Our journey through the community that is the Rhizome blog wouldn’t be complete without talking to the blogger Dwight Towers. We’ve interacted with his blog, and he with ours for almost as long as we’ve been around. Here’s a brief interview:
It’s obvious from your blog that you’re an avid reader. So…
your favourite dystopian read and why?
So many!! Brave New World was extremely challenging. Whose side are you on? Mond’s or the “Savage”. That said, I’ve not read BNW for 20 years… favourite utopian read and why?
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed – showed me how and why no utopia is without the egos and status games, no matter how ‘egalitarian’ it is. single most life-changing read?
Gah!! Probably World Orders, Old and New by Noam Chomsky. The pieces of
the puzzle started to be re-arranged into a logical pattern…
Your blog’s full of neologisms. What’s your all time favourite? Smugosphere!! Because it is so easily understood, and enrages people who
police the borders of the smugosphere.
It’s also obvious that you attend a lot of meetings, events, workshops etc, and equally obvious you find many of them painful and enraging. What’s the worst of a very bad lot and why?
I’d say the October 2006 Climate Camp meeting that was facipulated to get ‘consensus’ on having another camp in 2007, without any discussion of the dangers in going down that path. That said, I should be grateful, because it helped me start the necessary process of disengagement and disentanglement, so I ended up being a lot less cooked by the climate camp bonfire than other people
It can’t all be bad (can it?). What’s your most uplifting meeting moment (walking out the door doesn’t count)?
When people decide that it matters to talk to strangers, and they start finding common ground
Here’s one I like to call “Desert island dicks”. Who are the people – real or archetypes – we should strand on a desert island and not save from the waves?
The pseudo-anarchists who proclaim themselves as great critics of power (state and corporate) but fawn over charlatans who know how to stroke their egos, and then start a lynch-mob against anyone who demurs to adore the charlatan. They can FUCK. RIGHT. OFF.
One blog, other than your own and our own, that Rhizome readers should visit?
Dave Pollard’s How to Save the World. I don’t always agree of course, but he’s asking a lot of the right questions, and coming up with some damn good answers.
Dwight Towers has been envisioning more participatory formats for events s/he’s attended. The latest reads well and suggests some easily achievable tweaks to the usual ‘sage on the stage’/ ‘chalk and talk’ events we still attend and invite others to attend.
We’d love to hear your forays into formats new. What worked? What obstacles (internal and organisational) had to be overcome to make the event happen in a new way?
I’ve heard many conversations about how Climate Camp lost its way. It started as a direct action focused, radical, one-off event to kick-start climate activism in the UK. There are those that would argue that by its second year (one-off, remember) it was already losing focus on action, especially affinity group direct action, and instead becoming more about education with a set piece mass action of dubious value. And yet, talk to some of the people who came into the movement via Climate Camp and they’ll often rave with enthusiasm about the very same event being written off by the original visionaries as having lost its way.
Wherever you sit on the issue, what happened and why? How can Occupy guard against the same thing happening? Indeed, should it?
Does a clarity of vision, especially radical vision, alienate others or inspire them? Can we bring new folk into a movement that’s taking a stance that the mainstream would see as hard-line, even extremist? As always I have my own views on all this, but I’m more interested in yours….
A couple of times this year I’ve been asked to sit on a panel as a speaker advocating nonviolent direct action or radical social change. Flattering to be asked. But my take on these topics is that they are fundamentally participatory – empowered social action making change from the grassroots up. And yet we revert to formats for these discussions that cut the grassroots right out of the picture.
In both cases I’ve opened a dialogue with the organisers about doing something a little more in keeping with the topic – raising the status of the people present from audience to contributors. But there always seem to be obstacles, for example the lecture theatre-style banked seating. But in reality it seems to be a natural tendency to go for what we know, and the lack of imagination and aversion to risk to try something new. And of course many of the audience will enjoy the session on some level, which reinforces its credibility.
I also spent the best part of the day at the Occupy LSX camp a week ago. I happened to choose the day of a conference of representatives from occupy sites across the UK. The format? A very long list of speakers (in stretches of an hour or more) talking at the crowd over the PA system. Personally I simply can’t sit still and do the speakers justice for that long. There was half an hour set aside for informal mingling, but half an hour in a programme that ran from 1pm to 8pm…….
