Chapter 3 – Facilitating Open Discussion

In Chapter 2, you learned how to facilitate an effective agile retrospective using the 5 phases originally introduced by Diana Larsen and Esther Derby in their book Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great.

At some point during the five phases, your team will almost certainly have an open discussion. And open discussion is great! Not all conversations in a retrospective should — or even could — be structured. πŸ’‘

Interestingly, open discussion is simultaneously the most common type of conversation (we do it all the time, every day) and the most challenging (without structure and guidance, many groups will end up with unhealthy conversation patterns).

Consider:

  • How often have you been a part of a conversation which goes down an unnecessary rabbit hole, wasting everyone’s time?
  • How often have you listened to someone ramble on, without an end in sight?
  • How often have you realized people were talking past each other, without truly listening to what the other person was saying?

These challenges — and more — are part and parcel to open discussions in any group. As a retrospective facilitator, you will have to learn how to handle them.

In this chapter, we are going to dive into how to effectively facilitate open discussion. We will go over a few techniques you can use to encourage full participation and to create mutual understanding. We will also review some of the most common challenges you will face, along with how to handle each one.

Let’s get started! πŸ€—

Establishing Group Norms

The first time you facilitate your team’s retrospectives, it’s important to establish group norms that will govern how you will facilitate open discussion. That’s especially true for teams who aren’t used to facilitation during open discussion. Your interruptions can be surprising and disruptive unless the team expects them to happen.

Don’t ask the group to help you establish these norms. Just tell them what to expect. You might say something like this:

“During today’s retrospective, there will likely be opportunity for open discussion. During these times, my goal is to make sure everyone have a chance to voice their opinion.

Sometimes that will mean I just sit back and let the discussion occur naturally. In other cases, you’ll notice that I intervene in order to ensure everyone has a chance to speak. For example, if multiple people want to speak at the same time, I might assign an order to make sure everyone gets a turn.”

Saying this upfront will enable you to productively manage the flow of the discussion without confusing the team. It also clearly explains the value of your role as the facilitator during these times.

When To Expect Open Discussion In A Retrospective

As a retrospective facilitator, you will utilize a variety of facilitation techniques throughout each of the five phases. At various points, however, it will be necessary to encourage the team to have an open, free-flowing discussion. When is this most likely to occur? Let’s quickly review each phase of the retrospective to find out.

Set The Stage. It is unlikely that there will be open discussion in this phase. Setting The Stage is usually brief. It focuses on getting people “checked in” and ready for a deeper discussion. In fact, Setting The Stage might involve just asking each person on the team to say a single word (or no words at all!). Don’t worry about open discussion in this phase.

Gather Data. It’s possible you will end up with open discussion in this phase (but not always). For example, after collecting subjective data around what people are Mad, Sad, or Glad about, you might ask your team some open-ended questions like, “What patterns do you see?” or “What surprises you about the results?” Sometimes the responses to these questions will be brief and the team will be ready to move on. On other occasions, your team will end up in a deeper dialogue.

Generate Insights. You will almost certainly end up in open discussion during this phase. While you should utilize a structured facilitation technique to help your team Generate Insights, it will almost inevitably lead to free flowing conversation. For example, while you might start 5 Whys by breaking into small subgroups, eventually the group will come together to create mutual understanding around the root cause of the issue. This is when open discussion will occur.

Decide What To Do. Just like with Generating Insights, you will almost certainly end up in open discussion in this phase as well. For example, if you are using the Impact, Effort, and Energy technique, once the full map has been built, the team will have an open discussion about which Action Item to commit to.

Close The Retrospective. It is unlikely you will have an open discussion during this phase. More often than not, Closing The Retro is a brief “check out” activity that closes the feedback loop or quickly brings the team together before heading out.

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Rules To Live By

Facilitating open discussion is challenging. You have to balance the back-and-forth nature of free-flowing conversation with the goal of encouraging full participation from the entire team (including shy or introverted individuals).

To help, try to remember these 5 rules:

  1. Be Comfortable With Silence
    Silence can help people think. Too often facilitators interrupt silence due to their own personal discomfort. Silence does not necessarily require intervention. Many times, silence indicates the team is in deep thought. The best way to find out if this is the case is to count to 10 in your head. Don’t rush! Count S. L. O. W. L. Y. If there is still silence after counting to 10, then it’s time for you to intervene.

  2. Invite — Don’t Force — People to Participate
    In general, directly calling on people (“Jim, we haven’t heard from you in a while. What do you think?”) is counterproductive. It will only serve to make quieter people more uncomfortable. Instead, invite the broader group to share their opinions (“Does anyone else have a different perspective on this?”)

