Footpaths – Community Carbon Reduction: lessons learnt

Emily, from Transition Leicester, and I finally got round to debriefing the Footpaths Community Carbon Reduction training for trainers that we co-facilitated in September. We’re preparing for the first of 2 drop-in evening sessions to give ongoing support to facilitators and wanted to ensure we’d learnt the lessons of the training for trainers.

Whilst the training was an overall success, and Footpaths groups are meeting successfully at the moment, there are always things that can be learnt and built upon. 4 sessions dominated our thinking, and I’ll talk about those here – group agreements/groundrules, weather reporting, what is a group, and rank and privilege.

Group agreements – a topic that’s cropped up a few times on this blog. We set out to create a group agreement for use throughout the training. We started with flipcharts with the words “safety” and “respect” written on them and asked the group to think about what they needed to make the training a safe and respectful space for them. The catch? Ensure that their need was expressed in terms of specific behaviour – what they or others could actually do to make their needs manifest.

The session took far longer than we’d allowed it. We planned it to be concrete – an agreement for this group, for this workshop. Talking to the group afterwards, they were working in a far more hypothetical space, naming all possible issues for all possible groups. And some people really struggled to turn concepts such as “openness” into behaviour. Indeed, I’d go as far as saying that some people found the pressure to do so a little stressful.

The learning? Reiterate, reiterate, reiterate – why say once what you can say 3 times? We talked in terms of asking the group to name just one issue each, and supporting them to turn that into behaviour – get the agreement made and then have the theoretical conversation about agreements….

Weather reporting – to me this was a welcome addition to the agenda, but one that never fulfilled its potential. Why? Mostly because people reported on their own state of mind and not that of the group as a whole. This is a natural tendency in a training for trainers. There’s always that potential for confusion between “myself as participant” and “myself as trainee trainer”.

The learning? Again, reiterate the task. Maybe add a symbol that identifies the wearer/bearer as “facilitator” – the proverbial facilitator’s hat – and ask people to wear or bear when reporting?Perhaps we could also break down the weather reporting task in 2 ways. Firstly in each activity task someone with a solely weather reporting role to avoid any confusion. Secondly we could also break down the weather reporting role and give specific briefs to people to simplify the role until they gor the hang of it…. report on time-related issues…report on the level of agreement in the group…report on the energy level of the group and so on. Finally we talked about a scripting a roleplay the demonstrates a group with no reporting followed by a group with good reporting. Let people see the task we’re giving them before they practice.

What is a group? – Emily’s material was creative, intuitive and I learnt a lot from watching it. It wasn’t stuff I’d naturally find myself using, but having seen it at work, I will inevitably find space for it somewhere in the future. The problem we encountered was her metaphor of ‘group as an animal’. For some, describing a group in these terms opened up new perspectives and fresh learning. Others struggled with the imagery and failed to engage because of it. In the dialogue that followed it became clear that offering a palette of images might well have solved the problem. Alternatives suggested were ‘group as a machine’.

Rank and privilege – this was an important session that suffered from lack of time. Emily delivered some really good material but we didn’t get as much time as we’d planned for and the group struggled to see the relevance. The learning? The material isn’t easy, and needs the application and practice elements before participants will begin to appreciate its richness and usefulness.


Consensus: the deep end

13 participants and 4 facilitators, including myself, gathered in Oxford this weekend for Consensus: in at the deep end a full weekend workshop to explore consensus decision-making in more depth than consensus training usually allows.

Of course consensus is a widely used word. You hear it everywhere – the Blairs, Browns and Camerons of this world are constantly talking about reaching consensus in parliament, at the United Nations or the G8. Usually they mean that enough weight of opinion has formed around the dominant world-view that it will hold sway. So what’s new. That’s not the consensus we were exploring in the workshop.

Rather we were talking (and doing!) about a radical process that challenges people to co-operate at a deep level in order to achieve outcomes that don’t alienate, and don’t create disaffected minorities. It demands empathy, deep listening, the willingness to suspend personal agendas, openness to surprise, creativity and new ideas and a genuine attempt to find solutions that work for everyone.

The weekend’s agenda was handed firmly over to the participants. Friday evening was spent in reflection on people’s personal and collective understanding of consensus. Instead of creating a group agreement the group explored the underlying concepts – how to make the group fully accessible to those at the margins of the group.

