Sometimes I facilitate a team and I don’t actually need to do much. Just my presence, a curious look, a surprising nod, the setting, the agenda, attention: it does the job. Or rather: the team does it. In other situations I need to intervene. A group intervention is always a disturbance, and just like on the operating table: the less you intervene, the better. But what is an appropriate intervention? And how vigorous is effective? I will mention six intervention options which increase in severity.
The purpose of an intervention is to help the team
- understand their own reality (level 1),
- see this reality from a different perspective (level 2),
- understand their very process of reality construction (level 3).
Inexperienced coaches often intervene too quickly and too strongly. They want to take a stand for example (‘It seems you have no common goal’), or they put everything into question (‘Are you using each other’s qualities enough?’). This inhibits the possibility of the team coming up with this themselves. Or, worse, it prompts resistance. Yet occasionally, as a coach, you just don’t seem to be getting any further and a provocation is required. As a last resort.
Below, I mention six steps on the intervention ladder. The first three could be called pull interventions and the last three are more push interventions. Obviously, you don’t need to climb this ladder step by step. Experienced team coaches jump back and forth: the point is that you are aware of what you’re doing. A general advice is to use the lightest possible intervention. Thus minimizing the chance that it’s about you instead of about the team.
Start with the lightest possible intervention. The less you have to intervene as a team coach, the better.
- Sharing observations– Start with simply giving back what you see or hear. Keep it neutral by reflecting without judgment: ‘About half has said something so far.’ It’s never absolutely neutral, because you are making a selection of what you give back. A little step further would be when you mention what you don’t hear. ‘In the last quarter no one has supported visibly anyone else.’
- Interviewing – You can ask questions to help the group generate new ideas. As most questions are leading, the more neutral you can be, the better. This is best achieved by keeping the question short. ‘How did that happen?’, ‘Can you tell us more about it?’, ‘Who agrees with this?’, ‘What was the result?
- Discussing viewpoints– You can also pose critical questions about what is said or done. ‘Is that true?’, ‘Is it useful?’, ‘Did those clients actually say that?’, ‘Could you also see it differently?’, ’Are there any other views?’. The difference with the following level (challenging) is that here you’re still looking for an opening. At the next level, you get the team to face the facts (or the ‘facts’ created by them).
- Challenging– Sometimes you need to focus the group and have them see they are beating around the bush. This requires a lot of skill and you run the risk of the group shutting up, avoiding the question or turning against you. You can’t do this without being a careful observer of what is going on under the table. If your interventions are not successful, you sometimes have to dig up something from the subconscious level. ‘Why does the team leader need to resolve this for you?’, ‘Is it true that only newcomers feel this?’, ‘Do you really want this?’, ‘I hear you but your non-verbal behavior shows the contrary!’
- Offering the choice– If the discussion bogs down or becomes very complex, you can gain clarity by offering a choice. You force the team to speak up. ‘Do we want to continue or not?’, ‘If we get permission, is it a go?’, ‘You can choose, should we do more or less of this?’ You can also show the consequences of choices: ‘If you allow this, there is no way back.’
- Provoking– This is the most defiant of interventions. You knowingly force the conversation to make something happen. It’s risky: the team may slam the door shut, or you completely miss the point. ‘I do not trust what you’re saying!’, ‘Do you believe this yourself?’, ‘If I were a member of this team I would not feel comfortable.’ Of course even harsher interventions are conceivable, but those are beyond coaching. You can reduce the risks of provocation by: contact and opening.
Stay in contact. In a good confrontation, contact is intense. Don’t let your anger take over, don’t turn away from the group, nor rise above it, and be still as appreciative as possible.
Keep an opening. Never make it too absolute. Allow space for the team and for yourself, or else you’ll back up in a corner where you never – credibly – get out of. Ensure nobody loses face. Even the sharpest confrontation can be loving when it comes from a good heart.