The other day, I was talking to a client about some problems she had experienced during a presentation. She had encountered a group who was resistant to some of her ideas and essentially put up a roadblock to any further discussion. She didn’t realize her topic was going to be so divisive and contentious and hadn’t planned for how to deal with the few troublemakers who dominated the meeting. Afterward, she discovered that quite a few people in the room had wanted to speak up, but were not comfortable doing so.
Now for some of you who do trainings like this on a regular basis, where your topic might be controversial or uncomfortable to the group, you probably have some practices in place to prepare for and deal with dissent. But for those of you who are caught off guard by a difficult audience, or have a sneaking suspicion that you might encounter some resistance from your audience, there are a few things you can do to increase the group’s trust and receptivity to your ideas and increase the group’s willingness to engage with you and with each other.
Here are a few tips on how to create a safe space for your audience that encourages everyone to feel comfortable enough to speak up and share their feelings, experiences, and ideas.
1. Start with a group agreement
Together as a group, create some guidelines on a flipchart that spell out the behavior you would like to see in the group. Ask a question of the group like, “What would make this workshop a safe and respectful place for everyone?”
Take a few minutes to write down points offered by the group. If they leave out something that you consider important, ask them if you can add it to the list. Make sure the group understands each point, and then go over each item asking for the group’s explicit agreement. Display the flipchart in the front of the room so that everybody can see it throughout the meeting.
If your meeting is short, bring your own pre-written guidelines, ask for any additions or changes, and get group agreement.
By asking for the group’s agreement, you have now put guidelines in place for everyone to follow. And if you run into difficulty with members of the group refusing to demonstrate the behavior that they’ve agreed to, you’re now in a position to ask someone to leave, if necessary. You can find examples of group agreements on the Internet; this is definitely not something that needs to be reinvented.
2. Start with small group activities before moving on to large group activities
If members of the group don’t feel completely comfortable participating right at the start, having them do activities in pairs or triads is a way for them to test the waters, articulate their thoughts, and develop a comfort level within the group. This is a good idea for any group, whether or not there will be difficult issues. discussed. In general, most groups need to warm up to the idea of participating before the majority is willing to jump in.
Provide a couple of activities where participants are given the opportunity to discuss an issue, solve a problem, or share something personal with one or two other people, and through the process, you’ll build trust with them and amongst the group. They’ll be much more inclined to speak up when you bring those issues or concepts to the larger group.
3. Don’t try to cram too many activities into a short presentation
Activities where you know your audience might experience some discomfort will require time for personal and group processing. Trying to do too many activities or exercises where the group doesn’t have the opportunity to process their thoughts and feelings will just lead to chaos and disconnection.
4. Help the group feel empowered to come up with their own solutions
Oftentimes, when we’re dealing with a difficult issue or problem, participants feel overwhelmed, powerless, and sometimes even personally attacked. Try to maintain a solutions-focused approach instead of focusing on all the things that are wrong now or have been wrong in the past. Asking the group to brainstorm a vision and forward-looking solutions brings a more positive energy to the room and helps reduce feelings of guilt, frustration, and powerlessness.
5. Bring in a neutral party
By “neutral party,” I’m not referring to a person. I’m referring to a box! When I worked with youth discussing difficult and uncomfortable issues like puberty and reproductive health, the anonymous question box was some participants’ best friend.
Some of your attendees will never ask a question or make a comment. That’s just the way it is. However, offering a fun option like the anonymous question box allows everyone in the room to say what they want to say.
The trick to the anonymous question box is to make sure that everybody writes something. Hand out small pieces of paper to everyone in the room and tell them that, for the questions and comments to remain truly anonymous, everybody needs to write something down. This way, it’s not obvious that certain people are submitting questions. In the past, I’ve gotten comments from participants like, “I like your earrings,” or “What’s your favorite food?” It doesn’t matter what people write, as long as everyone has an opportunity to share their thoughts or questions.
This is an excellent way to bring up issues that people may not feel comfortable expressing in the large group. Your job is to answer every question or respond to every comment as honestly as you can and to the best of your knowledge and ability.
Next time you find yourself in a situation where the audience seems uncomfortable with or upset by your topic, try some of these ideas and see if your audience is more receptive to your message and more willing to participate.