SUMMARY: Facilitating a meaningful team discussion is not something that comes easily for everybody, especially when the topics may be controversial or sensitive. The following are some strategies that may be helpful to engage team members in productive conversations while managing negative or problematic responses.

Tips for successful team discussions

Preparation

  • It is helpful for people to know what the meeting or discussion will be about before it starts. Share the ideas and topics with your team before the meeting. You can email them a list or give paper copies.
  • Help your employees understand how to be respectful at meetings. The following guidelines are adapted from Mindful Employer:
    • Listen actively to others. Listen to understand what is being said. Do not "pretend" to listen while you are thinking of how to respond to statements others have made.
    • Handle conflicts appropriately. This means that no one is humiliated or ridiculed and disagreements focus on the ideas and not the individuals.
    • Be willing to work towards consensus. Keep an open mind that there probably is an acceptable decision that everyone can support, even if some degree of compromise is required.
    • Do not interrupt other participants. Be respectful to others at all times, even if you disagree.
    • Avoid one-on-one side conversations. This can be really distracting. Share your ideas and concerns in a respectful manner so that everyone has a chance to consider the options.
    • Be clear about next steps before you leave the discussion. Make notes of what you are responsible to do and by when and check your understanding with the rest of the team.
    • Respect confidentially where appropriate. In particular, do not share personal information that is discussed.
    • Once consensus has been reached, support group decisions and actions. If you feel you have a new idea or concern, bring it back to the team rather than discuss or gossip behind the scenes.
  • Have a comfortable meeting room that lets your talk easily with your group members. If you feel emotions like sadness, anxiety, or anger before your meeting, check out Questions to Ask Yourself Before Engaging Employees to help you stay calm and focused.
  • Check that you have enough handouts on the day’s topics for everyone at the meeting. It can be helpful to have someone take notes during the meeting and then give copies to everyone after.
    • If you are conducting a workshop or meeting on a potentially sensitive topic you may want to do more advance planning, like sending the meeting invitation a few weeks in advance, with reminders and proving any other such as workbooks one to two weeks before the meeting.
      • Suggested wording for email invitation – 3 to 4 weeks in advance

        Dear ______________:

        As an organization, we are working to improve psychological health and safety and support employee well-being. As a manager or employee, this can feel challenging when you try to accomplish your own work while also trying to manage or work with others who may sometimes experience intense emotions or mental health issues.

        We would like to learn more about (topic) so we can provide you with more help in this area. You are invited to attend a meeting I’ll be leading on this topic on (date/time) in (meeting room).

        Please email me to let me know if you’ll be able attend, no later than (date).

        Sincerely,

        Name , title

      • Suggest wording for email reminder – 1 to 2 weeks in advance

        Dear ______________:

        I’m looking forward to our meeting on (date/time) in (meeting room), where we’ll be discussing how to better understand (topic) and looking at different approaches and strategies to help us.

        Attached, please find some additional materials for the discussion. While you are welcome to glance through it, please don’t attempt to do any of the work. This will be part of our group discussion. Please bring these materials to the session.

        I look forward to seeing you there,

        Name , title

Know your audience

  • In some cases, it may be necessary to introduce yourself if some team members do not know you well. Wearing a nametag is often helpful.
  • If team members aren't all familiar with one another, you may want to complete an icebreaker activity. Ice breakers can also be useful in a group with people from different teams or departments. These activities can help people to learn more about each other and may also help create buy-in for the purpose or topic of the session. Ideas for icebreaker activities can be found on adult education websites.
  • Acknowledge potential challenges or past problems. If your team has had challenges in the past with discussions or has a history of not following through on what was agreed, participants may be skeptical about whether their involvement can make a difference. Being up front about wanting to do it differently can open up a new opportunity to connect more effectively.
  • We are all more interested when we feel the subject applies to us. Find ways to make connections between the discussion topic and your team members' work experiences. For example, highlighting that we all have days or periods in our lives where we feel distressed or are going through something difficult could be relevant to a discussion on workplace mental health.