Now our friend over at the Dwight Towers blog would be chucking out phrases such as “the sage on the stage“, and “ego-fodder” around now. In fact, in this last instance, he was – I had the pleasure of meeting up with him at Occupy LSX. Now I’m a little less harsh in my criticism. I’m willing to go with the possibility it’s more about the fact that this kind of session format is the norm, than about ego trips.
But we’re a movement for change, right? We challenge the norms of society, right? Time to walk the talk and talk less from the stage. It’s not like there aren’t alternatives. I suppose it’s just that many event organisers still aren’t as familiar with them, or that they seem risky compared to the tried and tested panel of speakers. Problem is that from a participation perspective we’ve tried it, tested it, and it fails.
Until recently in the UK Climate Camp could, with some justification, have been called the most dynamic force in activism. Now that baton has passed to the anti-cuts movement, and specifically the Occupy movement.
There are lots of similarities between Climate Camp and Occupy.
Both have strong anti-capitalist leanings (it’s not true to say that to a (wo)man they’re all anti-capitalist)
Both have their primary tactic in the title
That tactic usually involves taking and holding a symbolic location and creating an autonomous and sustainable zone, however temporary
Those autonomous zones are one element of practicing alternative social structures. Other aspects often include using consensus decision-making and non-hierarchical organising, or at least attempting to
Both use direct action
They believe themselves to be useful entry points for newcomers to their particular form of activism
Their core support is the mainstream of activist culture in the UK – white, middle class and educated, although both might consider themselves at the radical end of that culture
They’re proactive with the media and have caught the attention of the mass media
So lets start nice and broad and see where it gets us…. We’ll use the comments function to keep the conversation going over the next week or so, so bookmark the page, and more importantly join in. Over to you and Dwight.
QUESTION:What are the most important lessons that Occupy Groups can draw from the Climate Camp (here in the UK, or the many international Camps) or indeed similar movements?
Dwight Towers sent me a link (as he often does) to Jeff Monday’s short video on information gaps – the difference between what we know now and something new to our experience and how we engage with the new (or don’t, as is often the case). In it Jeff Monday introduces Lowenstein’s Information Gap Theory. But why listen to me when you can see it for yourself (3 minutes)
It’s a bit Goldilocks and the Three Bears: small information gaps are ‘too soft’ – easy to bridge but teach us little. Big gaps are ‘too hard’ – daunting and we run a mile rather than engage with the new information. Medium-sized gaps are ‘just right’ – challenging but possible. For those not watching the video, here’s a little taste of Jeff’s thinking. If you watched, skip on beyond the quote:
The power in medium-sized information gaps is that they inspire curiosity. They are small enough to be crossed but large enough to create interest and this is the key to putting Lowenstein’s Information Gap Theory to work for you…
It amazes me how many new product developers, marketers, and advertisers create the wrong sized gap. They either create a “me too” product or service which creates an information gap that is too small and uninteresting. Or they let their engineers and creatives add wild, bloated, and unnecessary “features”, and create a huge information gap that inspires fear over the size of the gap and size of the of the learning curve.
Each of us has an inherent desire to learn and explore, to the degree that you can create medium-sized information gaps with your audience, with your new website, widget, and or marketing campaign, you will be successful!
And the relevance to facilitation, training, consensus?
Training: As trainers we’re working with groups to learn. It’s easy to see how the theory might be applied in a more top-down learning environment – pitching the new information, theory or experience at the ‘just right’ level. It’s a little less easy to see how to achieve this for those of us committed to a more elicitive approach to learning.
How do we draw out medium-sized gaps from a group? There’s always enough diversity of opinion, experience and knowledge in a group if we’re able to involve everyone and draw on their individual and collective experiences.
Involving everyone seems crucial to moving beyond small gaps in this context. It’s those who are more marginal to a group, for whatever reason, that often have the key to unlocking larger gaps. They are, by definition, more divergent from the group’s mainstream norms. Add to that the use of appropriate questions to deepen the conversation and tune people in to experiences that they didn’t realise were relevant and small gaps can be widened very effectively.
