Tom Jepson Creative

3 tips on what to do when a workshop falls flat


I recently shared a conversation with my friend Lisa on Instagram Live. We talked about the highs and lows of facilitating challenging groups and what to do when the absolute worst happens; the time when nothing happens! Having a group go off-the-boil is challenging for even the most experienced facilitator. As we have both experienced, this drop-off in engagement can be triggered by any number of factors:

  • Are your chosen activities not working for the dynamics in the group?
  • Did you misunderstand the purpose of the session and set off on the wrong foot?
  • Are there underlying challenges which need to be addressed pinning down the energy in the room?

As facilitators we must be attentive, perceptive, and flexible. Your gut feeling will tell you when something is off-piste but, trusting you’ve been 'reading the room', you will with any luck pick up on the signs that a lull is coming before it happens. It's not always the case, though, and is rarely easy to spot.

Regardless of the cause of this sudden lack of action, you as the facilitator must do something to move the session forward to a conclusion; whether it is in the direction of your planning or not is another matter!

Should the tide change far enough and everyone is ready to jump ship, what you do - and how you do it - will be the deciding factor between your ship sinking and making it to shore intact! Making a decision on the fly is not easy and grows with your experience. Pausing a session and addressing the group as the person in control is not an easy thing to do, either. While it puts you in a position of vulnerability it shows you’re on side with the participants and ready to do right by them and the session goal. Get ready to weather a storm and move forward!

Inaction and poor focus

If your participants keep homing in on something which falls outside the scope of the session there is likely a reason for it. If the group is attempting to move the focus of the session to something which you know is not going to result in a favourable or actionable outcome, it's time to put on the breaks.

The groups’ shift in focus could be indicative of an underlying problem which needs to be addressed. Think about what you can do to pause, read the room, and address the group with a question that allows them to divert focus briefly and unearth the cause of the misalignment.

It's unlikely that you'll want to (or be able to) reframe the session to change focus. However, making sure everyone feels heard and understands that action can be taken later or in a new session, will allow you the breathing room to finish off your current activities.

Tip: Make sure the tangents and ‘off topic’ points are all recorded for later. You’ll want to feed back your insights on what happened and what the next steps might be.

Irrelevant discussions

You're in a workshop, prepared from information given to you by your stakeholders. As you understand it, this workshop will address their goals and satiate the attendees’ desire for progress. However, during the workshop it comes to light that the information you are working with (or the questions you're putting to the group) are not hitting the mark; they are irrelevant to the goals which people perceived for the session.

The cues may be subtle or they may be on-the-nose. Either way, what you do with that is a test of your mettle.

Pausing the session at this point can be trying for everyone; holding the wrong focus may have been frustrating the participants from the beginning but they were too polite to say anything. Acknowledge to the group that you could be off-base ("It's looking like we're not going down the best path here.") and ask explicitly what the group deemed to be the focus.

Once you've found out where you should be placing your collective attention, you have a choice to quickly adjust your planning to fit the new focus or abandon it altogether and start over in the limited time you have. You'll have a toolkit of activities to dig into (even if it means a quick Google in an impromptu coffee break!) to get the session back on track. Find something which may work and press on.

Tip: However you choose to pause and refocus the session ensure you are not acting in an accusatory way. You will know - as will your stakeholders - that something isn’t right, however pointing fingers isn’t the done thing. Make sure to address the group in a way which is serving the outcome you’re looking to meet and is respectful of the time they have given up to take part in the conversation.

Reengagement

What you do with your workshop if it feels like it is floundering begins with remembering your attendees and stakeholders are people. There's no point in attempting to reset a session or press on if the people in the room aren't feeling it or are unwilling to come back on side.

Keeping the conversation going to maintain communication is important. A group who sit stoically waiting for you to come back with the answer they need might end up more frustrated as they stew in their own juices. Can you kick off a chat about something you discussed earlier in the day? Could you run a brief ice-breaker or energiser to pick everyone up? Be aware of the personalities in the group and find a method to push things forward.

Tip: While silences can be uncomfortable you can go a long way by allowing the silence to play out for a moment or two. Someone in the room may want to say something before you do and could have the catalysing effect of bringing everyone back to life.


Each of these scenarios might feel like a rarity but they can happen. If you've done the groundwork, explored the session goals with your stakeholders, and had them engage with the planning before you kick-off the workshop it is unlikely that you'll be massively off-topic with your activities. Agreeing a clear target, even for a discovery workshop, and setting expectations before you begin is as important as how you overcome any friction that happens on the day.

There is no question that facilitation is as challenging as it is rewarding. Having to change track half-way through a session might feel embarrassing or a kick to the ego! You're the one in control. Regardless of the dynamic, your attendees are looking to you. Helping a group achieve a goal or get onside to new perspectives is your aim. Even in times of stress - when it feels like the wheels are falling off! - remember that.

Dig deep and find the ways to move your session forward and reach an outcome which is satisfactory for everyone.