Facilitating in a hierarchy

For many of us that work in grassroots networks or co-operatives, facilitating in a formal hierarchy doesn’t appear to be much of an issue – unlike co-ops or informal networks, the power relations and decision-making responsibilities are clear. But for many of our social change colleagues working in NGOs, facilitating meetings certainly can be an issue. The devil is very much in the detail.

Recently Gill and I were training a group of folk who will do much of their facilitation in the hierarchical setting of a national NGO, and for whom meeting facilitation is a source of potential tension. Factor in that they were relatively junior graded staff in the grand scheme of things and the problem is magnified. So what advice would you offer them? What’s your experience of facilitating in formal power dynamics?

As facilitators who’re often external to the groups we work with, it can be hard to remember what it’s like to be in that position. Our role as ‘outsider’ brings a certain authority with it, so we can feel protected from the hierarchy. Of course, that’s not always the case. Many of us will have done a piece of facilitation work when the brief we’ve been given only works for those with a certain degree of power, but not for everyone we’re working with. Or we’ve facilitated in a participatory way as instructed and then the manager has panicked at the newly empowered responses they are getting. Can you share how you dealt with it?

I stopped doing the washing up last night to make notes of the conversation that was happening in my head. Here’s a slightly more polished version:

Problem 1: Don’t we promote facilitation as about full participation? Good facilitation brings people in from the margins of the group, allows them to be heard, allows the  group to benefit from the full breadth of its wisdom, form plans and make decisions that harness the creativity and energy of the whole of the diverse group. I’m pretty sure I’ve said stuff like that on numerous occasions. But should you go into a hierarchical setting with that as the expectation of yourself as facilitator and then find yourself in tension with what actually unfolds before you?

Problem 2: Don’t we all carry personal expectations about what will happen in meetings with us from meeting to meeting? For some it might be “I have lots to offer but will never be heard”. For others it could  be “I will be heard”, or indeed “I will be heard and the outcome will go my way”. These are just a few examples of the many conversations that are likely to be going on in participants’ heads. Some meetings may deliver those expectations and others may not, especially if those expectations are about people’s power in groups. There’s a challenge there for facilitators to understand and manage those expectations sensitively in a hierarchy, particularly when they have to live within that hierarchy rather than be tourists, like us.

Problem 3: I’ve worked with a number of NGOs that like to see themselves as significantly less linear than, say, many corporations. They often, consciously or unconsciously, cultivate an image of equality, respect, being horizontal and well-connected to the grassroots. This can lead to frustration when the reality of the hierarchy kicks in mid-meeting. It can create a raft of problems for facilitators who’ve been asked to encourage participation and that’s what’s been happening; there’s suddenly a deterioration in people’s behaviour as they begin to feel ignored or sidelined, there may be conflict or more. I feel this tension whenever I’m working around NGOs. It’s a tension of expectations against reality. When you sign up to work in a social change or ‘alternative’ structure it’s easy to take with you notions of participation only to find that they don’t apply when push comes to shove.

Gill was rightly keen that in last week’s facilitation training we spend a while focusing on the purpose of a meeting. There’s a world of difference in what to expect from a decision-making meeting to a consultation for example, and yet the two often get confused. Are we being asked our opinion, which may or may not be taken on board, or are we sharing in the decision-making power? Are we simply receiving information on a project or being asked for our ideas? and so on. So facilitators need to help the group get some clarity on what’s the expected outcome and behaviours (and what may actually be permitted) in any given meeting, and where the power lies to decide that outcome, judge that information, manage those ideas.

In a formal hierarchy different people in the room may have a different role to play. That role may change depending on the meeting or even the item in the meeting; it might be clear that I am used to being the decision-maker when meeting with my juniors, but only be expected to offer opinion when meeting with my seniors.220px-FrostReportClassSketch

And what does that mean for the facilitator of that meeting – how should they acknowledge and manage the different, maybe fluctuating, power relationships? Does that mean that the role of the facilitator in this setting might be to disabuse participants of notions of their own power? How does that sit with notions of opening space for participation? Can these facilitators really facilitate for the margins – isn’t the nature of hierarchy that it will inevitably marginalise some people at least some of the time? Answers on the proverbial postcard, please.

Of course we haven’t talked about informal hierarchies, differences in perceived power, how people present when they’ve been discriminated against, teased, made into a scapegoat, marginalised or how people take authority, take control, assert their power. Many grassroots facilitators will face all of these issues too, only it won’t be so apparent who the ‘managers’ are and who are the ‘worker bees’.

And we haven’t talked about the real purpose of a meeting (as opposed to the stated aim). What are people really trying to get from the meeting? Attention, promotion, asserting dominance, settling scores….. A facilitator may need to bring these things to light or keep them under control and reassert the collective purpose of the meeting.

I’ve used the word ‘assert’ in one form or another several times here. Not surprising as I’m considering the need for more explicit work on assertive communication in facilitation training.

And then, sadly, I no longer had an excuse not to go back to the washing up……

Matthew (thanks Gill, for suggested edits)



Mainstreams, privileges and exclusion in radical groups

The folk over at German based trainingskollektiv have written a detailed reflection on the week-long ‘Facilitating Change’ event which took place earlier this year. They’ve called it Mainstreams, privileges and exclusion in radical groups and just translated it into English. It’s worth a read and you don’t need to have been there to find some value in their words. As one of the event’s facilitation team it’s a relief to see learning continuing and being shared.

For those of you who prefer reading off-screen, or with a few illustrations to complement the text, they’ve even taken the time to publish it as a pdf.

Let us know your thoughts,


I say, I say, I say…

I-statements. To quote Wikipedia:

“I-messages are often used with the intent to be assertive without putting the listener on the defensive. They are also used to take ownership for one’s feelings rather than implying that they are caused by another person. An example of this would be to say: “I really am getting backed up on my work since I don’t have the financial report yet,” rather than: “you didn’t finish the financial report on time!” (The latter is an example of a “you-statement”).[3]”

Seems like a great idea, and it’s no surprise that some of the groups contacting Rhizome are keen on I-statements. And yet they ( the I-statements, not the groups) are irritating me.

OK, let’s back up. There’s no doubt that in some situations (many situations) clear, assertive and yet sensitive communication is just what’s needed to help a group recognise and then deal with conflict. And, as always, we’d welcome your experience on the subject. Disclaimer over.

So what’s the problem?

Like several other established group tools, such as handsignals and groundrules, we’ve critiqued over the years they can become part of the problem they seek to overcome.

