Monday, April 06, 2009

Getting It Out in the Open

Managing the group bitch session

from our friends at THE APATHY MYTH: a Blog for America's College Student Leaders

by T.J. Sullivan


Sisters in the chapter are in an uproar. Everyone wants to vent, and they are looking to do it at this weekend's meeting. The president's blood pressure is shooting up because she knows that a great deal of the venting will be directed at her and her fellow officers. It seems like a 2-3 hour meeting is inevitable, particularly if everyone feels the need to share. This could get really, really ugly.

Rather than deal with it, the president cancels the meeting altogether.

This was the scenario emailed to me last week. The question: what did I think of it?

There's nothing quite as dread-inducing for a president as knowing he or she is walking into a meeting where drama is going to happen. The tension is killer. It's like those days in high school when everyone knows a big fight is going to happen at the end of the day – and you're the one who's going to get your ass kicked.

If it were me, I would have allowed the meeting to go on, as scheduled. If there is a huge storm brewing in your group, ignoring it isn't going to make it go away. People will simply vent their frustration in a less controlled and filtered way, and the damage will likely be worse. Openness is almost always a better option.

I would have canceled most of the agenda items, and I would have started the meeting by saying, "We are going to start with a few critical officer reports for the first 15 minutes, but then we're going to have an open discussion about (this issue) for about 45 minutes. I'm going to put a list up here, and we will call on people to speak in the order they sign up. This isn't going to be a free-for-all that goes on all night, but everyone who has something to say will have a chance to be heard."

"Everyone is limited to 2 minutes. We will not hear rebuttals. We will not allow people to speak more than once. Speakers can ask questions during their 2 minutes, but if they do, the 2 minute time limit still applies. If someone else has said what you planned to say, then please respect the group and limit your comments to new ideas, new solutions, and new information."

I would also instruct my officers to keep their scowls and defensive comments to themselves. Sit there and take it like big boys and girls, even if you think it's unfair. As a group, you need to commit to keeping quiet and not making matters worse. People need to feel like they are heard, and sometimes feelings get hurt.

It's been my experience that after a few people say incendiary things, the wiser voices will prevail. The pissed-off people always want to go first, and they sign up quickly. This allows the wiser voices to respond to them. Let the process work itself out.

If people get up and say you suck, and then no one jumps to your defense, then you probably suck. Mistakes have been made. Time to figure out the next steps. I find that, usually, those who want to scream, yell, and call everyone out end up making themselves look immature and unreasonable. Give them the rope to hang themselves.

These bitch sessions are never fun, but if you allow them to happen in a controlled and respectful way, good things can come from them. It's important to let everyone – even the unreasonable – have their say. Shutting them down almost always causes more damage than letting them air their grievances.