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GUEST BLOGGERS:  Theresa Ward and Shelton Davis

Truth be told conflict is inevitable. No matter how much preparation we put into planning a harmonious experience, facilitators and leaders cannot completely eliminate conflict! Nor should we try to.

Conflict can be healthy when you have a group of smart and passionate professionals who are trying to make change happen in their team, their company, or the world. So, how can we ensure a meeting or event isn’t completely derailed when conflict or debate comes up? At Empathy Lab, we believe the answer is (surprise!) …Practice Empathetic Facilitation.

Prepare Yourself Before You Facilitate

First, to prepare yourself as a facilitator for inevitable friction that may occur with a group, get in a routine of practicing Self-Empathy.

  1. Take a few deep breaths.
  2. Pay attention to how your body feels, and maybe scan through what you Hear, Smell, Taste, Feel and See around you.
  3. Before your event, take a quick inventory of what is bringing you energy (did you have a delicious breakfast or have a great hug from your kid before they got on the school bus?) and what baggage might be weighing you down (did you see a sad news story or have a tense conversation with your spouse?).
  4. Take a few moments to accept whatever your mind, body, and heart is feeling.

This self-awareness becomes Self-Empathy when we practice it routinely as a form of care, without judgment.

Manage Yourself When Tension Occurs

Tap back into your senses and your sources of energy when you notice tensions or frictions starting to arise in a meeting, in order to stay grounded. It’s great to focus on being present:

  • What am I hearing?
  • What am I seeing happen among the participants?

We often have to “let go” of the perfectly planned agenda in order to bring Empathy into a tense situation.

  • Try to see conflict as an opportunity to let go of judgment and lean in with curiosity.
  • Ask open-ended questions and reply with neutral feedback (e.g. it sounds like ____ is really important to you) in order to make sure those who are experiencing the tension are also feeling seen and heard by you as the facilitator.

A Retrospective Technique – “I Like I Wish I Wonder”

Lastly, as you near the closing of a meeting or session that felt particularly wrought with conflict, take some time for a retrospective and some two-way feedback. We especially like the technique of “I Like I Wish I Wonder”.

Have a few people in the room share what actually went well in the session, and what they wish had happened differently, and what they are left wondering about. This allows everyone to process what has just happened, and not to label it as exclusively “good” or “bad”.


Conflict can be a great learning experience to better understand each other’s values and motivations. It can definitely be uncomfortable, but we believe that discomfort fuels individual growth, and with some Empathetic Facilitation sprinkled in, that discomfort can lead to more peaceful and productive interactions in the future.

About the Authors:

Theresa Ward is a Communications and Culture Consultant whose mission is to help teams get things done and enjoy the journey. Theresa serves as Empathy Lab’s Lead Facilitator and Operations Officer. She is a certified yoga instructor, furmom, and total TED Talk nerd.

Shelton Davis would rather hear your story than tell his. Shelton channeled 15+ years of human-centered innovation knowledge and his lifelong passion for personal connection into one huge group project: Empathy Lab. Shelton lives, hikes, drinks coffee, dances, and practices empathy daily in Atlanta, GA.

Learn. Share. Practice. Move FORWARD.  Join the Better Teams community, FORWARD, to network and grow with some of the most experienced professionals in the field of team building and facilitation.  LEARN MORE

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