We had a workshop at the SML office during the week with our divisional management team – there were eight of us, plus the facilitator, who we’d not worked with previously and was not industry specific.

Facilitator is a camp, pale, weedy little man in his late 50s with a kind of ginger-ish Hitler moustache. Facilitator is the MD of his company.

I adore workshops, I love collaborating, exchanging ideas and stretching my thinking. This one was right in my wheelhouse, mostly talking team building and our direction for the next couple of years, which my new gig will be pretty instrumental in driving.

Everything was running fabulously, there was lots of our usual banter and gentle piss-taking, very good energy. I’ve known this group for many, many years, we get on well and we are all really comfortable with each other.

It sounds really obnoxious, but I’m a pretty good workshop participant, I’m usually fizzing with energy, have lots to contribute, but always making sure I’m bringing the much more reticent people into the conversation – “Ringo was saying something really interesting about this the other day, what was it you were saying again Ringo?”, “I know FCFC had some killer insights on that …”, “Vincenzo can explain this much better than I can”. You know the sort of thing.

Everything was good, it was fun, vibe was great.

And then …
We’re capturing issues/themes/whatever on the board and I was trying to explain to Facilitator that the theme I’d mentioned was not the same as another. Theme B might look like Theme A, but really isn’t.
Facilitator still wouldn’t add Theme B to the list.

Me (calmly): “I’m not sure you’re understanding me – here’s why Theme B is a different thing”.
Nods from all, Theme B is a very big thing for us.
Facilitator: “it’s the same as Theme A, we need to move on”
Me (slightly stubborn, but still calm): “I know you want me to shut-up, but … “.
Facilitator (completely snaps): “How dare you say I want you to shut up! How dare you insult my professionalism like that!”
Us: silent, mouths agape
Facilitator: “This is exactly the culture of this team playing out right now, carolbaby dominates everything and no-one else gets a chance to contribute! It’s toxic and dysfunctional!”
Us: silent, mouths agape

Tea break
Us (in kitchen): “What the fuck was that?”
Me: starts to cry

Session 2
Me: mutinously quiet (occasional quiet sob and sniffle)
Them: silence
Them: more silence
Them: some quiet, tentative contributions
Them: more silence
Facilitator: “Carolbaby, do you have anything to contribute here?”
Me (quietly): “No, I have nothing”
Facilitator: “Really?! YOU have nothing?!”
Me: “That’s correct, I don’t have a contribution to make at the moment”
Me: “Okay, that sounds like a good idea”

Outside meeting room
Facilitator: “You have nothing to contribute?”
Me: “That’s right”
Facilitator: “Don’t have anything? When this is your area?”
Me:”I don’t feel like I have anything to add to what has been said”
Facilitator (very much in my face): “You know what you are? You are a petulant little brat! AND THAT IS MY TRUTH!” (gets closer) “THAT IS MY TRUTH!”

Me: gasps, backs away, mouth agape, hands to chest
Facilitator: gasps, backs away, mouth agape, hands to chest
Me: backs further away, hands wrapped around self
Facilitator: backs further away, hands wrapped around self

It occurs to me that he is mimicking me.
He continues to copy everything I do and do it very closely.
It is – to not put too fine a point on it – fucking harrowing.
I’m really sobbing at this point.
Bobs is witnessing this – confused and sort of shocked.

Facilitator (shrieks): “I have never seen anyone so unprofessional as you in 30 years of consulting! You are dysfunctional and very obviously have some deep and toxic issues with Bobs!”
Me (through tears): “What?! Bobs and I are extremely close!”
Bobs agrees we are extremely close.
Facilitator: “You prevent the team from contributing (and lots more stuff about how I’m a absolutely terrible person – probably the worst person ever).”
Me: cries
Bobs: confused and sort of shocked

And then!
I retreat back to the meeting room where I’m being shepherded by Facilitator, to continue as if nothing had happened.
I’m sitting, sobbing with occasional deep breaths to steady myself – trying to answer direct questions from Facilitator, quite worried that if I don’t perform he’ll crack again.