  3. Monitor Group Energy
    Open discussion is tiring. It is unstructured and free flowing. To follow the various conversation points and streams of thought is mentally demanding. Eventually people on The Team will get tired, bored, or restless. Pay attention to this and consider taking a break or moving to a more structured technique (e.g., breakout groups like 1-2-4-All) to re-energize the room.

  4. Ask Open-Ended Questions
    Most of us have the tendency to ask questions which can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. During retrospectives, these questions tend to lead to dead ends. Try to replace yes/no questions with open-ended questions that help the group explore. For example, instead of asking, “Would that idea solve the problem?” (which could be answered with a “yes” or a “no”), ask “Can you tell us more?”. Here are some powerful questions to keep handy.

  5. Remain Neutral
    If you happen to be facilitating another team’s retrospective, it shouldn’t be too difficult to remain content neutral. But most of us aren’t so fortunate — we facilitate our own team’s retrospectives. In these situations, it is critical that you remain neutral while you are actively facilitating. Of course, there will be times when you want to share your opinion. To do so, make it obvious that you are “becoming a participant”.

Troubleshooting the Discussion

In almost every open discussion, you will come across various challenging situations that you should tackle. Here are some of the most common:

Challenge 1: A single person monopolizes the conversation

Why this is a problem: People with a dominant personality will often speak first, want to solve problems their way, and prevent others from having the time and space to speak up.

What not to do: In most cases, it is counter-productive to directly tell the person in the middle of the retrospective to stop talking and to give other people space to contribute. This only gives more attention to the person. So, whatever you do: don’t directly call out the behavior in front of everyone!

What to do instead: First, acknowledge the contribution of the person with the dominant personality. For example, you can say, “good idea!” Then, immediately turn to others in the group and invite them to participate by saying, “What else?” or “Others?”

Alternatively, you can call on someone in particular to add their idea. For example, you can say, “Tanya, what do you think?”

Some teams use E.L.M.O. cards to call out the dominant behavior in a fun way. Yes, Elmo. But not the character from Sesame Street! In this case, ELMO stands for “Enough Let’s Move On”.

Whenever anyone in the retrospective gets bored with the conversation, or feels ready to move to the next topic, set a group rule that it’s acceptable to hold up an ELMO card. ELMO cards look like this:

If the team adopts ELMO cards as part of its culture, it can be a great way to not only deal with dominant personality types but also to keep the meeting focused in any situation.

Challenge 2: People hold sidebar conversations

Why this is a problem: When people have sidebar conversations, they miss out on the broader discussion and also prevent the team from learning what they are talking about. This makes it hard for the group to arrive at a shared understanding.

What not to do: Don’t directly call out the behavior. For example, don’t say, “Bob and Sarah, could the two of you stop talking and stay focused on the topic?” This behavior shows a lack of empathy for what is causing the sidebar conversation in the first place.

What to do instead: Understand that when people are fully engaged in the conversation they don’t hold sidebars. So rather than criticizing the behavior, you need to be asking yourself why is the sidebar happening in the first place?

One reason people hold sidebar conversations in retrospectives is that the topic being discussed isn’t relevant to them. They’re bored and therefore distracted. In that case, ask yourself whether you have the right people in the room. Are people there who shouldn’t be?

Next, ask yourself how you picked the topic of conversation. Was it random? Did you let the most outgoing person on the team set the topic? If so, consider using a prioritization technique like dot voting that enables the group to collectively select the most relevant topics to them as a whole.

Another reason people hold sidebar conversations is due to people’s short attention spans. Most of us can only pay attention to one thing for a certain period of time. If the group has been talking about the same thing for a while, you’ll want to encourage the group to move on. Rather than telling the group what to do, try timeboxing along with roman voting to empower the team with the ability to decide how long to talk about each topic.

People don’t speak up in your retrospectives?

Challenge 3: People don’t clarify confusing statements (they just move on)

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Why this is a problem: For the group to learn together, they have to understand each other. A lack of whole-team understanding makes the Generating Insights phase of a retrospective particularly difficult.

What not to do: Most meeting participants — and many new facilitators — simply nod their heads as if they understood what is being said because they don’t want to sound stupid or insensitive 😬. In reality, the odds are that if you don’t understand something, at least one other person in the meeting won’t have understood it either. Don’t fall into the trap of ignoring the confusing statement! It’s the easy way out, but a big mistake.