I recently worked with a group in which people would suggest from the sidelines of a conflict “use I-statements, use I-statements”, and it rang alarm bells for me. What I felt I was detecting was the faint hint of moral high ground. My sense (which has been known to be wrong) was that in conflict if one party used I-statements and the other didn’t, then the group would have more sympathy with the former, awarding them the moral high ground. I-statements were part of the code of acceptable behaviour for this group. Dealing with conflict, emotion, values without them was less acceptable behaviour.

It felt like I-statements were a tool of the mainstream of the group, and as such could be used to strengthen their mainstream power and position at the expense of others for whom this mode of communication wasn’t the norm. I also felt that the concentration on I-statements had the potential to defelct attention from the real underlying issues of the conflict. There were some unhealthy, even oppressive, dynamics at work, none of which I heard recognised and expressed in I-statements or otherwise.

I also worry about the control an I-statement brings to communication. I know that on one level it’s meant to moderate (and therefore de-escalate) a situation. But don’t you feel sometimes we have to let rip. It’s not just a carefully constructed sentence that expresses how we feel, it’s the body language, the tone of voice and, yes, sometimes it’s the passion and vehemence (some might say violence) of the expression that communicates just what we’re experiencing. I’m sure I-statements can be used this way with enough experience, but almost all of us lack that (not an excuse for not working towards it, I realise.

Another day, another group and a participant leaves the room, storms out even, slams the door and shouts “C*nt!”. No I-statements to be heard. But pretty clear communication, and valuable communication. No-one’s under any illusions as to the depth of emotion being felt. I’m pretty sure that the suggestion to “use I-statements” in this moment would have aggravated the situation, would have been unwelcome restraint and confinement and would have made it harder for the participant to rejoin the group.

So the message if there is one? No group process or tool is a panacea and that applies to I-statements as much as any other. If I-statements empower the least powerful in your group to be heard, then encourage and celebrate them. If they’re just another way to confirm the superiority of the powerful then I can live without them!


The Facilitator’s Dilemma

In Rhizome we have recently been sharing with each other the work we have done and how we felt about it. Common to us all of course is working with, facilitating, training, supporting groups of people. Some groups have many tensions unexpressed within them , power struggles, individuals feeling excluded or disregarded, mistrust, misunderstood or vague objectives leading to ineffective meetings and decision making and sometimes explosions of personal emotions which shatter the supposed task to pieces and all one can do is forget the task and start working on building group trust and respect .

As an external facilitator, brought in to help with a decision or a sticking point in a strategy development process, or to help define and clarify roles and responsibilities, it’s often obvious that the group has not spent enough time getting to know each other, exploring what they want or need, some members are marginalised and the group is dysfunctional.  I liked Cruxcatlyst’s article on this issue, When Groups Go Bad, recommending Jamie Oliver among other good suggestions, and also her piece on dealing with black hats!

Nothing helpful is going to happen while people’s defences are raised or they are in attack mode. Their adrenals are fired up and they are in ‘fight’ mode. Others will go into ‘flight’ mode, withdrawing from a hostile situation either through non-participation, or physically leaving.

By all means, allow a group, or factions within it, to vent about the situation. Right at the start of the session, let them get it off their chests – they won’t be taking anything else in while they are silently aggravated anyway. Then ask the group if they are willing to put that in a metaphorical jar on a shelf just for the time being, while the group works towards the outcome sought.

Be aware of which ego states various people in the room might have moved into (and of your own state), and use nonviolent communication techniques to guide your verbal and non-verbal responses.

And, as an external facilitator, it’s really hard to move away from the task that you’ve been brought in to do to what really needs doing and especially if there is not enough time allotted.  But the one cannot be successfully achieved without the other. A quandary, one which I struggled with recently, ending up giving more time to the people aspect and less to the task. Although this was something of a disappointment for the group, they did feel  they had got to understand each other better and agreed to take the task on to another meeting. Not much of a catalytic intervention, and another occasion when offering on-going support to the development of the group’s health was what I really wanted to do! This is the constant dilemma – to accept with caveats the parameters set by the client, even though you know it will not work, or to hold out for more time and more focus on the group itself before even contemplating starting a decision-making process.



Facilitating Change: Changing Facilitation?

On Thursday I got an early train to Manchester to meet with Adam, Kathryn and Lucy – my ‘Facilitating Change’ co-facilitators before travelling to Wales together the following day. On Monday evening I got the train back from the event – a little battered and bruised from the experience, oddly exhilarated too, and very tired. I left the others three and a half more days of work to do and with a sense that Monday morning’s work has shifted the dynamic. But I get ahead of myself. Whilst there (there being The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Ecocabins), I kept a rough and ready journal. Here’s a few extracts and some reflections from 48 hours on:

“I’m typing this on Saturday morning before the inevitable early morning facilitator planning session. Friday evening – we started ‘work’ at 7pm, after 2 intensive days of conversation, planning and deep sharing about our needs from each other. We started just as I was really feeling I’d had enough for the day. Our preparation was exciting, revealing and exhausting. We were treading the line between holding to a vision for the event, and our own anxieties about facilitating that vision and sustaining ourselves for a week long event.


In the end we went with our vision – working with the group of 22 participants (from the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Germany and Spain) as the material for the event, and with the event as laboratory. The design of the event? Emergent. We planned as far as ¾ way through Saturday, knowing that even that plan might (would) change. Our intention is simply to give the group an experience of itself and see where that takes us, working with whatever emerges. Handing over to participants as often as we can get away with for them to discern where the group is at, and design and facilitate the next step. Nothing too radical there if process work or similar is your background. But for us it’s a step (and a big one) but one we’ve been working towards for a long time. We expect conflict, we expect strong emotion, we expect difference and divergence. And we expect a hell of a lot of learning for facilitators and participants alike.

We discussed at length whether we’d also have all our facilitator planning and debrief meetings in public. It’s the one area where we strayed from the vision. It felt like too much on top of other risks we’re taking as a facilitation team. Ironically at the end of our first debrief meeting one of us uttered “I wish we’d had that meeting in front of the group”. The result of that first debrief? We’re on track… the approach is working for now and the group are willing to go with it (for now). We discussed the gender dynamics of a 2 women/ 2 men facilitation team. Are some norms already starting to show? Are we dealing with them less than skilfully? Are we letting the task of being ready to meet and greet the participants, and begin the workshop get in the way of us processing these dynamics? Aren’t they themselves “group as material” and shouldn’t we process them in the wider group? Answers on a postcard.

After a brief sentence of welcome we threw the group straight in with a question – “What have you already observed or intuited about this group?”. After some personal reflection and paired sharing we had a group discussion, and only then started covering “housekeeping” information, and introductions. We took our time over the introductions, letting them run for the rest of the evening.


