How can I facilitate a productive retro when tensions are high?

Hey, need some advice… going to run a retrospective next Monday and I think there are some high tensions around the topic. Any good resources you’ve found about helping to keep people’s tempers down and make the retro productive?

I thought summarizing what I’d learned about facilitation over the years might be hard. I asked other facilitators on twitter what they’d say in this circumstance, and it got the juices flowing. (Much gratitude to @jlangr & @woodyzuill & dang, I know I’m missing somebody.) Here’s a slightly modified version of what I sent him.

Most of what I’m talking about happens in the first ten minutes:

* If you’re comfortable with it, I’d set the stage by reading the retrospective prime directive, and asking if everyone is willing to take that approach. (And get a nod or a ‘yes’ from each individual.) If you prefer, you can just talk about how we’re not here to judge, we’re here to learn how we can do better. Remind them that “agreement helps us connect; disagreement helps us grow.” Whatever statement you use, make sure everyone is in agreement. Ideally, cancel if you can’t get that.

* Speak openly about your intentions for this meeting, and be as transparent as you can about your concerns. Sometimes just putting voice to them can help people stay mindful.

* Next, make sure that the loud, confident people don’t dominate the conversation. How much someone has to contribute has no correlation with how easily they take the stage or how introverted or extroverted they are.

* If someone speaks in the first five minutes, they’re much more likely to speak during the meeting. You can do this by going around the room (after you’ve said your intentions for the retro) and ask other folks what they’re hoping to get out of it. Remember it doesn’t matter much what they say, you just want to get them talking. (But you can also glean things about what they might be holding back from what comes out in this opening circle.)

* See if you can get agreement around the room to some ground rules. Some of those ground rules should be about the role of the facilitator. Do they agree to defer to your judgment?

All of that is to set the stage for your retro. After that, it’s about paying attention to body language, who is holding back, who is getting irritated, etc. People want to be heard. You can often calm someone down when they’re agitated by showing them that you know what they’re saying. One way to do that is to write it on the board (somewhere on the side, sometimes) for later discussion. As you’re writing get clarification so they agree you’ve understood what they mean.

Lastly, keep asking yourself (or the room) “what is the problem we’re trying to solve?” or “what is question we’re discussing right now?” Making sure you have a clear focus on the specific topic at any point can help keep discussion from flying all over the place, and you from losing your hold on the group.

Remember, they’ve agreed that you’re facilitating, so at any point, if you need to put your hand up and say “hey” or “HEY” or “I’M SERIOUS HERE, HEY” you can do that. They might find you annoying in the moment, but they’ll probably respect you in the morning. :D


A pretty decent crash course in facilitating, I think. But I know there’s stuff I missed. One thing I’d add now is “If there’s any way you can get out of facilitating for a group where you were involved in the project, do that. A neutral facilitator is really really valuable.”

What else? What would you tell someone new to facilitation to focus on?

2 thoughts on “How can I facilitate a productive retro when tensions are high?

  1. Angela Post author

    And I thought of another thing I left out. For opening up communication where it’s stuck, you can use post-its, cards, or other kinds of written info-gathering. This can help level things out for folks who have trouble speaking up. I use this as a conversation starter, but hopefully not as a substitute for conversation. It can increase comfort when people are uncomfortable speaking, but it can also make it easier to keep people at arms length, and avoid diving into the real stuff. Use with caution.

  2. kevin callahan

    I find it helpful to flip over from facilitator to coach, or at least blur the lines a bit, especially if the group does not have the skill to resolve and clear the root issue.

    Naming the feeling that is in the room, and clarifying that these things don’t just go away, we much move them out of the way.

    And lots of “what” and “how” questions, and keeping the focus in the balance point between the problem/symptom/smell and the individuals’ experience and needs. The more trust, openness, and functional communication the group holds/has access to, the closer we can get to the individual experience. I’ve had teams that take several rounds of retros to actually resolve an issue that has been dragging them down for months.


Leave a Reply to kevin callahan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>