What to do instead: Being the retrospective facilitator means that you have extra special responsibilities to the participants, one of which is to promote mutual understanding of the discussion. If someone says something confusing, it’s your job to make sure it’s understood by everyone in the room.

If you don’t understand what was said πŸ˜•, or you suspect others might not (perhaps by looking at their expressions or body language), you can use paraphrasing to clarify the statement.

To paraphase, start by saying “It sounds like you’re saying…” and then summarize the speaker’s statement in a few sentences. If the speaker nods her head in agreement, then great! You’ve got it. If not, it will give her a chance to clarify what she meant.

Don’t stop there. Once the speaker restates her original point, use paraphrasing again to ensure you understood this time. Keep doing this until the speaker says, “Yes you’ve got it! That’s what I meant!”

The first few times you try this, it might feel forced and unnatural. But remember — retrospectives rely on participatory group learning. If just one person doesn’t understand something, it’s difficult for the group to learn together.

Challenge 4: Multiple people compete to speak at the same time

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Why this is a problem: Actually, this is a good thing! It means that people are engaged in the conversation! πŸ˜€ Better to have too many people wanting to speak up than none at all. 😌 But if you aren’t careful, situations like these can mean that only the most outgoing or assertive people get to speak up. And that is a problem.

What not to do: Don’t let this happen without handling it. You know how in some meetings you can just feel that multiple people want to respond to a statement? You might even see a few people open their mouths and breathe in, as if they are about to start talking. When this happens again and again to the same people, you have a problem. It’s your job to create an environment which allows the full participation of everyone in the group. If you don’t intervene, these people won’t ever have the chance to add their voice to the conversation.

What to do instead: Consider using a Talking Stick. Talking Sticks ensure everyone gets a chance to speak and can be particularly effective for teams that are comfortable with structure in their conversations.

Here’s how Talking Sticks work. Set the ground rule that only the person with the Talking Stick has the right to speak. If you want the Talking Stick, you just have to raise your hand. When the person who is currently speaking is done, he or she can simply hand the Talking Stick to anyone who has their hand raised.

The problem with just using a Talking Stick is that it’s up to the person with the Talking Stick to decide who gets to speak next. A single person could therefore have to wait a long time before winning the Talking Stick lottery!

To fix that problem, you can ensure everyone gets equal opportunity to speak up by using a Speaking Stack. Here’s how to use a Speaking Stack:

  1. Ask everyone who wants to speak to raise their hand βœ‹.
  2. Assign a number to each person with their hand raised. For example, you can say: “Sam, you’re up first. Mark, you’re second. Lindsey, you’re third.”
  3. Hand Sam the Talking Stick.
  4. Once Sam is finished speaking, have Sam hand the second person (Mark) the Talking Stick, and so on.

This approach has the advantage of ensuring everyone gets a turn to speak. But it has the disadvantage of preventing the conversation from flowing naturally. For example, someone might have an important response to what’s currently being said, but can’t speak up because they don’t have the Talking Stick. By the time they’ve been handed the Talking Stick, their comment is not as relevant.

If you find this to be the case, you can set the ground rule at the beginning of the retrospective that, as the facilitator, it is your prerogative to Interrupt The Stack at any time. If you notice a lot of energy in the room about a particular topic, you can say: “I can see a lot of people want to respond to that comment, so let’s do that. Don’t worry — if you’re already in line to speak, I’ll come back to you afterwards.”

Challenge 5: One or two people don’t participate 🀐

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Why this is a problem: When only some people on the team add their ideas to the conversation, you aren’t benefiting from the collective intelligence of the entire team. Ideas are being lost that might have been important!

What not to do: In general it is counterproductive to single out the people who aren’t participating. For example, don’t say: “Kate, you haven’t spoken up yet. What do you think?” If you’ve ever been put on the spot like that, you likely understand why this only serves to make the person feel uncomfortable.

What to do instead: The first and easiest way to handle this situation is to make a general statement that encourages others to participate. For example, you can say: “Does anyone else want to add to the conversation?” Sometimes a simple nudge is all that it takes to get the rest of the group involved.

If that doesn’t work, consider breaking the group into smaller subgroups of 3-4 people. Some people who feel uncomfortable speaking up in front of the larger group will be perfectly fine contributing when in small group settings.

Sometimes people don’t participate because they disagree with what’s being said but are uncomfortable saying so. In this case, invite them to air their concerns by saying: “I wonder if there are any differing points of view.” or “Who wants to play devil’s advocate?”

