What to do When Whatever Can Happen Suddenly Does and Tries to Destroy Your Meeting – Part I

What to do When Whatever Can Happen Suddenly Does and Tries to Destroy Your Meeting – Part I 150 150 Sharon Livingston

You know Murphy’s Law – the idea that whatever can happen, will.  Just this very busy, post holiday season I was reminded of a time that Murphy’s Law struck again. Literally!

What reminded me about it was this week’s marathon of groups and still another exciting moment on AA.  [Not alcoholics anonymous, American Airlines.].   My certified, regulation rollie would not fit in the overhead no matter how I tried to squish it, turn it, wheels first, handle first, sideways, upside down, just no way.   Nor would it fit under the supposedly regulation space under the seat in front of me.  [NOT!]  The flight attendant with the frazzled high pitched squeaky voice told me I had to check it.  She also told me I had to take it out to the gate, but of course there was no time to do that.  I wouldn’t get back on the flight.  To the dismay of my fellow passengers lined up behind me and quite a little frantic myself, I hurriedly opened my bag ,wrenched out my boots, my 3 hard cover books including focus group bashing, “How Customers Think”, and an awkwardly shaped dispenser of progesterone cream [how mortifying] – all of which were preventing squishage.  With those items sprawled over my seat and that of my seat mate [who was waiting behind me and who never spoke to me through out the 4 hour flight][1] I was finally able to compress the bag enough that I could jam it into the compartment.  After I stowed my boots, books and embarrassing bio basics, I settled into my seat and couldn’t help but recall another Murphy moment a number of years ago.

I was on another plane.  My fourteen pound Think Pad was on my lap. (Don’t ask me why I had such a heavy laptop. Pretty ridiculous I know. But I like having all the bells and whistles of a desk top in a laptop with a big screen.  Gives me a little extra exercise I guess.) Anyway, Dennis, our very pleasant flight attendant told me he would have to stow it overhead for take off, but would give it back to me once we were allowed to use electronic equipment again. And boy did he ever give it to me.  About 20 minutes into the flight,

I caught his eye and asked if this would be a good time to get my computer. “No problem,” he smiled. Famous last words!

Dennis opened the compartment, grasped the computer and… proceeded to drop it on my head. Major OUCH!!!  I saw stars and heard Tweetie birds singing. It crashed onto the top of my head and then clunked down onto my left thumb on it’s way down to attacking the big toe on my sandaled foot. People around me lurched in their seats. Dennis ran for an ice pack.

It hurt.

Mini concussion?  Compressed vertebrae?  Please, no, I had to write up a top line on the study I had just completed on osteoporosis. Getting off the plane at La Guardia, I found myself somewhat dazed and foggy for the next several hours.  The next day, I went to the doctor and was reassured I’d be fine.

What still amazes me is how I went through that trauma with virtually no residual effects. Once my neck was adjusted in the doctor’s office, the shock passed through my
body. My thinking refocused. With a neck adjustment and a little rest, I was fine the next morning.

It was interesting to observe the reactions of the passengers around me in the plane after the jolt of the mini crisis was over. Everyone kept looking up as if another computer would suddenly take wing, fly out of the overhead and crash down on them. They laughed nervously about it, made jokes, but also kept a watchful eye on the overhead compartments, taking time and attention away from working, reading a book or just relaxing. Murphy was nodding knowingly. I’d been flying for many years and have never before seen anyone accosted by a Kamikaze computer or any other item from the overhead[2]. Nevertheless, the
passengers on the plane had become aware of the possibility that such an event could happen and were therefore on heightened alert, anxious that they seemed to have no safeguard in place.

This incredibly rare experience, which left me feeling like the sky might actually be falling for the rest of the day, reminded me of how we group leaders and facilitators sometimes fear an outburst of Murphy’s Law in our group sessions and need to have precautions in place in the unlikely event that the respondent from Hell (“Super Grumpy”) happens to show up in one of our sessions.

In our training classes, people tell us that they most dread the possibility of an encounter with an irate, attacking participant who shows up without warning. While he is probably not likely to appear very frequently, this most feared individual is the transformed “Incredible Hulk” who threatens to destroy group process by explosively regurgitating his intense relevant or irrelevant rage at the leader and all over the group. (Yes – I’m mixing metaphors … Super Grumpy + Incredible Hulk … but I’m doing it on purpose … you’ll see why.)

It could happen. It’s unlikely to happen. In my own 25+ years of running groups it has happened maybe 10 times. However, the unpleasant experience and idea that this wildly uncontrollable character can sabotage the group, the outcome and the image of the leader to his/her client, can leaves you  looking up at the overhead, wondering when a group member’s accidental or purposeful aggression might erupt in the session and land on his head.

A little stage fright is energizing and keeps us on our toes. On the other hand, anxiety over unpredictable aggression without techniques for dealing with it detracts from our ability to perform at our best.

Let’s think about the Incredible Hulk for a minute. This is a basically good guy who is transformed by an impulsive temper into a giant muscle bound monster of fury. I’m going to digress just a bit to tell a little of his story.

Unless you’re a Hulk aficionado you probably don’t know that Bruce Banner, AKA The Incredible Hulk, was a product of an insanely jealous father who murdered Bruce’s mother in a green-eyed rage over her love for her son.  Bruce father then abandoned him and  continually accused him of being evil and reprehensible for all the bad things that had ever happened.  Poor Bruce stayed sane by diverting his grief, hurt and anger to the study of science. He got his doctorate in nuclear physics and went to work at a nuclear research facility, where in a heroic effort to rescue a friend, he was caught in the heart of a nuclear explosion. He mutated into seven feet, one thousand pounds of unfettered fury – the most powerful creature to walk the earth (aside from my husband Glenn, of course).

The disfiguring transformation was triggered by the build up of intense feelings and stress. When his anger was physically expressed and released during his Hulk conversion he would then transform back to his normal easy-to-get along with persona.  However, this was only after wreaking havoc around him, scaring the living daylights out of everyone in sight and knocking off a few people who got him PO’d.

The point of moving from the Super Grumpy[3] metaphor to the Incredible Hulk is … we can all EMPATHIZE with the Incredible Hulk because we know that underneath the fuming façade is a good soul.  Unfortunately, it’s harder to identify with a Super Grumpy when he shows up in our meetings, threatening to destroy us, the group process and the quest for learning or resolution of problems in our groups.  We can forget, that there is a real person with real needs and perhaps important issues that need to be addressed before we can continue with our agenda.

Strange as it may seem, the best way to deal with an overly aggressive, ‘in-your-face’ aggressor is to dig deep inside yourself to find empathy for their feelings. This, of course, is very easy to say, and quite another thing to accomplish.

In Part II, we’ll review the options. (Note: It’s MUCH more complicated than saying “I feel your pain, brother!” … I mean, the 1960s were over a long time ago!).

In the meantime, think about the challenging people you’ve encountered.  When they gave voice to their anger and annoyance, how did that affect your meeting?  What did you feel?  What did you do?  What did you wish you had done instead in thinking about it later?

To your success!


Sharon J

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