This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."
In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.
The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The third pattern in this segment is labeled Breaking Bread Together. Here is the image and text from that card:
Gathering over a meal is one of the most ancient forms of community process, as people sharing food appreciate each other at a profound level. Nourished bodies and relationships pave the way for better collaboration and higher quality work.
I resonate strongly with this pattern, yet the first thing that bubbled to the surface when I digested the poetic text above (think of it as process reflux) is that referring to "gathering over a meal" as a community process stuck in my craw. I conceive of it more as a ritual—which is often quite casual, yet can also be incredibly nuanced or elaborate. In the image above, it appears to be some of both.
On the one hand, the tablecloth, candles, place settings, adult beverages, and focused attention on the center of the table suggest preparation and a purposeful energy. On the other, the dress is casual, the assembled are drinking from paper cups, a roll of paper towels substitutes for napkins, and the adjoining room features jumbled junk visible through the window (not exactly a high brow ambience). It's a mix, and I like that there is something for everyone here—pointing out that ritual need not be stuffy or black tie to be potent.
Ruminating further, I prefer to cast the quality of the experience of eating together somewhat differently. While profound is no doubt possible (even desirable), I believe it is better described as visceral. There is, of course, the obvious way in which the stomach is engaged in the act of eating (It's alimentary, my dear Watson), but I mainly mean that eating together is more a body-centered sharing more than a mind-centered connection. It is a communion of food with people (Take eat, this is my carrot, which was prepared for you); of love from the cook to the partakers; of people with people (eating concurrently, in the presence of one another). It is a prototypical moment of conviviality.
Eating also represents a pause in the daily routine, where the prior activity has been suspended to attend to nourishment. Just as the body is sustained, the mind is refreshed (or has the opportunity to be—one can always gnaw on the bone of a vexing problem while eating, undercutting the salutary effect of the change of pace, and possibly compromising digestion into the bargain). I have found a daily yoga practice offers this same kind of benefit, and is something I cherish for the same reason.
All of that said, I have a caution about relying on meals as a setting for any heavy lifting (serious problem solving or emotional clearing). Eating necessarily requires blood to be in the stomach, which means there is less available to oxygenate the brain. I have learned, for example, that when I'm about to go on stage to facilitate it's prudent to not eat immediately beforehand, as I want all of my attention on the work ahead—rather than dividing it with breaking down the arugula or potato-leek soup I just ingested.
For all of that, there is hardly anything more basic among humans than eating together, telling stories, or having sex. I figure when you combine two out of three you're really cooking. Thus, it is with pleasure, and in the spirit of this pattern, that I protect certain opportunities for breaking bread with others in my peregrinations:
o Ever since college days I have often been able to participate in seders, the Jewish secular holiday of liberation, keyed off the remembrance the let-my-people-go Exodus from Egypt under Moses. I love making haroset (for which there are almost no set rules) and grating fresh horseradish for this meal.
o Since entering into a intimate partnership with Ma'ikwe, it has become our habit to hold a birthday celebration each Feb 6 (the anniversary of her nativity) which is centered around my cooking a special sit-down meal for whoever is on her guest list that year.
o For the last decade I have prepared a gourmet meal for a slow food extravaganza in Ann Arbor MI the first Saturday of November. (Don't count on doing anything else that evening.) Shortly after the turn of the millennium I was in town as faculty for the annual NASCO Institute and was lamenting among friends (Elph Morgan, Jillian Downey, and Michael McIntyre) that I did not get to cook as much I liked when on the road, They had a solution. In all but one year since then I have come up with a special four-course menu for which my friends buy the ingredients and I start cooking as soon as I hit town on Thursday. Anywhere from 10-14 people then gather at Michael's for a savored celebration of food and friendship Saturday evening. While the guest list varies from year to year, the four of us are very dedicated and this ritual has become a highlight of my annual calendar.
o Ever since my kids were kids I enjoyed cooking with them, and part of the rhythm of our reunions is that we spend time together in the kitchen as well as at the dining room table (we also enjoy restaurants, but that's not as distinctive as preparing our own feasts, replete with hand-me-down family recipes). Although Ceilee is now 33 and has his own kids, and Jo is 26, I know that when I get out West in a few weeks that we'll figure out some creative ways to mess around around with food, and I can hardly wait.
