Form an orderly queue (but not a democratic one?)

A few Saturdays ago, Maria and I were at the Springhill Cohousing community facilitating a day on consensus decision-making.

One issue arose a few times in both full group and small group sessions. And I don’t think we addressed it adequately. Other issues dominated – more on those another time, perhaps.

And the issue? How to nurture a real conversation between participants that stays focused on one topic for as long as that topic needs whilst still adhering to notions of democracy and fairness. In this case calling people to speak in the order in which they raise their hand. Conversation versus fairness? Why on earth would these concepts need to be in opposition? Why indeed.

Groups that choose to work by consensus usually have high democracy thresholds. That is, they’re not content that ‘1 person 1 vote’ delivers a really sound and participatory decision. And yet, unwittingly, they can fall into all sorts of practices that limit the depth of democracy and fairness in their consensus process. More to the point many of these practices are adopted precisely because it’s thought they will deepen that democracy and fairness. So what’s going on? Why do practices aimed at supporting participation and equality actually limit it?

“Stacking” is a good example. Stacking is the US term for keeping a list of who is waiting to speak and calling on them to do so in order. It’s not a term I’ve ever warmed to, but UK consensus culture doesn’t have an easy equivalent. Usually “the stack” (the list of who is waiting to speak) is determined by the order in which people raise their hands. Some groups, including Springhill, use coloured cards instead of hands, but the principles the same. I’m sure there are other mechanisms in use too.

The idea is to create a structure that supports everyone to be able to take part. Folk that aren’t able, or are unwilling, to cut across others to have their voice heard, can raise a hand, or card, safe in the knowledge that their voice will be heard as their name reaches the top of the stack. So far so good. That’s fair, right? So what’s wrong with stacking? And more importantly what else can we do?

We’ve written about this before but it warrants more attention.

The problem

Firstly the process doesn’t guarantee inclusion and fairness. There’s still a hierarchy of the quickest, and most confident, to raise their hands – often the same people in every conversation. This may reflect the way they think (quick to form opinions….), their comfort in speaking their mind early in the conversation, and a sense that they have a right to do so (often a product of educational, gender and class privilege). Others, who feel the need to contemplate, reflect, or simply don’t feel they have a right to speak out, for whatever reason, may not raise their hand at all, or in the time allowed for the conversation.

If you keep a list of who wants to speak and analyse it afterwards, as I’ve done on occasion, you’ll almost always note that a small number of people spoke many times and the rest made occasional contributions, and in some case no contribution. So the consensus ideal of fair contribution and full participation isn’t guaranteed by stacking alone.

Secondly it’s an artificial structure that doesn’t reflect the way that we usually communicate. This arose in one of the Springhill practice sessions where there was tension between those who wanted a conversation (with the natural animation and cut and thrust of conversation, including moments in which several people are speaking at once and/or speaking over each other) and those who felt that interruption was an unacceptable form of behaviour in meetings. And being artificial it’s something that newcomers have to learn, which in itself can be a barrier to inclusion – especially as it echoes earlier learning in environments like school, environments in which we didn’t all thrive and don’t all have positive associations.

A third dynamic. and the one Springhill folk complained of, is that sticking rigidly to a list based on who puts up their hand when doesn’t keep the discussion focused. The first person on the list raises one issue, but the second wants to speak to a different aspect of the discussion, and the third yet a different aspect. If the whole discussion is held this way it become fragmented and hard to follow. Not only can that be inefficient, but it’s also a participation issue. A perfectly valid point often gets lost because people are still digesting the point just before it or are distracted by the point that follows. If it’s your point that gets lost, you can feel undervalued and that’s a real obstacle to wanting to participate (as well as a major cause of ‘problem behaviour’ in meetings. Plus it creates a sense that meetings meander, take longer than needed if they were kept focused, which leaves some people turned off. They may withdraw in the meeting, or withdraw from meetings altogether.

The solution

Here’s a few ideas:

Keeping a modified stack. That’s a bit of a mouthful for saying keep a list of who wants to speak but use filters of one kind or another to ‘tweak’ it. You might find yourself saying “I’m aware that Mike, John and Ryan are waiting to speak, but I’m also aware that the last 4 voices have all been male. I’m going to deviate from the list to bring in some female voices”.

I use male/female as shorthand for whatever the dynamic of your group is. It could be long-standing members and newcomers. It could be around class, race, age, or some combination of these factors).