Saturday: I’m tired. Very. And not a little bruised. It’s been an eventful day. This morning we asked the full group to sort 45 or so words and phrases into 3 categories – values, attitudes and behaviours in around 20 minutes. After a few initial thoughts as a full group, they broke up and shared why they had made the decisions they had – to put which word or phrase where. The flip charts they produced were beautiful . From a facilitation perspective there was also plenty of material to work with – the groups issues were definitely starting to show. The next question was “what values were we embodying in the activity so far”. Different small groups then shared one of the values they had experienced in the group in tableau form (by creating a group statue to represent the value). It was a kind of alternative version of Pictionary. The energy was high and there was a definite frisson in the group when one group sculpted ‘Elitism’.


We took the same question to the full group and tried to reflect back the dynamics we saw at play and the approach of group as content for the workshop really came into its own. A strong theme was the restraint, the politeness, and strong grip on emotion. There was resistance – of course there was. Hold a mirror up to any group and there will be resistance – hence my feeling a little bruised. And channelling the emotion of the group – giving myself permission to feel it and reflect it to the group was intense, tiring. As was alienating some of the mainstream voices in the group. It’s the first time I’ve properly gone out to consistently and persistently act as that mirror to the group. Some marginal voices were heard more powerfully than they otherwise might have been. My co-facilitators assure me it worked, but I’m no diplomat and need to work on ‘framing’ my observations in ways that challenge but also support.


It proved to be the backdrop for the rest of the day – an experience that has, to an extent, divided the group by opening up those mainstream and marginal dynamics.


Sunday: If the last entry saw me bruised, this evening  I’m bloodied and bruised. It’s been another intense day. We saw a mainstream in the group exerting its power, unconsciously resisting avenues that might empower the margins. Through Theatre of the Oppressed and a long debrief we persisted in trying to open up the possibility that there might be other forms of communication, other meeting structures and cultures, other ways of facilitating, that made room for the margins to participate. That persistence, coupled with allowing ourselves to feel the anger in the room and express it in the way process workers fill the ghost role – the role of what’s there but not acknowledged – opened up a rift between facilitators and the highest ranking participants. It was a risk. Has it paid off? Too early to say, but the margins are more vocal and they are demonstrating their support for the facilitation team.


What we’re almost certainly not communicating as clearly is the connection between this work and our role as social change facilitators. We’re not here for group therapy or for an anti-oppression workshop, valuable though both may be. We’re on this journey because we believe that social action groups and movements are tied into cultural norms theoretically informed by beliefs in equality and democracy, but which lock out behaviours that deviate from those norms. Ironically these democratic structures exclude those who can’t or won’t conform to those norms. We lose many people who might join our struggles because the culture and process of our meetings fail to show solidarity with their struggles. In our meetings we simply can’t handle strong emotion, we deal with conflict poorly, and difference of any kind is a real challenge in whatever form it takes. If we facilitators cannot support groups through these inevitable processes, what are we doing?


2 participants picked up the baton this afternoon with a ‘group process’, drawing on one of their experiences as a student of process work. Again, we were reminded that the UK activist scene needs new approaches to move forward. And process work has a lot to offer. As is so often the case it was facilitation from the group that was pivotal in moving the group on from a stuck position.


We’ve stretched people a long way. We’re aware that we need to keep going, but we also need to ensure that everyone has the support they need to work through the conflict that has arisen.


Monday: We were only working together this morning – the participants got the afternoon off. We facilitators fielded questions and conversation, and had a short debrief meeting. Kathryn, Adam and Lucy pick up the baton again at 7.30 this evening. Or rather they hold the space whilst a pair of participants design and lead the evening session.

This morning’s work was about consolidation and repair – acknowledging that the work so far has been tough, and stretched people. We gave them a chance to get to know each other more deeply, to support their experience so far with a firmer understanding of the theoretical models, such as margin and mainstream, that underpin it, and then a chance to take another look at the struggle of the margins through a diversity interview. One of the key learnings of the morning’s work was to broaden understanding of margins to the invisible (or less visible ones) such as mental health.


I’ve never facilitated an event at which so much of the work took place outside of the session – all 4 of us were engaged in a series of sometimes curious, sometimes furious conversations with a range of participants. Many of these conversations saw movement and helped us and them process what was coming up during the sessions. They were also an invaluable way for the facilitation team to keep its finger on the pulse of the group. So much was changing over a lunch break, or overnight that the snapshot we had of the group at the end of a session or a day’s work was rapidly out of date.


If last night we were feeling out of our depth (and I think we were), today we saw the clouds lift a little. There is very rich learning happening. The approach of continued dialogue and diagnosis of the group dynamics shaping the design and flow of the work was tough but rewarding. Holding to roles that challenged the group’s status quo was vital to deepen the work, but came at a personal cost – emotional and energetic. We need to reflect more on that and find ways to make it sustainable for us and our groups.


I’m hoping Adam will take over where I’ve left off, posting his learning, that of the group, and the facilitation team at some stage in the future. But he has a full week of this and needs to conserve his personal resources.”

48 hours on and back to ‘normal’ life’ it seems like another world. Knowing that the event is still in progress is mildly surreal. I got a text this evening “Going well, moving forward at least on M&M [margins and mainstreams] and rank. Now leadership is emerging as an issue as well. Positive learning being taken from your work with the group. Sorry you not here to see that…”. Having expected to be quite low after the event I was surprisingly uplifted. We received a lot of support from the margins of the group that made difficult facilitation possible and confirmed that we were doing the right work (even if we need to refine how we do it). Will it create a step change in facilitation here in the UK and elsewhere? Who knows. Will there be a Facilitating Change 2? Who knows. Will there be a lot of learning on facilitation for facilitators and participants alike. That’s guaranteed.



Class, conflict and confusion

George Lakey’s writing about class over at the Waging Nonviolence blog. 3 recent posts have touched on different aspects of class. In Do we mean what politicians mean by ‘class’? he helpfully gives his interpretation of the different classes and the qualities of each, as well as offering some conclusions on the relevance of class (mis)understanding for activists:

After looking closely at family backgrounds we can see that some activist conflicts are not so much about ideology as about class-based assumptions. In the midst of a campaign, a class conflict can result in losing the support of the class that loses, with no one in the organization realizing what’s really happening — and the whole organization losing. The stakes are high.

In Middle class confusion about class war, Lakey critiques recent writing by Bill McKibben on campaigning against fossil fuels through the class-lens. Here’s what he says about a common middle class assumption:

The middle class is socialized to remain confused about power. That’s how middle-class people can create narratives that ignore class struggle and assign the primary responsibility to — in the case of energy policy — consumers. The amount of privilege and the appearance of power given to middle class individuals make them especially prone to versions of “blame the victims.”

