Advanced Facilitation: Dealing with Problematic Behavior

shutterstock_187864790smOne of the more common questions I’m asked is, how do you deal with a disruptive participant when facilitating a ritual or workshop? In fact, one of the things many people tell me is they are afraid to teach workshops because of all the heckling and Know-it-all behavior they’ve observed as a workshop participant. The purpose of this blog post isn’t to go into why it happens, but to outline a few scenarios and how you might handle them. I’ll talk about workshops, rituals, and touch on behavior that comes up in longer-term groups.

While I’m focusing on scenarios in the Pagan community, many of these also come up in the sci-fi/fantasy/fandom community, geek community, and other subcultures.

Scenario: Know-It-All Leader
What do you do when a local leader, elder, or otherwise experienced practitioner vocally heckles you in the middle of a ritual? Maybe they are telling you that you called the quarters wrong or something else. Instead of taking you to the side after the ritual, they step into the center and loudly bully you. Not only do you have to deal with them, you have to somehow refocus your group and offer a ritual. 

When someone vocally defies the ritual setup and gets confrontational about it, that is probably one of the most challenging things to facilitate. Harder even than dealing with an altar on fire.

What I can honestly say is that if a facilitator has basic competence and confidence, and sets up their agreements for behavior, this type of thing rarely happens. Really rarely. I’ve heard some horror stories of it happening, but I’ll be honest–this hasn’t yet happened to me. And, I often facilitate rituals that might invite this sort of challenge.

The less aggressive version of this is the sort of standard heckling/Know-it-all when facilitating a workshop. I don’t typically have that happen either, though in a workshop setting it’s a lot easier to shut someone down if they are interrupting. If I’ve set up the agreement asking people to not interrupt each other, and if I’ve set up the agreement asking people to keep their contributions brief…heck. Even if I haven’t set up that agreement, if someone is being contradictory, or playing Know-it-all, there are really two ways to handle it depending on how aggressive they are.

1. If they aren’t really aggressive and are making a decent point, particularly if they seem actually knowledgeable, I’ll say something like, “You seem to know a lot more about the Occult ____ of tarot, and I just want to reiterate that for the purposes of this workshop, I’m working more with the personal growth aspect of Tarot cards. And there are a number of exercises I promised I’d do as part of this workshop so I want to go ahead an move on to the next topic, but if you can stick around after the workshop, maybe folks who are interested in talking about Occult ____ can ask you some questions.” This one’s more of a, someone’s making a good point but it’s derailing the class.

2. If someone’s continually interrupting me or being otherwise rude in contradicting me, I will be a little more direct. Again, if I’ve set up agreements, this happens rarely but it does happen. If they are making a good point, I acknowledge it, but I would say something like, “So I just want to refresh our agreements here together for not interrupting. I hear that you ___person’s name__ have a lot that you seem to want to say, and I’m glad you’re excited by the topic, but the focus of this workshop is on ____. I’m going to ask you to hold your comments until the end and I’d be happy to talk more then about your specific ___issue/topic__. I have a lot of material to cover for this workshop and I want to make sure I cover what I promised.”

And, if they pull the Know-It-All/interrupting again, I’ll interrupt them–calmly. “I’m not going to address that at this point because ____ topic, and I again ask you to hold off on tangents so that we can keep on track for the workshops. I want to remind you of the agreements to not be disruptive.” Depending on the room layout, I might use body language, like standing next to that participant.

Strike 3, I ask them to leave, but that hasn’t happened.

Ritual Interruptus
Typically, I hear of the “ritual interruptus” sort of thing happening when someone who is trained in a particular branch of Wicca has an issue with how someone is doing a ritual. I’ve heard of ADF Druids having a local Wiccan priestess go off on them for failing to cast a circle. And I’ve heard of other scenarios that basically run out as, the ritual has started, and a well-known local leader literally steps into the center and loudly says some version of, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Again, I haven’t had to deal with this, and my response would greatly depend on the energy of the room and the hostility of the person. However, assuming that we’re at a public ritual with 50+ people, many that I don’t know, and they are all kind of shocked by this, and assuming that the person has just a vague edge of hostility…I might approach it like this.

Assuming it’s me they are interrupting and not one of my ritual team, I’d turn to face them, perhaps step closer to them (but not get in their face). And I’d say something like, “The ritual format I’m using is pretty common to several different traditions and I’m really confident that the way I’ve set things up are going to work for this ritual and for this group. But, I can see that this ritual probably isn’t going to work for you, and your actions are a pretty significant breach of our agreements here together for mutual respect. And with respect, I’m going to ask you to leave this space. Energy like this is not welcome here.”

(Depending on hostility, they might interrupt me before I get that far, of course.)

