Thursday, August 24, 2017

Caught in a Fork in the Road

Sometimes facilitators get caught between competing principles and it can be hard to divine the best response.
 
I had an example of this recently when I was working with a group that had called me in, in part, because they weren't doing well handling seriously distress among members and it was piling up. (Though this is not rare, far fewer ask for help than need it.)
 
During an opening session I had asked members to reflect on the myriad challenging things that they had witnessed over the past year and what they each might have done differently, that may have had been a better response. I was trying to get them thinking of constructive choices and less about their upset with others, as a prelude to working on crafting a policy the next day.

While most people did as I asked, there was one women who didn't. She responded in anger. 
 
At the start of the meeting I had offered a summary of what I'd heard from people during 20 hours of one-on-one conversations. Included was a claim from half a dozen women who had independently reported to me that they felt there was unaddressed sexism in the community (which definitely got my attention). During the go round the angry woman used my statement as a springboard to launch an attack on some younger men she felt had been discriminating against an older woman.

Suddenly I was at a crossroads I had hoped not to encounter.
 
On the one hand, I prefer to work difficulties in the moment and doing so would have been directly addressing an area in which the community had been struggling and wanted my assistance. By not addressing it I was risking needing to clean up a mess later.

On the other hand, the issue of sexism wasn’t even on my radar until the day before (it hadn't been mentioned as a possible topic when I was hired) and I was concerned that tackling that issue (while plenty serious enough and worth attention) might eat so much time that little would be left for the topics I had been asked to address. I was already worried that there were more heavy-duty issues on the table than there was time to get to, and was thus very reluctant to let a late-arriving topic jump the queue—because another issue in play was the strategy that if you act provocatively enough it will be rewarded with attention. What a mess! I was going to pay a price either way.

In this instance I chose to let the attack stand, to protect the overall agenda. While no one took the bait (no one responded with a spirited defense), and no one else fired another salvo—thus preserving my attempt at a reflective beginning, I'm not sure if I made the right choice.

At least two people who felt called out by the attack spoke to me on break about how upset and distracted they were by being blind-sided and left without an opportunity to tell their side of events. This was a high price to pay, yet these same people were already embroiled in other tensions about which I knew we had to deal, and I preferred that the first examination happen in territory that was already widely known. 

While I subsequently got the opportunities I was hoping for to work closely with the two men in reaction, we never got close to working the topic of sexism. While I'm satisfied I delivered solid work germane to the community's struggles, you never know what would have happened with the road not taken, and I'll just have to live with that.

1 comment:

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