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Facilitating a Meeting When

Ambushed by Self-Oriented
Or Bringing It Back to “Us”

Tony Page

Abstract: In an era when individualistic—some say “narcis-

sistic”—behavior is prevalent and contagious, a f­acilitator
needs to steer sensibly, rather than o
­ verreact, particularly
through “high stakes” moments when e ­ xperienced lead-
ers are stumbling and propelling their meeting toward a
precipice. Reflection on one such ­crisis illuminated how a
“dance of reciprocity”, deeply ingrained in us since birth,
shows us how to bring e ­ veryone back on track.

Key words: Consultancy, Psychology, Reflective

learning, Workshop facilitation

It was bound to be a rocky road. The leaders of this
­organization were threatened by the imminent removal of
funding. I was invited to facilitate their workshop, t­oward
Tony Page, an independent facilitator,
achieving greater impact, while steering well clear of
coach, and psychologist, also writes the alarming funding challenge, because time was short
professional articles and books (Diary of and the topic was being thoroughly addressed elsewhere.
a Change Agent, 1996, Gower; Creating When the dramatic moment duly arrived and forced a
Leadership: How to Change Hippos
­difficult choice, I had nothing to rely on but instinct. We
into Gazelles, 2018, BEP). His third
book, Secret Box, Searching for Dad in got through it, but afterwards my growing doubts about
a Century of Self, 2018, Telling Stories, where the leaders had landed brought me eventually to the
shining a personal light on our hidden concept of “reciprocity” as a route to understanding. This
potentials, is to be published in 2018. produced a new set of insights and lessons for facilitators.

The High-Stakes Moment

It was 9 am on the third and final day of a workshop in
Delhi. For two days, we’d been making good p ­ rogress
­toward achieving the objectives. I was i­ntroducing the
day’s agenda, when a participant, let’s call him X, leapt up,
red-faced and animated, to make the case for d ­ iscussing
Funding. X’s move was not entirely ­unexpected because
I’d heard whispering about his l­obbying the ­previous
night in the bar. With an already long list of agreed

© Business Expert Press 978-1-94709-808-4 (2018) Expert Insights

Facilitating a Meeting When Ambushed by Self-Oriented Behavior

topics to cover, which excluded Funding After the 90 minutes, I called time, and
for reasons everyone understood (or so I the discussion leader closed the topic as
­believed), X’s p ­ roposal was an ambush that agreed. We all walked to the refreshments
jeopardized our chances of completing the with frustrations and questions pouring out
­program. E ­ xperience as a facilitator (Good- of us: “How did we let this happen?” “What
win and Page, 2018) told me that the Fund- did we actually achieve?” “Is this how we
ing ­discussion was an emotional topic that collaborate?” “What have we sacrificed?”
no person present could influence. That “What price will we have to pay?”
was why it had been explicitly ruled out. Hearing this, I had no doubt the ­meeting
A tense silence greeted X’s proposal and was falling apart. I’d lost my place and
I believed it was my job as a f­acilitator to worse than that, I didn’t know what to
bring them through the impasse. These do next. I returned early to the meeting
45  leaders of a global n ­ on-governmental room for a few quiet moments to mentally
­organization (NGO for short), from 20 ­different replay the workshop so far. It went like
­countries across Africa, Asia, and Europe, this . . .
were jointly responsible for creating the
NGO’s strategy. I reminded them that In the Beginning . . .
they had carefully ­co-designed the agenda. On the morning of Day 1, the workshop
I  asked them to choose ­between the two ­began in earnest on when I presented the
options: sticking to their agreed agenda leadership team with its two agreed upon
without covering ­Funding (as ­previously framing questions:
agreed), or ­squeezing in Funding and sacri-
ficing one of the agreed ­topics. I wanted to ■■ If this team is a village, what kind of v
­ illage
treat them as adults, but this was difficult are we being?
because I ­believed X’s proposal was selfish ■■ How are we each taking up our roles in
and laden with risks. this village?
My invitation to choose produced a scat-
tering of remarks. ­Someone shouted “Stick I wanted to encourage give-and-take, b­ ecause
to the agenda!” but then X repeated his the 45 leaders recognized their t­ endency as
case for funding, and I saw his eyes dart- individuals to try to save the world in their
ing madly. I felt my jaw clench, ready for own way, and they often ­preferred talking
a fight. I took deep breaths to stay calm. to ­listening. No one wanted to get off to a
Someone at the back muttered “Read your bad start. I offered to p ­ rovide the group with
emails!” implying X hadn’t, and X’s strong ­challenge and support. I asked for ­volunteers
body language c­onfirmed his refusal to to help ­co-facilitate the s­ essions, and received
back down. When someone shouted “We’re ­several offers. After ­self-introductions and
wasting time,” their colleague with a groan sharing e ­ xpectations, I restated our ­purpose
of weary r­esignation said: “Let’s just get on for the meeting: “to collaborate as a team
with it.” With that ­someone stood up to lead toward tackling the NGO’s top c­ hallenges.”
the d ­ iscussion, and no one opposed. I didn’t I reminded them to build on their successes so
feel I had a place a­ nymore, except to offer far, and asked them to work flexibly ­together
them 90 minutes, and to request they close toward even greater global impact.
the topic before the 10:45 am ­morning break. Then we got down to work, allocating
I wrote off the first half of the m
­ orning and tasks to small groups. My contribution was to
inwardly I was tormented with a crippling ask good questions, drawing out the ­unsaid,
question: “How has X beaten his 45 ­colleagues ­toward insights and decisions from the group
into submission, and pulled the rug from as a whole. The energizer after lunch was in
under me?” the style of Tai Chi, standing together at the

2 © Business Expert Press 978-1-94709-808-4 (2018) Expert Insights
Facilitating a Meeting When Ambushed by Self-Oriented Behavior

far end of the meeting room, rubbing our growing sense of understanding, and a healthy
tummies, taking deep breaths, swinging our tendency to self-criticism. I learned that this
arms in dramatic moves to throw off the toxic “village” has tidy little front gardens on public
energies. In the closing minute, we balanced view, which everyone thinks are inadequate,
on a cloud, breathing deeply while gently but there is a yearning to speak of remark-
swaying left and right. It was so relaxing that able and “illegal” things that happen in their
no one wanted to stop (Figure 1). huge and bustling back gardens. At the end,
Happy chatter accompanied us as we this gave everyone a richer picture. I was told
moved to a large circle of chairs for a such an open session had never happened
­reflective dialogue. I gave the briefing: before, and I glowed with satisfaction, until,
disapointingly, someone whispered in my
■■ We are taking one minute in silence to ear that certain issues were being held back.
reflect on our “village” with two focus We carried that enriched ­understanding
questions into the rest of the afternoon. The l­eaders
1. How are we taking up our roles? made “Discovery Calls” using Skype, to
2. What are our feelings and needs? partner organizations and c­ olleagues across
■■ Next, rather than come to answers, we three continents, and unearthed some real
want you to explore these two questions, and tricky issues to feed into the working
­listening carefully to extend your awareness groups on the second morning.
ready for the working sessions that follow. On the second afternoon another energizer
had the leaders close their eyes and breathe
After the silence I said: “Begin!” My heart deeply, planting their feet firmly, scanning
was thumping, because no one knew where through their bodies to let go of t­ension.
this would take us, and there was no Plan B. Calmed and rebalanced, they ­returned to the
Someone began gently and t­ entatively. Then circle of chairs for r­ eflective dialogue, which
they took turns with each person building I introduced with a direct question:
on the last. Over the next 90 minutes, every
single person in that circle of 45 spoke at ■■ How are we actually working together
least once. Their insights were shared, with a here in Delhi?

Figure 1: A Tai Chi Energizer

Source: Flickr We Are Essex, Tai Chi Demonstration. Licence:

Creative Commons (

© Business Expert Press 978-1-94709-808-4 (2018) Expert Insights