Improve understanding

  • Be careful to remember that your team members may not have had the exposure that you will have had to the concepts, acronyms, and jargon related to the discussion. Keep your language simple so that there are no barriers to understanding.
  • Avoid using overly technical terms and, when you can't avoid them, make sure you define them in a way that the 'new minds' can grasp.

Manage expectations

  • Generally, a business has goals and guidelines to follow in order to stay successful. When discussing strategies or reaching decisions with teams, you can ask: "Does this strategy or decision help support employees to meet their goals or does it make things more difficult?" Of course, each employee must clearly understand objectives to help answer this question. See Supportive Performance Management for more information.
  • Let people know what resources they can expect to have and how much time they have.For example, if your budget for a project is only $500 and each team member could only spend up to 1 hour a week of their time on the project, the discussion should focus on what is possible given the time and money available.
  • You might get a request for something that may not be possible due to cost or time. Instead of saying, “No,” you can ask, “Why (or how) will this help you?” When you know the actual need or objective behind the request, it is easier to brainstorm solutions that can work with a budget, deadline, or resources available.
  • Focus on the purpose and outcomes of the meeting. This will help keep the discussion on track and help the meeting be successful. If you get stuck with a difficult conversation, go back to the purpose and expected outcomes to get reorganized.
  • Sometimes one person seems to control the whole discussion. You can still support them and let others have a chance to speak by saying something like: "You have so much to offer, I am wondering if this is something we can follow up on later, and we can hear from someone else now?" Make sure you follow up with the person later to see if their interest is something that goes beyond the discussion.
  • You may find yourself not knowing all the answers for a topic you are discussing. This is okay. It is fine to say "I don't know much about that. Let's find resources to get us better informed."

Allow everyone to feel heard

  • Help each team member have the opportunity to speak. Give verbal acknowledgement to each person for their contribution.
  • Know what you want to say. Avoid long speeches. Speak clearly and be straightforward.
  • Ask a lot of questions to ensure that participants understand what you are saying.
  • Make sure that you are listening - and that your team members see that you are listening. You can do this by restating the question, answer, or idea shared by a participant in your own words.
  • Ask whether you understood their words correctly. If they say no, invite them to restate their question or comment. Remember that when nervous, we may not say what we mean to say the first time.
  • It is important to remember that many people learn better by doing rather than by being told what to do. When you can, have team members come to their own conclusions through the discussion process.
  • There may be situations where you have to manage emotions in the meeting. Sometimes people spontaneously share information about themselves, including information about their personal lives, their health, or disclosure of a mental illness.
  • Sharing information helps us to know each other better, but it can also disrupt a discussion and make people feel uncomfortable. If someone shares personal information, acknowledge their contribution to the discussion and be respectful. If needed, offer them a tissue or water, and ask if they would prefer to stay or take a break from the meeting.
  • Follow up with the person as soon as possible after the meeting to see how they are doing. Ask if they need help, or help them access resources for accommodation or support.
  • If you need to support the rest of the team’s reactions or questions, page 22 of the free tool Supporting Employee Success provides some suggestions for responding to questions or concerns from co-workers.

Provide feedback

  • If a participant appears to be struggling with an idea, comment on the positive ("Thanks for opening up that idea." "Thanks for taking this to a new level."), and then try giving a suggestion ("Can you build on this area?" "Can you consider this concept as well?").
  • Avoid criticizing ideas or putting someone down. Instead, you can suggest different solutions and give them praise for their effort, ideas, creativity, or participation. ("Thanks for that input--can you think of any ways we can do that within our deadline?” rather than: "That won't work because nobody has the time to do it.")

Address negativity or cynicism

  • Some participants may think that their involvement will have little or no impact on lasting improvement. If this is the case, you can acknowledge this up front and assure them that, in spite of what has gone on before, your group wants something different for this discussion.
  • If you can accept responsibility for what has not been perfect in the past-even if its success or failure was outside of your control-and sincerely state your desire to change things in the future, it may help get participants on board.
  • If a participant presents a negative statement, you may want to ask: "How could we do that differently?", "What would you think might work better?", "How can we do this in a healthier way?", "What would a positive outcome of this look like?"
  • If a participant pushes back against positive suggestions or that seems to be making unreasonable demands, explore what is underlying the person's pushback or demands with questions like: "What outcome is important to you? What would success look like here?", "If we did what you are suggesting, what would be the outcome?" "Is there another way we can meet that same outcome?"
  • Sometimes people need more time to feel heard and understood before they can accept changes:
    • If you see that some people do not accept the changes, you may wish to say something like: "I see that our discussions aren’t working very well right now. Maybe we can talk more about it later."
    • Understand the specific problems that the employee or employees have on the topic and discuss them at the next meeting.
    • You can also approach the individual and offer a separate discussion to allow them to feel heard and understood.

Manage disruptive behaviours

  • Don’t take disruptive behaviour personally and step in only if necessary. Following are some additional strategies for dealing with potentially disruptive behaviours when:

    A participant strongly or often disagrees

    • Refer to the discussion guidelines.
    • Don’t get involved in a power struggle – agree to disagree and move on.
    • Speak and act confidently.
    • Use direct eye contact.
    • Manage your own emotions.
    • Be clear and to the point.
    • Empathize but don’t agree.
    • Ask for more information, if necessary.

    A participant becomes angry or verbally aggressive

    • Refer to the discussion guidelines.
    • Have a respectful, relaxed posture and use a firm but calm tone.
    • Try to uncover the participant’s concern.
    • Focus on a solution.
    • Establish boundaries – if participants are verbally abusive, state that verbal abuse will NOT be tolerated.

    A participant remains very quiet and does not participate

    • Have participants work in pairs or small groups (think. pair. share.).
    • Encourage responses by using open-ended questions and direct eye contact.
    • Pause, and give participants time to think.
    • Smile, and be encouraging and approachable.
    • Provide positive reinforcement when participation occurs.
    • Understand that not everyone needs to interact to learn.

    A participant rambles

    • Ask closed questions to prevent long, drawn out responses.
    • Listen carefully and bridge back to the topic by gently interrupting.
    • Decrease eye contact with this participant.
    • Consider assigning the person the role of time keeper.

    A participant engages in side conversations despite knowing the rules

    • Stand near a disruptive participant.
    • Ask questions to colleagues close to disruptive participants.
    • Stop talking; the silence will speak louder than their words.
    • Ask the group if they can hear you.
    • Refrain from asking disruptive participants to share their conversation.

Resolve conflict

  • Any discussion will be challenging if two or more individuals are in a state of conflict with one another. Before working on effective team discussions, try to fix existing conflicts between team members. This process for resolving conflict can also provide more tips for facilitating discussions with teams.

Expand the learning

  • If you have time, you can ask participants what new actions they are interested in trying going forward. You can also ask them what questions they might still have that need more information or training. To help you do this, you can use the wording in the following two points:
    • Determining action items - Based on the feedback, ask participants to now consider some specific actions they will commit to do to bring what they’ve learned into their workplace. You can invite table groups to discuss and come up with one or two ideas to share or allow individuals to come up with their own ideas.
    • Check-in - Ask participants to answer the question: What questions or concerns do you still have about the topic discussed today? Have participants share their answers. If appropriate, discuss as a group and/or direct participants to available resources where they may find additional information.

Wrap up positively

  • Meetings that take up time without accomplishing effective results are a common complaint. Meetings that are well run and produce positive outcomes and clear decisions can be valuable to everyone on the team.
  • Thank your team for making an effort to provide input and be clear about how this contributes to team and organizational success.