Focusing on one topic at a time. It’s perfectly possible to use a stack and stay on topic. State the issue to be discussed. Invite speakers, let the conversation develop for a short while to draw out what the major issues are, and then focus on them one at a time. Now you’re using the stack differently. Now you’re saying, “OK, so let’s take those issues one at a time. Can I only see hands for those people that want to speak directly to this issue. We’ll come back to the others later in the meeting” or “I’m aware there are other people waiting to speak, but let’s ensure we’ve finished the discussion on this issue first. So if you’re point’s about something else, can you put your hand back down and we’ll come to you later”. Of course the urge to be heard sometimes blurs people’s ability to honestly reflect on whether their point is relevant, and you may need to challenge some speakers “how does that connect to this issue?”. If it doesn’t acknowledge it, but park it for later. If it does acknowledge the connection and hear the point.

Acknowledging conscious or unconscious mainstream culture. The ‘no interruption’ debate highlights this. Interruption is seen as rude in some but not all social groups. It can be a nationality thing, or a class thing, or an education thing. In white middle class circles we prefer one voice at a time (although I’ve noted that we commonly apply the rule to others, whilst willingly deviating from it ourselves. What we’re often really saying is “my voice, uninterrupted”, but I digress). That cultural norm doesn’t apply everywhere and we need to be aware that it might not be the norm of everyone in our meetings. It’s about acknowledging and exploring, and appreciating our diversity. As a facilitator, there may be times when it’s absolutely OK to let (even encourage) the discussion get animated, hear several voices at once and so on. After all it can be a testament to the energy and excitement of the group. There may be other times when we want to ask the group to simmer down so we can hear one voice, especially if that voice is a marginal one that struggles to be heard. It might be as practical as there being people in the meeting who are hearing impaired and can only follow discussions if they are held with one voice at a time.

Group process – servant or master?

At the heart of this is whether our meeting process serves us as a group (and I mean the entire group, not just the mainstream of the group) or whether we serve it. We too often conform to structures, even when they chafe against our personality, our diversity and our values. We need to use structures that serve our values and not vice versa. I don’t think that necessarily means we throw the baby out with the bathwater. More often, for me, it means flexibility. Knowing when to come in and say “things are getting a little heated, and it feels like it’s time for some deeper listening. What would aid that is if we heard just one person at a time, and ensured they were given the time they needed to make their point” and knowing when to let the group have its head.

In short, facilitators, chairs – don’t let the ‘rules’ hinder you in involving the whole group, in welcoming in a diverse range of voices and opinions. Redefine the rules, break the rules. Democracy and fairness aren’t rules. They’re values. And it’s those living values, not some artificial meeting construct that we should facilitate (and participate) to.


You might also want to read our posts ‘Groundrules – empowering or oppressive?’ Part 1 and Part 2


Autism and the social change group

I spent the afternoon in a workshop on autism and social change groups. The trainers were all on the autistic spectrum (diagnosed or undiagnosed), as were several other participants. The rest was a motley crew of activists and activist facilitators like myself – or NT’s as I now know that we’re known (neuro-typicals). As well as the first hand experience we were able to tap, one benefit of trainers who were on the spectrum was seeing the significant differences in the way their autism presented itself to the group – a clear message that autism defies stereotypes or assumptions.

The big down side of the workshop was simply that it was too short. We were given a good theoretical introduction to autism, helpfully peppered with anecdotes and examples. We had a chance to work through a couple of scenarios and discuss group responses to difference. We touched on solutions to including those on the autism spectrum without alienating others in the group. What was missing was an opportunity to practice and embed the learning through experience.

One obvious piece of learning from the first half of the session was that the many implicit social rules that most of us take for granted are a source of significant stress for those on the autistic spectrum, many of whom simply don’t have an innate understanding of the cues and etiquette of social situations. Translate this to social change groups: What assumptions do we make? What processes, in jokes, roles and responsibilities are implicit? Time to make these things explicit if we’re serious about accessibility to those on the autistic spectrum. And if we make ‘rules’ explicit there’s a need to stick to them. Rules that are changed or broken lead to confusion. But being explicit about the rules doesn’t need to be difficult or lead to conflict. It was observed that it is possible (and necessary) to be explicit and polite.

The workshop raised other issues which sadly we didn’t have time to explore and resolve. Many of them, to me, are issues to do with diversity and not autism in particular

Once again I saw hints of the view common in activist/activist facilitation circles that hand signals are a panacea, a way of ensuring that we could guarantee equality of participation. We’ve critiqued hand signals before. Whilst, on balance, I advocate their use, without the co-operative values that underpin them, and without a genuine commitment to diversity, they don’t do all that we claim they do. I worry that it’s too simple to promote them as a solution to including autistic group members and helping avoid the alienation that “different” behaviour can cause (both in the person of difference, and in those struggling to deal with that difference). Yes, hand signals might provide a structure that reassures the autistic. But they’re a rule that we often need to break. It’s far too simple to say “we’ll take your contributions in the order you stick up your hands” or “If you put up your hand you will be heard”. What if the first ten hands that go up are all male? Do we really wait that long to break the rule and include a female perspective? What if I put my hand up for the 5th time? Do you really guarantee I’ll be heard when there are other people putting up their hands for the 1st time?

