How to facilitate groups – 2 (Herding Cats)

The majority of my clients are lawyers, accountants or surveyors – the professions. It’s said that working with the professions is like herding cats. Some of my clients – the patent attorneys and forensic scientists – also have PhDs in cutting-edge technologies. A double challenge. Professionals are usually successful, independent, technical and highly intelligent experts who run their teams autonomously. They are time-poor and sometimes impatient. Forging a consensus amongst such strong, diverse and often competitive individuals is no walk in the park. Even more so when you add egos and firm politics. I wrote an introduction to facilitating groups in October 2019  so here is a second instalment – How to facilitate groups – 2 (Herding cats).

I remember facing a room of 10 senior barristers (all QCs – Queen’s Counsel) who all practised the same area of law and regularly battled each other across the Court room. Their success depended on their ability to ask the most difficult questions, to scrutinise and dissect evidence with laser precision and argue points of law to ensure that their clients won. They took no prisoners. Yet, armed with hard-won soft skills and a strong business case I faced this particularly tricky group and managed to achieve agreement (and even some enthusiasm) to a stretching and ambitious plan.

Be credible and objective

To facilitate a demanding group you will need great credentials. You’ll need to earn their respect with your authority, expertise and experience. And not just on paper. You’ll need quiet, confident gravitas and a commanding presence when you stand before them.

Use their language – from their profession, their firm, their clients and their teams – to make them feel more comfortable. It will start to bridge the gap.

You’ll need to demonstrate that you are truly objective – standing outside the power and political circles that inevitably exist. Your focus must absolutely be on the topic of the discussion you will facilitate.   

Build relationships in advance

I try to get round to meet all the individuals on a one-to-one basis before a group session. This allows me to start to establish rapport and trust with each of them. If this isn’t possible then I request background information on the participants in advance.

In those advance discussions, I learn more about them by putting them centre stage. I prompt them to tell me about their expertise. I encourage them to talk about the things that cause them the most passion or pain at work. I prise out the key points for the group discussion.

And I am listening intently to what they say and how they say it – especially their non-verbal communication (for an introductory video on NVC ) – to assess their personality and priorities. And to identify and explore any issues that perhaps they are reluctant to talk about.

Be clear on the aims and rules of engagement

An agenda and papers for advance reading will have been circulated.

But at the start of the session remind people about the aims of the session – what needs to be achieved within the session and why. You should indicate what topics will be covered and how much time is allocated for each. You might also state at the outset what is within and beyond the scope of the session.

It helps to remind people of the rules of engagement – whether these have been set out in advance or agreed by the participants at the start of the session. Agree what will happen when rules of engagement are breached.

Create psychological safety and an appreciative environment

“Psychological safety is being able to be yourself without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.

To encourage people to share ideas and be creative you need to create a thinking environment.  Nancy Kline suggested 10 components of a thinking environment:

  1. Listen
  2. Ask incisive questions
  3. Establish equality
  4. Appreciate
  5. Be at ease
  6. Encourage
  7. Feel
  8. Supply accurate information
  9. Humanise the place
  10. Create diversity

People work best in an appreciative environment. Where their contribution is encouraged, appreciated and respected. Research shows that in a positive environment teams create more insight, produce more creativity and perform to a higher standard. Some suggest you need to achieve a ratio of 3:1 positive experience to negative experience. Others that the ratio needs to be five positive pieces of feedback to any one negative feedback. Focus on the strengths of each individual and a positive future.

Rather than dismiss ideas with “but”, build on them with “and”.

Address all concerns

The session you are to facilitate will be focused on a particular topic and it will be time limited. So you are unlikely to get round to discussing everything. So develop a list of all the issues that were raised in advance and put boundaries around those that will be tackled at the session – perhaps with a nod to a way in which any others might be addressed in the future at a different forum.

This shows that you are aware that there might be other issues and avoids wasting time at the group discussion.

Think about the mix of personalities

Take care in putting together the seating plan and break out or working groups. Blend seniority, locations and areas of expertise in a way that suits the topics. Avoid putting people together who you  know are likely to clash.

Perhaps allocate roles – asking someone who is generally negative to adopt a cheerleading role, or someone who is often quiet to be the chair of a working group.

There’s an introductory video on personality types  or you might consider who are maverick magpies and who are predictable pigeons.

Validate emotions and adapt to different styles

You will need to let those with strong egos speak. You need to recognise their expertise or seniority and validate their emotions.

Others will be quieter and feel more comfortable outside the glare of spotlight. These people will need to be encouraged to contribute their views. This may be easier in a digital environment where you can deploy polls and break out groups.

It can be helpful to think of different styles – such as introvert and extrovert, adaptor and innovator or sensory preference (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic). These style and creativity measures are explored in this article: Creativity and personality profiling (

Some may prefer to defer to more mature or senior people – so you will need to create a sense of psychological safety and encourage them to speak up. Perhaps reminding them of a good point they made in the one-to-one discussion – although you will need to have checked first to preserve confidentiality.

Use influencing and persuasion skills

As facilitator, you will need to draw on a range of influencing and persuasion skills to help the group achieve its aims.

You need to have strong empathy (explainer video on empathy and emotional intelligence) with the people you wish to influence and an ability to listen actively to their needs (explainer video on active listening skills).

