A mistake that makes you humble is better than an achievement that makes you arrogant. -Unknown
I was asked to facilitate a two-hour focus group comprised of six people, to discuss a proposed recycling program in a nearby town. “Sure,” I said, “how difficult could that be?” Granted I have never facilitated a focus group before, but six people—come on! Little did I know that in addition to the six people in the focus group there would be more than 200 angry community members also attending the meeting.
Note to self: Never assume anything.
The topic of recycling wasn’t so much the controversial issue to the community members—it was the mandatory part that seemed to bring out every antigovernment entity around, including organizers from out of state.
As I walked into the city hall that night, the event coordinator ran up to me and said that the recycling issue had become somewhat heated since we had talked and that in addition to facilitating the small group of six, I also needed to address the growing crowd.
“Me?” I cried. “I thought you were going to do that?”
“I think you’d be better since you are a neutral party. Just explain the format and the ground rules,” she insisted.
I looked at my watch. It was 6:25 p.m., and in five minutes this town-hall-meeting-gone-bad would begin! This is going to be an agonizing two hours, I thought to myself.
And it was.
Before I could even introduce myself to the rowdy crowd, a number of people began yelling and screaming at me. The loudest voice came from the back of the room, “Who’s paying you?” By the second time he yelled it out, the room got uncomfortably quiet, as people waited to hear my response. I said, “I don’t think that is relevant.”
Oops, wrong answer. Then they got louder. Three or four people screamed together, “How much are you getting paid?”
Clearly, I was not viewed as a “neutral” facilitator. The angry crowd decided I had become “one of them,”—a representative of the city government. Fortunately for me, a member of city council inserted himself into the fury and defended the proposed recycling program. The good news was that the focus was finally off of me. The bad news was that the crowd was quickly getting out of hand.
I looked at my watch—it read 6:35 p.m. OMG! It’s only been five minutes. How am I going to survive this night?
Eventually, the six focus group members and I were able to escape to another room, but not without members of the angry mob continuously disrupting our meeting by barging into the room and verbally attacking anything and everything we were doing.
When time was finally up for our focus group, I had the ugly task of going back to the larger room and reporting out on our findings to the agitated crowd. All I could think was, be quick and get the hell out of here!
As I entered the room for a second time, I was met with more shouting and constant disruption. I did my best, even though no one could hear what I was saying. There was no mic or sound system since this meeting was intended for a small group. I shouted as loud as I could and covered the summary points, while wondering if my car was safe out in the parking lot.
In the end, I was very thankful that people dispersed peacefully and that I was able to drive away with my car intact. I did learn some valuable lessons:
- The city council did a poor job in involving members of the community in this process, which caused a buildup of frustration.
- What triggered the community was not the recycling program itself, but the lack of transparency around it. Even the questions we were discussing in the focus group implied that the recycling program already had passed.
- I was embarrassed and ashamed for the lack of civility in the meeting and the comments directed at me. I understood the frustration but didn’t appreciate how it was expressed.
- Oddly, as the night went on, I found myself agreeing more and more with the angry crowd. I objected with the city for not being open and honest with me about what to expect at the meeting.
- I walked into this gig blindly without doing my due diligence. Community issues can be very different than organizational issues. The stakes can be much higher and often impact a lot more people. This whole thing could have been handled much better on all of our parts.
- And lastly, I learned to always park close to the building for these events. You just never know when you might need to make a quick getaway!
* From Geese’s book, It’s All About Me: Stories and Insights from the Geese, by Greg Giesen