And finally in Opening ourselves to the realities of class he recounts a positive tale of  an alliance across class and draws lessons for today’s individual activists and movements:

Movements will grow stronger if we understand each other better across class lines, but class is often made a matter of statistics instead of lived experience…

..Our chance to defeat the 1 percent depends on our willingness to give up demanding that others become like us, and instead learn to walk in their shoes. That’s true when it comes to race and gender, and other differences including class.

I’m not advocating a dismissal of action in favor of obsessing about political correctness. A living revolution focuses not on rigid rules but on opening ourselves to others’ realities, and being grateful when they are willing to express them. We can open in the course of an action campaign, as MNS did in its blockade. We can open in the safety of a workshop. It means going outside our comfort zones, in workshops as well as campaigns.

The result is expansion, of ourselves and of our movements.

One of the other strengths of this latter post is the collection of statements that Lakey’s gathered and edited together to help shed light on the values and thought-processes of people from differing classes. Here’s a snippet of these 3 voices:

You may encounter my fear, so please insist that we can make contact. Underneath, I’m a decent and ordinary human being…

…please remember that underneath my facade of correctness lies a living, breathing passionate person who would love to show it…

…If we’re not speaking up it’s not because we don’t have something valuable to say. To work successfully with us, listen.

Autism and the social change group: Part 2

After the workshop I participated in at the end of March, I’ve continued a dialogue with Caroline from Insider Autism Training.

We spoke about ways in which the training could have been made more experiential. That led us to the question of “experiencing what?”. Experiencing autism is clearly not possible, and we agreed that there’s something distasteful about asking NTs (neuro-typicals as we’re known in autistic circles) to ‘pretend’ to be autistic. That’s not to say that there aren’t experiential activities that can help raise awareness. More on that below. The conversation homed in on 2 themes – experiencing alienation and empathy and led us to talk about diversity rather than solutions.

Everyone has some experience of alienation – feeling out of their depth socially or culturally, even if just fleetingly, for example that first day in a new job or at a new school, or travelling in a foreign country, or the first Christmas spent with a partner’s family. We can tap into those experiences to give people a sense of the difficulty faced by those on the autistic spectrum in reading the unwritten social signals others are fluent in. In doing so we can begin to get a feeling for the experience of the autistic. Of course this sort of fleeting alienation is not the same thing that those on the autistic spectrum experience. It’s not even close. NTs have the luxury of knowing that the new school/new job scenario is the cause of their anxiety.

Caroline has been playing with other activities:

“I ran a workshop the other day where I divided the  participants in groups of about 5 with where one of the group was sat with their back to the group, they then had to discuss a topic as a group. The aim was for the person with their back turned to experience some of what it is like to miss out on body language and the others to notice how differently they treated someone they knew without body language – it worked brilliantly –  the turned round person’s description of their experience (“I didn’t know when to say something”, “I could not judge pauses”, “I felt ignored”) matched almost exactly the difficulties autistic people have articulated about being in groups. The rest of the group confessed to being aware that they were ignoring the turned around person, or even referring to them as if they were not there, but that awareness did not enable them to change their behaviour”

Empathy is harder. Whilst it might be laudable to work towards NTs experiencing empathy with the autistic, empathy is itself a contentious issue in autistic circles. Talking about empathy and autism rings alarm bells because there is a widely held (and largely incorrect ) belief that autistic people are empathy-deficient. I’m assured that things are much more complex than this and that many autistics are over-empathic.

The temptation for many facilitators is then to try and ‘fix’ the problem when they encounter it in groups. But solutions are not easy and it might be best to try instead to hone awareness. There are some behaviours typical of autism that can exasperate others in a group. And whilst it’s not impossible for autistics to learn and modify their behaviour it’s not going to happen in the course of a 90 minute meeting. Nor should the modification of behaviour be one-way. The NT community has a lot of work to do.

That’s not to say there are no solutions. In the workshop we heard how for some autistics there’s a real need to express their thinking immediately, and patiently waiting isn’t realistic. One suggestion from a participant on the autistic spectrum was to find ways to allow people to write down their thoughts in the moment, and then bring them in when the flow of the conversation permits – a parking space flipchart, a stack of notepaper or post-it notes.
But thinking in terms of solutions could be a distraction from the real issue – tolerance of difference and diversity.

Caroline reminded me of the terminology “neurodiversity”. We’re familiar with other, more visible forms of diversity such as gender, race, physical ability, but there are invisible forms of diversity and autism is just one. It may be that we can’t ‘fix’ behaviours that cause neuro-typicals annoyance. Even to think that way labels those behaviours as ‘wrong’ in some way. What we can do is try to strengthen our tolerance and give neurodiversity the same credence and respect we would any other diversity issue.
Let’s finish on a short piece from Caroline which neatly brings some of these themes together:

“I heard a story from Ann about training a group committed to encouraging diversity.  Anne noticed a group member, Richard, behaved in ways that led Ann to suspect he was autistic.  Anne was surprised to see how the other members of the group cut Richard absolutely no slack.  It would not be exaggerating to say they shunned and excluded him.  The rolled their eyes when he spoke, did not acknowledge or respond to his contributions, but just continued the discussion as if he had not spoken.
Anne saw that Richard was dedicated to the work of the group, made reasonable points and desperately wanted to be included. Yet he was being exclude by a group of decent people who were vocal about how committed they were to diversity.  Anne could see that Richard could be irritating, he talked in a monotone, repeated points he had already made, picked up on tiny mistakes made by others and sometimes  interrupted others.
Anne felt very uneasy with the situation but was unsure how to address it.  She did not feel she could it would be helpful to state her take on the situation “It seems to me you have an autistic person here – this is an opportunity to respond appropriately and celebrate the diversity you already have within your group”.  If she voiced her perception of the situation in this way Anne would have been potentially shaming Richard, and adding to, rather than ameliorating his sense of alienation.
The reaction of the group to Richard begs the question of what they think they want to encourage by encouraging diversity.  Do they understand that diversity is more than window dressing, goes deeper than looking exotic but brings with it the need to engage with real differences and real difficulties.
Engaging with the challenge Richard’s way of relating brought to the group could have resulted in an examination of working methods.  A more explicit structure to meetings, the use of a “talking stick , a protocol whereby nobody could speak twice until everybody had had the chance to speak once and a summing up that acknowledged all contributions might well have helped.  It might have enabled Richard to be a more constructive group member and increased clarity about how the group was functioning.   Difference and diversity can bring a seam of richness to our endeavours, but for this to happen we need to be willing to question and continually adjust our ways of working, and engage with differences that are more than skin deep.”

More of Caroline’s writing can be found on her website. Many thanks to her for the sharing that has enriched this post.

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.

Facilitating from privilege

I’ve commented before that training around power and privilege in groups and society has been gathering momentum in activist circles here in the UK. We’re lagging sadly behind our peers in the States and elsewhere, but at least it’s happening.