Meetings: As facilitators, and facilitators of consensus in particular, I’d say we’re often working with people on the level of gaps in values rather than pure information. So maybe I’m cheating, but as I think we process information through the filters of our values (believing what chimes with our values and being skeptical or plain rejecting the rest) the information gap theory seems to hold.
The struggles in meetings: The struggle of many groups to work together effectively and to reach a high quality of consensus has several gap-related causes, many of which we’ve touched on before.
Clearly a lot of groups struggle to accept diversity which makes gaps seem bigger than they need to be. This is more than making significant difficulties almost insurmountable obstacles. Many groups are perfectly capable of taking small details and turning them into large gaps. In the competitive and ego-driven mindset that most of us have been educated (and I use that word loosely) to hold dear we pick up on details and drive wedges between ourselves and others in order to have a clear and distinct position. In campaigning circles where values and ideals abound these positions can be aggravated. They’re not just what we think but what we believe. And, like many fervent believers we don’t always tolerate those with anything but exactly the same beliefs as ourselves (People’s Front of Judaea et al).
Then we have the perennial issue of margins and mainstreams in a group. The gaps here are usually large enough to actively alienate the margins who only persist in the meetings of activist groups because of their desire to make a difference in the world and because poor meeting dynamics are ubiquitous. The gap between margin and mainstream seems like a large one. For the mainstream to come to understand the margins enough for their behaviour to change so there is no longer a margin (in that particular respect) is a big step. And the reverse is true – for the margins to feel safe to step into the mainstream, to trust that they are now valued and appreciated….
And finally what about compromise? Isn’t all this talk of closing large gaps to medium ones asking us to compromise in that watering down sense of the word. Compromise is often a very dirty word in consensus circles, sparking images of lowest common denominator decisions that satisfy no-one rather than creative highest common factor decisions that inspire us all.
Take a group that exhibits some racist behaviour (and most do if they’re honest). The gap between racist behaviour and having become aware of and dealt with the root causes of that behaviour is huge. No wonder most groups struggle with these issues. Doesn’t advocating medium-sized gaps suggest that we become a little less racist? Doesn’t sound great, does it? Not what you’d want to put on your group’s flyer – “join our group – we’re a tad less racist than the average activist group!”. I’m guessing that’s not what Jeff, or Lowenstein envisaged. Realistically there are a series of medium-sized steps involved in tackling huge issues. These aren’t compromise so much as an action plan, assuming we can articulate the end point without scaring ourselves because of the seeming impossibility of reaching it (large gap syndrome).
The solutions?: Anyway, what to do? If we want groups to get to grips with medium-sized gaps there’s a number of strategies we can adopt. Here’s a few that spring to mind:
Give it time: Opinions, ideas and theories need to be explored in more depth for people to see the commonalities that might close a large gap a little (or see the diversity that might open a small gap a little).
Check assumptions: related to the above point, if we rush we risk people taking a snapshot and forming judgements based on that. They’re not really looking at the ‘information gap’, rather the ‘hurried assumptions about the information gap’. Are we really talking about things that are so very different? We’re quick to see difference and form assumptions. Further exploration to check out assumptions may highlight that our positions are a lot closer than we first thought or imagined. Even if we’re not closer at the end, we hopefully have a better understanding of the other side (see below).
People not positions: Empathy and understanding can close large gaps even when the positions remain quite far apart. We can feel our way into the gaps and find that in doing so they become more manageable. We can understand people’s experience without having to agree with their conclusions
Reflect on diversity: when you do succeed in creating and bridging a medium-sized gap reflect on the role that drawing on the experience of the whole group played in the decision-making process. Help build a culture of genuinely seeing diversity as strength. Specifically welcome the contribution made by the margins of the group.
I’m going to send you over to Dwight Towers blog (again!) – not for his usual righteous anger about the lack of participation in activist meetings, events and movements, but for some bona fide participation-building inspiration. In his post Gay marriage rally and movement building he gives us the speech he would have made had he had the opportunity.
