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:
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The seventh pattern in this segment is labeled Hosting. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:
This is about the container and ambiance of the meeting: the room, the seating, the lighting, the nourishment, the air quality, the formality (or casualness) of dress, the ritual that marks the opening and ending of each session... Much of what's comfortable or off-putting about this operates below the level of consciousness—yet is no less powerful, as possibilities ride in the channels of context.
Of course, this gets complicated when the participants come from multiple cultures, as each has its own familiarity and rhythm, and what is easeful for one may be awkward or even irritating for another.
Some of this is rather straight forward: you don't serve Orthodox Jews barbecued pork, and it wouldn't be a good idea to open the annual meeting of the Atheists Association with five minutes of prayer. Yet some of this is more subtle.
Consider, for example, how family of origin influences what's comfortable. The default mode for meeting culture in North America follows what I label Northern European culture (think German, English, Scandinavian). This style is characterized by one person talking at a time in well modulated voices; there is space between statements.
Contrast this with Southern European culture (Italians, Spanish, Jewish, African American) where there is much more passion and the pace is quicker. People talk on top of each other and use more hand gestures. "Normal" engagement in Southern European culture translates to out of control upset in Northern European culture. Asking Southern Europeans to conduct themselves according to Northern European etiquette is excruciatingly stilted and flat.
It's not that anyone is striving to make participants uncomfortable; it's that we're often unmindful of what makes others comfortable or uncomfortable. Worse, there's a tendency to be oblivious to things when things are going smoothly for us, and we may miss clues about discomfort in others. (Thus, if you find the room too cool, you're much more apt to be sensitive to whether others are doing OK with the temperature. If you're doing fine yourself, you may not notice the room temperature at all.)
Let me give you a poignant example. Several years ago I began a two-year facilitation training and the host for the first weekend was an intentional community—which is almost always the case because they can economically absorb the out-of-town housing with spare bedrooms and couches.
As it happened there were about 15 students in the class and all were from intentional communities except one woman. She was facing the double whammy of trying to acclimate to the intensity of the training (just like many other students) and at the same time make sense of her first experience in an intentional community. She was overwhelmed, but everyone else was focusing on the training—the community part was just the water they swam in. Thus, we all missed this woman's signs of distress until they boiled over in a rant on the last day, when she lashed out about how terribly she'd been treated (by which she meant neglected). Ouch! I had not being sufficiently mindful of what she needed to be comfortable. I had been a poor host. It's a lesson I'll not forget.
Ironically, the goal in this pattern is putting people at ease, yet it turns out to not be so easy to accomplish. Nonetheless, learning to be a gracious host is a worthwhile objective.