At its highest expression, eating is a participatory sport that lubricates all interactions, providing an invaluable foundation for weathering the inevitable bumps that all relationships are asked to endure.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."
Monday, March 3, 2014
I recently worked with a group that was poised to make an important decision about how the community defined what worked was eligible to satisfy the group's expectation that all residents are expected to make monthly labor contributions to the community's maintenance and well being. It was an important conversation, and the group had worked hard to find common ground—but right before making the decision we hit the pause button.
Though the specific proposal was not developed until the session in question, there had been plenty of prior notification about that this topic was going to be addressed, and there had been an explicit agreement reached at the plenary that preceded my arrival that binding decisions could be made in the sessions that I facilitated.
All of that notwithstanding, there was a vocal minority that was uncomfortable pulling the trigger, even though everyone in the room felt it was the right decision. The problem was that even though there was a quorum two-thirds of the community was not in the room and there was concern about how this decision might land for the absent folks. Understandably, people were worried that there might be push back about it. At a minimum this could lead to fractured energy; if it were bad enough, it could lead to implementation sabotage. Nervous about these possible outcomes, the group backed off. Instead, the group decided to circulate the proposal among the entire membership and then bring it back a week later for formal approval.
While that may seem prudent, the reason I'm writing about it is because it is was highly frustrating for those in the room who wanted to move forward. (What was the point of having authority to make decisions if the group is too timid to make them?) To many it felt that the group was being controlled by those not present, and that the group was respecting the rights of the absent (to be informed of the proposal and given a clear chance to respond to it before it was enacted) over the rights of those who had shown up and had invested the time to listen and think through the best solution. At what point is the plenary coddling the absent, rather than protecting their rights?
While my presence as an outside facilitator is an atypical occurrence, and therefore doesn't necessarily invoke "normal routine" for how a group operates, it surprises me how frequently groups fail to anticipate the need for minutes or establish permission ahead of time for the right to make binding decisions in the meetings they have with me. (If they didn't think we were going to be doing something potent why did they hire me?)
While it's my practice to give groups a report after the fact, where I: a) go over what we accomplished in broad terms; b) offer observations about the group and why I made the process choices I did; and c) make recommendations for where I think they might profitably focus attention in the future, I'm always uneasy when a client group relies solely on the facilitator's notes or memory as a record of what happened.
The main thing I want to focus on in this essay is navigating the dynamics of people missing meetings—which only happens all the time (unless the group is pretty small) and was the pivot point in my opening story.
What can be done to better manage this? I have two suggestions.
They not only need to be taken, they need to be good enough for absent people to become fully informed about the viewpoints discussed on each topic. Note: this is much more than simply recording a proposal that emerged from the discussion. Good minutes will capture all of the main points of consideration so that the reader can know whether something they might say is already in the mix, and how that viewpoint has been worked with. Absent that quality of information, the diligent person will be motivated to share their viewpoints on the topic—which will be a drag if that's already been heard but the minutes weren't good enough to convey that.
An ancillary aspect of this consideration is the timely appearance of the minutes and a known way by which people can access them. The right of the absent to be informed is paired with the responsibility of the absent to inform themselves. It is not cool to show up at a subsequent meeting, not having read the minutes, and to then blithely subject everyone to your "wisdom"—much of which is likely to have already been taken into account.
If the group paused on the verge of making a decision on a topic, then it should renew the conversation at the point of asking how well the proposal balances the factors in play. You do not want to go back into a discussion about what factors to take into account, as that door should have been closed at the prior meeting. If people who missed the first meeting want to start over when they attend a subsequent meeting on the same topic, the group needs sufficient discipline to maintain forward momentum, and insist that the work of the prior meeting be honored.
The perspective to keep in mind is that the right of the absent to have a chance to be heard is paired with the responsibility they have to honor the work of those who did not miss the first meeting. This dance is a duet, not a solo.
