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4 Ways for Ombuds to Define Success Working with Groups

Feeling successful in this work is incredibly important! It helps us as dispute resolution practitioners stay energized and engaged. It also helps us have the confidence to tell others how we can help!

Over the summer I facilitated a team building activity for a somewhat small group. There had been some conflict in the group and the composition of the group shifted significantly in the past 6 months, leaving the remaining members feeling optimistic about feeling better in the group. They believed with the external changes, everything would be different. As we got into the meeting, it became clear that the frustrations from the past were still present.

After a warm-up get-to-know-you exercise, we dove into creating inclusive team guidelines (aka, ground rules or team norms). As the team members named their desired norms, and I pushed them to provide specific examples of what problem they are hoping to solve with those norms, their concerns and dissatisfactions were raised. I was able to help them better speak directly to each other, listen to each other, and design how they want to move forward.

By the end of the meeting we had a solid set of inclusive team guidelines, a plan for when and how to check in on these guidelines in the future, some future action items, including additional facilitated discussions on some of the more challenging topics, and people were engaging and making light jokes with one another.

When I walked out of the building, I felt good. That session was a success! I believed we made good progress, the team members stayed present and engaged, even when discussions were challenging, and we have solid next steps.

Then I stumbled because my poster paper got caught between my legs and the stairs (do not ask me how because I do not know!). This break in my thought was enough for me to start questioning how successful the session really was. I started thinking about all of the things that could ‘go wrong’ next: they could all have left the meeting with different understandings of what they expect from one another, they could easily fall back into communication patterns that we identified weren’t productive or helpful, they could shut down any time someone doesn’t behave exactly in line with any of the new norms, and on and on.

Maybe the session wasn’t a success.

But… what is success?

I thought of the pictures my partner sent to me of their most recent bathroom renovation. When they complete a project in their job, there is a tangible, photographical, conceptual end result. A close. A finish. A product. A clear way to determine success.

When working with humans, there will never be an end result. A close. A finish. A product. We are always moving and changing. So how can we define success?

Feeling successful in this work is incredibly important! It helps us, as practitioners, stay energized and engaged. It also helps us have the confidence to tell others that we can help and how we can help! And we also have to be able to tell when things aren’t going well in order to shift direction, give people what they need in the moment, and learn and grow as professionals.


Here are 4 ways I determine success when facilitating groups or individuals through conflict:

Has there been any change or shift?

When it comes to humans, we are never ‘finished’ or ‘done working.’ But we do need to make changes to continue working and moving toward our goals. I just want to see if we have been able to shift things a bit in order to get things moving toward an intended goal or direction.

Has at least one person learned something?

This might seem like a small measure, but even if just one person learns something, even if that person is you, there is success there. And usually, we all learn a little something no matter what. Learning what we don’t like, or what doesn’t work for us can be just as important as learning what we do like or want.

Were we able to identify and speak directly to behaviors and impacts that people need to work through?

Speaking about specific instances and not in abstracts or stories is a huge accomplishment! This is harder than you think and it has the biggest impact!

How do people feel at the end?

I like to do a closing activity of asking everyone to say just one word about how they are feeling. No one will explain their word, or ask about anyone else’s word. It is one word and done. I love to hear words like “relieved,” or “optimistic,” or “excited.” I also love to hear words like, “confused,” “unsure,” “exhausted,” and “overwhelmed.” These words tell me that people are engaged. They are in it. They are feeling it. And if this is the case, we have probably accomplished #1 & #2!

Please share how you define success in the comments!