Prevent a “Hijacking” of Your Planning Session

I recently had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rhoberta Shaler for my podcast, Cool Culture Corner. During the show we talked about “hijackals” — her term for those negative people that cause havoc in relationships both at home and at work.

It reminded me of some of the characters I came across during strategic planning retreats. Having facilitated hundreds of strategic planning sessions for several different businesses I have come across more than a couple of individuals that have spread negativity or even chaos during the meeting. Here are a few of the common ones and how to deal with them:

The Wet Blanket — That person who always seems to reject even the best ideas. As a facilitator, I am always encouraging alternative opinions. This gets everyone’s mind working in the proper way. However, when the commentary is limited to “That won’t work” or “We tried that before.” In this case I usually ask, “What would you suggest?” This usually quiets the “Wet Blanket” after one or two of these exchanges. Once they realize that they will actually have to contribute an idea or solution instead of being negative for the sake of doing so they generally just sit there quietly with a puss on their face for the rest of the meeting.

The Side Conversationalist — Those people that start a completely separate discussion with a person next to them while the meeting is taking place. Sometimes this is the aforementioned “Wet Blanket” who has mentally checked out after the scenario detailed above but more often it’s someone that didn’t want to be in the planning session in the first place. As a facilitator I always feel that you have to nip this in the bud ASAP otherwise it just continues. And, I always avoid the temptation to stop the meeting and ask those in the side conversation to pay attention. Not only does that school-teacher approach not work but also you are giving your power away as the facilitator by stopping the meeting to focus on them. What I suggest, and what I often do, is to walk right to the portion of the room where the side conversation is happening. This brings each attendee’s attention on them. This usually ends the semi-whispering discussion as it’s like a spotlight right on them for everyone to see. In the rare occasion that doesn’t work I use a trick I learned from my father who was a high-school teacher for over 40 years — I embarrass them. While I’m still facilitating the meeting I also listen to their conversation for something I can use and then blurt it out to the crowd such as, “Oh you had chicken parmigiana last night! I love chicken parmigiana!! I can see how that will help this business hit its net income goal for next year.” That makes everyone laugh at the “Side Conversationalist’s” expense. While that does alienate me as the facilitator from that individual it brings everyone else that was also annoyed onto my side and usually ends that alternative discussion insanity.

The Know-It-All — This character is less of a problem than the last two but can still be an obstacle. I also call this individual the Cliff Clavin. That was the mailman character from Cheers that seemed to know everything about everything. It’s great when you have someone that has ideas and actually wants to participate in the planning session. You just don’t want that person to dominate every strategic conversation. As long as the “Know-It-All” doesn’t interrupt others this individual is fairly harmless. I find it best to acknowledge “Cliff” for his contributions but also go out of my way to find the most silent person in the group and ask, “What do you think about that?” Many times that will get other people talking. It’s important to remember that it’s the facilitators job to get everyone involved as best you can.

Whether it’s a Hijackal, a Wet Blanket, a Side-Conversationalist, a Know-it-All, or a player to be named later, any of these characters can sidetrack your strategic planning session if you let them. Most of the time, as Dr. Rhoberta Shaler teaches, if you are prepared for these folks they will be less of a problem and you may find that you can positively make them part of the program with the right engagement.

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