Tension associated with this slowing down is usually minimized if people who missed the first meeting are careful about what they surface at subsequent meetings on the same topic. If they name aspects that were missed in prior conversations it can go well; if they're just replowing old ground though, it can lead to considerable gnashing of teeth—which is not fun for anyone.
Friday, February 28, 2014
I view meeting facilitation as more of an art than a science. While it's good to have a sense of how to structure a meeting and a road map for how to work topics, those are guidelines, not imperatives. While there are approaches to this craft that are formulaic (if you have a large enough tool kit you'll be ready for all occasions), I don't buy it. I believe the only crucial elements are the right mind set and a basic tool kit—because a good facilitator will work with what unfolds, rather than work from a script.
One of my favorite process metaphors is of the facilitator as horse rider, in which image the group is the horse. If the group is being productive and the energy is congenial, you hold the reins lightly, letting the horse have its head. If, however, Old Dobbin is balky or obstreperous, with a tendency to stray off course or to jump the hedge, then the rider needs to hold the reins firmly, giving strict instructions.
There are plenty of people out there who facilitate as if their only concern is deciding who gets to speak next. But good facilitation is way more than something that passive. At the same time, neither is it not about being a taskmaster, where you treat meetings as military campaigns designed to conquer pockets of rebellion. You want to be prepared, yet not dictatorial. A good facilitator elicits everyone's input and than sees how disparate viewpoints can be woven into whole cloth.
You want to be deriving the solution from what the participants bring; not driving the solution based on what you think is a good idea. To be sure, the line between these two can be blurry, and the uninitiated can fail to discern the difference. It may be helpful to think of the facilitator as a potter, where the group supplies all of the clay. The facilitator may play a considerable role in helping to shape the clay, but shouldn't be inserting their own clay into the mix unless expressly requested to do so.
One of the trickiest dynamics I have to navigate as a facilitation instructor is when, in the context of a training weekend, I'm called upon to offer consulting advice to clients—by virtue of my being a process resource—which is markedly different than modeling skilled facilitation. While I work hard to be transparent when I switch hats, sometimes I'm too casual about that and observers can get confused about what their seeing, with the unintended consequence that students can be inadvertently inspired try their hand at free-lance consulting—something they've witnessed go over well when I do it—only to have the group push back when they do it. It can be an awkward lesson. The key here is not simply that I'm a professional and they're not (at least not yet), but that I was asked for my opinion and they weren't.
Good facilitation can look like many things. It can be very quiet and hands off—for example, when you have a focused, disciplined group of consensus veterans. At other times, when the group wanders all over the place, when participants are prone to repetition, or when there's considerable volatility in play, the facilitator may have to work hard to keep the group on track and in a constructive zone. The point is that the facilitator needs to be able to match styles and degree of being directive to the needs of that meeting, not with some idealized picture if what facilitators should be.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Back in the late '90s a friend of mine (Marni Rachmiel) recommended a book to me, Siting in the Fire, by Arnie Mindell. It was one of those moments that happen perhaps half a dozen times in one's life, when you come across the right book at the right time.
Apropos my career as group facilitator, this book examined the dynamics of conflict, especially from a non-rational perspective (Mindell is a psychotherapist) and through the lens of rank and privilege in multicultural settings. The single most powerful concept in the book, for me, was the importance of focusing on Relationship when working conflict, rather than on Truth (I've chosen to capitalize these terms because Mindell does in his book, to underscore their power as prime directives).
This past Sunday I was hired to spend an afternoon with the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia MO to offer my thinking about how to work constructively with conflict, and the interplay of Truth and Relationship figured prominently in my presentation. I had about 40 people in the room, out of a total congregation of around 200.
In his book, Mindell's point was that in a conflicted dynamic there is an overwhelming tendency for protagonists to be focused principally on their Truth, and selling it (or at least exclaiming it) to everyone else—often to the point of losing sight of how the expression of that Truth can come at the expense of Relationship. It's not that people are anti-relationship; it's that their identity or integrity are tied up with their story about what happened and why their actions or positions are reasonable and until that's recognized, it can be damn hard to ask them to care about other people's Truths, or to reflect on how their advocacy for their story (which they perceive as the actual Truth) tends to come across as a steamroller, quashing any story that's different in particulars, or even in emphasis.
