How Risky Is the Way You Talk About Risk?

"Boom! I hope you are ready to take some big risks today” shouted the workshop presenter with his arms outstretched and sounding a bit like a Tony Robbins wannabe. 

The all-business suit and tie guy seated next to me leaned over and said, “I gave up coffee for the month of January, and that is all the risk I can handle.”  We both chuckled. 

Judging by the relative silence meeting the presenter’s proclamation, the other 50+ folks attending this change management workshop also lacked enthusiasm to engage in high-risk behavior with strangers from a variety of organizations. 

This recent experience left me thinking about the way people talk about risk, particularly workshop presenters or meeting facilitators and organizational managers and leaders. I focus on presenters and facilitators today in the first of two posts addressing the question: how risky is the way you talk about risk? 

The Upfront Declaration 

I question the intention and value of facilitators telling workshop attendees without hesitation that their participation overall (or in a specific activity) will involve a great deal of risk, particularly before we finish our first cup of coffee. 

When presenting or facilitating, we must thoughtfully consider how we frame the content, formats, and expectations for participants.  The framing should both reflect our intentions for the experience and be presented in a manner appropriate for the participants, their preferences and biases, and the organizational culture(s) from which they come.

No doubt for some participants or for some specific workshops, I hope you are ready to take some big risks today would be motivating and provide a desirable adrenaline rush.  Offhand, I easily could see using this assertive welcome in sessions:
  • Marketed to people who want to greatly challenge themselves.
  • Targeted for early adopters looking to disrupt their current beliefs or behaviors.
  • Intentionally wanting to create some discomfort at the onset to illustrate how people will need to engage.
  • For high performing teams looking to achieve even greater results.
  • With an audience of highly competitive participants.
In this change management workshop, the presenter’s welcome created a visible state of anticipatory fear in many of the participants at the onset of a learning experience. They simply shut down, something presenters and facilitators can avoid or manage if we design with challenge and support in mind. 

How can this be handled better? 

1.  Create marketing, confirmation, and pre-program materials that better explain and socialize people to the experience. 

The presenter’s content and session design did turn out to be quite challenging, requiring significant personal disclosure with people I hardly knew.  While I did not mind, others did.  None of this was adequately outlined in the workshop’s marketing or the subsequent communications we received.  This is an unforced error that too many meeting planners and presenters still make.  

When we accurately describe the content, format, and participant expectations for a workshop or facilitated session, we should feel reasonably comfortable that those who choose to attend did so knowing what to expect. 

2. Help built comfort and connection among participants before diving in to the main content. 

In rare cases “throwing people into the deep end of the pool” might be the right way to start a session, but in general it is better to warm people up (break some ice) with less threatening activities or conversations. Introducing some written reflection work prior to any forced extroverted verbal exchanges also honors those who are more introverted learners.  Given the participants, the topic, the stated goals, and the time available, what ice needs to thaw or be broken and how can that most effectively be done? 

3.  Frame the learning in terms of its possible rewards before introducing any talk about risk. 

Just as proper etiquette is to always pass salt and pepper together, I think risk and reward are best talked about in tandem. Invite participants to hone in on what they hope to learn. Then ask them to consider how much they may need to stretch their normal comfort zone—to take some risks—to do so. As an additional option, inquire what support—from you or other participants—might help them best take on that risk. 

4.    Acknowledge that perceived risk is not universal. 

I find it helpful to talk about how participants likely have varying degrees of experience and comfort with the participation a session may require to get the most out of it.  I note that what some see as safe or easy is experienced by others as somewhat risky or challenging and that we should not project our level of comfort on to others. 

5.  Create an “offramp” for anyone feeling too challenged. 

In the rare situations when I think an ask I will make of participants might be too great for some individuals, I consider ways I can still involve them, but in a less threatening manner.  

For example, instead of inviting participants to break into pairs to do a role play conversation, I might instead invite them to break into triads and have one person be an observer who shares observations and feedback. The observer role is a nice out for people who find role plays threatening while still involving them in a meaningful way.

Another example: in a conversation in which I will call on every individual to speak, I generally say people can feel free to pass if they do not want to share anything when their turn surfaces. 

Without challenge or risk individuals and organizations can stagnate and fail to learn or grow as needed.   

Part of the contribution facilitators and presenters make is engaging people in risk that promote growth and learning, but how we talk about risk is risky.  When presenting or facilitating we owe it to those who will actually take the risks to design the experience—and talk about it—in thoughtful and supportive ways.  Participants should not feel forced to take an undesirable risk; instead they should feel a supportive partner inviting them to stretch and challenge themselves. 

Whether or not that happens is on us.
In February I will write about how leaders and managers might want to talk about risk.

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