Everyone looks horrified, no-one knows what to do.

It was a really bad, bad scene.

I do not attend the group lunch.
I really want to go home, but I don’t feel like I can.
I go to Muji and buy a new diffuser.
I thank TheUniverse I brought a handkerchief with me today.
FCFC tells me I should have just walked out.

The afternoon is long.
I participate in the sessions in a restrained way.
I occasionally cry quietly.

Workshop over
I tell Bobs that he has really let me down, that he has broken my trust, that he should have done something, anything, to stop what happened.
Bobs unfortunately has a lower EQ than my tea cup.
I explain that this was not a robust debate, or a difference of opinion but an unprovoked attack on a pretty defenseless person.
Bobs can be fucking clueless.
This does not help.

I come home.

Clearly Facilitator is a massively unstable nutjob.
I still have no idea where it came from, and why I was the target and it’s obviously extremely unlikely I’ll ever know.
I’ve been trying to move on from everything and let it go.
My subconscious really doesn’t seem to want to play along as I’ve been plagued by nightmares and random acts of crying / shaking.
It has of course made me brood on the possibility that Facilitator is right and I really am an absolutely terrible person and no-one else is being honest with me about that.
Word slowly spreads internally about what happened and people feel quite murderous. Their obvious outrage makes me feel much better.

I had it out with Bobs again today and I think he finally, finally gets that what happened is a very serious thing.

Thankfully I never have to see Facilitator again.

I’m very glad that week is behind me.

16 thoughts on “064/2021

  1. Oh my goodness that sounds absolutely horrific! I am truly lost for words… I am so sorry you had to go through that carolbaby 🙁 Zapping you the biggest hug ever…

    • I will totally take that virtual hug! Thanks for the love <3

      The whole thing was and is just utterly astonishing. How this dude has managed a 30 year consulting career is mind-blowing.

  2. Unbeluckingfievable. That man shouldn’t be facilitating anything except maybe taking out the garbage. He has Issues. I hope someone complains to his company’s HR about what an awful experience this was for everyone who witnessed it. Worse for you, obviously, and I’m sorry, but I’m thinking also about the colleagues who likely thought they’d never speak in a meeting again.

    • No, this is exactly the thing! It’s completely insane behaviour for an alleged professional facilitator – his actions ensured that my colleagues were even more reluctant to contribute.

      He’s the MD and founder!

  3. I think I need to work on EQ, too, b/c all I can possibly do from here is confirm your sense that this is Not Normal and the “facilitator” is a jerk, and send good vibes from the other side of the world. I just . . . sorry, it’s that I look at these things from the perspective of classroom management and the first thing I’d do is shut the guy down, second say something calming to everyone, and then give my attention to the victim; I have to think about group dynamics. But I wasn’t there. But also, where was your boss? Senior people? Someone who could have spoken up and said “This is not appropriate, let’s take a break,” and called in someone appropriate to deal, if they weren’t senior enough to do it? I’m stunned that it seems like no one had your back. And I am so sorry.

    • Good vibes and outrage much appreciated <3

      Some background: SML is pretty small at around 100 people. We're still mostly all remote, so there were very few people in the office that day and most were people in for that session. Bobs (my boss) is C-Suite and was the most senior person present. I'm senior-ish and was (along with Ringo) the second most senior person in the office.

      I agree with you 80 billion percent - that is exactly how I would have handled it. If it had been my meeting I would have had absolutely no hesitation in ending the engagement and asking Facilitator to leave. Because that was some absolutely egregious shit and should never be tolerated.

      You've made another very excellent point and one I've been wrestling with a lot. Bobs is utterly and completely clueless, so at the end of the day I'm not really surprised he did nothing, though of course he should have. But my colleagues? Massively disappointing. I give a pass to the three newbie managers who were recently promoted, they're young, it was really shocking, you freeze, you don't know what to do. But there were three other people experienced enough to know better. I get that they are introverts and like a quiet life, but they absolutely could have stepped in.

