…the parched land shall become a pool, and the thirsty lands springs of water…(Isaiah 35:7)

How to Sink a Meeting

By Rex Goode


If you are involved in a support group meeting, especially one based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, you will likely be familiar with the term, “crosstalk”. You’ll find a wide a varied definition of what it is, almost as varied as there are individuals who use the word. So, hopefully you’ll excuse me if I talk about it as I use it and as I apply it to my facilitation of a support group not based on the 12 steps, but still only a support group as opposed to a therapy group. In most 12 step groups, rules against crosstalk are that you cannot comment directly on another person’s share. Your comments must be strictly about  yourself.

In a support group, you want to have the ability for other members to offer feedback, but even then, you must limit and put boundaries around the kinds of feedback you will allow. I would hope it would be obvious to everyone why you can’t just allow a free-for-all discussion where any kind of feedback is acceptable.

I’ve facilitated groups for over ten years now and have had some college coursework related to it. I’ve attended various group meetings. There are many ways to turn a potentially healing and helpful meeting into an exercise in frustration for all involved. The most certain way to do that is for crosstalk to happen and not be addressed.

I recently facilitated a Titanic of a meeting. As the captain, I went down with the ship. All hands were lost. For confidentiality’s sake, I can’t reveal specifics. I was physically ill. Something I ate did not agree with me. I was distracted by that for the whole evening. When one individual who consistently crosstalks and responds negatively to any attempt to redirect him, began crosstalking, I just let it go.

In my defense, I try to maintain some order in the way I handle crosstalk. That order is in this order:

  1. Wait for the person at whom the crosstalk is directed to speak for himself.
  2. Wait for the group to speak for the group and point out the crosstalk to the person doing it.
  3. Address it myself by asking the person to not crosstalk.

The first two failed and it fell to me, which happens more often than I like. Because I was feeling queasy, I failed too. That’s when the meeting hit an iceberg and sank to the bottom.

So, next week, before the sharing part of the meeting begins, I’m re-introducing the Crosstalk Iceberg I developed as a teaching tool a few years ago. I share it hear for your edification. Feel free to use it in your meetings. All I ask is that you leave the copyright notice and information about where to get it on any copies you make.


Sinking a Meeting

Specific Versus General

The impact of what a person says is directly related to how specific it is. We have the most impact and our message is clearer when we speak in specifics rather than generalities. Note, however, that the impact may be positive or negative. Sometimes a thoughtful generality is better than an ill-conceived specific.

Here Versus There

Another axis along which commuication happens is in the spacial. We can talk about things happening somewhere else or things happening right now in our presence. Talking about something happening somewhere else is not as effective or helpful as talking about right now. Because of the superiority of specifics, talking about something happening somewhere else is better than talking about something happening anywhere or theoretically.

Now Versus Then

Similarly to the spacial, time is an important part of communication. It is preferable to talk about the present rather than the past. Although it may be necessary to put the present in context by mentioning the past, sharing and giving feedback to sharing is best done in the context of the here and now.

Feelings Versus Thoughts

A specific about how I feel is far superior to a specific about what I think. So, both in sharing and in offering feedback in a meeting, making it about what you feel rather than offering an opinion is a better way to keep a relationship happier.

Forms of Feedback

Feedback to someone who has shared about a meaningful situation can take various forms. I present them here in order of least helpful:

“What I Think You Should Feel”

It is hard for me to even fathom the idea that one person can tell another person how he or she should feel, yet we do it all the time. Some do it more than others. It is rarely received well, despite whether the other person seems, on the outside, to take it well.

“What I Think You Should Do”

Advice is probably the most common form that crosstalk takes. Over the years I’ve been involved with groups, if you ask most people what crosstalk is, they say, “Advice.” Advice is definitely crosstalk. It sinks meetings. It sinks people who are in the meeting. I’ve had people say to me, “But what if I want advice?” In terms of a support group meeting, I don’t care if you want it or not. If you want advice from group members, ask them after the meeting. Advice isn’t just derailing for the giver and receiver. It derails everyone in the meeting.

Note that commenting about what you should do is slightly less specific than commenting about how you should feel.

“What I Think About Your Situation”

Because it is less specific than giving advice, it is less crosstalk. Some people think they are not crosstalking if they avoid advice but at least comment on another person’s situation in a more general way. It is still cross talk to tell another person what you think about their situation. Avoid this. If you want to talk about situations, talk about your own.