I have found this to be a powerful tool in unpacking conflicted dynamics. For one thing, it's important for players to appreciate that there are almost always multiple Truths in play in a conflict, and that it's essential to create room for all of them to be expressed (to the point where the speaker feels understood) as a prelude to problem solving. If the examination devolves into a battle for the Truth, you're in for a long day that's not likely to end productively.
When I'm facilitating conflict, I start be simply aiming to see that everyone gets their story out, which expressly includes naming any strong feelings that accompany it. To be clear, this objective is not necessarily easy, mainly because of conflicting "facts" and emotional volatility (which tends to degrade the concision and cogency of the narrative), but I can usually get there.
At the conclusion of that introductory phase I'll take some time to point out differences and to point out similarities, but I resist the urge to try to sort out what really happened, by assuming that everyone acted with good intentions from their Truth, and that's all we need to grok in order to proceed in good faith to working on the question of where do we go from here.
One of the keys to successfully navigating the introductory storytelling phase is that if a person is incredulous as to why someone said or did a thing, you can be sure that that person doesn't have enough information. What people mostly do in that situation is get incensed and then proceed to assign bad intent to the doer to explain their motivation—which may do a fine job of expressing outrage, but rarely leads to good things. To be clear, I'm not saying that the doer did a wise thing; only that they'll have a story about how they saw things that does not involve evil intent and that it behooves all the players in a conflict to find out what that is (at least if they value Relationship at all).
It's important to point out that I'm not trying to make the case that all truth is relative (in the eye of the beholder) and therefore doesn't matter. Rather, I'm saying that if you want to successfully navigate the fens of conflict that you're far better off relying on Relationship as your lode star, and negotiating Truth. Doing it in the reverse order (insisting on a fight to the death over Truth and then seeing if the Relationship among combatants can survive the battle scars) is very expensive.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
Today is the start of a five-week road trip that will include work in three time zones and visits to my kids, grandkids, and granddogs in the fourth. Fortunately—given the tenacity of winter this year—all of my stops are in the southern half of the US. That means I'm packing shorts, even with snow lingering in the ditches. Think of it as an act of faith. Eventually it will get warm again. (I know it's time to leave because I just drained the final drops from my last quart of half-and-half in this morning's coffee.)
While five weeks is a long stretch (I'm leaving just as we started tapping maple trees and will return to forsythia in bloom), it's at the high end of normal. I'll typically have a couple of monster trips like that each year, and this sojourn will encompass many of the things that claim attention in my life:
o Schmooze for an evening with an enclave of friends and ex-East Winders
o Give a workshop (on conflict, to a church congregation)
o Enjoy two days of retreat and renewal with my wife
o Visit with an old community friend (who lives in a new location)
o Have dinner with a long-time acquaintance who has designed and developed a couple of communities
o Facilitate a community retreat
o Discuss with an entrepreneurial buddy an idea for a community business
o Rendezvous with a developer to explore the challenges of building successful community (it's more than just green houses and good design)
o Spend a few days with an ex-partner and dear friend
o Conduct a facilitation training weekend
o Facilitate another community retreat
o Visit with yet another long-time community friend
o Spend several days with my daughter and son-in-law
o Meet with someone trying to put together sustainability demonstration projects internationally
o Visit with my son and grandchildren (in his new location)
o Get together with someone interested in helping me market my consulting and teaching
o Discuss with several people how they can help FIC build its new Green Office
o Travel overnight on the train seven times
About the only thing missing from this kitchen sink itinerary is a community event—of which I have five lined up for 2014 (so far), just not any on this trip.
The tricky part will be protecting enough time between work assignments to complete my reports from the prior weekend before my RAM gets overwritten by what happens in the succeeding weekend. It can be a tight choreography.
On this trip I get to start in the pulpit (giving a 10-minute promotional homily to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia MO during their Sunday service) and will end by walking the Santa Monica Beach with my grandchilden in southern California. At the front end I'll have special time with Ma'ikwe; in the middle I'll get to work with Ma'ikwe; at the end I get to come home to Ma'ikwe.