If you’ve ever wanted to stand up and give a powerful appeal for people to stop passively listening to speeches, and get out there, work together for change, and build a participatory movement then this could be the text you’re looking for. Dwight had just returned from a gay marriage rally, but the issue could be anything. Cut and paste as appropriate. Here’s a flavour:
We can give each other heart, we can learn and teach from others’ mis-steps and our own. There is someone within five metres of you who has something to teach you. There is someone within five metres of you who has something to learn from you. That’s the power of this moment in our movement.
I recently left a comment on Dwight Towers blog. It turned out to be quite a long one and had the makings of a post in its own right. So I’ve taken it and made it even longer. The problem as posed by Dwight:
there are also some people [and their track record goes on for years in different groups] who persistently don’t do what they say they will, and “lunch out” repeatedly. And in the NVDA/non-hierarchical subcultures I’ve seen, this is tolerated far too much. We have no real accountability structures [and it does my nut].
Accountability and leadership
Dwight’s right. Accountability is a huge issue in many groups, and especially those at the non-hierarchical end of the scale. There’s a real fear of it in some non-hierarchical groups because it smacks of leadership and leadership is a dirty word. Without leadership how do you hold someone to account for anything (“who am I to appoint myself the person that holds others to account?”)?
There’s an association of leadership with leaders – people that take power over others, or are given it by flawed (s)election processes. Groups that eschew those processes in favour of, say, consensus, can also eschew the very concept of leadership, leaving themselves vulnerable to lack of accountability and a lot more besides, including the “lunch out” culture Dwight describes.
That kind of thinking can seriously paralyse groups and whole movements. Ironically it can lead to more hierarchy and less accountability because the more “sorted” people will often just get together and make stuff happen cutting out those they consider unreliable altogether. This in turn leads to accusations of elites, hidden agendas and so on.
(As always) ask yourself why
But anyone that consistently volunteers and consistently fails to deliver has some kind of issue. They don’t just get out of bed and say to themselves “today I’ll go and bugger up a meeting”. The only way we can solve the problem is to find out what that issue is and put in place appropriate support.
Possible issues might include:
genuinely wanting to help but not receiving adequate support to do so. There’s a classic problem in many groups and organisations of lack of support for volunteers (and in some cases even staff). It’s a sink or swim approach, and not everyone sees that kind of water as enticing. People are busy changing the world. They don’t have the time to babysit other people (in all probability, no-one babysat them…) and there’s no sympathy to spare. Besides, being able to do a task doesn’t make me automatically able to show others how it’s done. All very understandable, but not a sustainable approach to working in groups
poor consensus process leading to people “agreeing” to things they don’t really believe in, so once away from the pressure of the meeting they let it slide. Sound familiar? This can happen for several reasons
poor process can lead to very long meetings. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of meetings in which, after 3 hours people would happily agree to hack off their own arm if they thought it would get you home this side of midnight… I exaggerate, but you get the point
it can also be caused by peer pressure. This in turn can be aggravated by some of those tools becoming increasingly common in some groups’ practice of consensus – handsignals, temperature checks. Useful in the right moment, used in the right way. But they can bring an unwelcome “weight of majority” that we’re not all assertive enough to resist
and of course poor listening can turn a half-hearted expression of interest into a firm commitment to take on an action point in a very short time indeed, leaving our half-hearted group member trapped into a task they aren’t committed to
lack of adequate summaries throughout a meeting, alone or in combination with poor minute taking allow people to leave a meeting with a task which later they realise they don’t really understand, and if there’s no between meeting support system in place….. They can also leave a meeting with a task they hadn’t realised they’d volunteered for. More on that below
hypercritical groups – people would rather lunch them out than risk doing the task and being told in precise detail that they’ve done it wrong. Of course these judgements (“you’ve done it wrong/to an unacceptably low standard”) are often very subjective. “You’ve done it wrong” may just mean “you’ve not done it as I would have”. In the long-term this pattern of behaviour means that people simply stop volunteering (and possibly stop attending). Another manifestation of this can be a culture in which not volunteering for tasks leads to criticism, so everyone feels pressured to take something on even though they are fully aware they can’t deliver
this is often combined with lack of sympathy to people’s commitments. The ‘lightweight syndrome’ – changing the world is the most important thing and your kids/partner/sick relative/job/time off/health problems aren’t recognised excuses in our hard-core group, so get with the programme and take on the task
poor interpersonal dynamics in a group can lead to people behaving in this way as one way of attracting the attention of the group
volunteering people is another problem – it’s easy to say “Matthew will do that. I’ll ask him later”. Matthew gets minuted as taking it on, but does he ever get told that? If he does get told, does he have any real sense of ownership of the decision or the task? In a month’s time when he faces the ire of the group for failing to deliver (surprise, surprise!), does anyone actually remember he was volunteered rather than volunteering himself?
