Invite participants to feel uncomfortable. Lessons from the past year.

Invite participants to feel uncomfortable. This is the second article in a short series of lessons I learned or affirmed during my past year as a facilitator. When facilitating some sessions, I purposely encouraged participants to willingly feel slightly uncomfortable or anxious.

Why and When? I only proposed an activity that may have made some participants feel uneasy when I strongly believed that it would help them achieve the results they wanted. My intent varied depending on the situation. Example of intent were:

  • Allowing participants to look at a topic from a very different perspective
  • Breaking through entrenched positions about a topic
  • Switching from heated vocal disagreement among participants to civil exchange
  • Inviting a willing suspension of resistance to a discussion method to see what could happen
  • Stretching beyond the normal expectations of a meeting or group discussion
  • Using varied methods to fit with multiple learning styles

Here is what I learned and affirmed for my practice of offering uncomfortable activities. (the How)

  1. Be aware of my intent in offering an activity that may make participants feel uncomfortable. Select an activity because it is a very beneficial way for participants to achieve their desired results; not because I, as a facilitator, want to try an edgy and provocative method.
  2. Explain intent clearly and concisely. How will this activity help you as a group?
  3. Get out of my way! Realize that fear and uneasiness that I may feel about offering a new and unfamiliar technique to participants is my issue. Is it a beneficial method for the group? Then try it.
  4. Do not assume or state what participants will feel. Let them experience it. Do not say, “This may make you feel uncomfortable.” Explain the activity and the intent, ask permission, and then just do it.
  5. Let the participants know it is their choice to accept, yet, encourage them to stretch beyond their normal comfort level. Ask a participant to agree to take part in an activity, even if reluctant. This takes careful assessment as a facilitator. I asked one participant to willingly take part in a goal setting activity and she agreed despite saying that she didn’t like it. At the end of the session, she stated that it was the most amazing discussion she had ever participated in.
  6. If participants voice strong concerns, have ways to adjust the activity to achieve similar results.
  7. Use an internal conversation to constantly assess what is happening. I use the Focused Conversation from Technology of Participation (ToPTM and the Mutual Learning Cycle by Roger Schwarz & Associates Example: What do I see participants doing? What do I hear? What am I feeling? What do I think participants are feeling? What do I think it means? What do I say to the group to check my interpretation?

Any discussion and decision-making activity may cause discomfort for some participants, depending on their individual preferences and the group norms. Embrace feeling uncomfortable and invite participants to join you WHEN it best helps achieve the results that the group wants.



Invite participants to feel uncomfortable. Lessons from the past year.
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