I've gone on at length about my love for building bridges between audiences of different minds within workshop settings. Basic workshop facilitation is a science and can be treated as such. In my experience, overcoming destructive personalities and contexts require a little more of an artistic approach.

I've designed and executed workshops at Fortune 500 companies across the country and it's almost always a blast. A cross between walking a tightrope without a net and lion taming without the benefit of a whip and a chair, the lead facilitator is the main attraction of a circus where the audience is just as much a part of the show as the performers. From a room full of warring parties -- to the lead client trying to take over the full agenda, I feel like I've walked through both the fun-house and the freak-show.

Everyone Loves a Train Wreck

In one of my first solo workshop gigs I ran across a rather prickly character I'll refer to as Eric -- The Fighter (I've changed all names to protect the guilty). Eric demanded that everyone in the room "respect his authority" and boldly declared that we were wasting his time as no agreement could be reached. He went further by declaring that any proposal other than what he wanted in the first place would be met with disdain and contempt.

Fighting back against a combative soul like Eric would advance into a confrontational and destructive dynamic. Good facilitators know that this tone must be avoided at all costs, because workshops are like fantasy land where suspension of disbelief makes anything possible. Once the tone of negativity has been allowed to spread, it removes the one ingredient that allows a workshop to achieve its aggressive goals; positive belief in the possible.

It is with the above idea in mind that a constructive response can be identified, but not just any constructive response. In order to be useful, the response must not only defuse The Fighter, but also engage them. My tactic is to entice them into something a fighter enjoys -- watching a train wreck.

This highly dangerous pivot is not for the faint of heart, but it can be done if you have a deep mastery of your subject matter. When presented with a challenge, don't make The Fighter wrong for challenging, and don't ask him to play along -- tell him you are up to the challenge and that achieving alignment is a mission that you know you can complete.

In this circumstance, The Fighter was so vehement that I decided in the moment to guarantee successful alignment would be reached and that I was willing to bet my reputation on it. Nobody is going to turn that down because it is an all win scenario -- if I succeed, he and his views have been heard and he has bought into a new vision. If I fail, he's not accountable and gets to mock me for being so cocky.

Decking the Big Guy

Closely related to The Fighter is the Bart -- The Usurper. Bart is the person in the workshop dying to stand up, take over the meeting and the agenda and be the center of attention. My Bart asked that the agenda for the day be delayed so that he could go in depth on explaining his full vision to the room. At this point he pulled out about 10 loose sketches and semi-crumpled paper and proceeded to hold court. As Bart was the owner of the company sponsoring the workshop, no one dared to challenge him -- except me.

Experienced facilitators dream about the moment when an executive wants to fully dominate the session because it  gives you the golden moment to set the tone for the entire day. While I don't recommend confronting The Fighter, I do recommend gracefully but firmly confronting The Usurper.

In this case, I informed him that the schedule for the day was tight and that we would not be able to meet our objectives if the first thing we do is throw the agenda away. I was more than happy to cede the floor to him with the understanding that I would no longer be accountable for the goals of the day or the workshop in general. 

From there, I offered a reasonable middle ground, wherein if he could hold off for a little while, the lunch break would provide a perfect opportunity to discuss his concepts in detail and nobody would be rushing him to close down any discussion that naturally would arise from his topics.

Aside from the fact that he complied, it set the stage that the lead facilitator owned the room and was not to be trifled with. When using a tactic like this, it is always advisable to apologize at the next break point to smooth any hurt feelings that can come from maintaining a brisk pace.

Leaving You Wanting More

Good Facilitators are like showmen. They know they are best when their audience leaves wanting just a little more. If I get a bunch of Tweets and/or comments, I'll write a new article explaining how the picture below of a crack smoking, heroin shooting, beer drinking guy was a central figure in a project rescue workshop. Please tweet or comment with any scenarios or questions you might have like "What do you do when they ask 'Why are we doing this,'" "How do you get warring parties to see each other's perspective" or "What do you do when the client partner refuses to play along?"


Editor's Note: Check out Stephen's other "How To" Articles -- How To: Getting Started in User Experience (UX) and How To: Adding Depth to User Experience (UX) with Generalists and Hybrids