When Stuff Blows Up


I was right in the middle of a facilitation, with thirty people around me busily filling out graphic templates, when the door flew open, someone I'd never met before stormed in, stuck his finger in my chest, yelled, "I don't know who you think you are, but I'll see to it you never work in this building again!" and stomped out.

What would you do? 

No fair reading on if you don't have an answer in your head.

In that moment, the lizard brain triggers. Fight or flight. Most have the presence of mind not to fight. We don't yell back. We don't throw insults. But it's soooo easy to default to flight. Flight isn't just running away. It's ignoring what happened. Or laughing it off. Or saying, "Alright, alright, let's get back to the agenda." But that ignores the Rule of Group Dynamics: if you're feeling something, chances are someone else is feeling it too.

Here's what I did. I'm not saying it's the best thing to do, or even the right thing to do, but I'm glad I handled it the way I did. I pulled the participants up to the balcony

I said, "Okay, so that just happened. We're going to stop right here for just a moment. I want everyone to tell me what's going on for them right now. In one word, what are you feeling?" Angry. Sad. Irritated. Upset. Mad. Frustrated. Disappointed. Ashamed. Humiliated. "Okay. Now that you've put a label on what you're feeling, who can briefly tell me what they believe just happened?" The first few comments were judgmental and derisive, but soon, participants starting exploring why that person might have behaved the way he did. I asked, "Can someone tell me how what we're doing might have looked from his perspective?" They shared some ideas, and as they did, the tone quieted, the room calmed, and someone said, "I think we can get back to work."

Why did that work? 

Pausing the facilitation allowed participants to empty their emotional backpacks of what had just happened. Had they not done so, they would have been at best distracted and at worst, destructive.

Asking participants to name the emotion they were feeling was actually a first step toward moving past it. In his book The Misleading Mind, Karuna Cayton says, "Thoughts, emotions, and all mental experience are quite slippery. When you try to grasp and hold on to the inner experience, it slips away, like trying to grab a fish with one hand." Naming an emotion is a gateway to dealing with it objectivity.

Asking participants to share what they believed happened was a "Vesuvius:" a time-boxed, tightly-controlled chance for participants to get anger off their chest and blow off remaining steam.

Finally, asking participants to adopt the perspective of the intruder had one intent: to build empathy for the intruder. It's hard to stay upset with someone you understand. At this point, the lizard brain is back in its cave.

That moment was my biggest facilitation nightmare, by far. But because it was such a nightmare, it was also one of my proudest moments. If you have the right tools and the right mindset, you'll know what to do when stuff blows up.

Epilogue: The intruder had been given some bad information about what we were doing and felt personally threatened by it. He apologized to me, and ended up becoming one of my strongest advocates and best clients. We're not always our best selves