There was also a slight tendency to ‘dump’ the bridging of the gap between NTs and autistics on the facilitator rather than leaving the whole group better equipped, more tolerant and more understanding of diversity.

Another interesting conversation was about building group cohesion. This was the challenge set to the group: how to build and maintain group cohesion in a group containing someone on the autistic spectrum? Activist groups use socialising (fraught with implicit rules) as their main mechanism for establishing and maintaining group cohesion. But what if that doesn’t work for you? The alternative suggested in the group conversation was to build cohesion as part of the ‘work’ of the group. Another topic we didn’t have time to explore fully.

An interesting afternoon – more questions raised than answered, but that’s how it should be.

The trainers had elicited some thoughts from folk on the autistic spectrum who were involved in social change groups. Here’s one of the responses:

I was in various local groups in environmental issues… for many years I kept “trying harder”, thinking I would eventually fit in and/or be taken seriously. I wrote studies and tried to work with everyone. I wasn’t trying to please anyone in particular; just had my eye on the overall goals that seemed rational to me – justice, safety, etc. I quit when I found out about autism and realized I was different on a much more fundamental level that I had previously thought…

Other pre-workshop reading was also valuable, and I include it here. Happy reading.

Sticking your hand up to oppression

Hand signals have become part of every meeting in some activist circles. Even when there’s no formal agreement to use them you’ll find a percentage of folk doing so anyway.

There are very good reasons to use hand signals (which I’ll recap at the end), but there are also very real dangers. I’m minded of posts I wrote a while back on groundrules and group agreements – there are good reasons to use group agreements, but as Daniel Hunter argued they can just perpetuate the oppression of the margins by the mainstream of a community, culture or group. Hand signals, the use of which is often part of a group agreement in activist circles, share that same possibility of perpetuating oppressive dynamics.

Here’s a short conversation between myself and Emily Hodgkinson, with whom I’ve co-facilitated a few times over the last year or so, and who’s background is in facilitating process work without the use of hand signals.

Matthew: Emily, you’ve recently starting working in groups where the culture includes using hand signals. And in one group we worked with we were given feedback at the end of the first day of the meeting that people wanted us to be more rigorous in our facilitation of hand signals. What has your reaction been to their use?

Emily: Well, I wouldn’t say hand signals are completely new to me – I’ve been in cultures where it’s common to raise a hand to make a point, as well as waving hands to indicate agreement. But it’s new to me to use them so extensively to try to find consensus around emotionally charged topics, and I was curious to see how it could work. My ethos as a facilitator is to bring an awareness to the dynamics that are happening which cause problems for the group, and the use of hand signals seemed to me to be a bit like pushing those dynamics ‘under the carpet’. This leaves the facilitator with merely the job of being a technician, a safe pair of hands. Perhaps most of the time that is absolutely fine, but when there is conflict or a wide diversity of opinions or communication styles, or when a group is in crisis and needs to find new solutions, sticking to one technique isn’t going to get you there. I’m constantly asking the question ‘Why does this group need facilitation in the first place? What is happening that is un-facilitative?’

Matthew: Why do you think hand signals themselves are a problem, when they’re widely seen as such an effective technique?

Emily: On reflection I don’t think the hand signals themselves need always be a problem, but their use can lead to a situation where people put up their hands to join a ‘queue’ of those wanting to ‘say their bit’, and the facilitator’s main job is to manage that list.

When a group has major differences to sort out (and it’s not always easy for any group to recognise that it does), this can result in many issues and opinions getting aired without anyone owning up to the accusations that are made. Queueing up to say your piece creates a situation where the dialogue consists almost entirely of contributions to a pot but with nobody taking the role of listener. It’s the group equivalent of talking to an imaginary friend (or foe) in your head. So you might say something quite emotional or controversial and then the next person in the queue says something completely unrelated to what you said, and your statement appears not to be acknowledged. There is no interactive dialogue, so criticisms or even ideas are not responded to directly; there is no relationship. So in a situation where accusations are being, or have been made, it is harder to directly take accountability, and the accusation continues to be spoken into thin air. You can have a situation where everyone is complaining about ‘something’ but the ‘something’ never shows up to answer the charge. In Process Work we call the ‘something’ a ‘ghost role’ and try to enable it to get represented for real in order to relieve the atmosphere and reach resolution.

