I’ve often been in retrospectives or reflection sessions where I am facilitating and I am going through the post-it notes and I come across one on which someone has put something controversial. On other occasions, there is no post-it note there, but there is a clear interpersonal conflict going on between team members. I think of these scenarios as examples of the elephant in the room that people don’t like to talk about.

As a facilitator in these sessions, what do you do?

I believe there is a deliberate decision to be made between facilitating around these elephants or ‘taking the bull by the tusks’ (elephants here folks) – having the harder conversations.

I’ve learnt over the years that sometimes it’s best to address these things directly and get the person that raised them talking about their issue. This can clear the air and create space for the person that allows them to focus on the other items open for discussion.  This certainly works when you have more context around the issue, other times it’s an action to find out more and share back with the group. The key point here is that the follow up is very important to maintain trust.

So, what do you do when the item is missing completely?

There have been times where someone has spoken to me privately before the session about a challenge they have.  In most situations it is fear holding them back from raising the issue with the group – and that could be fear about not having the answer, fear of upsetting someone or fear that they don’t have the time or authority to see the issue through.  In these situations, they need a little coaching and mentoring around the impact of not raising the challenge. I’ve often coached around the “I don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings” issue by helping them to see the situation from the other person’s perspective and creating empathy. It is helpful with allowing them to see the good in raising an issue and the advantages for it.  Sometimes as a team facilitator you need to know your people well enough to create a psychological safety for the ‘what’s stopping you?’ conversation. By talking it through one on one with the person it can help you to understand the basis for the fear. This allows you to facilitate to remedy the fear for the best outcome, an example might be a bite sized change or the right support.

I believe in team members raising issues with each other rather than a facilitator or a manager doing it.  It helps to foster a trust within the team that its okay to talk about these things and gives the team empowerment with not only their individual work, but how they work together too.

In response to the “missing” items, from time to time, I have agreed that I will raise an issue, put some context around it then ask the person that had raised it with me to add their point of view.  This is a successful technique that helps create that safe space. In doing this I have had situations where another member of the team then speaks up with the same concerns.

While this discussion talks to the techniques for how and why you should discuss those elephants more often, it’s a matter of taking a deep breath and being brave.

Jodi Humphries