I’ve been consciously building elements of this work into my group-work trainings for a while now, as have other Rhizome folk. But I’m left with a question about the privilege that many of us social action facilitators have as individuals. And yes, that most definitely includes white, male, heterosexual, middle class, educated me. The simple fact of the matter is that if we (I) are honest many of us have still got a very long way to go on our own journeys of exposing, understanding and acting on our own privilege. And yet we’re simultaneously trying to support other activists to do the same. Ordinarily, with any other training, I’d see that as potentially powerful thing – walking side by side in the journey. The problems arise when I reflect on some of the work I’ve done with other facilitators or alone.

Yes it’s done some good. Groups have learnt and shifted. Individuals in groups have learnt and shifted. And I have most certainly learnt and, hopefully, shifted. But I’m aware that some cruel ironies have occurred: that when working on margins and mainstreams I’ve sometimes unconsciously failed to adequately support the margins; that when working on power and privilege I’ve sometimes left the least privileged feeling the most vulnerable or, at best, equally as shaken up as the most privileged. Why? Because in designing and facilitating this work in I’ve inevitably done so through my privileged filters and experience which are more attuned to how the work will impact on people like me – the privileged.

I’ve frequently thought and said that a good facilitator doesn’t need to be an expert in the topic a group is working on, just in creating a space that helps the group to learn from its own experience. Nothing too profound there – many of you reading this will share that view. But with work around privilege I find myself a little more wary. Are the risks of us privileged facilitators blundering about with a subject like this too high? Yes, I learn each and every time, but I can learn as a participant, a trainee. Facilitating others isn’t, and never should be, therapy for me.

In the immediate future I’ll keep working on and with power, privilege, rank, margins and mainstreams. I’ll endeavour to tread as sensitively as  I can. But I think I’ll also be looking around for those from/with whom ‘the movement’ can learn better.

One such opportunity should happen this July, when Training for Change’s George Lakey runs a weekend skillshare around this very topic. More on that when the details are confirmed.

On being a facilitator

In early February, Matthew and I delivered a facilitation training for staff at the World Development Movement,  which had developed out of a Rhizome discussion last November with all seven facilitators. We had talked then about the difficulties of delivering meaningful training in a few hours, a single day. We understand why this happens – releasing significant numbers of staff and volunteers from their day to day jobs has a real impact. So we then talked about how we could have an equally real impact in a relatively short time. The phrase we used was making catalytic interventions. How do we ensure that our work catalyses real change?

Our training design changed because of this discussion, manifesting  in the training for WDM which in turn built on a recent facilitation training with 38 Degrees .  It was more playful and more powerful. It was not the traditional, logical progression of facilitation training but nevertheless clear, shared learning took place about what it means to be a facilitator as opposed to doing facilitation. We’re into ‘states of mind’ territory here, and that feels like a place where change can happen faster than when we’re training in technique and toolkits.

Maybe considering an analogy between photography and facilitation helps to explain this more clearly. Suppose you love photography, are fascinated by the work of say Shirley Baker or Diane Arbus, Mitch Epstein or Clement Cooper. You want to be a photographer, so you research in depth what tools your role model uses, which cameras, meters, lenses, equipment for reproduction, techniques for cropping or colouration, digital enhancement etc. But to be a photographer you need more than just the tools; you need to be able to see, to observe, to notice, to frame, to take risks, to wait, to trust yourself, to act at the right moment.  It also involves luck, fortuity, serendipity, happening to be in the right place at the right moment. The only way to be a photographer is to be a photographer – having a photographer’s state of mind, the instinct and the vision. The tools are only as good as the artist who uses them.

Being a facilitator is similar. The tools are useful, but unless you really are focussed on being a facilitator the tools will not work on their own – a facilitator needs to be open, listening, observing, taking risks, know when to speak or wait, sense the dynamics and energy of the group… it’s a state of mind.

A participant asked us during a break in the afternoon whether you could actually be trained to be a facilitator or was it a matter of having the right kind of personality and skills already. Through many years of running different kinds of training, I have several times come away with the feeling that some people there could not be trained to do or be whatever it was we were working on. Underlying this is the idea that someone has to “know” already whatever the training is aiming at, although they may not be conscious that they know it. In the course of the training they will recognise what is being developed and thus become conscious of their own understanding. The trainer’s role is to open people’s inner eyes, to make explicit what is already understood, to affirm their own understanding and enable them to voice it and thus to build their confidence, their trust in themselves. This is not to say that the people I’m thinking of could not be trained but maybe only that they were not at a point in their own development which coincided with what the training was saying. Maybe a month, a year further on it fell into place or began to make sense, maybe not.

Our agenda didn’t offer an explicit list of facilitation tools, but activities to get people thinking about group dynamics, power and decision making, mainstreams and marginals, listening and sensing, and most of all how everyone in the group is actually involved in facilitating. The question that the participant put to us seemed to show that, for her, it had worked, as did feedback from the organiser:

“Thanks for yesterday, it was really great, lots of people told me how much they enjoyed it and we already saw benefits in our meeting today. “

So how was it received? Some of the comments, either on the learning that people took away with them or what could have been improved on are:

“There are lots of ways of facilitation – I like the idea of shared facilitation, co-facilitation”

“The holiday graph visualised the complexity of a meeting”

 “More on how to facilitate groups… where there isn’t a shared culture”

“Lots of useful things we can use in practice – these have built my confidence”

“In the weather reporting discussion the question was too difficult and led to confusion”

“Time for us to talk about how we could apply what we’ve learnt”

“Problem behaviour session could have been longer”

“Shape and structure of the day – moving from the conceptual to the practical worked very well”

And as always we, the facilitators, sat down together to reflect on and learn from what we had experienced before running for our trains home.



Step outside for a moment…

Occupy London was in court last week. The court found against them and, subject to appeal, the City of London can proceed to evict. The occupation is illegal.

I can’t help feeling that the power of the Occupy movement is tied into that very illegality. In a way I’m glad the court ruled as it did. I’m not glad that the individuals involved have had all their hard work in marshalling and presenting a case dismissed (read one perspective on the Occupy London site). I’m not glad that the encampment outside St. Pauls won’t be there to continue the outreach, education and activism it’s been doing so well. I’m certainly not glad that in the near future activists may be involved in a potentially traumatic eviction. But I am glad that Occupy still occupies the ground outside of the law. Occupy has set itself against the system. The law is part of that system.

It seems to me that there is plenty of organisations that fill the role’s that lawful activism can fill, and with some obvious success. But there is this other role – refusing to allow our activism to be framed in terms of legal and illegal, and instead doing what is right, just and necessary. That seems to be the role that Occupy should stand for, and hold out for.