Let’s say for example that a group vaguely knows that it isn’t as inclusive as it wants to be and they are having a discussion about how to change that. With the ‘stacking hands’ formula there will be lots of people saying ‘This group is not diverse enough, it should be better.’ Everyone complains about the exclusiveness but it is hard for anyone to acknowledge their part in it. The discussion remains very theoretical – about how things should be. In the mean time the minorities in the group will be sitting, quietly getting irritated with all this talk about how things should be, while no-one admits that they are being exclusive. Those who are excluded are denied an opponent to address. This is very common in all groups of course.

Matthew: Sounds terrible! So with so many downsides, why do you think a group would persist in using hand signals?

Emily: I was very impressed with many aspects of using them. I’ve seen the ‘queueing up’ procedure result in, for example, a better gender balance in those taking time to speak. It’s a vast improvement on leaving the ideal of equal participation to chance. We get to hear, fully, a far more diverse range of opinions even if we don’t like them, and this must lead to greater respect for diversity. Groups wishing to develop anti-hierarchical cultures will certainly need strong equality rules to protect those who are normally marginalised. So there’s a very reasonable fear that abandoning hand signals will result in losing our ability to ensure equal participation. However, it was still very easy for me to see who held more power and influence in the group and whose views were getting ignored. I see the rules around hand signals as a little like policing or national equality laws: as long as the law is still needed then the problem hasn’t been dealt with.

Matthew: You’ve already mentioned the facilitator as technician and police officer. So hand signals impact on the role of the facilitator?

Emily: That was very interesting. It’s too easy for both facilitator and group to slip into seeing the facilitator as simply a hired pair of hands present to ensure equal participation. I felt like a police-woman! That’s not sustainable. What happens when the facilitators aren’t there? During tea-breaks and the informal evening gossip? When and how do individuals work out what in their own behaviour needs policing? As a facilitator I find this draining, which is always a strong signal of unsustainability. Facilitation can be hard work, but it shouldn’t leave you feeling depressed. That connects to another tenet of Process Work that I find invaluable: that as a facilitator you are not an objective observer but a co-creator of what is going on. You are involved. If you are feeling or thinking something, this is information that belongs to the group; chances are someone else is thinking or feeling it too. Any personal difficulty you have with a group is partly your issue and partly theirs, and they deserve to have access to that information. Not only that but as facilitator you experience some things more strongly because of the way you are focused on the needs of the whole.

Of course you have to learn to remain involved while also detached in order to recognise these things and make them useful to the group. I’m thinking of a recent experience where I really felt an outsider in the culture of the group I was working with – I thought this was just my issue and not important. But I couldn’t shrug off the feeling and it got in the way of my being an effective facilitator. It turned out that one of the biggest problems that group had was how to deal with outsiders who complain about being excluded. Maybe if I had briefly named my problem or recognised that it was about the group, I would have been free-er to do my job and the group might have learned more about their dynamics and been able to work them out with me.

Emily: Matthew you have particular views about the way in which groups use the consensus process to reach genuinely consensus agreements. What is your view of the use of hand signals as part of that process?

Matthew: Hand signals are designed to give an equality of opportunity to participate, but in reality they just bring about an equality of opportunity to speak. What I’ve realised through in hearing your critique is that they don’t necessarily give an equality of listening. If there’s no equality of listening, of respecting the views that are aired, of empathy, then it’s all pretty hollow. Worse still it can actually mask oppression – because we use hand signals we must be fully inclusive, respectful and egalitarian – right? Wrong. Hand signals are not some kind of group dynamics panacea.

So first and foremost there’s a danger that hand signals can be a crutch, and lead to an abdication of the need to take full responsibility for our own actions – if, for example, (and it’s only appropriate in some cultures) we think interrupting isn’t a good idea, then let’s not interrupt. Should we really need a hand signal to remind us of that? And as you’ve highlighted, it leave us facilitators in a policing role – is that how we want to see ourselves?

Emily: Yes, that was exactly how I felt sometimes when facilitating in these cultures.

Matthew: Some groups have even got into the very lazy habit of equating hand signals directly with consensus decision-making. I came across a ‘Guide to Consensus’ video on YouTube recently which still leaves me spitting feathers – 3 years into the life of Climate Camp and they churn out this? No wonder they’ve struggled to reach consensus from time to time.

And like many facilitation techniques, if hand signals are used too legalistically they can have the opposite effect than desired. Instead of aiding the flow of a meeting, they can break the flow, if a speaker is required to raise a finger before speaking even though no-one else is trying to speak. If you stack the speakers in order of who raises a finger first and keep strictly to that order you may well still have a predominance of male speakers, of core group member speakers, or whatever.

