Friday, September 17, 2010

How a Commitment to Clearness Can Inadvertently Lead to Fog

I just got this inquiry about group dynamics from a friend:

I have a format question for you. I'm part of a couple cooperative enterprises, and we've been doing something we call "clearnesses," which proceed as follows: First, we do a Go Round where people have the opportunity to share generally and personally about their experience being part of the group and the business. Second, each person takes a turn on the "hot seat," with every other person in the group getting a chance to share any withholds, to give feedback, etc.

In the second part, there's a chance for response and some dialog, but the emphasis is on just hearing the feedback (clearing up miscommunications and misunderstandings as necessary). What it definitely doesn't allow for is group conversation.

Recently one of our members expressed a desire for that. She wanted a chance for us to engage in a more dynamic way to identify group issues or talk about instances where one person's behavior might be affecting multiple people in the group. Do you have any ideas for formats or exercises that would deal with that sort of stuff more directly?

For a little more background, each business has 6 people, and there's an overlap of 3 people in each. We're pretty tight and there's a lot of trust. While we don't generally have a problem addressing things with each other on an as-needed basis, the clearnesses have been great for making sure everything's coming out and going a little deeper.

I'm a great fan of continuing any practice that's working well. So if clearnesses have been getting the job done, I'll happily toast clearnesses. However, since there are at least some niggles about how a good thing can be made better (why else would you have written?), here are my thoughts...

The way I sort this out is by first checking to see whether anyone is experiencing distress sufficient to interfere with hearing accurately or working in present time with the information. This could be on the part of the giver and/or the receiver of the feedback. If that's in play then that needs to be attended to prior to any problem solving.

In my experience, where a group is not that skilled or confident in its ability to handle a volatile situation well, then there's a tendency to reach for structure to protect the moment (not allowing people to respond once they've received criticism is an example of such structure). Another way I've seen this play out is for people to use check-ins for launching criticism, where cross-talk is not allowed. I don't think this is a good approach because the distress doesn't go away just because there's no immediate avenue for expressing it.

Best, in my view, is to have a solid understanding about how you'll handle upset as a group, which includes how you'll unpack it and what flexibility individuals have around the format or timing of working on it. Once your group has established its ability to work constructively through non-trivial distress, then you're likely safe to explore a variety of formats.

The prize here is not consistency of format; it's consistently communicating critical information without eroding relationship.

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