How to deal with resistance of meeting participants

When we teach facilitation skills and work in mentoring sessions for managers and HR who work with teams, one of the most common questions we hear is, "What to do if the group/participant resists?" And we as facilitators know that keeping a constructive discussion, an atmosphere of open dialog is an important part of our group facilitation, and "resistance" can derail the team's efforts and chances of making a good decision.

So what to do?

What do we mean by resistance in the context of facilitation?

As in common parlance, resistance means opposition:

someone - a facilitator, a boss, a particular colleague.

to something - the process of the meeting, a change initiative, the topic of the meeting, or whether participants feel that participation in the meeting is an additional burden, etc.

Resistance on the part of the meeting participant can be relatively low-level, such as minimal participation in discussions, or it can take an open, even aggressive form, such as personal attacks.

Let's look at a few examples of how "resistance" can manifest itself and how to be in such situations.

Open form of resistance: negative body language and tone of voice

Example 1

During an idea-generation meeting, there is someone who clearly dismisses most suggestions by arching an eyebrow or smirking slightly at a colleague. Nothing "burns oxygen" in the room like this behavior left unchecked. But what can you do?

Describe what you see: "I can see by your body language that some are reacting emotionally to sound ideas."

Describe the consequences: "I am concerned that this may limit the willingness of the whole group to come up with new ideas because they may feel they are being evaluated too quickly or negatively."

Redirect behavior: "Try to be more neutral in body language when people share their suggestions. I'll make sure everyone has a chance to voice their concerns after we've compiled a list of options."


Colleagues, as we continue to gather ideas, please pay attention to your body language so that others do not feel that their suggestions are now being evaluated. In the next step, everyone will have an opportunity to comment on the ideas that have been collected.

Example 2

A participant says, "I think we are wasting our time! We have a ton more work to do in the office, let's get it done right now!"

What might be the appropriate response, "Tell me a little more about why you think this meeting is a waste of time? What changes could we make to the structure of the meeting to remove your main reason for dissatisfaction?"

Example 3

A participant says, "It's nothing personal, of course, but why exactly are you running this meeting?"

Don't make the excuse, "Well, I'm a PhD in social work, I've been doing this kind of work successfully for 10 years, and your director hired me to conduct this meeting!"

Say, "Yes, I realize you may have doubts about my role today because you don't know me. Could you elaborate on what exactly is confusing to you?"

Or, "It's very important for me to be helpful at this meeting! Could you tell me what I need to tell you about myself or what my actions during the meeting will remove your doubts about my competence?"

A covert form of resistance. Flatterer (overly agreeable, agreeable to everything).

Have you ever noticed during a meeting that one participant seems to agree with absolutely everything the boss or other "authority figures" say? An experienced facilitator would be alert to this - it signals a possible hidden way of avoiding responsibility for "expressing their opinion. And what could be the reason for such all-agreement? The person may not feel safe expressing his or her opinion and may fear retaliation from the boss or other powerful figures in the room.

What can you as a facilitator do to handle such an employee tactfully?

Describe the situation: "I see that we have a lot of different titles here today."

Describe a concern of the participants, "Do you agree that it is really important that you all get to hear everyone's opinions in this meeting?"

Establish a rule or behavioral norm: "What rules or principles can we all agree to so that everyone can speak freely?"

If the behavior resurfaces again, you can at least refer back to the accepted norm/rule when you notice overly "agreeable behavior" again.

Have productive meetings and sessions!