Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Group Works: Tend Relationships

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 Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The keystone pattern in this segment is labeled Tend Relationships, so that's where I'll begin. Here is the image and text from that card:

We take care of each other to reach the goals we are striving—to get there in one piece, together. Balancing a focus on task and product with nurturing relations between people sustains organizations and movements for the long haul.

This is an important pattern. At the very heart of cooperative living is getting stuff done in such a way that relationships are enhanced—rather than something that's on hold while you "work." Some people conduct their lives as if work and relationships are in two separate compartments: they work 9-5, M-F and then enjoying relationships in the evenings or on weekends (after the dishes are done and the kids have been put to bed). In cooperative culture we're trying to weave relationships into the very fabric of everyday life.

At their best, healthy, robust relationships should be an asset in group dynamics—not because it leads to uniform thinking and low conflict, but because it provides leverage on problem solving. To be clear, I'm talking about how relationships can play an important. active role in problem solving, not settling merely for the hope that relationships can sustain the strain of disagreement.

There is a prevalent notion among cooperative groups that there's dynamic tension between "product people" and "process people," which supports the concept that meetings are a zero-sum game between these two orientations, where focus on one comes at the expense of the other. This dichotomy is pernicious and unhelpful. Groups function best when they pay attention to both product and process, rather than battling over which will prevail at any given moment.

My idea (and the spirit, I believe, that undergirds this pattern) is that product—work on clarifying and resolving issues of group import—is more surely and comprehensively done when group members open their hearts as well as their minds, and weigh energy and feelings as well as facts and opinions. In fact, I think it's more efficient. Though the initial meeting may take longer, work done with concordant energy rarely comes back to bite you in the butt. Work done without regard to energy is often brittle and tends to result in pockets of disgruntlement, where individuals feel steamrolled or blown off. Cleaning up the blow back makes a mockery of any claims from those who rave about how efficiently the group reached a decision.

Going the other way, group work is not all white light and good juju. Sure there are moments when the energy and heart connection are transcendent, but one of the main reasons to focus on the flow is that after you have resolved any "disturbances in the Force," you are well positioned to get into creative problem solving. If you are protecting the purity of a heart moment by resisting the suggestion to "contaminate" it with a plenary discussion about how to get the dishes done after Sunday potluck, or what to do about dog shit accumulating on the sidewalks, you're missing the chance to get heart and mind pulling in tandem.

The interesting case is when people disagree on significant matters. Does the group lean into relationships in those moments, or away from them? Even if you buy the theory of what I'm saying, how do you actually do this blending of content-laden apples with energy-infused oranges?

While there's not one right answer, I'd say the key is tracking the energy sufficiently to know (sense?) when you need to pause and make sure someone hasn't fallen off the hay wagon. Unaligned energy can manifest in myriad ways (it's not always high drama):
o  Confusion
o  Reactivity
o  Overwhelm
o  Sense of threat
o  Zone out
o  Nervousness
o  Uncertainty
o  Vague discomfort
o  Inappropriate humor

While it's not always right to stop the conversation to check out what's going on for someone displaying any of the above symptoms. it's sometimes right. In groups that Tend Relationships well, there is permission to do this and members develop a sense for the right times and the right ways to go about it, thus balancing the emerging needs of the individual with—not instead of—the care and feeding of the group.

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