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 ninth pattern in this segment is labeled Shared Airtime. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:
Overwhelmingly, intentional communities aspire to develop cooperative culture (in contrast with the competitive culture of the mainstream). In pursuit of that, consensus is the most common form of decision-making among communities.
Quaker practice (which goes back three centuries and change) happens in a spiritual context, and there is a phrase associated with the Quaker approach which can be traced all the way back to George Fox, the original articulator of Quaker beliefs (circa 1650): "There is that of God in everyone." While George was probably thinking about there being no excuse for wickedness and corruption because God acts as a witness within us all, this phrase has been passed down through the years and is more commonly interpreted today to support pacifism (to kill another is to kill a piece of God) and environmental consciousness (in the sense that God dwells in all living things).
In the case of intentional communities, most rely on a secular adaptation of consensus, where there is no assumption of spiritual alignment among the membership, nor is there an attempt to find the way forward by discerning divine guidance. Instead, many have translated "that of God in everyone" to "everyone has a piece of the truth."
It's important to understand that this does not necessarily mean that everyone has a unique piece of the truth, such that everyone's piece needs to be assiduously solicited and identified before the best response can be formulated. Rather, it means that it's a healthy baseline assumption that everyone has something relevant to contribute to the consideration—though they may not necessarily be adept at articulating what that is, and their contribution may have already been covered by others.
Many groups stumble here because they make the naive assumption that open discussion is an equally accessible format for all participants, just because it's intended to be. The fact is, some people are quicker thinkers than others, some are quicker at composing what they want to say, some are more comfortable speaking in front of a large group.
Some of this can be addressed by varying formats (Hint: If you're in the habit of gathering input the same way every time, you're susceptible to inadvertently creating dead spots, where contributions from some segments of your group are systematically under-represented because the format doesn't have a clear on-ramp for their input.)
Having the full group break into smaller circles of 3-5 people where those who find speaking in front of larger numbers daunting can practice what they want everyone to know in a less intimidating setting.
Some people are better able to express themselves in writing than orally. You can cater to that by occasionally giving everyone time (five minutes?) to jot down the points they want to make before speaking begins.
Finally, let's focus on what it means to "draw out the wisdom" of:
If this is a question of stage fright, changing formats may make a difference (see the options above). It might also help if the facilitator can be their ally: "Take a moment to organize your thoughts and try again, We'll wait for you."
Further, the facilitator may be able to help by offering an educated guess at the speaker's meaning. Even if the facilitator gets it wrong, it will eliminate a possible misunderstanding and demonstrate to the person struggling that there's help in the room.
Sometimes people have an unusual way of organizing thoughts (perhaps English is not their native tongue). In cases like this translation is often needed. The facilitator (or anyone else inspired) can attempt to paraphrase what has been said such that: a) the speaker agrees that it conveys their point(s); and b) the meaning is now accessible to the rest of the group. Voila—the curtain has been raised and meaning revealed.
If it's nerves, a different format may help. Another option is taking a break and having the facilitator sit down (or go for a walk) with the tongue-tied for the purpose of helping them gather their thoughts. If it's a pattern, the facilitator may even anticipate this dynamic and spend time ahead of the meeting with persons prone to having their boat get swamped, providing them with a prompt about what to prepare for.
When people feel marginalized, they don't experience others caring about their input. Worse, if this is a pattern, they typically go into meetings expecting to not be cared about. The antidote is explicitly working to contradict that. This means making sure that their input is solicited (in a way that's accessible to that person), not moving on until that person reports that they've been heard correctly, and then making sure that their input has been duly considered in developing the group response. (Note: I'm not promising that they'll be agreed with.)
If all of this sounds remedial, that's because it is. It takes effort to repair damage.
The bad news is that most groups are not adept at working authentically and non-judgmentally with distress. The good news is that it can be learned.