Re: Arguments & Arguers: Long response
From: Stuart Staniford-Chen (
Date: Thu, 26 Aug 1999 03:45:09 -0600 (MDT)

Rob Sandelin wrote:

> The last level, and one I personally dislike using the most, is the public
> direct intervention. In this case, we have done the first two steps, it is
> still not working, and I publically intervene in front of everyone,
> capturing the specific behavior and its consequence to the group at that
> moment. I have not yet succeeded in doing this in a way that 100% of the
> time the individual feels non-defensive and I tend to do so as a last
> resort. I might throw it out as something like: "I feel we need to stop this
> process and look at what just happened." What I just observed was: ____. How

I have had some experience with this kind of thing (mostly successfully, but
not always).  I've dealt with groups working through extremely painful stuff
and containing volatile individuals (where in meetings prior to my
involvement there were incidents of people shaking their fists in other's
faces, yelling obscenities, and throwing objects).

Here's what currently works best for me.  If at all possible, intervene
*before* the person loses their rag.  It's much easier and safer to help
someone who is still trying to control themselves than it is to calm someone
down who has given in to their anger.  Obviously this requires keeping a
close eye on people and being empathically accurate about what is going on
for them.  It helps if the facilitator knows the group and the issues well,
so they can predict when a meltdown is about to occur.  Help from a vibes
watcher can be very useful too.  The facilitator is likely to be looking at
the current speaker a lot, where a vibes watcher can continually look around
the room at the emotional reactions of listeners.  A discrete nod from my
vibes watcher has been invaluable to me in pointing out someone whose
feelings I needed to be tracking.

One of the things I believe is critical in helping a group work with painful
stuff is to project as much empathy and caring for the individuals as
possible.  I'm very inconsistent in how well I do this - on a good day I've
gotten myself in tears because I cared so much, but other days I just don't
have much energy and I'm kind of wooden (this tends to happen if I don't
really want to be there).  It makes a big diference.  I don't believe it's
useful to fake caring about someone - you have to really be feeling the
emotion for it work.  What I try to do is think of a list of all the
wonderful things about that person, and all the wonderful things they have
done for the group, and how tragic it would be if the conflict couldn't be
worked out.  Everyone has some wonderful stuff, just as everyone has
problems.  Then I keep reminding myself of the really good stuff about them
when I'm working with that particular person and try to feel as much love for
them as possible.  (There's a very good book by Peter Breggin called
"Creating a Healing Presence" which talks about this a lot - though there's
also a lot in there that doesn't jive with me).  I guess it's a little like
method acting.

Anyway, when I sense that someone is about to blow momentarily, I stop the
meeting, ask everyone else to wait, and just work with that person. 
Sometimes I'm very physical - I'll go right over and squat in front of them,
get in their face, feel as much love for them as possible, and try to talk
softly to them about how they are feeling right now.  I try to empathize with
why they are really hurting and feel angry and tell them my understanding of
why they feel that way.  I tell them how much I care and how much I
appreciate the effort they are making to follow the guidelines.  My goal is
a) to help them not to blow altogether, and b) to get them to express the
hurt that is underneath the anger.  In the ideal scenario, the person is then
able to tearfully tell the group how hurt they are and why (rather than how
angry they are).  This sometimes triggers a lot of compassion from other
members of the group who were previously hostile, and hopefully helps along
the healing process.  I've done stuff like ask another member of the group to
give the hurting person a hug (choose someone who you are sure will say yes -
a rejection makes it worse!)  Then I give the person enough time to feel they
are back in equilibrium before resuming the meeting.  Sometimes it's better
to take a break.  

Sometimes, when you come back, it might be important to explore the
interaction that happened right before the intervention.  Rob mentioned the
difficulty that, when it is necessary to discuss a particular person's
behaviour, this can give the group the opportunity to all take turns
attacking the person.  A technique I have used is to call on people of my
choice and ask them about particular narrow aspects of the problem. 
(Socratic facilitation?)  I try to call on all the heavily involved parties,
but I get to control the order and pace, and who talks about what.  This
allows me to keep the control rods well down into the nuclear reactor, at the
price of giving people less freedom to say their thing.  It's a tradeoff.  I
don't do it unless I'm really concerned about the groups volatility.

To pull off this kind of stuff, you have got to be a fairly heavy-handed
facilitator (and I am :-).  If someone's going to blow, you can't wait for
the current speaker to finish, and then say "I'm feeling like X is having a
hard time, does the group agree with me, what should we do?".  You have to
interrupt the speaker, take control, and say,  "Ok, I'm stopping the meeting
right now because I'm concerned that X is having a really hard time and
he/she needs help.  Please just wait while I work with them."  If, as
occasionally happens, my judgement is off about how they are feeling, I get
to look really dumb making a big fuss about nothing.  Sometimes a much
lighter intervention is enough (Rob mentioned examples like having an agreed
on signal to the person that you are concerned their emotion is getting too
strong).  Something I do a lot is just ask a person in the meeting how they
are.  "You doing ok, Fred?  That last statement was ok?"  Sometimes they are
ok, and sometimes they aren't.

My belief generally is that anger is always secondary to a hurt - some shame,
humiliation, pain, whatever.  If the person expresses their anger by yelling
or violence, what they induce in the group is generally some combination of
anger, fear, hate and the result is a bloodbath (metaphorically :-). 
However, if they make themselves vulnerable and express the underlying hurt
instead, most people in the group will respond with compassion instead.  This
does *not* mean that everyone will live happily ever after, but it can push
things a little in the right direction.  I think solving really bad conflicts
takes a long time and many little steps.  (But then, maybe I'm just not very
good at it yet).

So I think I know something about how to help people control their anger when
I'm there and feel up to it.  At the end of a meeting like that, I feel like
I've been put through the wringer six times - the whole group's emotions have
passed through me.  But I also feel totally exhilarated if it goes well.

Mostly, I've gotten pretty positive evaluations of the way I work.  One of
the things I have gotten in feedback afterwards is some people having the
sense that they didn't have an opportunity to say stuff when they felt they
really needed to.  I was too worried about them blowing up or triggering
someone else.  So I probably need better ways of helping people to express
what is eating them, but in a controlled way that won't make someone else go

What I don't have any handle on is how to give people something to take away
so that six months later they don't end up yelling obscenities at their
neighbours in the laundry room.  There are anger management classes, right? 
Anyone know much about the curriculum?

Stuart Staniford-Chen --- President --- Silicon Defense
                   stuart [at]
(707) 822-4588                     (707) 826-7571 (FAX)

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