To satisfy the inevitable urge for discussion, Saturday morning was spent in Open Space. The group then identified the issues that they most wanted to take forward into a more experiential phase of the workshop. Whilst they took a 30 minute break, we facilitators huddled and created experiential activities to explore and learn deeper skills around those issues.

The values of consensus proved to be a strong theme throughout. Consensus is often seen and taught as a decision-making process, and of course it is. But the process is only a framework for a way of inter-relating. Consensus is a state of mind and heart which is expressed through a decision-making process. It seems to me that understanding that state of mind/heart is far more powerful and effective than understanding the technicalities of a decision-making process without having that grounding in the values that it enshrines. Here’s a reflection from one of the participants, taken from an email I received this week

Something that really had an effect was the ‘persuasion exercise’ with someone against the wall and through dialogue attempting to bring them towards the larger group. It really brought home the point for me that when entering into political dialogue I will often wear the ‘party hat’ and actually to build strong consensual networks and relationships that hat needs to come off more often than not- to create a space to share common values and ideas that can lead to action together- with folk that share similar politics and also those who don’t.

Consensus is practiced widely here in the UK, but often at a shallow level with plenty of competition, poor communication and intolerance within what is supposed to be a co-operative, empathetic model.

I’m not sure how deep we got, but we certainly created activities that gave participants the chance to develop the practice of empathy, listening, and supportive curiosity. We threw them into high pressure roleplay to explore the pre-conditions for effective consensus. We practiced facilitating groups to not only reach decisions but to understand the values of consensus more deeply by the end of a meeting. And we explored tools and techniques that could be used in the consensus process.

I haven’t read the evaluations yet. I left those with my co-facilitators in Oxford. When I see them I’ll share them.

For me it was a good weekend – engaged participants and the challenge of designing the agenda as we went along, which I think we rose to.

Footpaths – Community Carbon Reduction: training the facilitators

The Footpath project Handbook- for facilitators and participants alike

This weekend myself and Emily Hodgkinson (process worker, facilitator and Transition Leicester stalwart) co-facilitated a day and a half training for facilitators at Leicester’s Eco House. More specifically facilitators of the Transition Leicester Footpaths: Community Carbon Reduction project, which I’ve blogged about before.

The group of 12 was made up of some people already experienced in facilitation and others completely new to it. The agenda was part orientation to the project, part orientation to working in groups and part practice of the core skills of facilitation. The excitement for me was getting to see, and work with, Emily’s approach. I was aware of process work, but not really familiar with it.

One activity that extended the active listening that’s at the heart of most facilitation training I’ve delivered we called ‘Weather reporting’. That is sensing and then naming the state of the group – the mood, the energy, the vibe – call it what you will. Making groups aware of their collective energy, especially when it’s low or negative, has the power to transform it, or at very least allow them to do some conscious work to improve it. Participants raised weather cards whenever they thought it appropriate to comment on the groups ‘weather’.

We also looked at groups as a collective entity using imagery and story. We explored rank and privilege in groups. And of course we gave participants the opportunity to prepare sessions from the Handbook and deliver them to each other for peer feedback and support. The quality of the delivery was impressive. Finally we looked at 2 complimentary approaches for understanding and dealing with ‘problem’ people and ‘nightmare’ scenarios.

The evaluations were positive. Transition Leicester’s evaluation form used both scoring and space for comments. Over 90% of participants said that the training had lived up to their expectations ‘well’. No-one scored the training ‘poorly’, but sadly there was one person scored it ‘neither well nor poorly’. One too many.

Unsurprisingly the participant practice sessions were most frequently named as ‘particularly useful’. The session on rank and privilege was seen as ‘least useful’. I suspect that’s because it was more theoretical, and needed to be grounded in application, but time was short…

We’ve scheduled 2 follow-up drop-in sessions, one in October and one in November. Those will be the real test of the weekend’s work as participants will have facilitated 2 or 3 meetings of their Footpaths group by then. Let’s see what they bring us to help them troubleshoot….

Groundrules: empowering or oppressive: part 2

Reflecting on Daniel Hunter’s article, mentioned in our previous post, a few things come out for me.

Firstly, not to be put off using of a group agreement (I don’t do ground rules and find the terminology too reminiscent of school for many of the groups I’ve worked with). It’s a good tool. Whilst Daniel is right to point out that, like any other facilitation tool, it can be done superficially, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

I find that a group agreement heads off the vast majority of ‘difficult’ behaviour and domination and does open up the way for the quieter voices and the least assertive to play a more active role. But it would be a mistake to think that the group agreement does all that on its own. Negotiating an agreement simply raises the consciousness of the group about issues of group dynamics and participation and it will need to be supported by a constant flow of reminders, gentle (and some less gentle) challenges, body language – gesture and facial expression.

