This past week I visited Tree Bressen, an old friend and peer in cooperative group dynamics. I was doing a series of workshops at Lost Valley Educational Center in Dexter OR, and she and Dianne Brause (yet another old friend) came out from Eugene for the afternoon.
Seeing Tree reminded me that a few years back I had started a blog series reviewing the Group Works process cards that Tree helped develop, and that reminder inspired today's essay.
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 Flow segment there are 15 cards. The fifth pattern in this category is labeled Follow the Energy. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:
By coincidence, the final workshop that I did at Lost Valley was about facilitation. At the outset I solicited from participants where they wanted me to focus my comments, and two of the half dozen requests were: a) flow and b) balancing content and energy. It turns out that addressing b) is often the answer to a).
You can buy books on meeting facilitation—books that are meant to cover the topic comprehensively—that focus almost exclusively on managing content (what is being said, how does it relate to the topic on the table, how does it align with what others have said, what would be an insightful summary of everyone's input, where should we focus the conversation). But that's not good enough, or at least it isn't in the groups I work with (mainly intentional communities), where the expectation is that meetings will not only address issues; they will enhance relationships into the bargain.
Riding Two Horses
In order to accomplish that, facilitators need to be able to work with energy. They need to be able to read it, sense trends, and have familiarity with choices that can acknowledge, shape, elicit, stimulate, defuse, hold, balance, enhance, and celebrate energy. And "choices" include far more than words: it's also tone, volume, pace, body language, sequencing, and whether to stand or sit.
Unfortunately, being conversant with energy is almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to manage content. They are different languages, with separate vocabularies and syntax. A facilitator may be good with one, both, or neither. I like to refer to this skill as riding two horses: the Content horse and the Energy horse. If you have a facilitator who is only facile on one horse, it can be effective to pair that person with someone who has complementary skills: getting the group's needs met with a team instead of an individual.
While relying on two riders instead of one may be an elegant way to simultaneously train up a greenhorn while still protecting the group's need for a quality meeting, please be advised that team facilitating requires that both riders be deft at passing the reins without either horse spitting the bit. There should always be one horse in the lead and it's awkward for the group if it's not clear who that is.
For many groups, the person labeled "facilitator" is actually just riding the Content horse, with the "vibes watcher" atop the Energy horse. This can be fine so long as both riders know who's covering what and there's no confusion about how the hand-offs work. The biggest reservation I have about this deployment is that most vibes watcher that I've observed are passive, only stepping in when there's serious tension in the room—when the facilitator has lost control of the flow, or is in danger of it.
I prefer to teach facilitators how to handle both mounts (so that a single person is regularly reading the room for both Content and Energy), making micro-adjustments as the meeting unfolds. Small changes effected in a timely way can prevent the need for major changes later. If the Content rider is not alert to Energy, they can inadvertently make choices in service to problem solving that exacerbate Energy challenges.
What do I mean? Let's unpack an example. If the facilitator is only looking at Content they may fall into a pattern of over-reliance on a particular format, say open discussion. On the one hand, there is steady progress made on the issue (good), but it may come at the cost of increasing frustration for those who are slower to know what they think, or who find it uncomfortable shouldering their way onto the on-ramp for a turn to speak (not good). Enjoying the enthusiasm of those who are jumping into the conversation, the facilitator may miss that one-third of the participants have not spoken at all and are either zoning out or getting bummed. Unattended, this disaffection can lead to rebellion, poorly supported decisions, or even a rift in the group (I thought everyone's voice was welcome here, not just the opinions of the loud and the rude). Ouch! A savvy and active vibes watcher might catch that drift and suggest a switch from open discussion to a go round before things get out of hand, or even before it's identified as "a problem."
Casting a Wide Net
In the example above I showed how attention to Energy could lead to a format choice that could significantly impact flow and inclusivity. But following the energy is much more than being sensitive to tension or reactivity. It also encompasses such mundane things as atmosphere (is the room too warm; is there enough fresh air); stamina (for how long has the group been sitting; do they need to move—either in the form of a break or via a format that gets folks off their butts); and mood (while fulminating distress is relatively easy to read, how about boredom and flat affect; sarcasm —deniable irritation; or frequent side conversations—scattered attention).
All of these fall under the umbrella of Energy and can be ameliorated by the ministrations of a skilled facilitator.
Drilling DownIn addition to giving advance warning or evidence of energetic discord (Luke, there's a disturbance in the Force) energetic cues can also suggest positive directions. Take for instance the dynamic when you're asking for responses to a proposal and a number of hands shoot up. Using a stack, you begin letting people speak in the order in which they raised their hand. Partway through (let's suppose there were six people in the stack) you notice an energetic surge in the room following the third speaker's statement. If you blindly continue the stack, there's a strong chance that that person's contribution will not connect easily with the previous speaker (even if they're on topic).
Alternately, by paying attention to where the life is (invoking the admonition in the text that accompanies this card) you might suspend the stack to ask for responses to what was just said, and only return to the original stack after the surge has run its course. This is often a much better way to work issues, but it calls on the facilitator to be able to read the Energy (both its emergence and its demise) and to juggle threads.
Balancing ActLast, I want to remind folks that the Energy horse and Content horse can both pull heavy loads and neither should be seen as subservient to the other. Although I've mainly been looking at the importance of working with the Energy horse in this essay, they need to pull together. To be clear, there are moments—even whole meetings—where only one horse is spotlighted, but you want to have a saddle on both.
For those who experience group meetings as a tug-of-war between Process People and Product People, I want to offer a different view. The best meetings, where the flow is laminar instead of turbulent, are when the horses are pulling in the same direction.