Sunday, April 29, 2012

Having a Good Time Playing at a Consensus Workshop

I've been a process consultant for 25 years now. My first gig was back in December 1987, working as an outside facilitator alongside Lysbeth Borie from Alpha Farm assisting Appletree, a fledgling income-sharing group outside Cottage Grove OR that's no longer extant (they slid below the waves in the early 90s).

From that tentative start, I've slowly built up my consulting business to where I do 15-20 jobs a year—ranging from workshops and trainings to crisis management, which includes mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, expulsion hearings, and soft landings for groups trying to split up (without tearing each other apart).

Throughout, the two bread and butter services that I'm asked to provide most frequently are consensus training and outside facilitation. I spent yesterday doing both for a collection of 19 brave souls who chose to spend a nice spring Saturday with me at the Raleigh Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke VA. It was a lot of fun.

I had six hours for the workshop, which is incredibly spacious when contrasted with the much more spartan 90 minutes I typically have to shoehorn my delivery into. My audience had a nice range: one woman had spent the last five years as part of a Quaker meeting; six came as part of a forming cohousing group in Floyd VA (Jubilee) that had committed to using consensus as their decision-making process (and had gotten far enough along to realize that was a good idea to learn how to do it); one guy was hoping it would help him figure out how to have more meaningful conversations with his seven adult daughters (two of whom were in the room); a few were connected with local peace and conflict resolution centers, hoping to expand upon their skill set; one was a minister curious about the ways that he might develop a more robust sense of community among his congregation; and one young man in his 20s was there because his mother had suggested it and he couldn't say no (she was sitting right next to him). In short it was an eclectic, more-or-less average group.

During the morning I was able to cover the highlights of consensus theory, with ample room to explore interesting side inlets as they opened up along our way traveling down the main channel of my presentation. There was also enough breathing room to tell illuminating stories that reinforce the theory (or showcase my aha! experiences en route to consensus enlightenment).

After an hour-long lunch break (where yummy locally-produced food was brought in), we shifted in the afternoon to test driving my theories. Participants were encouraged to name tricky group dynamics to see how they might play out using consensus.

The afternoon flew by as way sampled a smörgåsbord of group issues. Along the way, the group got to see:

o  How tricky it is to respond to distress with curiosity (instead of reactivity).

o  A demonstration of translation: being able to restate what Person A says into language that Person B can hear better (with less reaction) while still conveying the essence of what Person A intended.

o  The importance of a group being clear about the expectations of members providing a known channel for receiving feedback to each other about their behavior as a member of the group, and being able to recognize when interactions that would normally be seen as private drift across the line into having an impact on the group. (The issue here was a forming group that two women both wanted to join—but not if the other was a member. The group was too new to have any agreements in place about how to handle interpersonal tensions. As if that's not complicated enough, dynamics were further compounded by the fact this was a peace group. Uh oh.)

o  How to work a thorny issue (whether or not to have restrictions on outdoor cats in a residential community) by giving two people with tense energy a lot of air time (rather than just their proportionate share), so long as neither is stuck and they're moving toward common ground. The idea here is that sometimes it's more efficient to give outliers a greater focus under the notion that if you can find something that will work for them, the rest of the group is likely to go along. While demonstrable unequal, it can be surprisingly effective.

o  The value of a facilitator who can maintain an open and connecting attitude to all statements. We worked the topic of whether to allow musical instrumentation other than an organ in church services. We discussed whether other instruments were somehow less spiritual (by virtue of being less traditional), whether it made a difference if the other instruments were acoustic or electric, whether the congregation could afford it, and the potential impact of attracting younger and/or more culturally diverse members by embracing instrumentation that was more appealing to those under-represented segments of the population. They were inspired by how I could weave together all the threads of that conversation in one summary, honoring everyone's input.

At the and of the day, I got a bucketful of positive comments:
o  Can see clearly how skilled facilitation can make a large difference to the tone and productivity of a conversation
o  The day was done without Power Point (or any electrics)
o  Interactive and inspiring
o  The interactive role plays worked wonderfully after lunch to counteractive the near-universal desire for a nap
o  Was able to apply the principles to a variety of real issues
o  Laird's enthusiasm and passion for this work
o  The material inspired one participant to reevaluate their life (not just their meeting behavior)
o  Ability to manage workshop time well (protecting breaks and ending times)
o  There was plenty of room for questions
o  Introduction to working emotionally
o  Use of brass bells to call people back to their seats after a break (much nicer than shouting)
o  Humor and up-tempo energy
o  Stories that illuminated the theory
o  Accessibility of the information
o  We want more!

On the the other side of the ledger, people mentioned that:
o  I could have done a made more room to hear from those who were more quiet and less assertive
o  The amount of information was overwhelming
• • •
My favorite moment of the day was right before lunch when someone asked how to work with feelings in consensus, and I gave a five-minute overview (condensed radically from a multi-hour presentation) of the importance of being able to connect with a person's feelings as an essential first step if that person is reporting non-trivial distress (yes, there's nuance to knowing whether distress is "non-trivial" but I was just driving down the middle of the road).

At this point there was a woman in the circle who started wiggling in her seat. When I paused and asked her what was going on, she leaned toward her husband (sitting two seats away), waved her hands excitedly, and blurted out, "Did you hear that, honey?"

With any luck, I'll get some takers for the next round of my two-year facilitation training that will start in Pittsboro NC this coming Sept. If you're interested, contact the coordinator, Maria Stawksy:

1 comment:

Jubilee! Floyd Cohousing said...

Laird, it was a really good day spent with you and all those radical ideas of yours! Thanks for all the time and attention put in to precicely the workshop you have outlined above. Wrote about it on our blog too.