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How to Grow Effective Teams,
And Run Meetings that Aren't a Waste of Time.

"How do I get groups unstuck?"

© 1998 All rights Reserved

All facilitators eventually encounter a situation where a group splits in such a way that it seems impossible to bring the two opposing camps into consensus. The purpose of this paper is to offer guidance in these situations. The paper is divided into four sections:


The reason we are starting with a review is that sometimes the root cause of a group getting stuck is that the facilitator has slipped out of a neutral role and started taking sides. When this happens, the process will typically break down.

The mental framing of the facilitator must be, "What's keeping this group from reaching consensus?" vs "How can I get them to do what I want?"

Facilitators will lose their neutral balance whenever they start taking responsibility for the decisions of the group. Similarly when facilitators start feeling themselves taking sides, or when they start resenting members of the group, then the facilitators know it is time to step back and ask someone else to facilitate. Because most supervisors are not neutral regarding group decisions, they should in general not be facilitators.


  1. Make propositions for group voting.
  2. Keep the group focused on the issue at hand.
  3. Make sure every team member is asked for their comments and votes.
  4. Protect team members from peer pressure and hierarchial pressure.
  5. Raise conflict.

1. Make propositions for group voting. The facilitator can take suggestions from team members, but the only propositions voted on by the group are those proposed by the facilitator. It helps to write the propositions on a board or a flip chart so the group clearly knows what it is voting on. It is paramount that this role not be usurped by dominating members of the group. Team members may make suggestions, but the facilitator is not bound to follow those suggestions.

2. Keep the group focused on the issue at hand. This requires the facilitator to interrupt when people are talking off-topic. Time can be saved by asking each person if they have anything to add or contradict

from previous speakers, but not to simply repeat what others have already said. If team members start repeating arguments the group has already heard, then request that the speakers confine themselves to "new" material.

It will help to periodically ask people to reflect the comments of other team members. This will keep team members truly listening and reduce the need for repeating arguments.

3. Make sure every team member is asked for their comments and votes. Votes are "Agree," "Disagree," or "Pass." Don't say things like, "Anyone disagree?" Instead ask each individual for their vote. A "pass" means the person needs more information or more time before making a decision.

Don't allow any member to dominate. Require people to take turns speaking and not to interrupt one another. When someone does interrupt, require them to reflect arguments before they are given a chance to respond to ideas.

If someone says, "I agree if the following changes are made...," remind them that the proposal before the floor will remain the same until all group members have voted on it. If necessary, say to the person, "I want to reflect your answer. I think you said 'no.'" Before making your next proposal, be sure

to go back and get the arguments and suggestions of anyone who voted "no."

4. The facilitator protects team members from peer pressure and hierarchial pressure. Sometimes, people will feel pressured into giving tacit approval when they aren't ready to. The facilitator should be on the look-out for this and remind the group that tacit approval should not be given until all arguments have been aired and understood and only if no one believes a catastrophe will result from the decision.

Facilitators must make sure that they themselves have not become so impatient as to start putting pressure on team members to give tacit approval before those individuals are ready to do so.

5. The facilitator raises conflict. The facilitator should make sure that hidden agendas are brought out into the open. When people don't seem to be forthcoming, the facilitator should reflect inferences and concerns in order to give the individual an opportunity to confirm or deny those inferences. For people who are passively resistant, a facilitator should reflect that as an inference, "I infer from your behavior that you really don't support this. Is that true?"



  1. Circling discussions
  2. Groupthink.
  3. Group confusion
  4. Unclear decision modes
  5. Inadequate time
  6. Unreasonable expectations
  7. Focusing on solutions rather than on underlying needs
  8. Overuse of veto power by team members
  9. Unclear goals
  10. Teams taking on issues outside their circles of influence.

1. CIRCLING DISCUSSIONS. When discussions circle and start repeating themselves, this is an indication that either tacit approval should be requested from the minority or that underlying conflict is still below the surface. If the facilitator senses that all arguments have been aired and appropriate information has been presented, then ask for tacit approval. If tacit approval is denied, this will mean that the group will have to dig deeper in order to reveal the "true" source of the disagreement. We discuss how to do this in Section 3 of this chapter, "The Levels of Disagreement."