I’d probably ask everyone else to take a breath and take a step back, and then I’d escort the person out or engage some of my team members in doing that. Then, of course, there’s the work of re-centering and focusing the group. People don’t tend to emotionally deal well with conflict like that, but I will ask people to reconnect, take a breath. Re-state the agreements. I might ask people what they need to feel safe. Perhaps invite them to sing a tone with me to help recenter.

There’s a way to do it, it just takes time.

Most of the time, what happens is the person interrupting ends up being someone really intimidating, like someone who has been leading a group for 20-30 years but who has issues. And it’s usually a younger, less confident facilitator who is getting bullied. The key is to stay calm, project competence and confidence, and clearly state the agreements and the consequences for not upholding them. Getting angry and defensive just makes things worse.

What Wards and Safeguards Do You Use?
I don’t really use what most people would think of as wards. I work with. I tend to work more with here-and-now behaviors. If someone’s acting in a harmful way toward the group, then I have a responsibility to check in with them, and perhaps eject them from the group. The core of my warding is pretty mundane, but really darned potent. It’s setting up group agreements. The core of it is pretty simple–it’s letting people know what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. There’s an axiom, “If you don’t ask for it, you can’t be upset that you didn’t get it.” This is really true with group behavior. If I want people to engage in particular behaviors, and not in others, then I have to spell out what the accepted behaviors are.

There are typically some things I don’t have to state. “Don’t start punching each other.” That’s pretty well assumed.

Group Agreements
For instance, most of my events are dry (no alcohol), so I used to explicitly state “no drugs or alcohol.” In Chicago, I don’t really state that on emails/flyers because it’s never been a problem; in all my years of running events, I can only really think of two times someone has come to an event clearly drunk.

However, for any workshop or ritual, I’ll usually offer my standard set of group agreements. For ritual, that includes letting people know that while we are connecting together in a circle, people can go to the bathroom if they need to, or step outside for some air, as long as they come back with respect. The basic agreement is I ask for people to attend to their own needs; if they are cold, come closer to the fire. If they are thirsty, there’s where they can get water. If they need to sit, they can. The agreement is for self responsibility.

Agreements for Emotional Self Responsibility
Agreements for intense work include emotional self responsibility. Those agreements are more complex. Basically I might articulate the theme of the ritual/intensive. Maybe we’re going to the Underworld to release an old wound from our past. I ask people to not try and fix anyone–if someone’s crying, letting them have their process, not go over and try to hug someone and “fix” them. (It’s not actually fixing, it’s derailing both people’s process.) On the flip side, I tell people that if they are crying and upset and they’d like a hug, that they can ask for that. I offer that in my case, if I’m crying and someone comes over to try and hug me, it’s not going to help me, it’s going to make me feel like I need to stop crying.

Similarly, if someone’s focused on “fixing” me, it’s derailing them from doing their own work there in the Underworld. But, it points to how difficult many people find it to just sit there and be uncomfortable while someone else cries.

And then I follow it all up with the info that if someone’s curled up on the floor wailing, I’m going to assume that’s what they need for their process. I’m not going to come over and try to tend them. However–if anyone comes to the end of the ritual and needs a little help coming back, or processing anything, that I and other facilitators are there for that. But I do ask people to be generally self responsible and not do work that is too much for them to do in that context.

That’s a pretty specific, intensive example, but basically it follows the general axiom of, if you don’t ask for it, then you won’t get the behavior you want.

Additional Standard Agreements
I have other more general agreements, such as, asking people to be considerate about how much time they are taking up in a meeting or workshop during discussions or checking in, asking for mutual respect and not interrupting others, or not offering advice to someone’s check in unless they have permission, a few other things.

If people are behaving in ways that are aberrant to this, I might interrupt that behavior. Like if someone’s going on and on and I need to move on with a workshop or ritual, I’ll interrupt them. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they just lost track and were rambling, but, I also check in with them after and ask them to be more aware of how much of a chunk of time they are taking up.

If the behavior is significantly outside the realm of what’s ok in a ritual, I may try to find a way to keep someone calm during a ritual and address it after. If I really had to, I’d eject someone from a ritual. I haven’t ever had to, at least, not from an event I was running.

At an event where I was a guest facilitator, one guy had an episode during a ritual; he was medicated for anger management with but even so he started swearing, rocking back and forth, seething, ramping up to get violent. My cofacilitator pulled the guy over to the altar/station I was managing and told the guy to give his anger to Brigid’s Forge (I was Brigid at the Forge) and in that case, it worked, but I wouldn’t have allowed that guy into a future ritual.

