Group as nation state: newcomer as immigrant

Ever travelled to another country or culture? For some it’s exhilarating, exciting, full of interest and new experience. For others it stressful, full of uncertainty and the potential to offend. Visiting a partners family for the first time can provide a similar experience – especially if it’s for a significant event or festival. You thought you knew how Christmas, for example, was celebrated and then you discover a whole new way of going about it.

And what’s this got to do with groups and newcomers? Simply that every group has a culture of its own. It has a blend of certain personalities, in-jokes, power dynamics, sexual tensions, jargon, assumed aims and priorities and much more. In many ways a group is like a nation-state – it has a definite character and sometimes its culture, like a border, can prevent a real barrier to the incomer, the immigrant would-be group member.

So how do groups integrate newcomers? There’s a real danger that like many immigration debates the default option is intolerance and xenophobia – at best “they can come in as long as they conform to our way of doing things”. I’m not suggesting that’s an official group position, but it can be the message the group’s culture puts out if there’s no attempt at cross-cultural communication.

Some newcomers may be willing to get involved on those terms. Others, like many immigrant communities, will want to retain links with their heritage. In this case it may be the way they’ve done things or witnessed them done in other groups.

Successful integration is going to involve a bit of give and take, a healthy dose of curiosity, time and effort given to communicating, and flexibility. The result? A group that is strengthened by its diversity, not weakened by it. A group whose culture is open and inviting. A group that grows and flourishes.

What does that boil down to in real terms? Here’s a few things to add to the to do list:

  • Realise that strong groups pay attention to their culture, so if you’re not aware of what yours is, pause and try to see your group from the outside. Better still ask recent recruits what they thought of the group at first. Even better still, ask those who came along but fell by the wayside what it was about the group culture (if anything) that stopped them crossing the border.
  • Think back to your ‘first meeting’ experiences – how did you feel? What were the obstacles? What would have helped you integrate into the group more easily? Having said that, remember not everyone is the same – your experience is useful but not universal. If you’re the kind of traveller that finds new cultures exciting, don’t forget those for whom they are daunting.
  • Take the time to talk to new folk, to ask questions and take an interest in the answers – show a willingness to learn from their previous experience and try new approaches. Cultures can grow and develop and each new member has a contribution to make.
  • Many groups offer few opportunities for newcomers to get involved in roles that offer real responsibility and real opportunity for interest and development. Be careful not to create hierarchies based on ‘time served’ with the group. You don’t want to equivalent of qualified, but immigrant, teacher and doctors working as cleaners because your nation-state doesn’t recognise their experience and qualifications. Find out what folk want to offer (and want to learn!) and make use of their energy, ideas, skills and talents. How do you find out – ask!
  • Evaluate! Each meeting and event should have at least a few minutes dedicated to finding out how it worked for those involved, including (especially?) newcomers. However don’t offer this opportunity unless you genuinely intend to listen to the feedback, and if need be, make some changes. Anonymous written evaluations are a safe bet. If you can create a culture where folk can speak their evaluations (so you can ask follow up questions), great. Whatever works for the group members.

Group culture and fracture lines

It’s an interesting question for facilitators – how much do you challenge an organisation or group’s existing culture, or how much do you simply reflect it back to them?  It’s a question I’ve been asking myself again in recent months, a reflective process aided by the peer review and co-facilitating we try to do in Rhizome.

If the group wants to talk in greater depth than time allows, to catch up when they don’t see each other enough though they work in the same organisation or network, with breaks expanding to swallow the day, if they want to problematise issues at every opportunity, or keep jumping around talking about different issues all at the same time, where do the boundaries lie in our facilitation role?  It’s not the first time I’ve come across this issue, and won’t be the last.

Despite a facilitator’s best strategies – careful structuring of the time, summarising periodically throughout where the group is at and where it still needs to go, reflecting from time to time if people come back from breaks late or talk at interesting tangents, sometimes group culture like a river will take the easiest route.  It can be uncomfortable knowing in advance that at the end of a session we will run into people’s dissatisfaction at not having fulfilled all their group or personal objectives.

So where does responsibility finally lie?  That’ll partly depend on the style of the facilitator, which can depend on the day and on the negotiated relationship with the group.  It can also be addressed in preparatory negotiations with the key contacts, as long as it’s made clear to the group during the session that you’ve been instructed to challenge their culture; negotiating whole group consent can help in this regard.

Sometimes it clearly helps groups to shake things up a bit – if people are used to hiding behind tables and laptops, why not a circle of chairs?  What warm-ups can you usefully utilise that will help people to step beyond their comfort zones, but not in a way that makes them feel unsafe or that they’re likely to plain reject.  You sometimes have to feel around the boundaries, and experience helps this process.  Thinking about how it’s possible to create a safe learning environment thus helping people try things out that might feel uncomfortable is a good distinction to reflect on.

This distinction was very clear at the recent Power and Privilege Training for Trainers weekend, led by George Lakey, formerly of Training for Change and the Movement for a New Society.  TfC are big on creating ‘containers‘, letting conflict bubble up so that it can be addressed – which is often not the same as resolved.  However, it didn’t go so well – in addition to cultural clashes and issues around the role of the facilitator, quite some people present where left feeling unsafe.  This feeling of lack of safety negatively impacted on the level of participation of some attendees; for others, they left the training feeling unsafe – shaken and stirred.  Not good – more on this in the future from your intrepid Rhizome facilitators who were there.