2. GROUPTHINK. When decisions are "too easy" and discussions are limited, this sometimes indicates that groupthink is occurring. Groupthink means a group comes to agreements which few if any members of the group actually think is best. Decision systems that require consensus are prone to groupthink because people sometimes fear putting forth their own views because they don't want to threaten the group unity.

Married couples fall into groupthink if they take vacations to places neither partner wanted, but each thought the other wanted. When honest feelings don't get expressed, groupthink will inevitably occur.

Facilitators should become wary whenever they sense that people are attempting to "protect" other people's feelings. In particular, intervene when someone is speaking on behalf of others. Get those "others" to express their own feelings. Go over the Dialoguing Values of Chapter 10 in order to remind people of the critical importance of getting honest opinions before the group.

3. GROUP CONFUSION. Unclear facilitator proposals will result in group confusion. When votes are taken, team members won't be in agreement about what is actually being proposed. Sometimes this confusion doesn't show up until later when the team discovers their early consensus wasn't real. Facilitators have to be careful to keep proposals clear. It helps to write them on a flip chart.

When team members attempt to change a proposal half-way through the voting, stop them. The facilitator should explain that after everyone has voted on the proposal and if there is not consensus, then the facilitator will make a new proposal based on group input.

4. UNCLEAR DECISION MODE. There is no faster way to anger a group than to have it make a decision that turns out to be only a recommendation. Groups must on all issues understand the decision mode. Otherwise

supervisors will be seen as hypocrites who believe in group decisions only when the group comes to a decision the supervisor has already decided upon.

5. INADEQUATE TIME. If a group is given a task but isn't given sufficient time, the group will become very frustrated. Inadequate time is a major barrier to people feeling pride in their work. As soon as it becomes obvious that too little time is available for the task at hand, the group will need to

6. UNREASONABLE EXPECTATIONS. Many people enter team processes expecting teams to make decisions quickly and without controversy. That won't happen. Team members need to give up the notion that consensus or good decision making can occur quickly. Over time teams will become much more efficient than they would be otherwise. But even efficient teams will take longer than teams that rely on majority votes since consensus requires a thorough examination of opposing viewpoints. The time savings for all the up-front work will come later when implementation goes more smoothly and there is far less rework.

7. FOCUSING ON SOLUTIONS RATHER THAN UNDERLYING NEEDS. Teams must be careful when first establishing their goals. It is easy to get needs and solutions confused. For instance, people might think of themselves as needing a car when what they really need is transportation. By thinking "car" instead of "transportation," people prevent themselves from considering things like car pooling, vans, taxies, or buses.

It usually becomes apparent that a team has confused a need with a solution when in discussions people hit a wall and start feeling like there is no improvement idea for a particular problem. In essence they feel trapped into a win/lose choice rather than feeling like there is openness to a host of possible win/win choices.

When this happens, have the group clarify the underlying needs they are attempting to satisfy and see if other possible solutions have been blocked. It will help to relax some of the assumptions the group is making about resources and people. Sometimes this triggers thought processes that otherwise would not occur.

8. OVERUSE OF "VETO" POWER BY TEAM MEMBERS. Some team members may overuse their veto by misperceiving every situation as being a possible catastrophe. In general, it will help to remind team members that if a particular improvement idea is attempted, it is not being set in concrete. If things don't work out as originally hoped, the team will go back and re-examine the issue. It is best to talk to team members outside the team meeting if the facilitator believes there is excessive overuse of vetoes.

9. UNCLEAR GOALS. One reason for using a problem solving system is to insure there are clear goals. The goals should be specific enough so that everyone agrees how "success" will be measured. Sometimes there is outward agreement to goals, but in reality there are hidden agendas. In these cases, individual team members will be pursuing different goals than the team as a whole. Whenever a facilitator senses this is happening, it should be raised as an issue.