In other cases, people don’t contribute to the discussion because of they don’t feel safe around the topic being discussed. If that’s the case, I recommend using Safety Check as a next step.

In all cases, take the advice of Open Space Technology to heart: “whoever comes are the right people.” If this statement is new to you, it might take a while to internalize and accept. But consider the implications of “letting go” and asking people to self-select into the retrospective. What would that look like? πŸ€”

Ultimately you can’t force someone to participate, nor should you. If they simply don’t believe in agile, or in retrospectives, or they have some past experience that is blocking them from participating, then the onus is on you to increase the value of the retrospective to make it more relevant to them.

If you end up in this situation, take the person out for coffee and have an open mind. Ask curious, appreciative, and positive questions that come from a place of interest. For example, try asking “What would have to change to make the retrospective more useful to you?

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Challenge 6: Low or no participation across the entire team

Why this is a problem: Clearly, when the entire team is reluctant to participate in a participatory meeting, you have a pretty fundamental problem! Retrospectives rely on team-based learning.

What not to do: Whatever you do, don’t force the retrospective on the team. If you force everyone to attend, what’s the likelihood they will truly be engaged anyway?

What to do instead: Apply the 5 Whys facilitation technique to the problem. Take each person on your team for coffee (or lunch, or a virtual chat, etc) and have an open, honest conversation with them in an attempt to discover the root cause of their hesitation. Make sure you express earnest empathy with their situation.

For example, you could open the conversation by saying: “I can tell that a lot of people on the team don’t want to participate in our retrospectives. You might be surprised to hear this, but if retrospectives aren’t helping, I don’t think we should run them either! There’s no reason to hold meetings that provide no value to the team. Can you help me understand the root cause of the team’s reluctance?”

Most likely, they will be happy to help. In that case, follow up by asking “why” however many times until you discover what’s really going on.

Here are some of the most common reasons people don’t want to participate in the team’s retrospectives:

  1. Nothing ever changes anyway
  2. I don’t have time / I’m too busy
  3. Retrospectives are boring
  4. People don’t feel comfortable speaking up (there’s little to no safety on the team)

Now that you’ve identified the root cause of the issue, you can more effectively identify potential solutions. For example, if the team’s complaint is that “nothing ever changes anyway,” ask yourself what you can do to improve the likelihood of follow-through. If the main complaint is that the retro is boring, find ways to make them more creative.

What’s interesting about this approach is that you’ve effectively just run a retrospective without the team realizing. You’ve taken a pain point — the team doesn’t want to participate in retrospectives — and identified a small change you can make to improve them. Now you can continue to inspect and adapt going forward.

Challenge 7: People arrive late and/or the retrospective doesn’t end on time ⏱️

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Why this is a problem: When the meeting starts late or ends late, it shows a lack of respect for the people who do show up on time. Implicitly, it’s saying, “my time is more valuable than yours.”

What not to do: Some facilitators will say, “we’ll start in 5 minutes” and then, after the time has past and one or two people still haven’t arrived, they will say, “let’s give it a few more minutes.” Actions like these teach the team that it’s okay to show up late — you’ll just wait. Other facilitators won’t start until everyone has arrived, which is fine if the team agrees to this solution. If not, it demonstrates a lack of respect for the people who do show up on time.

What to do instead: If this is a consistent problem, you can run a retrospective with the goal of agreeing to team norms around meeting start and end times. Not every team will handle this issue in the same fashion, and that’s okay as long as the team has bought in to the solution.

Here are some potential team norms around retro start times that you might adopt:

  1. Agree that the retrospective will start on time, irrespective of who is in attendance (following the “whoever comes are the right people” advice from Open Space Technology)
  2. Agree that the retrospective will start once <X> people are there or once <X> percent of the entire team is there
  3. Agree that the retrospective won’t start until everyone is there, even if it starts very late (accepting the status quo)

And here are some team norms around retro end times that you might adopt:

  1. Agree that the retrospective will end on time, irrespective of what the team is talking about
  2. Agree that, after the retrospective was supposed to end, the team will have a chance to roman vote every 5 minutes to continue or stop the meeting

Challenge 8: Disagreements derail the conversation

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Why this is a problem: Sometimes two people just don’t agree on an issue. Especially when these people have an argumentative personality or tend to be “chronic objectors”, the disagreement can dominate the retrospective, making it difficult for the rest of the team to contribute.

What not to do: Calling out the behavior generally won’t help, nor will pointing fingers.

What to do instead: There are two ways of handling this situation. The first is to try to handle it within the open discussion. The second is to move to a more structured facilitation technique.