All this got me thinking of facilitation. Is the same true? Do we all too often try to fit our values, our state of mind as facilitators into roles that the mainstream frame for us? Do we need to occupy ground well outside of the norms of mainstream facilitation-lore? There are certainly folk trying their hardest to create new spaces and explore new roles away from these norms – many of them referred to elsewhere on this blog : Viv McWaters, Johnnie Moore, Chris Corrigan to name a few.

When Rhizome met as a co-op back in November we spent a good while talking about our work. We reiterated that we saw ourselves as radical, but, in honour of our diversity as a collective of facilitators, we consciously refused to define that in any one dimension. We spoke of radical politics, radical process, and radical relationships within Rhizome and without. We also spoke of doing work that was radical for the groups we work with, whatever that may be for them. Seems to me that it’s about standing for the roles that are less comfortable, that are not filled elsewhere, in the mainstream.

We’ve been consciously trying to design our work with that in mind. I felt we were doing that well when Maria and I sat down to plan our recent facilitation training with the staff team at 38 Degrees. From the outset we let them know that we wanted to work with them on shared attitudes, values, and states of mind rather than facilitation technique, tools and skills. Our designing process had real energy and excitement – we tried to be intuitive and innovative. On the day we threw them into learning by doing right from the start with a series games that gave them the choice to compete or to share facilitation and co-operate. Out of their individual and diverse experiences of the same activities we were able to open conversations about their margins and mainstreams and those of the supporter groups they meet with. It felt like we were at least in the region of a radical approach to working with this group – getting to the root of what it means to be facilitating rather than do facilitation. It wasn’t perfect – there were some tools and approaches that at least some of the group would have liked to explore in more depth, for example, but it felt like there was some good learning happening. I know there was for Maria and I.

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.


Process, power and privilege in the Occupy movement

Ivan Boothe has written an excellent post on the Fellowship of Reconciliation website. He talks about the cornerstones of the process used by the growing occupy movement in the States such as the people’s mic, consensus decision-making, and general assemblies – useful stuff about the purpose and problems associated with them, including some insights for facilitators and organisers.

He also talks about the racism and classism of the movement, caused in part by these very processes, and offers an analysis of its causes. Here’s a snippet, but there’s plenty more:

In an ideal community, participants would collectively decide how to debate and pass proposals, and would learn from one another about how that process operates. In most cases, however, differences in experience lead to some people having more familiarity and comfort with things like consensus and spokescouncils. Since those “some people” are usually white college-educated activists, community organizers with decades of experience among working class neighborhoods and people of color can feel culturally marginalized.

Organizers often want to undermine the traditional hierarchy of leader-oriented movements. Without adequate transparency, however, this quickly becomes the “tyranny of structurelessness,” in which existing ties between individuals become unofficial — and therefore unaccountable — decision-making structures in which others find impossible to participate.

An unfamiliar process combined with poor facilitation, poor communication, and the inevitable rush of activist planning leads to a unaware but pervasive racism and classism that makes the setup feel far more oppressive than majoritarian voting systems with which people are familiar.

He also talks of the rarely acknowledged privilege that allows people to engage in the Occupy movement:

“Occupy” encampments take an enormous amount of privilege. The privilege to take time off — from family, work or school — and participate in an overwhelming and sometimes confusing community. The privilege to, in some cases, risk arrest simply by participating. But more than anything, the privilege to debate things like “an ideal community” in the midst of life-or-death struggles going on on the ground.

I guess that applies to bloggers too!

Mind the gap

Photo: Clicsouris - Wikipedia Commons

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 sure you can see others.

Consensus decision-making: the moment of truth

There comes a point in the consensus process where you have to test for consensus, that is actively ask the group whether or not there is agreement for the proposal that’s under discussion.

The success of that test is dependent on the foundation you’ve collectively built so far. If the group has worked well together to this point, and engaged in high quality listening and empathising this test can be painless, almost a formality, a reaffirmation of what everyone already knows – i.e. that there’s agreement for the proposal. However if the foundation’s shaky, this is where the walls come crumbling down and the group is left with not so much a cathedral as a pile of rubble.

We covered the mechanics of this step of the process in previous post, as well as an introduction to the veto, or block, so I’ll paste what’s already been said below and then add some words on facilitating this uniquely consensual stage:

So far the flow we’ve presented could be for any decision-making system looking to maximise participation. It’s at Step 5 [testing for consensus] that it becomes uniquely consensus. That’s because this is where we entertain the possibility of agreeing to disagree and of the veto (or block, major objection or principled objection – it goes by a lot of names). So let’s reflect a minute. We’ve got a shared agreement on the issue we’re discussing. We’ve given it the time it needs to explore diverse perspectives, to hear of concerns and possible concerns and out of that we’ve drawn together a proposal that seems to have the energy of the group behind it. We’ve paused and then tried to make the proposal even stronger, taking into account some concerns we hadn’t heard clearly enough before. We’ve restated the proposal so we’re all clear what we’re being asked to agree to (or not). Now the facilitator asks us 3 questions:

  1. Any blocks? Does anyone feel that this proposal runs contrary to the shared vision of the group and as such will damage the integrity of the group, potentially even causing people to leave? If you’ve done the work well to this point, the answer will usually be “no”. But let’s not assume…. give people time, and if there are no blocks move on to the next question. However if there are blocks you need to back up – is it enough to continue to amend the proposal or do you need to return to the broad discussion (which obviously wasn’t broad enough first time round….)?
  2. Any stand-asides? Does anyone disagree with the proposal enough, on a personal level, that they don’t want to take part in implementing it (but is happy for the rest of the group to go ahead, without feeling in any way a lesser part of the group for it)? It’s worth checking here that there aren’t too many stand-asides as that’s an obvious sign of a lukewarm response to a proposal. And we can do better than lukewarm.
  3. Do we have consensus? Assuming there are no blocks, and no more than a manageable number of stand-asides, can we assume that we agree? No – never assume, so ask the question and insist on a response. Lack of response may indicate ‘consensus by lack of will to live’…. the “I’ll agree to anything just as long as this interminable meeting ends” syndrome.

The veto

Each individual having the right to veto any proposal at any stage? That’s a huge amount of power and a huge responsibility. For those that haven’t achieved the necessary sense of group it can also be a huge problem, with individuals vetoing proposals for individual reasons and not with that sense of group in mind.

But in a well-functioning consensus group (and they do exist) the veto is so rare as almost to be unheard of. For this reason consensus lore says that an individual should veto no more than the fingers on one hand in a lifetime! Think about it, to get to the point in a process at which someone feels moved strongly enough to stop a proposal from going any further, a group has to have ignored some pretty significant warning signs. The quality of listening, observation, inclusion has to have dropped well below the standard expected of a group committed to equality, access, inclusion, participation (and all those other nice words). And given that vetoes are used to prevent a group taking an action that runs contrary to its core aims and values, the group also has to be going significantly off course. In our well-functioning group, the veto is not something to be afraid of, but to be welcomed. If someone vetoes it brings the group back to itself, it sense of self, and its core aims and values.