10. TEAMS TAKING ON ISSUES OUTSIDE THEIR CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE. Groups sometimes waste time and energy by discussing concerns over which they have no influence. In such cases, teams will feel like their meetings only make things worse rather than better. For instance, teams sometimes will identify problems with the work being handed down to them by others in the organization up-stream. They may ask for specific help from these people. If they don't get it, the team may start feeling like they are a victim of the system with no control over their lives.

Instead of dwelling on the failure of others to act, the team needs to instead focus on the arenas in which it has influence. For instance, instead of bemoaning that they are not being treated as customers, teams should focus on identifying their own internal customers and treating them better.

Over time, teams that focus on their circles of influence will find that influence actually grows whereas teams that simply complain about the things they can't control will find their influence gradually declines. (See Stephen Covey's The 7 habits of Highly Effective People for more on circles of concern and circles of influence.)


The underlying cause of conflict is not always obvious. Basically it can occur at any of six levels.

If there is disagreement at a lower level, then true consensus at a higher level can't be reached. This means that when there is disagreement at Level One, the highest level, the true root of discord can be at Level One or any of the lower five levels.


Level #1: Surface disagreement.
Level #2: Data disagreement.
Level #3: Disagreement about assumptions, concerns, and worries.
Level #4: Modeling disagreement.
Level #5: Disagreement about goals.
Level #6: Disagreement about who sets the goals.

LEVEL #1: SURFACE DISAGREEMENT: (FACILITATOR INSTRUCTION: Get agreement over a final decision.)

This is a disagreement over proposed solutions. If a team has seemingly split regarding its options, and discussions are starting to circle, then start looking for a deeper cause of disagreement than simply differing opinions about what may be best. The facilitator can either drop to level #6 and move upward or drop to level #2 and move downward.

LEVEL #2: DATA DISAGREEMENT: (FACILITATOR INSTRUCTION: Get agreement about the accuracy of the data.) Frequently groups split over recommended solutions because they are working with different experiences, anecdotes, and/or statistics. If this is the case, then information needs to be shared and evaluated. Sometimes it requires that more data be gathered. If people are unsure of the data's accuracy, then agreement should be reached over how to evaluate accuracy.

LEVEL #3: DISAGREEMENT ABOUT ASSUMPTIONS, CONCERNS, AND WORRIES: (FACILITATOR INSTRUCTION: Get agreement about assumptions, concerns, and fears which must be factored into a final solution.) Debates about data are frequently really debates about underlying assumptions. People typically don't remember raw data, but rather remember the inferences they made from such data. In these cases, the inferences and assumptions need to be on the table so they can be examined. The reflection process is designed to help bring these inferences to group awareness.

Underlying concerns and worries may be over job security either for oneself or others. These concerns lead to hidden agendas in which no matter what is proposed, the ideas are never acceptable. The purpose of using the "Concerns List" in the heuristic is that it helps get these worries into the open. The group typically won't be able to reach consensus unless these misgivings are dealt with directly.

LEVEL #4: MODELING DISAGREEMENT: (FACILITATOR INSTRUCTION: Get agreement about how the process works.) Disagreements about what data is useful stems from differences in how the process is being modeled. This can be identified by asking team members what data would persuade them they are wrong. If the opposing sides are relying on different data, that means they are using different models. In these cases, the discussion should focus on how the current system works.

LEVEL #5: DISAGREEMENT ABOUT GOALS: (FACILITATOR INSTRUCTION: Get agreement on the goals.) Sometimes groups think they are all pursuing the same goal, but they really aren't. Some goals are so abstract that they can easily mean more than one thing. In these cases, the group needs to specify: (a) how will it concretely measure success and (b) what are the constraints on any solution.

When different departments are involved, each group may carry to the table subgoals that have never been specified. In these cases, the subgoals need to be spelled out.

LEVEL #6: DISAGREEMENT ABOUT WHO SETS GOALS: (FACILITATOR INSTRUCTION: Get agreement over who sets the goal.) When groups cannot agree on goals, the next step is to go to a higher authority and get a final decision. If the group cannot even agree as to whom this higher authority might be, then clearly there is real trouble. In general, a group should turn to whoever set the team up in the first place in order to get resolution over the goal.


