Confrontation in Collaborative Meetings

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Once a good friend and colleague was exchanging “war” stories with me about confrontation during the peaceful business of collaborative meetings. He assured me that he had a story that would top anything I could offer, and he was right. Here’s the brief version.

I was facilitating a group that was supposed to reach agreement on the best site for a new mall. There were a lot of neighborhood organizations. But the reps of two of them – a man and a woman – obviously hated each other. They always tensed up when one of them spoke, and the other would lash out. So I had to intervene in the meetings, talk with them separately, try to see what was going on – the whole bit.

I thought things were improving, but one day the man got so enraged that he stood up, walked right over to the woman and punched her in the face. Didn’t say a word – wham! We actually had to pull them apart.

So what did you do then?

I said – “I think you’ll all agree that under the circumstances this meeting can’t go on.” No dissent.

They came back? No more fights?

No more fist fights.

I had to agree. I had nothing to top that. Here’s the one I told him.

It happened during the lunch break in a meeting of about 20 people. I grabbed a few minutes alone to write down some notes. Then I heard this angry, teeth-gritting exchange of insults across the room and looked up. There were these two guys – they’d had a lot of run-ins before this. And here they were, locked in a deadly stare. I saw flashing red lights everywhere.

Mediation 101: break into that stare. Then I was on autopilot and moving fast in their direction. Just as I got next to them, one lifted his arm to point a finger in the other’s face. That gesture is usually one shy of a swing, but there wasn’t enough room for me to step between them. So I reached into that stare with a piece of paper and said:

– I think the answer to the question is right on this page. – Same locked stare, no response. I say a lot louder: – Right on this page!

– Page? What page? Where? – splutters one. I raise the paper for him to see it better but off to one side so he had to turn his head away from the other guy.

– Here it is, right here – I direct his eyes to one paragraph, one line. He struggles to concentrate, reads it, reads it again, then finally gets the meaning. – Let’s change this part – he says.

The other one takes the paper, reads: – OK, here’s what’s bugging me.

– Good, we can work on it before the others get back – Standing right there, they turned toward me enough so I could finally get between them. Then they were talking about words, looking at the paper – I was scribbling notes.

I could breathe again.

Do you have a story you can tell about a rough time and what you did? Either as a mediator or as a member of a group? There’s a lot to learn from each one.

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2 Responses to “ Confrontation in Collaborative Meetings ”

  1. Wow – these are some extreme stories, especially the fist fight! But what happened next? Did the woman press charges? How in the world did the facilitator help the group recover from such a breach?

  2. Hi, Deb –

    I don’t know the details, but as I understand it no charges were filed. The group came back and, as often happens after outbursts, felt a bit embarrassed and wanted to show that they weren’t that bad. The mediator did a lot of work with the two individuals and the organizations they represented in the interim. I don’t know exactly what he did, but his intervention clearly helped settle things down.

    May all your meetings be nonviolent.

    John