I was with a group one time when a person “hijacked” the group. This is a term in my trade which describes what happens when a person, or a small group, takes control of a situation or a group process without permission to do so. In this case it was in the midst of a training I was helping to facilitate, and I was leading the segment on how our unconscious privileges, or lack thereof, impact our relationships. The style of the hijacker was amusing and enjoyable, which made it a challenging moment as a facilitator.

Right in the midst of collecting some group feedback on the role playing we had just done, as if on cue, a person stood up in front of everyone and started telling stories. The stories were about travels and life experiences that did not appear to be directly related to the work we were doing. The group was laughing, the person talking was smiling and on one level all looked well. I did nothing for what seemed like an eternity to me—perhaps 4-5 minutes. I was watching the feedback keenly. But I was increasingly uneasy and began to detect some restlessness in the group. I also knew that my portion was supposed to take about 45 min and we were already over time. I noticed one of the other facilitators standing up to possibly intervene.

So I took a deep breath and thought to myself “someone must do something, and it is my segment so it should be me.” I was truly nervous. So I took another moment to find inside of me what I saw in the person telling the stories: a relatively unaware person, with a lot of personal power, who was enjoying telling stories and entertaining the group. I also became aware of those who might have enjoyed the stories but wanted to be doing other things. And I was conscious that I was one of three facilitators who had an agenda we were attempting to follow. Furthermore, I was aware that he simply stood up and took over and if I let it go on any longer it might jeopardize the sense of safety in the group. I felt compassion for the various perspectives as I went up to this person and said, as gently as I could, “I love your stories. It seems we all do. And yes I feel it is best to bring some awareness to what is happening now and stay on track with our schedule. The group and the facilitators may love it now, but they might be unhappy later, when we are unable to cover other things. I think we need to check in with them. If the group and the facilitators want more stories then we should have them.” So I looked around and asked: “What do we think?” Before I finished my comments this person began sitting down. I could tell that this person was a bit bruised by the intervention but also accepted what I had done. The feeling I had, in the group, was a moment of tension followed by relief that someone was able to step in gently and keep us on track.

After the meeting two different people came up and said what I had done was effective and they needed someone to come into organizations where they work and do the same thing.

This intervention worked for several reasons: 1) I was paying attention to body language and the feelings inside of myself; 2) I was able to gently interrupt the man speaking; 3) he was willing to be interrupted; 4) I was able to display genuine compassion for the different perspectives I could see beginning to unfold, and yet take action to change the direction another had decided to take; and 5) I was able to properly frame the situation (it was about protection, the needs of others and time) and check in to see what others thought of what was happening.

It is also worth noting that when an intervention like this happens it is always a good idea to go to the person privately, later, and check in to see how they took it. Egos bruise easily and facilitators have a lot of power, which must be carefully used.

Who at your place or work hijacks meetings or conversations? What is the result of this behavior? Has anyone ever tried to intervene? What might it take to do so and what would be the benefits to the organization?