Finding the Silver Lining… for that Facilitated Event Gone Wrong!

Silver Lining

What do you do when you have a facilitated an event that has gone badly? It might just be one moment in the whole event that you keep dwelling on after the fact. You realize you made a mistake. And you don’t exactly know what you could’ve done differently. This blog is about many stories where I did exactly that. I made a mistake. I made a mistake towards a participant. Or, I made a mistake in the original assessment of what the group needed and I was too rigid in my agenda. Or I wasn’t paying enough attention to what the client really needed in the moment. Or I left the job and I had a sinking feeling that I might have made things worse. Oh boy!

How do you find the silver lining in a job that you feel has gone wrong? This could apply to anyone in any profession. However, I am focusing on facilitating workshops where you know you could’ve done better. You need to reassess what happened and learn from that mistake. You need to be deeply honest with yourself and not be defensive.  You need to forgive yourself.

Stay Alert (and Sensitive) to Client Needs

This is a job where I made a mistake at the very end of the event. Things had gone relatively well until that moment. I underestimated the sensitivity of the client. This person wanted to have a very deep, reflective ending and unfortunately they did not let me know that. Neither was I sensitive to the moment. So after they read a beautiful poem,  I asked the group within a minute of that poem ending to help clean up the room. A very important senior leader was going to arrive shortly. The client was really upset with me. They had wanted to create a safe space and a lovely quiet ending. Although I apologized to the client, I realized I had a lesson to learn. I needed to really focus on what was happening in that moment and ask, why would the client have done this? What was their motive? And then, if I was unsure because of my own feeling of stress around the upcoming senior leader arriving, I could have checked in directly with the client.

Lesson learned: Really focus on what the client needs at every given moment. And if you’re not sure, ask them directly.

Choose Words Carefully When Addressing Difficult Behavior

Here is a situation where I talked a little bit too assertively and inappropriately to a participant. The group situation was a team discussing some serious incidents. The participant kept interrupting everyone while they talked.

In a moment of exasperation, I blurted out to the participant, “Would you be willing to let others talk?” The participant looked a little surprised but then stopped talking as much. During the lunch hour, when no one else was in the room, I checked in with the participant and said, “I think I was pretty aggressive with my comment. What was the impact of that on you?” The participant said, “I needed that feedback. I’ve been actually trying to stop that behavior.” That was a relief. Someone else who wasn’t as self-aware probably would have been deeply offended.  I was lucky that day.

Lesson learned: For interrupting and over participating behaviors, be very careful with words. Take a deep breath, and then perhaps say, “I’d like to hear a couple of the people finish their thoughts. I’m noticing that you’re really enthusiastic. Would you be willing to allow people to finish their thoughts?” Keep

Be Transparent with the Group and Address Misunderstandings

You finished the event. You think it went well! Then you read the evaluations. One of the evaluation says, “the facilitator did not like us.”

You ruminate a lot on that comment. It makes you feel terrible. What do you do?  You realize you might have been a little more assertive than warranted like the case above. Perhaps you need to watch your neutrality. Perhaps you need to watch your facial expressions.

There was a time in my life where I frowned a lot when I was thinking. So even sometimes letting the group know, “If you see a frown line on my face, it doesn’t mean I am judging your thoughts at all. It just means it’s very thought-provoking and I’m thinking about what to do next.”

Lesson learned: Be transparent with the group about what you are thinking and if you are losing neutrality or patience, correct yourself in front of the group.

Pay Attention to Code Words and the Elephant in the Room

You are in the middle of an event and suddenly somebody says something or puts up an idea on the sticky wall or flip chart, and you realize you might have opened up Pandora’s box. Pandora’s box is when you stumble across the elephant in the room. This story is about one incident where I asked innocently about a phrase on the card called “the CIMCO incident”. I asked, “What is this about?” The whole room went silent. I knew that I had stumbled across something painful for the group.

Lesson learned:  Pay attention to those code words and do ask questions about them. They may help the group reveal something really important.

Understand the Group Can Find Their Way After You’ve Gone

You’re facilitating a Food Cooperative staff group who has brought in a new store manager. There is a lot of tension between the store manager’s philosophy and values and those of the staff members. You are there to help them find some common ground. When you leave, you think you have made a worse mess than before. It seems like everyone has become more tense and heightened conflict is the result. You walk away feeling unsuccessful.

And yet, you find the courage to call them a week later to find out what has happened. You find out that as a result of your facilitated event, the group came back together a few days later.  They talked about all of the deep level issues that have not been explained or thought about in hiring this new store manager. The group has come to a really good resolution without you. But, you were the catalyst that got this conversation going.

Lesson learned: Don’t underestimate the power of your intervention to get something going. Sometimes if you set the right conditions, the group can find their own resolution, even after you leave.  Have faith and trust in the group’s wisdom.

Make the Decision Not to Accept This Type of Client Work Again

You are working with a private small company that is trying to resist being bought out by another larger company. You work with both companies in the room several times. You are in the middle of a discussion in a third session when one party suddenly announces they have brought their lawyer.  You realize that this has escalated to a level that you can’t deal with. You ask to be excused from continuing your work with the smaller company. You cannot really help them talk to each other when everything has to be so carefully mediated with a lawyer representing only one group in the room.

Lesson learned: You decide after the fact that you did your best and you actually don’t like doing that kind of work. It is really not what you have focused your mission on. You know now in the future to not to accept jobs like this.

What is the silver lining in the last challenging job you did?


Blog: Let’s Talk About My Mistakes

Blog: Challenging Participant Behaviors – An 8 Step Survivor’s Guide

Blog: Facilitator Endurance: 4 Stages That Win You the Gold

Blog: Neutralize Whining and Complaining Behaviors in Groups

Blog: Groups Want Safety – A Facilitator’s Guide to Creating Safe Space

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Una McAlinden on January 23, 2019 at 12:31 am

    Love this, Barb! You’re so right that the hardest thing is to forgive yourself for the mistake! Thanks for sharing this. I admire how you lead by example.

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