So of course you need to deviate from the stack from time to time “we’ve just heard a run of voices representing one side of the debate. I know you’re next in the stack Matthew, but I’d like invite other perspectives in before we come to you”.

But more than that, you need to also have created a genuinely safe space for marginal voices to be heard, and you need to hold open the invitation for those marginal voices to be heard next. In my experience it’s pretty common for to try to deviate from the stack – to invite voices that haven’t been heard so far – and for the hands that are raised next to be those of the same old people who you’ve been hearing plenty from already. Maybe it’s a symptom of my own inability to create that genuinely safe space. Maybe it’s a symptom of the technique – it creates equality to an extent, but we don’t really want to deeply challenge the power dynamics of the group….

Emily: Yes, what you’re saying helps me to understand that there are some radically different ideas about what facilitation should be, when you mention your aim of creating a safe space for example. Creating safety is an important aim as a facilitator but when working with an ongoing group a more sustainable aim would be to help the group recognise that the space is not safe for everybody and so that they can start to take responsibility for it and to grow. For example, as someone who identifies as queer, there’s no mainstream space I would say is ever really ‘safe’ for me and you as facilitator can’t really make it safe unless you can bring heterosexist attitudes to the surface and get them transformed.

Matthew: And that very realisation – that not everyone is safe – creates a huge challenge for the group which may in turn make their space feel a lot less safe. So we need to be clear that we’re creating spaces in which it’s safe to be challenged and to be uncomfortable at times. For the mainstream of a group this is a really powerful experience even if it’s not pleasant – getting to experience a little of the discomfort that is an everyday occurrence for the margins.

And for us facilitators there’s also a challenge. This issue is the difference between creating a safe space (I’m regretting using that phrase now), and building a strong container as they’d say in direct education circles.Of course there’s also the issue of bringing our own prejudices to the surface and transforming them too.

Matthew:  I think the other issue you’ve highlighted for me is about “contributions to a pot but with nobody taking the role of listener”. As you pointed out, creating a stack also changes the dynamic of the discussion away from that of having a conversation. You might have 7 or 8 speakers in the stack awaiting their turn. There’s nothing to guarantee that what the second speaker says is in any way a reply to what the first speaker said, and so on. This lack of the normal ‘call and response’ of conversation can create an artificial environment with several effects: because it’s artificial people might not feel it necessary to offer the respect and listening that they would (hopefully) offer in conversation; the organic development of ideas is replaced by a more staccato rhythm; and no-one is actually speaking directly to anyone else, and more to the point it can seem that no-one is actually listening to anyone else because there are less of the usual cues you get in a conversation, in which the response helps you decide whether you were listened to. Instead the facilitator can be landed with the whole task of listening, reflecting and summarising to ensure people feel heard. Facilitator as technician, again.

Emily: So now we’ve both criticised an over-reliance on hand signals and it feels one-sided. What’s great about them? And how can we continue to work with them without falling into these traps and help groups who are used to these techniques address these problems without feeling they have to abandon their ideals?

Matthew: Well first and foremost, there’s the equality issue – whilst not everyone feels able or is willing to wade into a sea of voices and shout loud enough to get heard, most if not all of us can raise a finger to indicate that we want to speak. We can then relax, knowing we’ll be called on in turn and be given space to say whatever it is we want to say. There are also a few practical issues.

They can save time. The ‘silent applause’ hand signal allows us to indicate agreement with a speaker without having to join the queue and say “I’d just like to second that idea, I really think that’s something we ought to be giving serious considerations to, blah, blah, blah”. 3 seconds of wiggling our fingers instead of 3 minutes of mutually congratulatory oratory.

They can, if used with discipline, help a group focus on one topic at a time (if that’s desirable). There’s a ‘direct response’ or ‘directly relevant’ hand signal that says “what I have to say fits with the conversation we’re currently having and won’t move us on to a new topic, so it may make sense to take my point next/soon

They are useful for taking the temperature of a group around an emerging idea or proposal. Many facilitators will already use hand signals of this kind – a thumb spectrum, fist to five, or similar.

Like all facilitation techniques they’re there to serve the group’s needs and not to dictate to the group. They’re not an ideology or an identity in themselves and shouldn’t be treated as such. So it’s a case of using them when they’re the right technique for the job, and only then. And they need to be understood in the context of the values they’re used to foster – participation, contribution, equality and effectiveness. If the group doesn’t understand those values, then hand signals aren’t going to deliver them.

I suppose the question is do these benefits outweigh the disadvantages?