It Ain't the Meeting It's the Motion
By Alexandra Devon
You go to a meeting of a group for the first time because they're doing work around issues you've begun to be interested in. Everybody there seems to know everyone else already, and they're all so knowledgeable. No one even asks your name or why you have come. During they meeting you're too intimidated to say anything and no one seems to notice or care. You go home depressed.
Someone has called a meeting. It starts late. There's no agenda so the group wanders from topic to topic for what seems an eternity. People constantly interrupt each other. A few people dominate. The quieter people are ignored. You go home with a headache.
You've just broken up with your lover but you got to your meeting anyway. No one asks how you are. The agenda is set, typed and passed around. A decision has to be made on an important course of action. People are divided on it. After ten minutes of discussion a vote is taken before you've even expressed your point of view. The outcome is not what you had hoped but you have to live with it - after all, majority rules. You go home and don't come back.
The above scenarios are common but not inevitable. Somewhere between Robert's Rules of Order and "tyranny of structurelessness" lies a method for working with people in groups which is not disempowering, painful and tedious and can be affirming, creative and effective.
Learning about group "process" (or paying attention to how you interact with other people in a group setting) is for many of us a trial and error thing. Unfortunately, because we get together in groups to get things done, we are often more interested in the end than the means of getting there, little realizing that the process would be much more enjoyable and the end product enriched if we're better able to harmonize means and ends.
In the early days of putting out this magazine [Kick It Over!], when our collective was larger, our meetings were such a shambles with people all talking at once that we half jokingly and half in desperation used to appoint a "dictator for the day" to try to keep us on track. A lot of wasted, fruitless time could have been saved if we had recognized a few simple things about human nature and how to accommodate it. Having been raised in a competitive, hierarchical society we retain the unpleasant skills needed to survive in that type of culture, which makes creating a new culture based on different values, inherently difficult.
Even if one doesn't have time for a socializing period it's a good idea to have a "go-around" structured into the agenda. This can be a minute or two for each person were they can say (if they are new) why they came and who they are or, for people who know each other, what type of day they've had and how they're feeling. A friend who first stressed the importance of this told me that meetings are much more efficient and less stressful as result of this simple exercise. People often come to meetings with psychic baggage (positive or negative) and if they are not allowed to check it at the door, the room is soon crowded with it and by the end of the meeting you may have people stressed out because of a personal misfortune or tragedy that has happened to them in the day or week before.
Taking minutes is important for action groups because it is a record of what has transpired for those who weren't there and for those who have agreed to do things it serves as a reminder of what, in the heat of the moment, they have agreed to do. These can be elaborate or brief depending on the needs of the group. Another bonus of taking minutes is that you have a history of the development of the group.
Once the agenda is set it is up to the facilitator to introduce each item (or have other group members do it) and ensure that everyone gets to speak to an issue who wants to. It's easiest if a group can self-regulating and speak in turn but when it is not possible, it is the facilitator's responsibility to have people speak in the sequence in which they've raised their hands. A few rules of thumb which make for equitable discussion is that everyone should speak to an issue (who wants to) before people who've already spoken speak again. Extended discussions between two people should be discouraged as this can be alienating to the group. In larger groups, or if men are tending to dominate, it's good to alternate between women and men speakers.
This style of working requires trust between group members and more time than the democratic process. It also takes some getting used to because it requires that we express our views, explain them, listen to the views of others and modify our views when others make points which we might not have thought about. Although it is strange at first, for those of us who are used to defending our position to the death because it's ours and we want to be right, it allows for more give and take than one would normally think possible in a group situation. Once you get used to consensus it is frustrating and disempowering to go back to other methods.
Consensus is not new. It has been used for thousands of years by tribal peoples, early Jesuits in the 17th century (who called it "Communal Discernment"), Quakers, and more recently by some feminists and social change groups, to name a few. It is worth noting that the groups who most often use consensus are "communities" of some description: herein lies its greatest strength and possible limitations. Because of the high degree of trust and openness required and because each person should be allowed to contribute if they would like, I feel that size and shared values are important. For this reason, I am skeptical that a group of several thousand diverse people could effectively use this approach because there needs to be a degree of bonding and shared history for the conditions to be right. Carolyn Estes in a recent article on consensus in Social Anarchism argues the contrary.
The facilitator has a great deal of responsibility in seeing that the group is helped towards reaching consensus. S/he must make sure that everyone who wants to address the issue does so, state and restate suggestions, sum up the sense of the meeting and make sure that everyone is comfortable with the final decision. All this requires time and patience but the process can be quite enjoyable and interesting and teaches us to let go of our own preconceptions without sacrificing our individuality or autonomy and allows us to work effectively with a group.
Sometimes when a compromise is not possible, one or two people can "step aside", which means that while they don't necessarily agree to a particular proposal and don't wish to participate in it, they are not willing to block consensus or keep others from pursuing it.
If more than a few people "step aside" from a decision it can be a bad sign and may indicate that more time and discussion is needed.
Occasionally, a person in the group may feel at odds with the group most of the time. They may, for example, feel that the group is not doing the right things. If this seems to happen constantly, it's possible that the person is in the wrong group and that they should seek out others who want to put their energies into projects they feel to be important.
To avoid coming to this realization after the group has been formed, it is well to go through a "clearness" process in the beginning. This is, of course, an ideal scenario and difficult to implement once a group is formed but might be helpful in admitting new members to a group where a high degree of trust has been established. The Quakers developed this process for helping members decide to embark on any major undertaking.
This article is far from complete for considerations of space and because I'm still in the process of learning, but I wanted to begin the discussion. I feel that it's important for us to be conscious not simply of what we do but how we do it. Unfortunately, because of the culture in which most of us are raised, to be unconscious of process is to unconsciously duplicate the authoritarian, elitist, competitive, and sexist, etc. models which we have passively learned since childhood. To choose new forms of interacting with people means that we must unlearn the powerlessness, competitiveness and fear of conflict that characterizes much of our experience with working in groups. Jane Mansbridge in Workplace Democracy and Social Change writes that "the main reason people tolerate hierarchy so well is that it buffers them from having to deal with people at a more authentic, conscious level of emotional depth." So, developing good process skills for those of us trying to change the word is not just a better way to get things done, but a conscious recognition that the world which needs changing is not just "out there," but within us and between us.
Thanks to Taylor, my women's group and the Free University collective for teaching me and learning with me about different ways of being.
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