What do I do when I notice tension in a meeting?

Name the Elephant

Here’s the scenario: You’re facilitating a meeting, and there’s tension. Lots and lots of tension. 😬

An uncomfortable dynamic has emerged, and it’s reaching the point where it’s going to affect the quality of the conversation. As a the meeting facilitator, you may be internally panicking. 😱 

⁉️ Is anyone else noticing that this is tense? (Yup.)

⁉️ Are people uncomfortable? (Very.)

This inner monologue is natural, but you can’t let it erode your calm as a facilitator. So what in the world do you do to keep your cool as a facilitator and keep the meeting under control? The solution is simple, though admittedly a little scary: 🐘 name the elephant.

Whether the tension is caused by hostility around a subject, discomfort about moving too quickly, or a clash of ideas, 📣 calling out the tension rather than ignoring it can help you shut things down before they get too wild. Admittedly, live-navigating this kind of complexity can be daunting, but as the meeting facilitator, you’re responsible for getting the group where they need to go, and you can’t do that if there’s an elephant in the way. Everyone can see the elephant, and if you don’t talk about it, there’s no way to get around it.

Calling out the tension in a meeting isn’t losing control as a facilitator; in fact, it’s a power move that puts you back in control. But of course, you have to be delicate with how you name the elephant. 🥋 Judo comes to mind: don’t meet force with force - meet force with surrender. Think of this as explicit surrender, admitting the group has gone down the wrong path in order to thoughtfully get the conversation back on track.

🗣 Explicit surrender might sound like:

  • Maybe we’re not prepared to have this conversation right now.
  • We should have this conversation once we’ve had more time to prepare more effectively.
  • Either we should talk about something else, or we should prepare ourselves to have this conversation properly because it’s bringing up some tension that we can’t, or shouldn’t, deal with in this moment
  • There are tensions in the dynamics here that we need to talk more about, but we need time to structure this in a way which will be more fruitful.

⚠️ A word of caution here: some people might not be used to this kind of candor. You might have to repeat yourself or reassure the group that stopping or reframing this conversation is in their best interest. You might even need to absorb an awkward silence that requires you to make some choices on behalf of bewildered participants.

Being this bold as a facilitator can be tough, but by calling out the tension, you liberate yourself from worrying about what everyone is thinking and from stressing about dynamics that aren’t in your control. You also liberate the group: by modeling naming the elephant, you help participants see the benefits of a frank, open meeting culture. The group becomes more trusting because they know that when something’s off, they can safely call it out.

Silencing an internal monologue of anxiety and helping cultivate a team that’s better able to navigate tricky situations together? That’s a big win. 🔥🐘

I’m guessing you’re here because you want to get better at leading groups, improve your meeting culture, and maybe even organise some great events.

Well, you’re in the right place!

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