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Moderation, Or: At Eye Level With The Alpha Male

Recently we made the acquaintance of Tanja, a participant in one of our workshops, and a challenging participant at that. Tanja caused disturbance in the workshop right from the beginning. She explained she only joined the workshop because she was forced to and that she was completely out of place. And that this entire event was unnecessary anyway. Her antagonism was visible, too; she was the only participant that did not take off her jacket, as if she needed a protection suit or a suit of armor. Her arms folded, she did not stop complaining. The entire workshop began to suffer from her behavior.

How do you handle such a resistance in workshops and seminars? We are asked this question during our innovation seminars time and again.

Tanja was attending an innovation workshop we conducted for the marketing department of a middle-sized company. Following a user-centric approach the marketing manager aimed at supporting the specialist departments through this workshop and at learning more about individual needs during the reorientation of the marketing department. Without a moderator this workshop likely would have failed.

But even without this kind of open resistance moderators are of vital importance for the success of meetings and workshops. Moderators ensure efficiency of events, guarantee better results and help to make such events a more pleasant experience for the participants. So what are the tasks a moderator has to fulfill?

Meeting resistance

Structure, Not Content

Moderators do not add content to the event, they provide the structure. They are not responsible for creating a specific result with the help of the workshop. Be it a one-off session or a workshop spanning several days, their goal must be to create a structure for the entire event, a structure that enables the team to get its work done. They are also responsible for removing any obstacles that might hinder the efficiency of the event.

Keeping an Eye on Goals and Time

The moderator keeps an eye on the goal of the event and keeps track of time. Many events are ineffecient because individual items on the agenda are discussed too extensively resulting in less to no time for other items. A moderator makes sure that time is distributed evenly across the individual items. In case an item cannot be discussed thoroughly in the allotted time frame extra appointments make sure they still are discussed to the satisfaction of all.

Tip: A great way to facilitate self-monitoring among participants and to make life for the moderator easier is to visualize the time available, e.g. with the help of workshop clocks by Time Timer:

Time Timer – A Great Tool

For The Well-Being Of The Group

Since the moderator is not responsible for the content he or she can focus on his most important task, monitoring the participants. A non-selective, bias-free perception is essential.

Being completely present is the prerequisite for the necessary awareness for any issues, conflicts or the danger of losing a participant. Only attentive moderators have a chance of intervening, and the earlier they do the bigger the chance is they succeed.

How is it possible to eliminate conflicts? Sadly, there is no panacea because each situation, each workshop and each individual is, well, individual. But moderators constantly sharpening their perception will be able to detect certain utterances, body language and facial expressions that hint at underlying issues and problems which can then be tackled. One basic principle is that if something does not work, try something else.

Always remember that the reason participants are causing disturbances or are simply not paying attention may not be the topic discussed or dissatisfaction with your moderating style but personal reasons or issues rooted in that person itself. Workshop participants are people after all and bring their own story to the event. This is one of the reasons that role plays are a central part of moderator training. They help us to put ourselves in the shoes of participants and to support them in the best way possible.

At Eye Level With The Alpha Male

When it comes to innovation heterogeneous teams and in some cases cross-hierarchy meetings are the norm. Since some people are less self-conscious this may result in unbalanced shares in speech. In workshops, extroverted people are the alpha males leading the pack. This does not necessarily mean that their contributions are specifically valuable, and that the more introverted participants do not have anything valuable to say.

This is where the moderator comes into play. His or her job is to slow down the loud, more eloquent and to provide enough space and time for the more muted and enable them to add to the conversation.

Why Attitude Matters

Another factor that affects the spirit of the group is the attitude of the moderator and the approach he or she takes. If you are convinced that each and every participant is valuable and that each contribution is precious then radiate this conviction! Moderating group processes is also an act of realizing individual potentials. In order to be able to discover and flower out participants’ potentials you must be convinced of its existence. The right attitude will have lasting impact on signals you subconsciously send out and communicate to the group. Likewise, if you think that you are surrounded by idiots, you will be.

Division of Labor in Day-to-Day Business

Very often no external moderator is available for small meetings. Still, it does make sense to find someone who takes on that role. The moderator chosen will then be on double duty, as a team member and as process owner. This double taxation is not the best way to go but sometimes necessary. If you are in that situation, be aware of it and communicate to the group which role you are currently in.

By the way, it has proven to be beneficial to rotate the role of the moderator. This will increase empathy for the moderator among the participants and the create willingness to support his or her work.

How Did Things Turn Out With Tanja?

First the moderator tried to listen and respond to Tanja, actively trying to integrate her into the group, to no success. During the first coffee break he tried to find out more about the reasons for her opposition in confidence, still to no success.

During the lunch break another moderator approached Tanja, explained to her that his impression was that she felt very uncomfortable in this workshop and did not feel equipped to contribute to it. Since he and the team did not want her to feel uncomfortable, she would be free to leave without any negative consequences for her. Tanja seemed surprised. She responded that this was not really the case and that she indeed had already learned a lot!

This way we were able to make use of her opposition. Some people just have to oppose everything, and this time she opposed leaving the workshop. She was integrated much better from that point on, and even took her jacket off.



Time Timer by K2-Verlag GmbH,

Christian Obad is an evangelist for innovative culture. As a consultant, trainer and coach he is convinced that a new innovative culture is needed in all fields of our society. He supports organizations in their quest to be more innovative.

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1 reply
  1. Aleksandra Nikolić
    Aleksandra Nikolić says:

    Dear Sir, I was in the same position. I know how difficult it can be. But, for me it is great to see that other people have similar or the same problems. By the way the name of difficult participant at my workshop was the same TANJA. Ha ha ha.
    Aleksandra Nikolić, University of Sarajevo


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