I’ve reflected on whether my negotiated group agreements always list clear behaviours, and I’m not sure they do. That’s one tip I’ll be taking on. Here’s a few others I’d like to offer, in no particular order – some of which chime with Daniel’s thinking:

  • Don’t use an agreement if it’s not appropriate – deal with issues that arise in the moment if that works better for you and/or the group using the facilitation tools we all have in our toolkits!

If you are going to use an agreement:

  • Ensure the group agreement is framed in practical terms – what does this tool do for us as a group? For me people need to understand what they’re being asked to sign up to. Offering a rationale is essential for this – whether it comes from the facilitator or from the group. That way you get the process-skeptics on board
  • That rationale can (and should?) be given in the language of the margins and mainstreams. It should answer the question ‘How will this behaviour make this meeting accessible for all of its participants?”. See every agreement as negotiating space for those who find the dominant culture difficult to participate in, for whatever reason – negotiate for full participation
  • Get agreement! I’ve seen facilitators simply read through a proposed list for agreement and end with an “is that OK?”, accepting the low (indecipherable) murmur as assent
  • Take the time to fully negotiate the agreement at the start. It sends a clear message to the group that you, the facilitator, are serious about participation and opening up the margins
  • Use the negotiation process to cement your mandate to facilitate with the group. It’s a 2 step process – “Can you all sign up to these behaviours”? and “Can I have your mandate to support you in doing so?”
  • Negotiate a culturally appropriate agreement. I think Daniel’s right – we can get lazy and fall back on the shorthand of things like ‘no interrupting’ without checking that our assumptions work for this group. I know I’ve been guilty of this at times
  • Go back to the underlying purpose of the agreement – what do we want to achieve by our lazy shorthand of ‘no interrupting’? A safe space for everyone to feel able to contribute, have their voice heard and their point respected? So work from that – it may lead you to ‘no interrupting’ but it may not

Groundrules – empowering or oppressive?

Daniel Hunter of Training for Change has contributed a thought-provoking article to Turning The Tide’s latest Making Waves. In it he talks about ground rules and the various ways in which they can, ironically, undermine the safety of a group.

This flows from Training the Change’s emphasis on margins and mainstreams – that every group has a mainstream and a margin. Even groups of radicals who see themselves as the margin have a mainstream. If our ground rules (or group agreements – Daniel talks about agreed rules) reinforce the mainstream we do nothing to enhance the accessibility and safety of the spaces we facilitate and even undermine it.

I’d recommend taking the time to read the whole article, but for those in a hurry, here’s a few excerpts

Ground rules, to me, reflect a mistaken activist belief that we can and should legislate out oppressive behaviors. Safety requires more than rules…. Legislating oppressive behavior rather than dealing with it when it arises can reduce safety

First, ground rules need to be understood as a real group process. After a list has been made, the facilitator should test for agreement in a genuinely open way. The question should be understood: is this a list of behaviors you agree to hold yourself accountable to as an individual? If there’s not some open resistance to the list, you’re not asking enough. Therefore, if you plan on ground rules taking 10 minutes, you are rushing the process. Rushing makes it a ritual and reduces its meaning

Secondly, the list needs to name behaviors that can actually be regulated…Take “active listening”. It is so broad and means a whole range of behaviors that are understood very differently by different people. The facilitator should help the group break that down into specific behaviors. That might include: no talking while others are speaking, letting people finish saying a point, reflecting back during disagreements

Ground rules tend to be created by the mainstream of the group, who are clueless in their coerciveness. Take, for example, “no interruptions” as a ground rule. It explicitly privileges one communication style over another… African-American cultures and other cultures that may be marginalised have different styles of communication and may view interruptions differently — they can be part of keeping the pace of conversation moving. It’s still rude to cut off someone if they have not been able to make a single point, but even more rude to hog the floor making multiple and even unrelated points. But “interrupting” allows people to handle a conversation point-by-point, keeping a flow of a conversation.

Every group will have its own set of mainstreams and margins, and when the full group is asked to make a decision, who tends to get their way? The mainstream or dominant culture of the group!

And for another recent conversation on ground rules, check out Lynn Walsh’s Away with Ground Rules.

Why not read Part 2 of this post?