Dancing With Surprises

by Susan Hopkins, AICP

​Last week I facilitated a meeting that went off the rails. About ten minutes into the meeting, it became clear that our plan for the group was not going to happen. As we veered off the agenda and into disarray, I could sense mounting frustration among the roughly 40 participants–and my client. In that moment, I stood in front of the room and felt my cheeks start to run hot. I thought, Why did I think this agenda would work? We’re wasting these people’s time. I have nothing to offer this group. They all think I’m incompetent. I’m a failure.

Moments like that are bruising. But they are also a learning experience. They are important reminders that facilitation is not about controlling the process. In fact, a facilitator’s Achilles heel is the desire for control. We can’t control what people say or think or do in a meeting. And the more we try to hold onto control when a meeting goes sideways, the more we close the door on new possibilities.

“When we can learn to approach the unexpected with playfulness and lightness, we can transform what felt like a breakdown into a breakthrough.”

In “Standing in the Fire: Leading High-Heat Meetings with Clarity, Calm, and Courage,” Larry Dressler says a meeting without surprises is a meeting in which nothing important happens. Without surprises we don’t learn anything. “Dancing with surprises” means learning to be present, flexible, and work creatively when the unexpected happens. The most important part of dancing with surprises is learning to let go of expectations and preconceived notions of how a meeting will go.

This notion was true for my meeting last week. In that scary moment of confusion, we let go of our expectations and got out of the way. We let the meeting participants spend the time they needed to ask questions, pick apart the materials, and critique the process. They scrapped it all and came up with a new plan; something that they felt would work better for them. In that way the outcome was better than what we had planned because it had buy-in and ownership among participants.A little dancing made a failure feel like a win.

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