dominance in meetings: margins, myths, and small group magic

Recently I facilitated part of the second day of a 2 day gathering. I arrived on the night of the first day in time to catch the end of the day’s meeting. Energy was flagging a little and that meant that some of the dominant dynamics of the group were asserting themselves – a handful of voices leading the conversation.

I think we managed to open up those dynamics a little more the next day. It wasn’t perfect – people can’t change the habits of a lifetime overnight, but at least some were trying to do so.

It had helped that on the night I arrived a few folk went out for a drink. At one point a quieter member of the group shared that they had loads of ideas but struggled to get them heard, having had a speech impediment in their younger days that left them wary of speaking  in front of groups.

Hearing this had a profound effect – it instantly shattered the myth that some dominant people choose to believe. You know the one – quieter people could chip in freely if they wanted, so if they don’t they’re obviously fine with the way things are working. Or they don’t have any new ideas to add, but if they did the space is so open and equitable that there would be no obstacles to them sharing them. The strategy is simple:

  • Externalise all responsibility for any group dynamics issues and make it the responsibility of each person present to speak up
  • Work on the premise that because you can hold your own everyone else should be able to
  • Trade on an assumption that the space is safe because you’ve said it is, perhaps because you set some groundrules that included a few fine words on listening, only hearing one voice at a time and so on
  • Justify the imbalance by telling yourself the quality of your contribution is high

I’m in no way saying that these are conscious strategies but they are effectively what’s happening (and I speak as someone who would have to confess to assuming each and every one of them at times).

Here we had someone saying gently but articulately that there were obstacles, and it wasn’t as easy as the more fluent speakers chose to believe.

As I said, the second day wasn’t perfect – there were times in the day when louder voices tried to finish the sentences of the quieter voices and had to be gently nudged into silence, but it felt better than most meetings I’ve been at of late. I know that some louder voices consciously made a real effort to be quieter and in the main succeeded. And their quietening down helped to open space for others as well as highlight the dominance of those who weren’t quite so disciplined. I felt the tension that this caused. But, with support, the group showed it could clearly tackle the issue of dominance if it chose to do so.

Oh, and for those who refuse to believe that small group work allows quieter people to contribute more equally. Well let’s just say that, yet again, I saw it happen – people whose tendency in the full group was to be hesitant, even passive (for whatever reason) come alive and take an active and full role in small group conversation.



Can everyone facilitate?

I was copied into an email discussion earlier this week with an underlying question of whether it’s possible to say that everyone can facilitate.

Clearly there are people for whom facilitation is a greater challenge, whether because of confidence, experience, or communication style.

Been to this meeting?

What sprung to mind for me was shared facilitation. Not having a meeting facilitator, but having a facilitated meeting. In other words not packaging up all the possible roles, responsibilities, skills and actions required to successfully facilitate a meeting and hanging them around the neck of one particular individual (like some kind of process albatross). Instead consciously sharing those things, each taking their part. But how many meetings are there where that actually happens? The albatross scenario is more common by far. And if you take that scenario as your starting point and ask can everyone facilitate I think the answer’s likely to be  “no”. And who could blame folk for not trying or for trying and failing?

When we go to a meeting we need to ask ourselves what our role is. Seems to me that we have a few choices open to us, not all of which are helpful. I’ll leave you to make that judgment:

  1. Are we going to be passive spectator and be part of the ‘audience’ or are we going to get involved and contribute?
  2. If we contribute will it be a contribution to the content of the meeting? This is common but often conditional – after all we want to get our point of view across, right?
  3. We could also contribute to the content in away that helps articulate points of view that aren’t being heard – whether asking for others’ opinions or attempting to express views not in the room.
  4. We could also contribute to process. Again this can be, and often is, conditional – we’ll offer thoughts on process whenever said process isn’t going the way that best serves our interests.
  5. And/or we could contribute unconditionally to process, that is we could share the facilitation if only for a few seconds. For some folk this comes naturally and they’re a huge blessing for any albatross wearing facilitator. For others it’s not a natural part of their meeting experience or culture, but with a little conscious work it could be.

And if we can start to move in the direction offered by this fifth option, can everyone facilitate? Well the question then becomes: can every group share facilitation well enough that everyone in the group feels supported to play their part in that facilitation? Not an albatross in sight.

Meaningful meetings and connecting individuals

Here’s a couple of quick links to recent posts with some useful ideas and resources:

From Gillian at You Learn Something New Every Day, a compilation of posts on Making Meetings Meaningful. There’s a lot of stuff here I would never have got to without it being pulled together like this.

And secondly some nice theory and ideas for Connecting Individuals in a Large Group Meeting from Viv McWaters:

Groups are strange beasts, made up of individuals – and no matter how often groups come together, each time they are unique, even if the people remain the same. I suppose that’s self evident. What really interests me is the human connection between individuals that forms the glue of groups. It’s this human connection that, I think, can help or hinder groups in the work they need to do. That’s why I think connecting activities are useful. Even groups that meet often and where the participants are well-known to each other can go a little deeper in connecting and knowing each other.

