Sunday, December 14, 2014

Group Works: Shared Airtime

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 ninth pattern in this segment is labeled Shared Airtime. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Everyone deserves to be heard, and everyone has a piece of the truth. Find ways to invite sharing from all, not just the loudest, most senior, or most articulate. Actively draw out the wisdom of quieter or hesitant participants.

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.

There are two main roots of consensus: Native American culture (witness the Iroquois Confederation) and the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers, who have relied on it to reach congregational decisions their entire history. Of the two, the Quaker tradition has had the stronger influence on the way consensus is practiced among cooperative groups today (a tip of the cap here to the trail blazing work done in the '70s by anti-nuclear activists—think Clamshell Alliance and Movement for a New Society—to adapt consensus to secular settings).

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.

With this in mind, I think it's worthwhile to create a way (or ways) for all participants to contribute what they have on the topic with minimal impedance. This accomplishes two things: a) doing the best you can to see that all potentially useful input has been gathered; and b) enhancing the likelihood of solid buy-in with the outcome—because people who feel heard are much more likely to hear; people who feel stretched toward, are more likely to stretch toward 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.)

What do I mean? Instead of open conversation, where people simply speak as they are ready and called upon, consider:

o  Rounds
Where you go around the circle with everyone being given a chance to speak in turn, and no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has spoken once.

o  Small Group Work
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.

o  Individual Writing
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.

o  Spectrum
Instead of using words, you can ask people to position themselves along a line that indicates where they stand (literally) between two extremes positions (say those who think affordability trumps everything at one end of the line, and those who think environmental impact is supreme at the other, with those who prefer some balancing of the two somewhere in the middle). This is a way that important meaning can be conveyed without using words at all (though it's often helpful to have people explain why they chose their position).

Finally, let's focus on what it means to "draw out the wisdom" of:

—The Inarticulate 
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.

—The Obscure
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.

—The Overwhelmed
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.

—The Marginalized
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 Upset
If someone is experiencing non-trivial distress, it's important (even essential) that this be attended to before attempting to connect with, or process that person's input about what needs to be taken into account or how to proceed. The idea here is that upset functions as virtual earwax that distorts what the person hears, and your first order of business is unclogging the ears. Ignoring it simply doesn't work.

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.

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