These tools are gathered here as a quick and easy guide.


  1. Ask for a tacit "yes" or "no."
  2. Use reflection. Test feelings and assumptions.
  3. Call a "time out."
  4. Have members speak to the facilitator instead of speaking directly to one another.
  5. Summarize where the group's conflict appears to be and then check this hypothesis with the group.
  6. Ask each member of the group what s/he wants the group to do.
  7. Break issues into smaller parts and deal with the parts separately.
  8. Ask for the raw data upon which inferences were based.
  9. Ask people what data would convince them they are wrong.
  10. Ask people to limit themselves to "new" arguments not already presented.
  11. Get agreement on goals and then move up the Levels of Disagreement.
  12. Use tape recorders and video cameras in order to review your team processes.
  13. Follow a heuristic such as the Three Phase Loop.
  14. Don't operate with unreasonable deadlines. Change the "due date," the mission, or the decision mode.
  15. When emotions and feelings are getting in the way, meet with the affected individuals outside of team settings.
  16. When roles are not being accepted, then go over the new roles.

#1. Ask for a tacit "yes" or "no" when a clear majority exists and the issue has been discussed fully to reveal underlying conflicts. If people feel strongly that the majority view will cause problems, then keep talking.

#2. Have group members use reflection to indicate what they heard. This will significantly improve group learning. Reflection has three parts:

  • Tell in your own words what you heard.
  • Tell any "automatic" meanings you attached to what you heard.
  • Tell any underlying assumptions or inferences you made or you think the speaker made.

#3. Call a "time out" if emotions are getting too hot. This can last five to ten minutes.

#4. When emotions get hot, have members of the group speak to the facilitator instead of speaking directly to one another.

#5. Summarize where the group's conflict appears to be and then check this hypothesis with the group. For instance, the facilitator might say, "I think the difference in opinion here is we don't seem to agree about the error rate. What do you think?"

#6. Ask each member of the group where s/he believes the group is currently at and what s/he wants the group to do. "What do you suggest our next step should be?" Be sure to ask each team member this question.

#7. If issues are too complex, break them into

smaller parts and deal with the parts separately. You can show linkages between the parts in flow charts and fishbones. Focus on those parts in which the group believes most problems are located.

#8. When people make statements that are inferences, ask them to give the raw data upon which the inferences were based. This data might be anecdotal or it might be quantitative.

EXAMPLE: "What is it that you heard or saw that led you to that inference?"

#9. Ask people what data would convince them they are wrong. Be sure to ask this question of every person in the group. Ask those in favor of a proposal, "What would convince you this won't work (or isn't true?)" Ask those opposed, "What would convince you that this will work (or is true?)"

Asking these questions will require one or both sides to either confess they are being closed minded or to come up with a method for resolving the conflict.

#10. If arguments start getting repeated, then ask people to limit themselves to "new" arguments not already presented.

#11. Clarify at what level disagreement begins. Start at the bottom of the "Levels of Disagreement" and work up. This works particularly well when it seems like the "real" causes of disagreement have not surfaced.

#12. Use tape recorders and video cameras in order to review your committee processes. This will help bring awareness of defense mechanisms and communication problems.

#13. Have clear plans. Either use the Three Phase Loop or some other problem solving approach that helps make it clear there is "light at the end of the tunnel."

#14. If deadlines are looming, then attempt to move the deadlines, reduce the mission of the team, or change the decision mode.

#15. When feelings and emotions are getting in the way, then have one-on-one sessions and small group discussions outside the team setting. This may require negotiating new relationships between people.

#16. When roles seem unclear, remind people of the new roles. This is especially important when the facilitator's authority is being questioned by interruptive behavior, by attempts by team members to put proposals before the group, or by attempts to circumvent the voting procedures.

©All materials copyrighted 1998 by Ron Turner and Linda Turner. All rights reserved.

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