To be sure, I have an unusual life, but it's my life, and I love it.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
In the past year I had the opportunity to attend an intentional community retreat where the group started off with half a day of check-ins, going slowly around the circle giving everyone four minutes to share how the last year had been for them. As the group had a population north of 50 (in quantity, not age), there was a lot to absorb.
When listening to close friends, you pretty much already knew what they were going to say, but there was a lot of filling in the blanks when the speaker was someone whose life was not so intertwined with yours. As an emotional snapshot of the community it provided a valuable once-a-year glimpse of the whole. As might be expected, the gamut was large—everything from outright misery to bubbling over with joy.
But the thing that stood out most for me, as an experienced observer of cooperative group dynamics, was that the people filling leadership roles were overwhelmingly reporting overwhelm. Uh oh.
While this manifested differently for different leaders, there were themes:
—Feeling inadequate in the role
A number of people agreed to take on a leadership position as part of a team and then felt swamped by the volume and intensity of the workload. Recognizing that they weren't pulling their weight, they felt guilt and shame. There was also some deer-in-the-headlights dynamics where the people in over their heads reported a tendency to go stupid in team meetings (which didn't encourage them to do it more).
—Trying to keep too many balls in the air
Some leaders seemed fine with individual roles; there were just too many of them and they were falling behind. While the people in this category mostly knew that they were overfilling their plate at the time they said "yes," they did it anyway because they were asked and felt a strong sense of civic duty. This phenomenon is not so much about a person feeling that they alone can fill a role well, as that someone needs to step forward and their agreeing to it eases pressure on others. (The poignancy in this is that it's an example of caring for the group in a way that undercuts self care—read not sustainable.)
—Accepting roles that are needed but not enjoyable because no one else will do them
While similar to the previous point, in this dynamic the person knows going in that the work will be a slog—not because of an oversubscribed dance card, but because the work itself isn't that appealing. This is taking a hit for the team, generally to avoid: a) hiring outside (both to save money and because of the perception that an inside person will better understand group culture, group politics, and interpersonal nuance); b) asking someone else (who is either less willing or less able) to do it instead; or c) doing without.
While playing the Little Dutch Boy can be a form of heroism, it can also lead to martyrdom (not to mention dyspepsia).
—Reporting tension because of a personal investment in the way things are done
One of the things that upped the ante in this particular group was the fact that it had been working hard in recent years to figure out a better way to make decisions and had invested a lot of time in a new organizational structure. Not surprisingly, everything didn't run like a gazelle right out of the gate and the architects of the new system reported anxiety about shortcomings after all that investment. Kind of like watching your teenage prodigy double fault on her opening serve at Wimbledon after all those years of tennis lessons.
—Anguishing over the schizophrenia of being in authority over peers
Even when the group is crystal clear that it wants to delegate responsibility to individuals to manage certain functions in service to the group—to the point of hiring them to do the job—that doesn't mean that everyone will relate to this role in the same way. The ambiguity is not so much about unclear job descriptions as it is about some people resisting being overseen (I don't need you looking over my shoulder or asking a bunch of nuisance questions) while others were embracing it fully (Just tell me what to do). In addition to the trickiness of navigating such mixed signals, some managers were additionally reporting that other members were simply not responding to their inquiries—all of which added up to managers feeling exposed and unsupported. Oy vey.
The good news is that it's consistently in our sights. The bad news is that it's not yet consistently in our homes.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
At breakfast today someone asked me how I learned, as a facilitator, to be able to pull out the essence of a conversation. As I reflected on that, I wasn't sure. While I know it's something I can do, and something I can describe in detail (see below), I'm not at all clear how I got there.
I teach facilitation in cooperative groups. While the curriculum covers many things, the day in and day out skill is working conversations productively. (One of the more dramatic and critical skills is dealing effectively and sensitively with emotional meltdowns, yet that’s only a tiny fraction of your time on duty.) If you think of conversations as onions, let me peel back the layers...