Let’s start with handling it within the open discussion. First, intervene by Calling For Responses from the rest of the group. Ask: “What do others think about this?” or “Does anyone have a different opinion?” These questions give the two people who disagree time and space to settle down, while simultaneously inviting the rest of the group to participate in the discussion.

Second, try to help the two people understand each other better. You can ask open-ended questions like, “Leslie, what part of Richard’s idea doesn’t work for you?” or “Richard, can you restate Leslie’s point of view using your own words?” These questions are designed to help build mutual understanding.

Third, try to empathize with how both people feel in the disagreement. For example, you can say, “Isaac, it seems like you are frustrated. Is that accurate?” Usually the person will agree and offer some explanation, after which you can say, “Thanks. I can definitely see where you are coming from.” This simple exchange can help people feel validated, and lessen their resistance during the disagreement.

Finally, if the disagreement has taken the group down a rabbit hole and there are other topics to discuss, you can attempt to refocus the conversation. For example, you can say, “We’ve been talking about <X> for a while now, but I remember that Johnny had a question about <Y>. I don’t want to lose that train of thought. Does anyone have a response to Johnny?” Sometimes this redirection can help the team refocus and regroup.

Another option entirely is to end the disagreement by transitioning into a more structured facilitation technique. For example, you can say, “This seems like a very important issue. To make sure everyone has the chance to speak, let’s transition into discussing this in smaller breakout groups.” From there, you can utilize a Liberating Structure like 1-2-4-All or Impromptu Networking.

Challenge 9: Someone doesn’t take the retrospective seriously

Why this is a problem: You know that retrospectives are critical and that your role as the retrospective facilitator is important. But just because you know that doesn’t mean you have buy-in from everyone on the team. If you let the cynic disrupt the meeting enough, it can be contagious and you risk losing your team’s attention.

What not to do: Don’t call out their behavior. Realize that you can’t make the person value your contributions as the facilitator. In fact, even if you could, you shouldn’t. Forcing people to change is not your job responsibility.

What to do instead: Accept that you can’t force the person to get on board. Instead, consider this situation to be an chance to build mutual understanding between yourself and the other individual.

To do that, you have two opportunities. The first lies before the retrospective even begins. Take the person to coffee and come with a curious mindset. Try to understand why they resist your facilitation of the retrospectives.

For example, you might learn that it’s less about you as the facilitator and more that they don’t believe in the value of retrospectives in the first place. In that case, you can try to give them ownership over the retrospective. Ask them: “How can we change the retrospective more useful to you?

Alternatively, you might learn that they just think facilitation activities are silly. “Games are for kids,” they say. “Can’t we just talk like adults?” In this case, try helping them to understand why facilitation activities are important. Don’t preach — you’re better off helping them discover the answer themselves. For example, you could say: “One of the reasons I use facilitation activities is to help the team brainstorm possible actions to solve an issue. Do you have a suggestion for how to do this without a facilitation activity?”

The second opportunity lies during the retrospective. Try to design activities that engage all members on the team. One way to do this is to design the retrospective to use breakout discussions. For example, during the Generating Insights phase of the retro, you might use the Force Field Analysis technique, which relies on small subgroups of 2-4 people for brainstorming. The fewer the people that are involved in an action, the more it will rely on any one person (including your cynic!).

If nothing else works, fall back on the principle from Open Space Technology: “whoever comes are the right people.” If the person won’t contribute, you can’t force him. But you do have the right to request that he doesn’t disrupt the retrospective with cynical comments.

Challenge 10: People direct their comments to you

Why this is a problem: When people talk to you, instead of addressing the group, it usually means that they are looking to you for guidance. They assume you have the answer, or that you are the expert. As the facilitator, your job is not to provide answers to but to help the group think better together.

What not to do: Don’t fall into this trap by answering the question, even if you know the answer. Once you go down this road, you are no longer a neutral, unbiased facilitator. You now have a stake in the game. That can lessen your effectiveness as the facilitator.

What to do instead: The simplest way to handle this is to redirect the question to the group. When someone looks at you while making a comment that the group should discuss, simply respond by saying, “What do you all think?”

In reality, most of us facilitate our own team’s retrospectives, and therefore we do have a stake in the game. If you have a valuable contribution to make to the discussion or are the person best positioned to respond, don’t hesitate to do so! Just remember to “put on your participant hat” first before responding.


So many teams suffer from low participation in their retrospectives. People just don’t seem to care! What can we do about that? This chapter is entirely focused on helping boost your team’s engagement levels!