      • I don’t generally get all rah-rah about LRU and all the stupid trainings we have to do there, but one thing I think they’re doing right is that the last two years’ Title IX training (mainly anti-sexual harassment, with some other don’t-be-a-jerk stuff mixed in) has included bystander training: ways you can step in and help out when someone is being harassed or bullied, including things to say, even if you’re not in a position of authority. That seems like a good idea and might have given people present some idea of what to do. Oh, but maybe your company doesn’t want to encourage that, if they’re toxic enough.

        • Oh gosh, bystander training is such a genius idea! Thank you!

          I have suggested it to HR as part of the “Our team is in desperate need of a refresher of our obligations under the Bullying & Harassment Policy” message I sent today. I did not explain why this was needed, but will let them know why when they ask.

  4. This is ABSOLUTELY outrageous. So shocking. This man should NEVER be allowed to do that again. Who can you report him to?? Take good care of yourself. It’s emotional assault. I hope you’re okay.

    • Thank you for the support <3

      Who would ever think of something like this happening? If anything I've underplayed it - it was just so insane and unexpected!

      I said to another colleague that it was the psychological equivalent of the Facilitator punching a participant in the face and the victim sitting there gushing blood, being forced to give strategic insights, with everyone else studiously looking away. Ghastly!

      I'm doing much, much better than I was, but it does occasionally sneak up on me. I'll get there.

  5. That sounds horrific. It is the facilitator’s job to prevent this kind of thing happening rather than to instigate it. This does sound like something your HR team should be getting involved in as it is a perfect example of bullying. I’m really sorry this happened to you.

    • Thank you <3

      It's definitely given me a lot to think about - both how to go forward with this and more generally.

      It really is just mad. You hear about appalling things in workplaces - but this has to be up there with the worst.

  6. I am so sorry, I am cringing just reading this. And lets say for the sake of an argument you were the difficult one in the room (which is clearly not the case), the job of the facilitator is to manage that situation with tact and diplomacy.

    I feel you though when you say it makes you wonder about other’s perception of you. I can think of a couple of situations where i have been told in a work environment (not by a boss in a review) what a horrible person I am. And logically I think it through and think about how I generally get along with people and am well regarded, but deep down I’m wondering if everyone thinks I’m a monster. It’s a horrible spot to be in.

    Hope HR complains loudly about this dude and his firm.

    • Thanks Katy <3

      Yes - exactly! When I foolishly agreed to go out of the room to discuss the first incident, I assumed he was going to apologise! In my mind, we'd talk about how to go forward and it would be hugs all 'round.

      I wonder how many engagements he uses the "let's bully the participants" approach in. I also wonder if the "serious workplace incidents" cost extra, or they're a special freebie for key customers.

      • I recently (in before times) was at a workshop on race issues, and the moderator (white) kept talking about how holding people to time expectations (i.e. showing up at a certain time) was an example of white supremacy. When I pushed back against that (white privilege perhaps but white supremacy I dunno), the moderator asked me to step aside, and in a private conversation I was very surprised and taken aback when they held the line and was pushing me to acknowledge my internalized white supremacist beliefs. They did not get in my face and start humiliating me though.

        I hope your firm has enough heft to make others question whether they want to use this company.

        • Oh gosh, that’s really challenging. Were you forced to acknowledge your “internalized white supremacist beliefs” before you were allowed back into the session?

          But yes, there are ways to do this without the mind-fuckery – I mean, you’re never going to get someone on side with that approach. It’s likely to be even more disruptive.

          As an aside I cannot even imagine what an utter disaster a workshop on race issues at SML would be. Everyone is very well meaning and very paternalistic, but I’m cringing just thinking of it. We have a long, long way to go!

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