Navigating Meetings Through Whitewater

Paddling 2The river guide needs to be skilled at looking downstream; navigating direction for their crew and preparing for potential surprises; rocks, boulders, trees, the roar of rapids ahead or big drops and bends in the river.  A good guide appreciates and respects the intense power of the river and understands that preparation and keen awareness are critical for keeping everyone safe.

This is also true for the Meeting Managers, Facilitators or Team Coaches when emotions are hot and they want to support a team or individuals to build agreements, work together efficiently and respectfully and ultimately get the outcomes they have set out to accomplish.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (Ben Franklin)

The agenda is the road map for the meeting and pointing the way forward.  Working Agreements help with those potential boulders, rapids or surprises that may cause a meeting to derail.  These agreements allow everyone to know they will be treated with respect and lay the foundation for positive interactions and better group decision-making. They become the contract and provide support when things get turbulent. Without this contract, things quickly become slippery and out of control.

I was asked to co-facilitate a meeting for 35 very angry members of a co-housing unit.   Members were deeply upset by a previous meeting that had spiraled out of control.  We were told that “isms” (racism, sexism, ageism) were being thrown around after their previous community meeting and there was a general atmosphere of crisis and fear.  Several people had threatened to leave the community.

 A sample agenda was circulated prior to the meeting to gather input on issues that the community wanted to address.  The group decided they needed to focus the meeting on airing their feelings with the help of neutral facilitators.

After introductions a significant amount of time was spent (more than usual) in creating our Working Agreements.  We knew this conversation could quickly spin out as it had done previously. They needed help navigating through the hurt feelings and wanted the community to build agreements around appropriate behavior, especially around how to handle difficult or argumentative behavior with directness and respect. 

Working Agreements

The following list of Green Zone behaviors were shared with the group and we asked them to choose those they wished to include in their Working Agreements.  They chose all of them!

Green Zone Behaviors

Taking responsibility for one’s actions and words

  • Responds non-defensively
  • Seeks solutions rather than blame
  • Is interested in others points of view
  • Seeks to respond non-defensively
  • Welcomes feedback
  • Sees conflict as a part of the human condition
  • Communicates a caring attitude
  • Listens well
  • Accepts responsibility for consequences of his or her actions
  • Talks calmly and directly about difficult issues

We also shared the list of Red Zone behaviors to help people identify those behaviors that might impede the healthy functioning of this large group meeting.  You can think of these behaviors as the roaring rapids, boulders and drops that happen in a rushing river.

Red Zone Behaviors

  • Blames others
  • Feels threatened or wronged
  • Responds defensively
  • Is rigid, reactive and righteous
  • Uses shame, blame and accusations
  • Does not value feedback
  • Does not let go or forgive
  • Is black/white, right/wrong in thinking
  • Does not listen effectively


Rapids Ahead

The meeting was long and heated.  Many assumptions, misunderstandings and hurt feelings were aired.  We continuously re-focused on our shared green zone behaviors.  When participants became defensive or reactive, we asked them to paraphrase using empathy (using both content and feelings) to ensure understanding of each other.  Sometimes we needed to do several rounds of this before the Speaker felt they were understood. Several misunderstandings were cleared up in the moment using this approach.

The end result was that everyone was able to air his or her feelings.  Several misunderstandings were rectified.   At one point, one woman accused her male community member in bullying her at the previous meeting.  She said that she felt “violated” when he was screaming at her.  He defended himself saying that he was indeed angry but not a bully and seemed generally surprised by her reaction.  He grew up in the Bronx, he said and that this was the way people talked.  Everyone laughed and the tension subsided. He apologized and said that he would work on trying to talk about his concern more calmly in the future.

Because we had posted these descriptions of the green and red zone behaviors, the group monitored themselves, either through appreciation or concerns, when these zones were being displayed.  After a long and emotional meeting they left saying they were energized to keep healthy communication flowing.  It was not perfect by any means, there were still hurt feelings at the end, but there was more understanding of each other and new agreements in place.

Whenever we have people working together, there is always the possibility of hitting rocks, boulder and turbulent waters. 

Because we see things differently, want different things, make different assumptions, hold different beliefs and have been raised in different cultures, there is a need to explore our differences in a constructive way.  Creating working agreements and building healthy approaches to working through our differences provides structure, support and safety.


Before potentially challenging meetings or conversations, spend time with the group or your partner talking about what you will do if things get heated.  Sometimes it is helpful to imagine the personalities in the group assembling and imagine how and where people might become upset.  Set up a few Working Agreements from the Green Zone behaviors that will support you in managing the whitewater of these challenging conversations and emotions, even if you think it is unnecessary.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Ben Franklin is saying prevent the problem before you have to develop a cure for the disease.  Useful advice!

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