Years of poor meetings creates a culture where lunching out on tasks, and many other problems, are at least acceptable if not the norm, so there’s a real need to find ways of moving forwards.
What’s the solution?
Possible strategies include –
air the issues – easy to say and hard to do, but part of the problem is often that no-one’s willing to break a group’s bad habits. You have to start somewhere and whispered conversations in the pub, or rants to your partner or housemates when you get home from a meeting don’t make any difference (except to your blood pressure). If you can raise the issue and deal with it sympathetically, great! Of course raising the issue in a ‘pointing the finger of blame’ way won’t help in the slightest
ask rather than assume – don’t guess why it might be happening. If you’re not sure ask the person or persons involved. It could be a quiet chat outside of a meeting. Be calm, listen carefully, and above all be willing to hear that some responsibility may lie with the group. There’s at least 2 sides to every story
offer mentoring or buddying between experienced and less experienced people (or other appropriate support around roles and tasks). We have to find the capacity to coach and mentor volunteers, and offer any other support they need if we’re to build long-term movements for change. And of course, if we don’t then we create an informal hierarchy of the skilled – those willing to dive in to the water and swim
set clear expectations in meetings (including deadlines, expected quality of the outcome, systems of accountability) using a decision-making process that people are actually committed to
recap after each agenda item to ensure that people are happy with the tasks that (you think) they’ve agreed to. Watch for body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice that may contradict their agreement to take on a task and be willing to voice that difference. Recap again at the end of the meeting and make a point of getting in touch with anyone who had to leave early, especially if you know that the minutes take a while to get sent round
distribute accurate notes of the meeting quickly – make them detailed enough to genuinely remind people what they’ve agreed to. If tasks have short deadlines think about using more than one method of communication. It only takes a work crisis,or a hardware problem at home cutting of the broadband and someone may not see the minutes in time. Pick up the phone if need be
create a culture of constructive feedback for the ongoing learning and development of the group. If you’re involved in preparing the agenda, suggest that the group sets aside the final 5 minutes of each meeting and start evaluating them to set an example. Take on board the points raised and make changes. Extend that culture bit by bit, perhaps asking for feedback on a task you took on. Perhaps offering a few words of constructive feedback on a task in private until the group is happy to have these conversations in public
have a realistic expectation of what the group can achieve. This stops the group demanding more of people than they are in a position to deliver
see the whole person – remember that for many people their activism is one facet of their lives, so put it in perspective and make room for socialising, fun and other types of meeting that don’t create such a weight of expectation and action points. Be grateful for what they can offer. If you choose to offer more that’s your choice and shouldn’t be a judgement on others
and if nothing else works and the problem does simply lie with an individual who has an unreaslistic view of their ability to deliver on promises, be brave enough to say so when they volunteer for a crucial task and gently explain the problems it can cause and the resentment that can creep in. Value the contribution they do make by attending meetings and any roles they take on during meetings
Supporting groups to tackle the problem
If you support groups with this problem as a volunteer or staff member you could do worse than to consciously set a good example. This might involve:
delivering on the tasks you agree to take on
offering a sympathetic ear to struggling volunteers
asking for feedback on your work and acting on it
offering constructive feedback to the group
getting good quality minutes of meetings and events out within 48 hours of the meeting
mentoring people through tasks they want support in
biting the bullet and asking the uncomfortable question – why is this happening?
facilitating the odd meeting for the group and including clear expectations on minute taking, detailed descriptions of the action points that need taking on, summaries and so on
and of course using your network communications to highlight groups who are avoiding or tackling the issue successfully
On a larger scale there’s a need to step back and look at the model of group you promote, consciously and unconsciously. Does that in any way send out a message? Does it encourage healthy group dynamics? If you don’t explicitly promote a model of healthy groups people will fall back on the norm, and the norm is not great.
