How to deal as facilitator with an unsafe group?

It is five minutes before finalizing a Team Workshop on how to renew the approach of its service delivery for social work to the community. Sofar the group has created an 'inspirational vision' and has worked out the strategies. You feel that everything is okay. The group looks involved and everybody is participating. The waiter from the restaurant is
informing the group, that the snacks are ready. You ask the group on what actions it should take the next 6 weeks to get the first strategies moving. Then, suddenly, the team leader takes charge of the conversation. He mentions 10 action points, including names of responsible people and deadline dates. The group looks shocked and intimidated. It is silent for a while. I check if everybody agrees. It remains silent. People nodd with a breath it is okay. The team leader says it is time to go to the restaurant. The food gets cold. We can evaluate up there!
During the snack I am checking informally participants' feelings about the meeting. It was okay! But when I ask for suggestions to improve, a few tell me in confidence that it had been better if the teamleader had not been there! We did not feel safe to express our feelings and sentiments!

'Unsafe groups!' It happens me a number of times every year, when I am facilitating workshops. Whenever possible I try to create a safe environment making people feel welcome. I initiate a number of relaxing exercises and involve everybody. But what to do if people do not feel safe? Is it about me as facilitator? Or is there somebody in the group people do not feel safe? 'Unsafe groups' was one of the main topics discussed during a IAF-Benelux experience exchange meeting in the Hague on the 21st June, 2011.
The 'Facilitation Styles of Heron' are a helpful tool in judging situations on how to deal with unsafe groups. The facilitator can choose for a hierarchical approach. He can take charge of the discussion. In case of the example, I could have asked the Team Leader to leave the room for a while, giving space the group to discuss the necessary action steps. Hereafter, the group could have presented these to the Team Leader and asked for feedback. I could also have asked the Team Leader during the preperation of this workshop to consider 'not to participate' or to 'participate partly' in this meeting in order to create safety. Of course a promis of the Team Leader is necessary that the input from the team is used for the implementation of the strategies. A risk of the hierarchical approach is that it might disempower the group.
The facilitator could either have choosen for a co-operative approach. In case of the example, I could have confronted the Team Leader with the body language and the energy in the group. I could have said; "Do I hear that you agree with the proposed action points of the Team Leader? " If people from the group would have responded 'yes', I could have asked "How come I observe you are not enthousiastic? Is that right?" In this case the Team Leader is confronted with the fact, that there is 'no acceptance' from the group. It provides space for both the Team Leader and the group to discuss the situation as it is....... It could have provided space to skip the snacks in the restaurant and to discuss the situation created further!
Eventually I chose for the autonomous approach. I asked the group to come up with action points, giving space to the Team Leader to take charge of the conversation while nobody took the opportunity to show courage and challenge the situation. Another method I could have applied under the autonomous approach is 'to walk out of the room and leave it up to the group to decide!' The group is left alone with the Team Leader and now confronted with their full potential and responsibility. In that case it can create space for the group to respond since they can express emotions, which they would not present in the presence of a facilitator (they hardly know or have seen a couple of times). A risk of the autonomous approach is that nothing gets achieved or conflict underneath is provoked.
Depending on the situation the facilitator has different options to guide and assist the group in getting better team performance. The 'Facilitator Modes of Heron' (Hierarchichal, Co-operative, Autonomous) are a helpful tool in defining ways on how to deal with unsafe groups. Heron wrote an interesting 'Guide to Facilitation'. On the 23rd September 2011 the International Association of Facilitators (IAF-Benelux) is organising an interesting Conference with the theme "Facilitator as (2nd) Profession". During this conference you will gain and learn about many more interesting experiences and developments in facilitation.


  1. Simon,
    Great, to see how you gave more body to the Heron matrix by adding specific examples. This is the way to make models work. And good to hear that tou found the regiobijeenkomst and the instruments useful.


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