And that makes the veto a radical safety valve that keeps groups working to their highest shared ideals.

So what are the issues for facilitators at this point, and how might we deal with them?

Misuse of the veto

This is probably the most common complaint about consensus, and I’ve known long-term groups grind to a halt because of serial blocking. I prefer to think of this as misunderstanding of the use of the veto.

The most frequent misunderstanding is that a veto is an opportunity to block any proposal that I simply don’t like. And it’s this tension between the personal and the group vision that underpins almost all problems that might occur during the test for consensus. It’s a hard line to draw. After all when we’re working in a group we’re both individuals and group members. But consensus relies on us having a sense that as a group we can achieve more than we can as individuals (the group being more than the sum of its parts and all that). Flowing from that is the willing surrender of our autonomy so that we can be part of an autonomous group. To put it bluntly, I agree to put aside my personal baggage in order to be part of this group. That baggage might include personal ideals and goals that aren’t shared by the group. An (imperfect) example might help:

Let’s say I’m into all things green, and that includes green spirituality. My environmentalism is intimately linked to my view of myself as a spiritual human being. And I join a local green action group that works by consensus. I can sign up to all their values about sustainability and the need for empowered action. No problem so far. But the group doesn’t share my spirituality. In fact it’s decidedly secular. So when we’re discussing the organisation of our annual green fayre the rest of the group aren’t impressed by my suggestions of adding in a little of the spiritual side of life in the form of an opening and closing ceremony. The result is that the proposal we end up discussing doesn’t include my ceremonies, and to me that makes it far less attractive. Do I use my veto?

Short answer, no. I agree to disagree. To veto in this context is to impose my values on the group, to try to trump the collective with the personal and by flexing my autonomy to rob the whole group of its autonomy. But sadly that’s how it’s often defined and used, and this rapidly becomes a hostage situation with the group held hostage by one person refusing to be flexible, and insisting that everyone agree with them.

Agreeing to disagree may take several forms. You might stand aside – “I’m not that excited by the fair, so I’ll give it a miss this year, but you go ahead and organise it with my blessing… I won’t come to meetings that are focused on the fair, but will see you at our monthly open meeting”. In some situations you might even willingly and cheerfully leave the group because you realise that you don’t have the common ground with the group that you thought you did. Maybe your local pagan group will meet your needs more closely…

And the facilitation role here is to help the individual navigate that inner dialogue whilst simultaneously creating a supportive space within the group for it to happen in. Simply saying – “that’s your stuff, leave it at the door or find another group” isn’t enough. The individual is owed an explanation. After all, if you buy into my misunderstanding-rather-than-misuse theory, the chances are the problem has arisen because the group has never adequately articulated what it means to block.

  • So first things first, check out any assumptions about how the veto is used. If the group have a clear policy on this now would be a good time to ask for it to be communicated to all those present.
  • Next, at the moment of asking for vetoes reiterate that policy…. “are there any blocks to this proposal going forward? That is any serious concerns that if we agree to this proposal it might damage the integrity and cohesion of this group?”
  • If you find yourself faced with a veto that you suspect might not fit the group’s definition of an appropriate block, gently ask the blocker if they are able to articulate the reasons for their block in relation to group values and aims. If what you hear sounds personal, keep asking – “It’d help me to understand your objection if you could say a little more about how that relates to our collective vision for the group?”.
  • Remind the group of the alternatives to blocks – revisiting the broad discussion to explore the issue more, standing aside from a proposal, registering dissent in the minutes of the meeting and so on.
  • If there’s an insistence on framing the objection as a veto but it’s clear it doesn’t meet the criteria, then face it head on: “I hear your objection, and you’re obviously very unhappy with this proposal, but the way I hear you talk about your objection in the context of this group”. In some groups the sheer strength of upset being caused by the proposal could lead to it being withdrawn – group cohesion being more important than any one proposal

One word of caution, there’s a fine line between exploring a person’s reasons for using the veto and exploring alternatives and trying to lobby them to change their mind for the convenience of the wider group. If we cross that line we’re into the territory of the group mainstream trying to use their power to silence a group margin

When to block

The most obvious sign that a block should be used is when you or anyone else is feeling compelled to leave the group (nothing willing or cheerful about it) because the group is on the verge of violating its own common ground. The problem may lay in the group failing to live up to its ideals around process leading to it alienating people, or it may fail to live up to its aims and purpose. “compelled”, “violating”, “failing”: powerful words, I appreciate, but it’s a tool for use in power-filled situations – when the power isn’t working for the common good. Bear in mind that all the previous steps of the flow of consensus should have been equalising that power.

In terms of facilitation, especially in the mainstream UK culture, it’s easy to try to avoid conflict and downplay strong emotion. Don’t. This is a moment of significant learning for the group. They could be on the brink of making a serious error of judgement and some of the group are trying to pull them back from the brink. Some things facilitators can usefully do here include:

  • Supporting the idea of the veto when you know that you’re in controversial territory: “this proposal seems to be pretty controversial, so let’s test for consensus to see if that clarifies where we stand. Are there any blocks?”….Pause and observe the group – “don’t be afraid to block. Remember if we’re about to make a mistake it’s important to realise that. But let’s not veto for the sake of it”
  • Testing for consensus, even if the discussion is still going on, to provoke some clarity…. “if I were to test for consensus right now, would there be any blocks to this proposal?”
  • Backing up….. If feelings are running that high (and there is often strong feeling around a potential veto)maybe you’ve rushed into the proposal too quickly. “This proposal seems to be arousing a strong reaction, and I’m not sure it has the full support of the group. Are there other ideas that we dropped from the conversation earlier that we should revisit, either as alternatives or to help us pull together a better proposal?”
  • Take a break. Before testing for consensus have a tea break and let the proposal sit with people.

Reaction to the veto: seeing the veto as a positive action

Veto’s are used when the group has gone off course. Almost by definition that means that the group will be engaged in a struggle: some people will be feeling alienated from the proposal, possibly from the process and the group. There may even be people planning their escape from the meeting or group. In this context it can be hard to keep sight of the veto as a positive. It helps bring the group back on course. It also equalises power – perhaps an alienated margin (even a margin of just one) is using its right to veto to remind the group that they believe in inclusion and are failing to live up to that ideal. Also, and crucially, one person may veto but more than likely they are articulating the concerns of a larger number of people – a veto is used and there’s a wider sight of relief. So as facilitators we need to welcome the veto. Not hunt it out like some rare orchid, but be very open to it, and help the group to find the value in it. Not always easy in the moment.

