Sunday, March 3, 2013

Proxies & Pricklies & Pixies (oh my!)

This morning I want to muse about a trio of consensus meeting phenomena that share a lot of letters but not much else. (I've always had a soft spot for alliteration—which, if you're a habitué of this blog, you already knew.)

One of the prime challenges with consensus is how to embrace the principle of inclusivity and still have a functional system of governance. While this doesn't tend to be a serious issue in small groups (say, six to eight members), it's an increasing concern as the numbers expand. In groups of 40-50 the group may never have a meeting where everyone is in the room at the same time—not because people don't care (though low morale can be a real issue, that's not what I'm addressing today), but because of all the normal claims on our busy lives:
o  out-of-town business trips
o  vacation
o  out-of-town visitors (it may be more politic to take your mother-in-law to lunch than invite her to attend a community meeting with you)
o  sickness
o  double booking (your daughter's once-a-year ballerina recital happens to fall at the same time as the community meeting; or there's a church function you don't want to miss)
o  taking care of small children 
o  the Dead are in town

So how do you balance the rights of all members to have a voice in group decisions while not being hamstrung by people missing meetings?

A common way this is handled in democratic processes is through proxies, giving your voice (or, in the case of majority rule, your vote) to someone else who will attend the meeting. In consensus, however, proxies are not a good solution.

The good side of proxies is that it's a protected way for the missing person to have their views brought into play. However, there are other ways to accomplish that laudable goal—such as having a conversation with someone who is sympathetic to your position and willing to commit to making sure that it's articulated in the meeting; or writing a note that lines out your views and disseminating it to the group ahead of time.

The flavor of a proxy is that the group is obliged to satisfy your concerns in order to gain your approbation, yet you won't be there to acknowledge whether or not that's happened, and it's not fair to ask your proxy to anticipate what your response will be. Since you need to resolve all principled objections in order to achieve a decision by consensus, it's possible for proxies to seriously constrict problem solving if they are permitted.

People need to be ready to actively—and creatively—work to find the best solution, and that's not compatible with the "dead hand" of proxies, where the people they are attached to are incapable of interacting with the rest of the group in the live meeting.

By extension, I also don't favor allowing people to block in absentia, because blockers have an obligation to make a good faith effort to resolve their concerns and that can't happen if they're not in the room. If you feel strongly enough about an issue that you're willing to stand in the way of certain things happening, then you have an obligation to let others know that that's brewing at your earliest convenience, and to make every effort to attend the meeting at which the issue will be examined. Going the other way, the group needs to try hard to find a meeting date that can work for you.

Note that for all of this to function well it's necessary that: a) draft agendas be posted far enough ahead of scheduled meetings (so people know when a hot topic is coming up); and b) that there be good enough minutes that members can make reasonable assessments about how important it is that they attend the next meeting on a given topic, or otherwise have an opportunity to see that their input gets considered.

For more on the subject of members missing meetings, see my blogs of:
—June 16, 2010, Working with Ghosts
—June 26, 2009, Status Quorum 
— Feb 7, 2008, The Pitfalls of Proposals from Meetings People Miss
For consensus to work well you need both a foundation of common values (so you know why you're willing to labor with someone to get through a rough patch) and a sense of ease with one another. The latter is needed to bolster confidence that you'll find mutually acceptable solutions when viewpoints don't easily align, and that solutions won't come at an exorbitant price.

If you have someone in the group who is readily triggered or contrarian by nature it's like sand in the gears, constantly gumming up progress and irritating others. It can make meetings exhausting and undercuts enthusiasm for joint work. This can effectively kill a group that is otherwise well-aligned on values and purpose.

With this in mind, I suggest screening members for an acceptable level of:

a) Emotional awareness and maturity.

b) Tolerance. If people can handle only narrow deviation from their ideal, you'll be grappling with theirs fears and anxieties on a constant basis. Yuck.

c) Communication skills, such as ability to: listen well; articulate clearly what they're thinking and feeling (which are quite different abilities); shift perspectives, such that they can see how things look to others; handle critical feedback without flipping out.

To be sure, all of these criteria are subjective and not easy to quantify. Still, just making them explicit will likely increase awareness and give your group a chance to identify early prickly member warning signals before you accept them into the fold, where you'll be obliged to work with them.

Having said all that, I also have two concluding caveats about prickliness: 

Shit Happens
Expecting everyone to be happy and nonreactive all the time is an impossible standard. Healthy people will have bad days and will occasionally be serious triggered no matter how well-adjusted they are. There needs to room for this to happen now and then without immediately regretting the decision to be in the same group together, or slapping a Drama Queen dunce cap on the emotive person's head.

Avoidance Happens
In the instance of a person who comes across as habitually prickly (as opposed to occasionally) there is the possibility that they are the canary in the coal mine, rather than the fly in the ointment. That is, the irritating person may be a lightning rod for unaddressed tensions in the group and their "acting out" may be a signal that the group has work to do, rather than Mr Grumpy needs remedial attention on their social skills.

Perhaps the most confusing dynamic is where both need attention, which is something I encounter from time to time as a professional facilitator, and can be delicate to unpack.

Moving on to Door #3, there is a personality that occurs in some groups that is sprite-like and fun-loving. At times this is delicious and leavening. Other times it can be sophomoric and distracting, even disrespectful and undermining. There is definitely a place for lightening the energy (think of it as sprinkling fairy dust on the group), yet it is not every place and timing can be everything. 

Mind you, I am not defending dark and heavy; I'm only saying that sometimes pixie energy surfaces in response to dynamic tension and can be more an expression of the individual's need for release (or even the pixie's unhealthy need for attention) than the group's. Dynamic tension can manifest in logjammed energy (where the strategic topical application of pixie dust can be just the ticket) or show up in productive foment (where diffusing comments from the class clown are a nuisance and essentailly a misread of the energy).
Making the waters even muddier, there is a also a woo flavor to this such that you can pretty well count on people having varied responses to the second coming of Tinker Bell in a meeting—anything from eyeball rolling and disdain (Are you for real?), to spontaneous singing and dancing (I can fly!). In short, pixie is tricksy (to borrow from Gollum).

Unless the group is expressly fond of fairy energy—and there are such groups—I suggest going light on the pixie dust, reserving its use for the occasional surprise and whimsical change of pace. A steady diet of the stuff tends to dull the appetite and promote dyspepsia.

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