Thursday, December 17, 2009

Strangers at the Table

Ma'ikwe and I are visiting Hummingbird Ranch, a beautifully sited community tucked into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside of Mora NM. Fortunately, the weather has been benign enough to all us access to (and hopefully tomorrow, egress from) their winding entrance road.

A year and a half ago, the Fellowship for Intentional Community held its spring organizational meetings at Hummingbird, and part of the deal we made in exchange for hosting was that I offer some process consulting. (Barter of this kind is a standard offering we make when searching for a meeting site, and it works out well—simultaneously keeping our costs down and deepening connections with the host.) While it took a while to arrange a good time for me to honor the process commitment, Ma'ikwe and I are making good on that right now.

The community asked for a Consensus training, so that they could better understand how that compares with the Attuned Alignment decision-making process that they've pioneered (for more information about that, check out their publication, The Co-Creator's Handbook), and in yesterday's session we got into an interesting side conversation about integrating new members. In particular, at what point does it make sense to invite new people to participate in community deliberations? I think that's a great question.

At my community, Sandhill Farm, we typically invite prospective members—even visitors—to attend community meetings, as it's a terrific way for them to get deep insights into the group's dynamics and for us to assess how savvy they are about communication and how we solve problems. We observe how much they speak, how much their comments are apropos, and discuss with them afterward what they observed and what their impressions were. The new people are generally flattered to have been allowed to sit in, and the information we get about their experience has proven to be an excellent predictor to who's likely to be a good fit if they wan t to pursue membership. On top of that, we've rarely had a problem with people inserting themselves inappropriately into our deliberations to the point where it's seriously getting in the way.

That said, there is a legitimate concern that untrained or uninitiated folks can disrupt the flow or sense of safety in a meeting, especially if the group's discussing difficult or sensitive topics. As such, at Sandhill we reserve the right to call a closed, members-only meeting. Though we invoke this only rarely, we make it clear to new folks that this is a possibility, and occasionally some members are relieved to make that choice (most commonly when we're discussing critical feedback about someone in the community and are unsure how best to proceed—it often feels more constructive to keep the circulation of such information to a minimum, while committing to provide all parties who have been excluded from the meeting with a summary of what was discussed).

In the case of Hummingbird, they have many visitors and some members have grown weary of new people taking up valuable plenary time with naive suggestions or requests to be filled in about what they alone don't know. As this can be a real concern, I offered two possible ways to cope with this short of banning non-members from meetings:

First, you can ask the new folks to observe only. You might give them a chance to share how they experienced the meeting during the time for evaluation at the end, or you might assign an established member the job of discussing with the new people how it went in a one-on-one conversation after the fact.

Second, if you're willing to be more expansive, you might allow the new folks to participate, with three caveats: a) that they do their best to be respectful of the group and to take into account that they may not know sufficient background on a topic to contribute constructively; b) that they will not be allowed to block a proposal; and c) that the group reserves the right to not spend plenary time trying to catch the new person up on what they don't understand.

Essentially, this becomes a choice of whether it's more challenging to have the rhythm and safety of the meeting be at risk (by allowing the new people to participate), or more problematic to have the new people complain about being excluded by a group that claims it's committed to diversity and inclusivity. Pick your poison.

In the end, I think the best you can do is to explain to new people at the outset why the group has a policy that allows exclusion, the conditions under which that right might be invoked, and the pathway by which the new person can earn the right to fully participate. If the group does all this, and also commits to reaching out to the new person and listening to what their experience was like (of having limited rights to participate in the meeting), then I think you have a good chance of coming through this with minimal hard feelings.

No comments: