We've all been there - working with groups that include participants that resist engagement and even disrupt the group's experience. Recently I revisited a comment left by a dedicated team builder:
I would appreciate information on dealing with resistant group members, especially those who really don't have much motivation to work together. For example, they are a member of a high school's freshman class that is really diverse and are rarely asked to work together outside their preferred peer groups; yet, they are brought to us to magically achieve cooperation, empathy, appreciation for differences, etc. in a 3 hour teambuilding program.
Okay, hand up if you have been (or are) in these shoes. There are many layers to this topic, more than we can cover here. But, we can get the conversation started. I have worked with groups that included resistant participants, on-and-off, for over 20 years (I don't think I've worked with an entire group of resistant participants - that would be crazy!). And, there is no magic fix (that I know of). But there are some 'hacks' I use to help me focus and offer the best possible programs. Here are my top points to consider - information I share during all of my facilitator training programs about engagement. If we can engage our players, we might be able to lessen the resistance:
Have a Useful Mindset - "Dealing with..." is a very common phrase used by educators when they are challenged by their students. My early work with underserved youth taught me that if I showed up to work with a negative mindset, it only made it worse - they knew!!
Instead of 'dealing' with them, 'work' with them. 'BE' with them. Show up with love and kindness in your heart and it will pay off. (Okay, can you do this all the time? Probably not. But if you give it your best as much as you can, your group will see it and engage accordingly.)
Share the Bottom Line - Here's the 'bottom line' I share when I'm sensing disconnection (most of the time I don't need to share the BL):
"I have a feeling some of you really don't want to be here. I can empathize with this. I too have to go and be places I don't want to be. But we have a choice. We can decide to get involved, have some fun and maybe even learn something from this short time we have together, or we can choose to keep dwelling on the thought that we don't want to be here.
It's up to you. If you decide stay in that place, you have every right to do so, but please, do not force your choice on anyone else in the group and keep your disappointment to yourself. Don't ruin the fun for others who are making a different choice. If you can agree to this, please give me a thumbs up. If you can't agree right now, let's spend a little time discussing this situation. Maybe there is something you can agree to.
I can promise this. I will do my best to make things fun and interesting, but it's up to you to jump on that ride and help me out. You never know what can happen." (And then, of course, you have to do your best to deliver. Based on your experience, what has been fun and interesting for your groups in the past?)
(There is a larger conversation that can be opened here related to 'challenge-by-choice' - how you frame cbc will influence your bottom line. Challenge-by-Choice will certainly be another post some time soon.)
Be Fair and Consistent - After sharing the bottom line, and developing other norms/agreements with your group (norms are very helpful when it comes to engagement), it is up to you to help your group stick to these norms/agreements. Don't ignore broken agreements. If you do, more will be broken and resistance will grow. I share this:
"One of my roles today is to create a place for us to feel comfortable sharing our voices and creating a place where you feel you can takes some risks with the support of the group. If I see and hear things that prevent me from creating this space, I will stop all the action and we'll talk about what's happening. My hope is that we can create this space together and ask for what we need so we know how to help one another through the challenges ahead."
Don't let things slide, or they will keep on sliding.
Give them the Why - Admit it, you like to know why you are being asked to do something. (And, really, who likes the answer, "Because I told you to do it." Right!) Give your group the why. Tell them why they are working with you. Tell them the goals for the program. Help them understand why they are all standing around "in this field" with you. They might not all buy into the why, but at least they'll know.
Better yet, when you can, have them tell you why they are with you (in this field) and what goals they would like to accomplish since this is where they are in that moment in time. Now, of course, the adults who send you the students have their whys too, and they would like the students to come out better at the end. And, what is better? And, what is possible? (See, Share the Possibilities below.) Giving a why can get some on board and at least the rest will not be wondering any more.
Facilitate to the 20% - You know that 'Easy' button from Staples? Well, that's not this! I believe, if you're team building, it's not suppose to be easy - if it's easy, why are they there? Building is not easy. Think about it. If it's easy, are you building or simply staying the same?
My starting block is to facilitate to the 20%. Yes, this is a very low percentage. I always hope for higher, but I know I can get to 20%. This percentage comes from the Pareto Principle (or the Law of the Vital Few). I'm taking some creative liberties here, but how I figure this is 20 percent of my group will be able to take in about 80 percent of the intended outcomes I've planned for the program - some will be able to walk away with new insights about themselves and their group.
As I facilitate team building activities, I'm observing, looking for those who are engaged. I ask them questions about what's happening - what are they getting from it all. You know the ones! Once I can get them talking (as the saying goes, 'those who talk more first, talk more'), others will see it's okay to share their voice, the environment is kind and supportive (because you have been creating this environment). Engagement goes up because you are encouraging the group to talk and not taking up all the 'air' for yourself.
Start off encouraging the few in hopes that the many will join in! Be a champion for their voices.
Trust the Process - I can't tell you how many of my mentors would tell me to, "Trust the process" - I didn't know what that the heck that meant. They never really told me. Well, in their infinite wisdom, they knew I would get it eventually. It's about the steps of team building (or adventure education) activities. It's about one activity at a time. And then building towards some learning with each activity. What learning? Of course, that depends on the program objectives and the group. It's like this:
This process (and the organic variants) is what gives ownership of the experience to the group and increases engagement. It's their experience, not someone else telling them what it is they are experiencing. Yes, if we frontload an experience by say, "We're going to be looking at leadership behaviors during this activity," one might think you're setting up the experience and it's no longer theirs. For me, it is still theirs because you end up talking about leadership from their present experience, how they lead and what it was like to lead. You are not telling them how to be leaders, you are focusing in on a topic of discussion from their perspective.
Know and Share the Possibilities - Finally (this probably should have been first - so, consider this an overarching point), it is very important to be honest about what you can actually accomplish with a group in a given amount of time (as stated above, "...in a 3 hour program"). If you force programming into unachievable outcomes you increase the risk of disengagement - they might not be at all ready to go where you want them (or, those who sent them to you, want them).
There are many reasons for taking on lofty goals and programs. For the most part, I know I want to help. I want to try and meet the needs of a client. But what is the cost (pun intended). If you meet with resistance, disengagement and disruptive behaviors, will you even reach any sort of positive outcome? Maybe? Maybe not? Be honest with your clients, let them know what outcomes you believe are achievable in the time provided. Go for the small wins that build into big changes.
I like the rubber band analogy. Push the rubber band half way open, there is room to move in or out. Push the rubber band to it's limits there is stressful resistance - you never know when the next push will break the band.
This was a lot to take in. Considerations. Things that, I believe, break down some resistance in my group members. I do my best to be authentic with my groups, be with them, empathize with them, share our human likenesses. I think this helps pull us together.
Let's keep this topic rolling in the Comments. How do you work with resistance in groups?
Be well my friend! Keep showing up for them. It's good work - if you can get it!
Chris Cavert, Ed.D.
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Dr. Chris Cavert is an educator, author and trainer. His passion is helping team builders learn and grow.