We must stop meeting like this….

One theme that emerged out of Saturday’s Reclaim the Fields UK gathering was the dominance of meetings as the way of discussing and deciding. Unsurprisingly in a group of urban and rural growers there were a significant number of people who don’t find meetings a useful tool. They do. They don’t talk about doing.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I think transition initiatives face the same dilemma, for example, as they do and will continue to attract significant numbers of people who want to ‘do’ changes and not talk about them.

After all there’s nothing in the old zen proverb about meetings: “before enlightenment chopping wood, fetching water, holding a highly participatory and fully quorate meeting. After enlightenment chopping wood, fetching water, holding a highly participatory and fully quorate meeting” hmm, perhaps not.

So how do we conduct the ‘business’ of a network or group, in a fully participatory way? Much of the time on this blog we talk about making meetings as participatory as possible. There’s a danger we become complacent and see meetings as out prime or indeed only format for decision-making.What’s the use of a meeting that run with inclusion in mind if the meeting itself is a barrier to some people being included?

Is it possible to go weed the raised beds and come away with a good decision on next year’s budget or our next campaign action? Is it a case of mixing and matching until we find a happy medium? Interspersing time spent meeting with time spent doing?

What’s the problem?

The dominance of meetings creates a whole range of problems which I’ll briefly touch on here (feel free to chip in)…

Those that do meetings can feel resentment. It can feel to them like they’re doing the hard work – hours spent engaged in planning and doing meetings that are often tense and draining – whilst others get to play in the sunshine, or sit around campfires or whatever. This can lead to tribalism. And people being people, the sense of otherness that tribalism can create is often a source of conflict, discrimination and unease.

This resentment can rapidly spiral if the decisions of the meeting are called into question by those who didn’t attend.

Conflict can also flare as and when those that don’t do meetings take action (what they’re best at) without getting the go ahead…errr through a meeting. Potentially those that do have spent 3 hours huddled in meetings only to emerge blinking into the sunlight to find their decision rendered irrelevant by the action of those that don’t.

Simultaneously, those that don’t do meetings can feel marginalised and disenfranchised. These 2 perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive. Those that don’t can feel like second class citizens. They can feel that no-one’s interested in listening to their perspective. And repeated demands to “come to the meeting, then” don’t make these feelings any less real. In fact they risk aggravating by demonstrating that those that do haven’t heard that for those that don’t meetings are part of the problem.

So we abandon meetings then?

If I’m honest the thought of abandoning (some) meetings in favour of deciding whilst doing worries me. I feel compelled to explore the idea, but it raises questions.

  • How do we replicate all that hard work many of us have put into equalising power in meetings in much more informal settings?
  • Whilst flipcharts come in for criticism they do provide a visual accompaniment to a discussion that helps to engage more people. They also add a dimension of accountability – you can see if a point is in danger of being misrepresented. But you can’t write up a conversation that takes place whilst planting trees, building raised beds, watering seedlings or whatever
  • Same goes for minutes
  • It creates an imperative to make the doing (whatever that might be) accessible to all, in the same way we should be making meetings accessible. How do we make these tasks appropriate for all comers regardless of gender, experience, physical ability and so on?

Of course I can see an exciting hybrid – set the scene, create the space, start exploring the topic and then break for some small group work. Only in this model one small group weeds the raised beds. Another pricks out the seedlings, a third turns the compost heap and so on, before coming back to share ideas….

What’s your experience? Is it a meeting if instead of flipchart and pen we have woodpile and axe?Have you seen groups working well without formal meetings?

Of course we need to bear in mind that this tool – the blog- possibly lends itself more to those for whom meetings work as a tool. More on this later, I’m sure. Off to chop some wood.

Sharing values, Graphic Guides and Common Cause

Following our earlier phone meeting which I blogged about at the time, I met with Steph and Jeannie today to progress work on creating “effective meeting” resources for Transition initiatives.

Steph and her son have produced a great 3 minute video – a Graphic Guide to Groups which draws on John Adair’s action centred leadership but adds a values twist:

There’s the promise of more to come.

Steph’s also created a values-mapping activity that helps groups sort out what are their group values and what are their personal values. I plan to try it out soon and will report back on the blog.

This took us on to discussing the dangers of values-based groups. It’s a short hop, skip and jump from values to high horses and a fundamentalism of sorts. In short we can become judgemental and that alienates people. The values of compassion, common humanity, diversity, and open-mindedness can sometimes get lost.

And whilst we’re talking values, we also spent a little time talking about the Common Cause report which explores campaigning from a values standpoint, and more particularly campaigning in a way that reinforces the more selfless values. If we’re going to make bigger-than-self changes we need to appeal to bigger-than-self values.