Monday, June 3, 2013

Group Works: Aesthetics of Place

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:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Context segment there are eight cards. The second pattern in this segment is labeled Aesthetics of Place. Here is the image and text from that card:

Gathering places that are beautiful, comfortable, functional, and creatively designed to serve the purpose of the meeting call forth participants' best life energy to contribute. Thoughtfully arrange the space and decor to inspire, focus, and sustain the group's work.

Meetings and conversations occur in a place. While that place may increasingly be virtual, or electronic—and thus exists only in our imaginations, or in distinct places for different participants—each individual is always someplace, and that place has an impact on how we interact with one another. That is, even when we are on the phone or instant messaging, we are influenced (perhaps subtly) by what’s in our field of vision and the ambience around us. (A phone call near a departure gate at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport will be quite different than one conducted from an easy chair in your bedroom.)

Mostly meetings and conversations happen live (or we evoke memories of live meetings to fill in the blanks) and so I want to concentrate my thoughts on that dynamic. Understanding the impact of environment is complex.

Ability to Focus Attention
People vary considerably in how well they can concentrate and block out what’s happening around them that is not relevant to the matter at hand.

I think, for example, that one of the things I most value from my college education was the ability to not let ambient audio stimulation distract me. When I was tired and ready for bed, I did not need to ask my dorm mates, or even my roommate to dial it down. At school, our TLA (three letter acronym) for this ability was styled SRP—selective reality participation—which was most commonly applied to the phenomenon where you’d consistently miss hearing a request from your mother to mow the lawn, stated directly in a normal tone of voice, yet would pick up right away when someone mentioned casually in a side conversation across the room that ice cream was about to be served. We’re filtering for what we want to hear all the time.

I’m not talking about selective deafness so much as the ability to focus one’s attention consciously. Partly this is tracking conversations well, while tuning out airplanes roaring overhead, or noise ambient car traffic intruding through an open window on a warm day. Partly it’s tracking one conversation happening in the midst of many, as at a cocktail party, or in a crowded restaurant. (When I’m in a car and trying to follow a sporting event on the radio, fellow travelers can find disconcerting my ability to follow the announcer’s call of the game despite other conversations in the car and increasing static from a fading signal.

Partly this is a cultivated capacity for controlling one’s attention, and not drifting into internal dialog or wool gathering. A lot of my skill as a professional facilitator is as simple as being able to pay attention better than most people, which includes not being distracted by place or imperfect conditions.

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder
Even if two people are equally affected by aesthetics, it’s unlikely that they would have identical standards for what was pleasing, what was irritating; what was soothing, what was provocative.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean you should just throw up your hands. Where there is a basic agreement that aesthetics matter, there are tendencies that you can make use of:

—You can select a setting and time of day that are conducive to the kind of engagement you’re seeking (a softly lit, evening session in a cozy space with a variety of comfortable seating options for heart sharing; a brightly lit, well-ventilated space with easy sight lines to an easel or chalkboard for a morning session devoted to creative problem solving).

—There will also be associations that are peculiar to the group or to key members of the group (if you were on the Gryffindor Quidditch squad you’d be ill-advised to hold a pep rally in a hall bedecked with the green and silver tapestries favored by Slytherin). If there is a particular trauma associated with the meeting place you’ll be using, perhaps something needs to be done to cleanse the space (smudging?) to dispel the bad juju (being mindful, of course, how ritual attention to psychic energy might itself be triggering to others in the group!).

—If there are members with bad backs, compromised hearing, or weak bladders, what kind of seating works better for them? These things matter, even if they’re operating below the horizon of consciousness.

—(Room) size matters. People (and the interactions among them) are affected by the relationship of space to numbers. If the room feels crowded it creates tension that translates into a lower threshold for irritation. If it’s too large, the energy tends to dissipate and it’s subtly harder to create and maintain focus. What’s more, this is not simply a matter of volume. A low ceiling (in an otherwise well-proportioned space) will feel oppressive; a high ceiling will allow energy to escape even if the walls work to contain it. Stodgy furniture leads to stodgy comments.

Know What You Don’t Know
Room arrangement is an art form. (There’s a reason that feng shui has cachet.) If you have responsibility for setting up a good meeting, yet don’t feel skilled in this aspect of prep—you can be "room blind" in the same way that some are color blind—you can at least learn to ask for help. You can remember that it’s a factor to take into account and find those in your group who are good at it to extend themselves on the meeting's behalf.

Being a good facilitator is not so much knowing how to do everything well yourself, as it is knowing everything that needs to be taken care of, making sure that all aspects are covered, and that all the folks with process responsibilities know how to play well with one another.

No comments: