Difference and disagreement

Craig Freshley’s Good Group Tips pop into my inbox regularly and have done for several years. I have to admit I don’t always read every one. Some I skim, some I bin. A few even get the attention they deserve, like the most recent one on “Different views”. It’s well worth the few minutes it’ll take to read and digest it.

“Rather than spend energy arguing which view is correct, assume that all views are correct. Use all available perspectives to better understand what you are looking at.” Craig Freshley

Helpfully the tips, this one included,  are available as pdfs so there’s no excuse for not handing them out at that next meeting.



Exploring Shared Values

Craig Freshley’s latest Good Group Tip popped into my inbox this morning. As ever, a useful reminder of what makes a good group. This time Craig talks about shared values – something we also talk about from time to time. He says:

In principle, values are those things most important to us, the things we value. For most people, they are ideals, beliefs, rules to live by. We are generally drawn to people who share our values. At the core of every defined group of people are shared values.

Practical Tip: Discuss values as a group and make a written, short, agreed-to list of the values you have in common. Simply having a discussion about values helps us understand each other. Deciding which values we share defines our group and helps people decide if they want to join the group and it also helps people decide to leave. A written list of shared values also serves as a code of ethics, a place to turn for guidance when the decision making gets tough.

Shared values are the steadfast ground on which we stand when things are in turmoil.

I agree wholeheartedly, and recent Rhizome work with a number of groups has led them to understand that they need to visit or revisit their vision and values precisely because it’s become apparent that they aren’t necessarily shared. I’d also like to take the tip one step further and suggest that groups don’t just agree values, but take the time to understand the many different interpretations of the words we use to describe values to ensure that they are deeply shared. Values more than some other ideas are hard to pin down in language and the room for miscommunication is significant. I’m sure that’s implicit in Craig’s thinking, but let’s make it explicit.

I might say that a core value of the group is ‘open communication’. You might agree. So far so good. But what if we have different ideas on what that means, and what behaviours demonstrate open communication? If so there’s still plenty of room for conflict. So check out your assumptions and interpretations for a really deep foundation to your group.


Agendas, access and equality

Craig Freshley’s talking common sense again over on his Good Group Tips blog. This time he has words of advice on agenda setting. Amazing how such a simple concept as agreeing what to talk about can be so fraught with politics, power-plays and confusion! He writes:

“In principle, if we are a group of relative equals, deciding how we are going to spend our time together should be a group decision, or at least the group should decide the agenda-setting process. Further, every group member should understand the agenda-setting process and have access to it”

In that one short paragraph Craig’s put his finger on a number of important issues:

Firstly that agenda setting is an access issue as much as disabled access is, or having a hearing induction loop for the hearing impaired. It’s about letting people take part on an equal footing.

Secondly, if enough trust and accountability exists within the group then it’s fine to delegate the task of agenda setting to a working group, but the conditions in the group need to be right, and this needs to be agreed.

Thirdly, implied is that we often state we’re a group of “relative equals” (or indeed of equals, no relative about it), and yet in practice the way we set the agenda of a meeting gives the lie to that statement. An agenda set by a small number of people, an agenda set too quickly to allow for proper reflection, an agenda dictated by unrealistically short meeting lengths, an agenda only written on the chair’s notepad or with only a few copies printed…. all of these and more are obstacles to full participation, obstacles to equality and to access.

So at your next meeting consider who has set the agenda, and what that says about the power dynamics of your team, group or organisation – especially to those who didn’t have a chance to influence the agenda!


The agony of group decision-making

The UK Cohousing Network recently teamed up with us at Rhizome to put on a consensus decision-making training in Birmingham. We’ve extended that relationship by starting to write a column for their newsletter offering cohousing groups the opportunity to share their agony (and their ecstasy!) about any aspect of working and meeting in groups, especially when it comes to decision-making. We’ll then chip in some thoughts, agony aunt style. Hopefully we can use the column to help support them to work together more effectively, to reassure them that they’re not alone in their struggles for effective group process, and to point them towards some useful resources.

Here’s a version of that first column:

One of the topics that emerged in the recent Birmingham workshop was the question of devolved responsibility. It’s a common issue. What’s the balance between individual initiative and the group’s shared responsibility?

Many groups make the mistake of thinking that consensus decision-making means we all have to agree absolutely everything together. Of course there are times when it’s imperative that everyone is actively involved in a decision. Some decisions are that central to the life of a cohousing community. But at other times that’s inefficient and a recipe for long and frustrating meetings.

There’s nothing to say that you can’t agree by consensus to delegate responsibility, even decision-making power, to a subgroup of the community. You can appoint an individual as supreme ruler, by consensus, if you see fit. Wouldn’t recommend it, but it is possible. What’s important is finding the balance between letting a subgroup have room for creativity and initiative and them being accountable to the wider community.

That requires trust. We can’t assume trust. It’s a nice idea and we’d probably all like to think of ourselves as trusting people, but in reality it often needs to be built in groups. So have patience. Much of the time the dynamic at work is that feeling of “how do I know they are considering my perspective properly if I’m not there to advocate it?”. So subgroups need to be careful to take all perspectives into consideration (and to demonstrate that they’re doing so), especially those that are not represented by the members of the subgroup.

For the delegation to work, there needs to be a clear mandate – What are the community empowering the subgroup to do? What are the limits? How will they report back? By when? To whom? And when the time comes to be accountable and to be held accountable there needs to be an atmosphere of supportive learning rather than judgement.

Craig Freshley’s latest Good Group Tip is on accountability. These tips are an excellent resource (and one we’ve mentioned on this blog before). On accountability Craig says, amongst other things, that:

“If you want to hold someone accountable, first ensure that there is shared understanding about the expectation. Write it down. Do not judge against someone for not living up to unclear, or even imagined, expectations.”

Couldn’t agree more. It’s really common for a subgroup leave a meeting with a different understanding of their mandate than the community at large. So check out those understandings to ensure their held in common.

At the workshop I borrowed a simple exercise from my colleague Carl. Think of the colour blue? What are you thinking? It’d be easy to think we all know what “blue” means, right? But in Birmingham people were interpreting it to be as varied as a smurf to the sky. And whilst several people were thinking of sky, they each had different understandings of what that sky looked like – clear blue summer’s day right through to midnight blue night sky. Shared understanding is key to successful delegation in consensus. So check it is shared or you’ll get smurfs instead of midnight skies!

UK cohousers will hopefully send us in some knotty problems to support them in, as well as the odd positive experience that others can learn from. You are of course welcome to do the same.


I expect, we expect, you disappoint

Lynn Walsh has posted on expectations with a nice link to some wise words from Craig Freshley, whose Group decision tips I look forward to browsing when I have more time.

Craig writes:

when we have expectations of others that don’t pan out it often leads to resentment which often brews discontent which often causes conflict. I have heard someone say that expectations are planned resentments.

If you get to his tips first and discover group-work gold, please report back in the comments.