Remember that people are emotional creatures and that many decisions are not made on a rational basis. It helps to remember Aristotle’s formula for persuasion which is a combination of three appeals: your credibility (ethos), the facts (logos) and emotional appeal (pathos).

The six principles of persuasion by Robert Cialdini are summarised in this short video  – and you can read an overview of one of his books (small changes that spark big influences).

There is also a review of James Borg’s book on persuasion: Book review – Persuasion: The art of influencing people by James Borg (

Maintain high energy levels

Professionals think fast and will need the session to move at a rapid pace. An element of time pressure on topics and activities keeps things moving. The energy and enthusiasm of the facilitator will also influence energy in the room or online.

Avoid participants giving lengthy expositions by rules of engagement that limit contributions to three key points or two minutes. Use an alarm device if you are concerned about how to stop someone speaking.

Rotate report backs and questioning roles amongst group members so that there are always different people speaking.

Watch the non-verbal communication of all group members and if you detect that energy levels are declining do something to raise them again – ask a question, change topic, suggest an activity or discuss the need for a break.

Be prepared to summarise, offer alternative viewpoints or propose a vote in order to keep the discussion fresh or to close a topic down.

Manage interruptions

Interrupting someone or stopping them from speaking is annoying. And it can impact the ability of a team to discuss an issue thoroughly and effectively. It can undermine people’s confidence and self-esteem, make them withdraw and may even break a business relationship if it happens frequently.

There are gender differences in interruptions. Studies have shown that it’s primarily men that interrupt women. A study by Deborah Tannen at George Washington University found that when men were talking to women they interrupted 33% more often than when they were talking with other men. Men seem to back off less often when they are interrupted too. Another study showed that both men and women interrupted women more when they were talking.

Tannen says that we learn conversational styles when we are children. “‘High involvement”’ describes people who talk along to show enthusiasm whereas “‘high considerate”’ describes people who believe only one voice can speak at a time. So there can be clashes of conversational style that compound any cultural differences.  There are suggestions that you can use non-verbal communication to avoid being interrupted – for example, lean in, look focused and maintain eye contact.

It has been suggested that you should analyse the different types of interruptions before adopting a strategy to deal with it:

  • Power play – The interrupter wants to throw the person off their game by making them flustered and defensive. Saying “‘Did you have something to add’ is a better response than “‘May I finish?”’, which confirms the power shift.
  • Co-operative interjection – Although it’s not intended to shut people down – and often comes from an ally it can have a negative effect over time. This might require a private word with someone to say that you’d like to be heard more. Tannen suggests that in a high-functioning team in the workplace you should hear three nano-seconds of silence between each person speaking as evidence that there is enough listening.
  • Uncontrolled outburst – This suggests that the interrupter is lacking self-control, so you should remain calm and turn your attention to the interrupter. Say that it seems to have evoked a strong response and encourage them to continue.
  • Efficiency intervention – The interrupter keeps finishing your sentences and you feel hurried. Sometimes this happens when people are speaking too much or too slowly.

Anticipate and prepare for difficulties

You can encounter various difficulties when facilitating a group of senior, experienced and demanding professionals. Anticipate as many as you can and be ready with strategies to deal with them.

If one person starts to dominate, thank them for their contribution and ask specific individuals to build on or refute what they have heard. Alternatively, give them a role or task that keeps them occupied on something else.

If an argument breaks out, prepare to act as a mediator by noting down the key points from both sides and “parking” it for further consideration outside the session. If things get really heated, call for a short comfort break to allow things to cool down. Perhaps speaking separately to those arguing during the break.

There are resources for dealing with difficult interactions – for example:

Resources to help you deal with difficult interactions (

Dealing with “difficult” people – Nine strategies for dealing with arrogance (

Managing client complaints – Process, anger and apologies (

How the parent, adult, child (PAC) model helps with difficult interactions (

Business relationships – Using the drama triangle to resolve conflict (

There are also resources on mediation skills – for example:

Kim Tasso mediation services – interpersonal conflict

Mediation skills and strategies – A practical guide by Tony Whatling (

Build alignment and alliances

Listen carefully to the needs of the participants and analyse their underlying needs. Explore those needs by asking questions and helping participants to focus and prioritise.

Alert people where they appear to have the same aims, similar goals and/or shared interests. Point out complimentary skills and resources where people might work together.

Help to build consensus and alignment and alliances by focusing on things that unite elements of or the entire group.

Record areas of consensus and disagreement

Keep track of – perhaps using a flipchart or smart board – the areas of agreement and disagreement. Where possible, get participants to commit to taking responsibility for actions and agreeing dates for when they might complete tasks.

Persuasion science suggests that having people write down their commitments themselves (rather than someone else noting them) increases the likelihood of them completing them.

If necessary, create a separate list of those issues requiring further analysis or a separate discussion.

Bring things to a close

Warn people in advance as you near the end of the session.

Ensure that there is time at the end for any final points – without opening up new topics. Perhaps allow each participant to highlight what he or she considers to be the most critical issue raised in the session and also if there are any points that remain to be discussed at a future session.

Thank participants and end on a positive note of what has been achieved.

And for those of you who haven’t seen it – here is an old advert for EDS technology consultancy using the “Herding cats” concept. We all need a laugh sometimes. 

Please share your best stories and tips on How to facilitate groups.