I don’t mean to make it sound easy. Often these problems are entrenched. One person’s ‘failure’ to complete tasks has met with an unsympathetic response. That’s caused more tension and the problems deepen and grow. Left for months or years this can seriously damage a group. However, the standard response of tolerating it and hoping it goes away (or more specifically hoping the ‘problem person’ goes away) will not work. If the original problem lay in the group even if that person leaves the problem remains.
meeting people where they are at in terms of commitment and time on offer
being nice! A much under-rated groupwork tool that helps people feel valued
Formal ‘ welcome interviews’ might not suit every situation, but the questions they offer are still a guide for an informal conversation. I’d also recommend placing stronger emphasis on the “what do you want out of this?” side of things, and aim to have a conversation in which the newcomer gets to do most of the talking. It’s through listening that we ultimately convince people they will be valued as a group member.
I’ve added the pdf here for those with less time and you’ll also find it on our resources page. But meander round their site when you have a moment.
Here’s a quick signpost to Dwight Tower’s latest addition to the English language: Decruitment. His post Decruitment: sarcasm and social niceties is well worth a read for a few ‘how not to’ notes on welcoming people to groups….
It also brings to mind a fun activity a trainer friend of mine is fond of – the reverse ideastorm. Ask the group to ideastorm around creating the problem rather than solving it. So in this case ‘how do we decruit rather than recruit?’. Then work from there to solutions….
Dwight also pointed us to Viv McWaters blog where she’s been treating us to a series of posts on facilitation:
Great facilitation – what is it? In which Viv talks about the qualities of great facilitation – empathy, humility, bravery, playfulness, collaboration and responsiveness. It’s a good list illustrated with good comments.
Rethinking facilitation – a video of new educational approaches: If you can google facilitation processes and get millions of result, watch videos of facilitators in action, read facilitation blogs, articles and even books on-line, why the expense (in time and money) of coming together for training? It’s no longer necessary to come together to get the information you need to facilitate.Not necessary, perhaps, but Viv shares some thoughts about how best to use the opportunity of face-to-face training
It drives me nuts when facilitation is described mechanically: do this, then this, then that, and voila! Funnily, it never seems to quite work out that way in the real world.
So here’s the paradox. I love helping others to learn how to facilitate, work effectively with groups, upset entrenched patterns, surface emotions and unleash creativity, have big and small conversations. Yet when someone asks me how I know to do this or that when facilitating, I’m flummoxed. I often don’t know. I guess it’s a bit like asking an artist how they knew to put that stroke exactly there, or why use those combinations of colours. How did they know? I’m guessing they just knew because it becomes innate – through years and years of practice, through trial and error, through trusting their talent and their instincts. Through taking a chance, being brave, by being willing to make lots of mistakes before getting it ‘right’. By mucking it up, throwing it out and starting over. By believing they can do it, that it can be done.
Viv’s a welcome addition to my feed-reader. Hope you agree.
Regular commentator on this blog, Dwight Towers, brought the 30 year old booklet Co-operative and Community Group Dynamics…. or your meetings needn’t be so appalling to my attention. My interest was piqued so I found myself a secondhand copy. I can confirm it’s well worth a read. 30 years on and many of the lessons are still to be learnt!
The good news is that you can now view the booklet online along with an interview with Rosemary Randall, co-author a brief taste of which follows:
We were motivated by the possibility of bringing to the movement some psychological understanding of what happens in groups whether or not they have a formal structure, in particular of the unconscious processes in group life. We had this intuitive feeling that collective forms of organisation could be extremely creative, but they also had huge potential for destructiveness.