Poor Behavior in Longer Term Groups
With closed rituals and long-term coven practices, you have a lot of advantages, and one specific disadvantage. The advantage of the coven/closed group relationship is pretty specific–you know people more intimately. These aren’t just random people coming in for a public ritual, these are people you’ve worked with before. These people become acquaintances and even close friends, depending on the intensity of the work.

The disadvantage is that when we know someone well, we want to make space for them to heal, we have more invested in each other, and it’s harder to cut someone off. We get into that codependent dance with them–and it’s because we want them to be able to be involved. These are, I would say, the hardest people to cut out of a group, because it’s not that they’re terrible people. It’s just that their actions are consistently destructive to the group.

In my Pagan Activist blog post on mental health  in the first part of the article I offer the example of the group leader working with a woman diagnosed with Bipolar. She worked with that woman for 10 years to the overall detriment of herself as a leader and to her group–the woman kept on stopping her treatment plan, acting out in harmful ways, and one by one, other group members left over the years.

I’ve also written about some of the specific red flag behaviors that a group leader–particularly of a smaller more intimate group or a leadership team–will want to keep an eye out for:

Intimacy and Issues
While I’ve never been part of a coven, the monthly intensives at Diana’s Grove had a similar feel because, after attending events for a year, everyone knows who you are. Everyone knows what baggage you’re working with. Everyone knows each other, and even though the intensives were groups of 30-50, many of us became close friends.

With the advantage of knowing someone, and with the advantage of seeing someone’s behaviors playing out long-term vs. just at the occasional public event, you have the opportunity to address those behaviors with someone. This is especially useful for folks in that gray-zone of, doing some things that are somewhat inappropriate, but, they can probably address their behavior, vs. the folks that are really acting out in ways that it’s pretty clear aren’t going to change.

Example: Having the Hard Conversation
A quick example–maybe it’s a group that puts on public rituals, or, a group that puts on an annual Pagan Pride, or even just a coven where different people are expected to take different ritual roles or do different organizing of rituals or classes for the coven. If there’s someone who frequently takes on a job and then drops the ball, that’s something where eventually a leader-type person will need to have a conversation with them and outline:

“In the past year I’ve noticed that you’ve taken on tasks X, Y, and Z, and each time you were very excited to step in and help, and each time you did not complete the task and someone else had to do the task instead. The impact that this has is that the people who have to step in and do the task have a lot less planning and preparation, and, they also already have other tasks they are responsible for. I’m guessing that isn’t the impact you want to have, so let’s talk about what’s going on.”

If you look at the “Conflict Resolution Part 6″ blog post linked above, there’s a lot there about behaviors that in and of themselves aren’t terrible, but added together they become a problem.

The idea is that with a longer-term group, folks are more close-knit and there’s more opportunity to see patterns in our fellow group members. The disadvantage is that usually this ends up being an exercise in enabling; people would rather excuse someone’s poor behavior than confront them about it.However, with the right group agreements and skilled facilitation, this can be more of an opportunity to work with someone’s behavior and express the impact of that behavior.

If the person can change the behavior they can become a stronger part of the group. If they continue engaging in red flag behavior, then it’s time to consider removing them from the group.

Confidence and Calm
There are a lot of scenarios that can come up that require leaders and facilitators to address conflict or a really emotional scenario. The key is keeping calm, and being confident. A confident (not arrogant) facilitator will face less heckling, and also will be able to keep more calm when attacked. A facilitator who isn’t confident and who has poor self esteem or other baggage will be more defensive. We defend our weaknesses. Defensiveness will just escalate the issue and cause more drama, whereas confidence allows you to stay centered and clear.

True confidence allows you to be really clear about the issues and keep calm. And, sometimes that’s just something that you need to build over time. If you are heckled and your first urge is to yell at the person and take them down a peg, you’ll want to take a look at why that’s your first response. Being angry at rude behavior makes sense, but also look at the long term impact you want to have. If you are trying to teach a workshop, and you dressing down the rude participant becomes the focus of the rest of the workshop, that’s probably not what you want.

Sometimes you can’t avoid it when someone brings drama to your door, but how you handle it will help determine whether or not you get to finish facilitating that workshop or ritual or if things break down into fisticuffs.

Pro-tip: It sounds cliche, but taking that cleansing breath (or three) before you speak to someone really will help clear your head. Breathwork (and chanting, by extension) are really powerful techniques to manipulate your body’s natural adrenaline response and to bring centering and calm.

3 thoughts on “Advanced Facilitation: Dealing with Problematic Behavior

  1. Pingback: But I’m Always Right! Pagan Know-it-alls | Shauna Aura Knight

  2. Pingback: Facilitation and Public Speaking: Tips for Authors | Shauna Aura Knight: Artwork and Design

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