Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Group Works: Honor Each Person

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 sixth pattern in this segment is labeled Honor Each Person. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Respect each person's essential human dignity. View others' unique beliefs, approaches and concerns as a resource for group wisdom. Tolerate and even embrace idiosyncrasies, knowing that each person brings their gifts to the whole more fully when affirmed and appreciated.

This is a rich and subtle pattern. On the one hand, it's obvious. Who would speak against honoring each person (or in favor of purposefully dishonoring others)? 

Yet we are largely unaware of custom, of the water we swim in—unless we're swimming in someone else's pond, such as when we travel abroad. For the most part custom becomes an unnoticed backdrop that rises to our consciousness only when something is different. And the more different, the more we notice. When you take into account that most of us have been deeply conditioned in an individualistic culture, where identity is tied to the sense in which we are unique (rather than in a cooperative culture where we celebrate the ways in which we are similar), then difference tends to be strongly associated with distance. People who are different tend to become "other."

We may feel threatened by customs that are different than our own. We may feel confused. We may feel unwelcome.

Worse, styles may clash. A person who grew up in a blue collar family where mom and dad shouted and occasionally threw crockery when upset may behave in a way that feels overwhelmingly unsafe to a person whose family never raised their voice at the dinner table and only one person spoke at a time. Words and phrases that are precise and comfortable for a well-educated person may come across as unintelligible and manipulative to someone who barely finished 8th grade. Swear words are straight-talking to some; blasphemous to others.

In short, it's complicated. The trick, of course, is to focus on what's in the package, not on the wrapping.

The simple version of this is doing the work to not be triggered by the package (which includes dress, diction, skin color, emotional affect, physical disability, adornment, disfigurement, word choice, facial expressions, etc.), or at least to manage one's reactions. Yet this pattern runs deeper. It is not enough that you can parrot the words (or even the delivery); the object is to get what it feels like to be the other person; to see the dynamic through their eyes and their being. That is the deeper meaning of "honoring." It is much more than sharing the microphone.

Note the final portion of the text for this pattern: "... each person brings their gifts to the whole more fully when affirmed and appreciated."

The point here is that you will often not get what you might have gotten if you handle the opening poorly. Simply put, when people don't feel honored (or welcome) by their standards, they are far less likely to share what they have to give. If when they speak the audience stares back glassy eyed or checks their watches, it's not reasonable to expect them to pour their hearts out. 

In truly parochial settings, non-regulars can get labeled uncommunicative and surly for not sharing, yet the regulars may be altogether clueless about how unwelcoming they were. The newcomers experience no warmth or genuine interest in who they are or what they bring; the regulars experience boorish guests with off-putting habits, odd diction, and obscure reflections. It's a train wreck.

Does this mean you need to learn every culture's customs? No, but you can remember to ask a person what their customs of greeting are—rather than assume they'll be knowledgeable and comfortable with yours. 

When playing at home, the hallmark of honoring behavior is to be more curious than conforming; more accepting than judging. At an away game, it tends to work better if you watch and listen ahead of acting and speaking—the better to get a sense of local custom, before you inadvertently put your foot in something you'd rather you didn't… such as your mouth.

No comments: