Well, that title's quite a negative start isn't it? I don't mean it to be and hope by the end of this, we'll see that there are some positives to be gained too. But first, what made me think of this?
I recently worked with a group of about half a dozen participants, most of whom didn't know each other. They'd all signed up for the workshop voluntarily and were free to leave at any time.
During the session, one participant (I'll call them P) seemed to stand out from the crowd. He was quite robust in his views, challenging everything that was discussed and I struggled to engage them in the session; he seemed quite determined to counter everything I said with alternative views. Now, whilst I'm not averse to this as it often leads to conversations that we wouldn't otherwise have had, I could see that the group was struggling with it too. During the experiential part of the workshop, he refused to join in, offer any comment/suggestion, striking up a separate conversation with another member of the group and then when the whole group was involved in an activity, chose to do something completely contrary to the group. It was only at the end of this that P revealed that he worked in a very similar field and that they wanted to be disruptive during the activity to see what the group would do.
This has really given me food for thought on two fronts. Firstly, the response it stirred in me, and second, how can I manage this scenario if it arises again.
So, what did it provoke in me. First of all was disappointment that there was someone in the group who didn't appear to be as passionate about the subject as me. I soon got over that and descended into irritation that this one individual was having such a huge impact on the rest of the group. and finally came defensiveness that someone appeared to be challenging my knowledge and my work. Quite a collection!! The disappointment I can live with; we've all got things that, when discussed with others, causes their eyes to glaze over!! The irritation I'm not sure I managed at all (in fact feel a bit prickled writing about this!!) but hope I managed to work with it in a positive way. The defensiveness, I realised, is quite a familiar feeling and the one which has stayed with me since. Was this my ego? My version of my story about myself? Past hurts coming back to haunt? Probably!!
Without going into detail of all of these, this experience gave me the opportunity to put down my sword and shield and try and listen to what P had to say, incorporating their thoughts and views into the group. Underneath the bluster were some wise words and my receiving them positively did seem to disarm him in some way. I'm pretty sure that if I'd used defensive language, this would have escalated the situation which would have definitely detracted from the purpose of the group. In fact, the group dealt with the individual quite effectively during the debrief, so I didn't have to and my role was helping the group negotiate their way through some tricky discussions.
So, was it disruption or sabotage? Actually, I'm not sure it matters. The outcome was good in that it gave rise to some great debate about group dynamics and I was able to float above the conversation, taking note of my responses but manage the group effectively at the same time.
What would I do next time? I think there are a number of routes open; from openly challenging the behaviour (if it's safe and appropriate) or incorporating it into the whole experience.
I'd love to hear your experience.