You’re in your usual restaurant or conference room with a group of professionals. You’re having a good time, sharing ideas, contact information and smiles. Then someone decides to get political.
You’re the facilitator. What do you do?
You could engage in respectful dialogue. Or if you disagree vehemently, you could launch into a tirade. You could ignore it. You could acknowledge that everyone has an opinion and remind the group that you are there to network. But it’s more than just another, “Now what?”
What’s so bad about talking politics or religion in a networking meeting?
Bringing up or discussing controversial topics such as politics and religion creates more than just tension. It can really hurt your business. Here’s why.
Talking controversy can make you look unprofessional, especially if you are the facilitator sitting at the head of the table. The purpose of a networking meeting is to support one another’s businesses and to create relationships. While admittedly some relationships prosper more than others because of shared political or religious beliefs, discussing those beliefs generally has no place in a group networking meeting unless that meeting is faith based or intended for political minded people.
As the facilitator, you have the responsibility to lead a productive meeting. Productive meetings cannot take place with too many distractions, and tangents or under-the-breath comments (of any kind) are just that.
Not everyone in your networking group will necessarily agree with your philosophies. You know those quiet folks or those really nice people? You have no idea what they are really thinking. You might have just made them incredibly uncomfortable, and it may affect their decision on whether or not to do business with you. What’s more, if the facilitator engages in controversial discussion, it creates a power imbalance (since the facilitator is viewed as the leader), which could cause these individuals to leave the group.
The facilitator is tasked with creating an environment in which all members have the opportunity to participate in idea sharing, leading to better business practices and business building. If they are to be successful, facilitators cannot allow religious or political opinions to encroach on that space.
Setting everyone up for success
Many networking meetings are run as open discussions, which can be highly effective in getting people to brainstorm, offer solutions and encourage others. However, it’s easy for these discussions to plummet into a mire of controversy. As a facilitator, how do you keep the conversation directed? Here are four suggestions.
- Set the tone. Start your meeting by projecting yourself as a professional on a mission to engage in a productive discussion. Most others will follow your example.
- Set the ground rules. To keep conversation contained, you might ask members to raise their hands when they want to speak or keep comments to a certain amount of minutes.
- Set the schedule. An agenda helps keep group discussions on track because members know there is only a certain time allotted to get their thoughts out and talk about their business.
- Set the stage. Your “script” as a facilitator is made up of the questions you ask that launch the discussion. Make sure those questions are clear and pointed and that they have a purpose. If they are designed correctly, your questions will elicit thoughtful comments from the group, keeping members engaged and focused.
Facilitating a networking group in our current political, religious and cultural dust storm can be a challenge. Successful facilitators, however, manage to stimulate creative thought, while keeping conversation within the parameters of good networking practices. With a little prep work and practice, you probably can do the same.