We also need to be prepared for a backlash – a tired group seeing the veto as the beginning of yet another long discussion rather than the end they were hoping for. This is especially the case when not everyone has fully heard or appreciated the thinking (or feeling) behind the veto. This raises the question of whether the veto needs to be justified.

Unpacking a veto

Different group handle vetoes in different ways. I know of groups that drop the proposal the instant a veto is offered and move on to look for new ways forward. The person vetoing is not asked for their reasons why. There’s an assumption of trust. There’s an assumption of understanding of the purpose and power of the veto.

Other groups struggle to find that level of trust and understanding and vetoes are usually interrogated (often a hostile interrogation, sadly). If tensions are running high the person(s) vetoing may not feel safe to articulate their thinking or feeling, and a cooling off period between the veto and the explanation of the veto may be wise. Be prepared to intervene to facilitate that process.

An explanation is potentially useful even where trust exists because it highlights what the group has to learn to avoid a repeat of the current situation.

We’ve focused heavily on the veto to this point because it’s the biggest obstacle groups face as they learn to use consensus well. But there are other tips and hints for facilitators of this step of the flow of consensus

When to test for consensus

Testing for consensus usually occurs when the group has a proposal that seems to be gathering momentum. In this context, the signs that it’s time to test are similar to those that it’s time to try to synthesise a proposal.

But you might also test to provoke a hesitant group into climbing off the fence and taking a position. Perhaps the discussion around the proposal has run out of steam, you’re not seeing a lot of enthusiasm, but nor are you hearing a lot of objections. Obviously you need to think about the causes of this apathy (tiredness, not enough information to make a high quality decision, not a particularly important decision for this group), but a test for consensus might shake the conversation up a bit and highlight whatever the problem is. Think of it as a diagnostic tool.

State the proposal often

Think how frustrating it would be to have to deal with a veto only to finds out that the veto was caused by a misunderstanding over the nature of the proposal. Restating the proposal often and clearly is vital at this point in the decision-making process, especially if the proposal is complex, or has multiple parts to it.

It’s all too easy

Beware of reaching consensus too easily. If the speed of agreement doesn’t quite fit the mood of the discussion that led to it, check it out. Are people agreeing for the wrong reasons? Are they bored of the meeting and just wanting to move on? Tired and wanting to go home? Disengaged by the dynamics of the discussion? Beaten into submission by domineering speakers? It could be that they’ve failed to engage with the depth of the issue and are working at a superficial level. All of this should ideally be picked up and dealt with much earlier in the process, but better now than never.

And finally, it ain’t over til it’s over

Successfully navigating the test for consensus isn’t everything. The decision still needs to be recorded accurately for future reference and for those who couldn’t make the meeting. Then any action arising from the decision needs to be implemented, volunteers found, resources allocated. I’m not going to say more on this here.

That’s our journey through the consensus decision-making process over with for  now. Look out for posts on when not to use consensus and near-consensus alternatives for groups or situations when consensus isn’t a realistic option.

You might also like to read other posts in this series:

Previous posts on the steps of the consensus process:

“Take me to your leader!” 2

It’s easy to point out all the potential problems for groups with hierarchical models of leadership. It’s less easy to know what to do about them. If you support groups, whether on a local or regional level, or as part of the team at a national NGO or community organisation what’s to be done?

A lot of organisations start by changing the language of groups organising – moving away from Chair(man), Secretary, Treasurer to less formal and traditional words such as ‘co-ordinator’, ‘steering group’, ‘core group’. Well worth doing to send a message that your groups work slightly differently. But it seems to me that more needs to be done to actively counteract the norm.

Like it or not, the assumed model is one of leadership from the top down. Even if members of a group don’t particularly share those values that’s what’s likely to happen by default, simply because there’s not that much experience out there of the alternatives. So you might try:

Clearly articulating why

Tell both your groups and the wider organisation why you want change. And I don’t mean just ideological sentiment about power and leadership. I’ve nothing against that at all, but if you can give clear and practical reasons they carry a lot of weight both with the ideologically committed and those who have no problem with the good old-fashioned committee structure. But tell them they can attract and keep more members, have more effective and enjoyable meetings, increase the level of skill within the group, and sustain their activity for longer, and more…that’s pretty irresistible. If the bottom line is that you’ll make more change in the world this way, what campaigner’s going to say no?

Yeah, I know there are some that will say no because their power base is threatened or because they’re feeling anxious about doing things a different way. But it’s been a useful exercise because what’s just happened is that you’ve brought to light deeply entrenched group dynamics issues. And you have more chance of dealing with them now they’re in the open.

Modelling shared leadership

Walk your talk in the way you structure your team, put on events, communicate with your local groups, make your decisions. Is the way you’re currently set up genuinely a partnership? How participatory is it for local activists? Is communication a conversation or a monologue? Does your practice change in the light of what you hear from the grassroots?Are events planned with activists or for them. Who sets the agenda? Where does the power lie in the relationship? You get the picture.

Check out the Ladder of Participation and see where you sit.

Of course there’s a lot of tension here for those of us that work in capacity-building and network support. Our teams may go to great lengths to model the values and the practice of shared leadership, but be part of bigger organisations that adopt very traditional power-relationships. We’d love to hear about your experiences of that tension and how best to navigate potentially choppy waters.

Offering relevant training

Provide training in the necessary skills supported by relevant materials. And not just facilitation skills, although that’s a good start. It’s still possible for the Chair to simply morph into ‘facilitator’ – meetings are more inclusive but the underlying power structures don’t change.

So think about other group dynamics related training; training that opens people’s eyes to the roles that they play in groups; training that equips people to value diversity and be able to draw on that diversity to strengthen and not weaken the group; training which opens up groups to those on the margins as well as those in the mainstream.

Elsewhere on this blog we’ve talked about values over technique. Ideally your training will pass on the attitudes and underlying values of shared leadership and not just a set of tools. Tools that can be used to forge shared leadership, but can also be used to create a poor impression of shared leadership because the underlying state of mind isn’t there.

Highlighting where it’s working

Reinforce the message in your newsletters, emails and websites. Make shared leadership so prevalent in your communication that it feels odd to do it any other way.

What else has worked for your organisation or group?

You might also want to read “Take me to your leader!” – first post in the series.

Modelling shared leadership

Power and privilege

Platform emailed to give us a heads up about their new power & privilege training. This kind of work has been going on in the US and elsewhere in activist circles for a long time. It’s building momentum here in the UK and Platform’s work is a welcome step on the way. I look forward to reading their agenda and ruthlessly raiding it for use in our own work!

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.

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