“What I Think About the Topic”

This level of giving feedback is at least getting into the shallower depths of crosstalk. The dangerous under-surface parts of the iceberg are a little bit more visibile here. At least at this level of giving feedback, you are not speaking as directly about another person’s situation. Some might say that this isn’t crosstalk at all.  I say that it is veiled crosstalk. Even if it weren’t crosstalk, it is in arctic Sea of Opinion, which is far more treacherous than the warm Sea of Feelings.

“How I Feel About the Topic”

Ah, at last we’ve come out of the murky water into the sunlight of feelings. It’s not really even crosstalk to share how you feel about the topic a group is discussing. Whether it’s one of the “steps” in a recovery group or the theme-of-the-night of a support group, sharing your personal feelings and experience with the topic being discussed is your best use of the time.

Beware, though, that if you are giving feedback about how you feel about the topic raised in another person’s sharing,  you may be crosstalking if your true intention is to hide the fact that you are really operating below the surface. It became a joke in our group when I used to try to redirect people who were giving advice. I would tell them that if they would start their sentence with, “In my experience,” they would be avoiding crosstalk. So, people started prefacing their advice with, “In my experience…”

The spirit of the law, here, is to keep all of your communication in a group on the level of talking about your feelings about a topic or another person’s situation. Keeping the letter of the law by veiling your advice and opinions in terms of feelings is not keeping the spirit of the law.

“How I Feel About You In General”

In a way, this is moving out of the superiority of talking about how you feel about the topic into a slightly more crosstalky area of feedback. I still maintain, however, that expressions of how you feel about a person is far more valuable than sharing how you feel about a topic.

In our group, we begin with a theme that we take turns presenting. Then, we proceed with a discussion of that theme. People check in about their feelings about the theme and about each other. These feelings about each other can go the whole gamut from love to anger.

It is hard for some people to see how saying something like, “You really irritate me sometimes,” can be appropriate in a support group. What is supportive about telling someone he irritates you? To my way of thinking, there is plenty that is supportive about it if you compare it to giving a laundry list of everything that you think is wrong with the other person and how he needs to change in order to please you.

In one group I co-facilitated for parents having trouble communicating with their teens, we taught “I-Messages”. These are a method of communicating where you own your feelings while sharing with another person. I won’t spell it out here, but you can find information about it all over. They take the basic form of, “I feel __________ when you __________.”

“How I Feel About You Here and Now”

This kind of feedback, to me, takes all of the elements of superior communication and distills it into a powerful statement that affects other people in profound ways. Realize that in a group setting, an uncontrolled and negative outburst like this can be as damaging as a supportive, positive, and sincere expression can be helpful.

You can still be supportive by telling someone something like, “I’m really upset at you right now,” as long as a discussion ensues that is productive between the two participants.  In my opinion, it is not crosstalk because it does not, in this level of simplicity, directly address what another person has shared. 

(See Four Principles of Support and Principles of Respect.)

The danger here is where it goes from there. It’s probably the biggest trigger to crosstalk there is. If the person who stated his feelings about the other person then begins to do everything lower in the iceberg, the meeting is going to sink. If, instead, the conversation that will hopefully happen between the two parties will stay at this same level of the iceberg, the result will be two people who have come to an understanding and appreciation for each other that will not only help them, but the whole group.

Why We Crosstalk

Avoiding crosstalk depends heavily on understanding why people do it. I think it boils down to just one thing. We crosstalk because we are trying to rescue ourselves from the prospect of having to deal with the difficult feelings and situations others find themselves experiencing.

I see it happen all the time. Someone shares something difficult, heart-wrenching, and hard to hear. People who are insecure in their own feelings want to clear the air of all of those emotions. So, they introduce an opinion. They take the whole conversation out of the realm of feelings and plant it right in the land of opinion and, often, controversy.

If you can get people talking about the situation and not about how they feel, then you don’t have to feel anything either. You can soothe your own feelings by crosstalking. Crosstalking is selfish. It represents an unwillingness to be present and empathetic with a person who is experiencing feelings. I often see whole meetings become thoroughly philosophical and in no way personal by crosstalk. The Personal is far superior to the Philosophical. (See The Supremacy of the Personal.)

Staying Afloat

The best meetings I’ve attended have been highly emotional and entirely personal. Each persons expresses himself in terms of his own feelings and experiences. You avoid crosstalk by telling your own story and owning, accepting, embracing, and sometimes expressing your own feelings.

When someone crosstalks, the ideal situation is that the person who is being crosstalked will speak up for himself in terms of his own feelings about being crosstalked. If that fails, someone else in the group should point out the crosstalk. It must be dealt with if it is to not sink the whole meeting.

Up in the crow’s nest, the facilitator should keep an eye on icebergs in the area. However, if anyone on the ship sees it, the warning should be sounded. Everyone is responsible for the ship staying afloat.

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