Sometimes dialogue grinds to a halt. You put together an excellent agenda for a workshop but the group continues to get stuck.  The issue remains difficult to pinpoint.  This situation can be extremely frustrating for participants.  And it can be confusing and disheartening for the facilitator.  The conversation can go round in circles for hours.

When the team gets stuck, something else is going on. When the conversation is stuck it is likely that there is a hidden agenda or an unstated issue.  The role of the facilitator is to help the group to recognise that they are stuck, to understand the cause of the impasse and to help them to move through it.  Your role is not to take on the issue yourself but to present your observations and intuitions to the participants to allow them to own and take responsibility for the impasse.  The following process is based on the “Protocols for balancing Advocacy with Enquiry” from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge and others.

When a workshop grinds to a halt it is worth considering the following strategy:

  • Pick up the cues
  • Review your role as facilitator
  • Help the group to embrace the impasse

Pick up the Cues

People who are focussed on getting their point across in a discussion or debate may not realise that they are in an impasse.  They may have a rising sense of frustration but not be able to pause and acknowledge that they are not getting anywhere.  Sometimes someone in a workshop may say something like “now we are going around in circles”.  The first step of the facilitator is to notice what is happening in terms of:

  • Content being discussed
  • Scope and Context of the comments being made
  • Relationships in the group
  • Underlying Needs and Values of Participants
  • The process being followed
  • The criteria for success

Review your role as Facilitator

Begin with a moment of awareness in which you evaluate yourself and your role in impasse.  Ask:

  • What is happening right now?
  • What do I want right now?
  • What am I doing that is getting in the way of me getting what I want?
  • What action will I take right NOW?

Take a deep breath and set off…

Help the Group to Embrace the Impasse

  1. Stop the discussion and help the participants to acknowledge that they are at an impasse.
  2. Help the group to embrace the impasse and focus on what they know about the situation.
  3. Assist the members to articulate the conflicting mental models to try to understand the larger picture.
  4. Get them to discuss the information or logic required to change their views.
  5. Ask for the groups’ help to redesign the agenda.
  6. Don’t allow the conversation to stop with an agreement to disagree.

Take a break to allow the members to rest and caucus informally.  In my experience groups usually resolve the impasse during a break or they agree on a process to move forward.

(The photo comes from the Junior Magazine website: