Wednesday, March 14, 2018

On Being a Good Meeting Participant

A lot of my blog is focused on consensus meeting dynamics. For the most part I look at the leverage possible through skilled facilitation (which I have been describing at length for more than 10 years in this blog, and been teaching since 2003). However, good meetings are everyone's responsibility, and I want to shine the spotlight today on meeting participants—the other side of the equation. There is a lot of leverage there, too, and many groups, to their detriment, never delineate what's wanted. Following are my thoughts about that.

Meetings are Structured Space
Meetings are not informal social time. As such there are behavior expectations, which need to be spelled out, perhaps in Ground Rules, which lay out specifics (such as not repeating oneself, speaking on topic, assuming good intent). 

Another way to see this: meetings are not open mic, where you get to say whatever you want at any time. They require participants to be self-disciplined.

Strategy Choices for Getting to What's Best for the Group
Even if you agree that the ultimate objective is getting to what is best for the group (and you should), there are two significantly different ways to approach this:

a) Everyone stating their personal preference, and then having the group collectively decide what is the best way to extract a balance out of that stew.

b) Everyone screening what they say for what is good for the group (leaving aside personal preferences), so that the group need only balance ideas that have already passed that test.

The second approach works much better. In saying this I understand that not everyone is equally good at discerning the difference between personal preference and group concern, and thus the group may need to help them with that on occasion. Nobody's perfect.

Nonetheless, it can be incredibly irritating if some members are operating from paradigm b) while others are operating from a). In that case the choir is not singing from the same hymnal and the voices will not be melodic. If your group is not clear about this, talk about it and try to get on the same page.

Participant's Mantra
Here is my distillation of an internal screen that all participants could adopt in an attempt to use good judgment about when to add input. Remember: it's not about how good you look; it's about the group getting to the best decision.

What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time?

If you read this closely there are five chances for participants to hesitate before speaking:

a) "group"
Is this input appropriate for everyone to hear?

b) "need"
Is this input necessary (not tangential) for the conversation at hand?

c) "from me"
Has this input already been given by others? If so, why do you need to say it also?

d) "about this topic"
Is this comment germane to where we are in the conversation? (Warning: if you're free associating that's a bad sign—unless it's a brainstorm.)

e) "at this time"
Are we at the point in the consideration of this topic where your comment belongs?

Doing Your Homework
If there are handouts for topics (perhaps background material or a draft proposal) it is your responsibility to read them and think about them ahead of time. There is a large difference between coming to the meeting with an open mind (good) and an empty mind (not good). If you ask questions in plenary that were addressed in handouts that you didn't read, you are abusing the group. 

Your right to have your opinion heard is tied at the hip to your responsibility to inform yourself adequately ahead of time. They go together. If you neglect the latter you are at risk of forfeiting the former.

Communication Skills 
Living in cooperative culture takes personal work (because it requires unlearning deep conditioning in competitive ways). Here are what I believe are the essential questions, pinpointing the skills needed to function well in cooperative culture:

o How well can you articulate what you're thinking?
o How well can you articulate what you're feeling?
o How comfortable are you sharing emotionally with others?
o How well do you function well in the presence of emotional upset?

o Can you see the good intent underneath strident statements by others?
o Can you distinguish between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad." 
o How accurately do you hear what others say?
o How easily can you shift perspectives to see issues from other viewpoints?
o How easily can you see ways to bridge different positions?
o Are you able to show others that you "get" them to their satisfaction?

o Can you own your own "stuff"?
o Can you reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself?
o How well can you read non-verbal cues?
o Can you readily distinguish between process comments and content comments?
o In a meeting, how easily can you track where we are in the conversation?
o How adept are you at approaching people in ways that put them at ease?
o How well do you understand the distribution of power in cooperative groups?
o Do you have a healthy model of leadership in a cooperative group?
o How open are you to receiving critical feedback (with minimal defensiveness)?
o Can you distinguish between projection and what's actually happening in the moment?
o How well do you understand your own blind spots and emotional triggers?
o Are you as interested in understanding others as in being understood?

o How aware are you of your privilege?
o How interested are you in getting better at the above?


Looked at the other way around, if you are not interested in doing this work you are likely to be experienced be a sea anchor by the rest of the group. If you didn't know that before, know it now.

Respecting Process Agreements 
If there are Ground Rules established for how the meeting will run (there should be), honor them. Among other things, if you start operating outside the Ground Rules and are called on it, accept the redirection; don't fight it.

Facilitators are given authority to guide the meeting productively. They are not your enemy; they are the group's servant. Support their work. This does not mean that you cannot object to what they are doing if your believe they are making a poor decision, but exercise this right judiciously. Things will tend to go much better if you give them the benefit of the doubt, and talk about your concerns later (perhaps during meeting evaluation, or privately).

Understanding the Bargain You've Made
By moving into an intentional community you have purposefully chosen to live more closely with others. That entails a commitment to sharing more things with neighbors, not just within your household. The benefit of this is greater relationship (the lifeblood of community) and less need to own everything yourself. The challenge is needing to work out agreements in areas where you formerly used to be able to decide things unilaterally.

For this to work well (get more of the benefits and less of the challenges) you need to understand the bargain you've made and work to make it pay off. It won't happen by accident (and grumbling won't help).

Why You Should Always Be Paying Attention
On any given topic, you are either a stakeholder or you aren't.  If you are, then it's obvious why you should be engaged: you care about the outcome and want to have your views taken into account. It matters on the content level.

More subtly, if you aren't a stakeholder, you are perfectly positioned to protect the quality of the conversation. You can be an invaluable asset in protecting how the group does its work, helping people get past misunderstandings, and articulating bridges between positions that strong stakeholders may miss—all because you don't particularly care about the outcome. You just want resolution that works for everyone. It matters on the process level.

It is a hallmark of cooperative culture that the how matters just as much as the what. So both roles are equally valuable.

My point is that once you've accepted the draft agenda, don't zone out. Stay engaged and help the group function well.

Caution: Group Norms Are Subject to Individual Interpretation
It is relatively easy for groups to agree on certain norms, such as being respectful and honest in group communications (who in their right mind would advocate for being dishonest or disrespectful?). But those two values don't always play well together. For some, being direct is absolutely in line with being honest and respectful. For others blunt honesty can come across as a weapon and highly disrespectful. Not what?

One person thinks they've acted wholly in alignment with group norms, while another views the same behavior as an egregious violation of the same norms. What a mess!

The lesson here is not to abandon an attempt to articulate group norms as hopeless, but to understand better the limits of what that gives you. It does not eliminate ambiguity, but it does provide a solid basis for what you need to discuss when things go south. Be gentle with other.