Meet the Prisoners: How to Set the Stage for a Better Meeting

How the brain science behind “reappraisal” sets the stage for a better meeting.

An early mentor who taught me a lot about how to design and facilitate great meetings and workshops often expressed one of his core values with the adage, “a high tide raises all boats.”

What he meant was: when putting together an event, find and aim for the fans; and, don’t worry about everyone else. It works, sort of. But there is almost always another arch type in the room that meeting facilitators ignore at their peril: The Prisoner.

The good news is by calling out the prisoners in the room and throwing them an early lifeline can set everyone in the room up for a better session.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the way our brains process emotional regulation. Research demonstrates that our brains function more effectively when we call attention to and label the emotions that can come in learning environments. It’s a process called “reappraisal” and designing a program around reappraisal – as opposed to suppression of the bad things that might come up – makes for a better experience for all participants.

Reappraisal is behind one of the simplest tools we use to launch the leadership development workshops we facilitate at BWLI. By directly calling attention to the different learning styles we find in every class (“Attentional Deployment” in neuro-geek speak) and how we design our classes (some facilitated Cognitive Change), it allows us to modulate each part off the lesson plan to play to different participants.

We start each program – especially those where attendance is mandated by company policy or culture – by acknowledging that in each class, we see three types of people:

  • Prisoners. These people were told to be here and, most likely, don’t want to be. They’ve been to dozens of these “leadership things” (they often tell the facilitator and the whole class how much they already know about leadership), rarely learn anything new, and have way better ways to spend their time.
  • Tourists. They’re “on the bus,” may get off and take a few photos, try some things, but if it all goes down in flames, will flay the facilitator alive.
  •  And then there are the Partners, those eager and willing to participate and the life-blood of the highly participatory workshop structure we use. (It is not a lecture heavy/transmit experience). Being a partner doesn’t mean that you agree with everything we say. In fact, Partners often show up as those that disagree and are willing to voice their opinion.
  • We acknowledge that any of these spaces are okay; and, that some people may move through all three groups during the program. However, we plant an expectation that in order for the workshop to be a great experience, we’ll need the help of the Partners, and patience of the Tourists and Prisoners.

This Prisoner/Tourist/Partner approach puts Attentional Focus at the top of the class and leaves each participant with a choice to make their own Cognitive Change.

By calling attention – naming and highlighting – the fact that Prisoners are in the room minimizes the effect a particularly aggressive (or more usually passive aggressive) Prisoner can have on the Tourists and Partners in the class. (similar to the findings in a 2003 Butler study demonstrating the social and physiological effects to the entire group). Our anecdotal evidence (based on over 40 workshops in the past year) demonstrates that just by calling them out, some prisoners actually move at least to Tourist by the end of the program.

Tourists, in our experience, tend to move the most. Rather than aiming everything in the class at the highest common denominator, we plan in opportunities for people who may take more time or more convincing to join in. This “meet people where they are” approach gives introverts and skeptics a chance to feel like at least part of the program is directed specifically to their learning style and helps them adjust their mindset.

Partners become the driver of the conversations, in large groups and small team discussions. They are given the opportunity to fluctuate from participant to co-facilitator, giving them an alternative to being distracted by others in the room who are not as ” into it.”

The Prisoner/Tourist/Partner construct allows facilitator and participants alike to make a cognitive change that creates a stronger learning environment for all involved.


John Alexander is a facilitator and finds deep satisfaction with connecting people and ideas together. In 2018, John is taking a deep dive into the neuroscience behind social interactions to get a better understanding how we are wired and how that can help us have better, more fulfilling interactions. If you’d like to follow up with John, his email is