental space before you move forward with other things.
Photo: Dr. Jo North

Next Steps

I will be going deeper into the skill and art of creative facilitation in my future blogs, so if this is something you want to learn more about, do sign up here for my free DIY Awayday Toolkit and to get free facilitation resources and news updates.

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If you have any specific questions about creative facilitation. I will be more than happy to help, and if your query is about something quite complex, I’m also always pleased to hop on a call.

We can also facilitate your event for you, or you might like to join one of our Creative Facilitation Skills training programmes.

If you have any questions or would like to know more, please email me direct at