Can everyone facilitate?

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

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

Been to this meeting?

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

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

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

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


We must stop meeting like this….

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

So we abandon meetings then?

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking and entering (or why newcomers need to be old lags)

A couple of weeks ago there was an attempted break-in at a neighbour’s house. This prompted the local police to drop a ‘Burglary Alert’ leaflet through all our doors.

OK, so you’ve just checked the web address and confirmed you’re on the Rhizome blog and not some neighbourhood watch site. What’s all this got to do with participation or activism or consensus?

Well a phrase jumped out at me from the leaflet that brought to mind a topic we’ve talked about before on this blog and will inevitably return to because it’s one of the biggest problems campaigns and activist groups face – making our networks, our groups, and our meetings accessible to newcomers.

And the phrase? Try looking at your house through the eyes of a burglar. Of course the police want you to get into the mind of a burglar and then lock all potential avenues of entry to make your house impenetrable. For activists and campaigners we need to reverse the process – try looking at your network, your group, or your meeting through the eyes of a potential newcomer; then unlock all entry points and make your ‘house’ fully accessible. Newcomers shouldn’t need experience at breaking and entering to get active and get involved.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have been part of many networks and groups and to have been paid to help support others. My experience is that most community campaign groups aren’t thinking first and foremost about their group dynamics and about access and participation. And that may be entirely appropriate. After all they exist to campaign not to discuss process. However many of them are simultaneously concerned by their inability to attract and/or keep new members. But when pushed to think about the reasons why that may be the case, they often externalise the problem. I’ll paraphrase a few reasons I’ve been offered in the past:

“we can’t attract young people because there aren’t many young people living here, they’ve all moved away looking for work….

…they’re busy with jobs and starting families – they’ll join the group when they retire…

…we get lots of new people to meetings, but they don’t come back…. we think it’s because people today find all this talk of human rights abuses shocking and depressing…

…people live busier lives today that they used to, it’s not surprising our group is getting smaller…

Now there may be some truth in all of these, but further dialogue with the group usually uncovers some deeper group dynamics issues, all of which pose barriers – locked doors if you will – to newcomers getting involved. We rely on the sheer weight of  newcomers’ passion for the issues to drive them to break and enter the group or network. But for each one that successfully does so (often only to find themselves frustrated by the meeting they attend) how many more turn away at the locked door and go elsewhere, or worse still do nothing?

Making change in the world isn’t supposed to be an elite club that requires the passing of an endurance test before membership is granted. It’s not supposed to be like one of those masochistic Japanese game shows, or have an “I had to put up with it to prove I was serious, so should they” mentality about it. Everyone should be offered countless opportunities to make change every single day.

So groups – take a deep breath and look at yourselves from the outside. You may have fantastic publicity, but if the reality of the group’s meeting don’t match the publicity you’ll still lose people. You may have great, accessible meetings but fail to let the right people know about them. Or you may need to change both how you attract people and then the meetings and events you attract them to.

Change is not easy. It may help to remember your own experiences of joining the group. How easy was it? Really? Of course Everyone comes with differing expectations and needs, so we can’t assume they’ll share that experience. You may have been used to a certain meeting culture, for example, which made your group quite comfortable to join. Others may not share that experience. Then put your house in order – unlock windows and doors, put a welcome mat out and stick the kettle on.

And those that support groups? We need to take the time to create safe spaces for a little self-reflection to happen, so that groups can face the challenge of opening up their meetings, accepting that they are sometimes the reason people don’t return for a second reason. That’s a tough conversation to have, but an essential one and one that can ensure the longer term survival of the group, and the continuation of the campaign to another generation.

The agenda-less meeting: more musings

In the first part of this post fingers were compelled to keyboard by Chris Johnston’s post in which he critiqued the traditional activist meeting. He finished by promising us ideas for alternatives and has shared his thoughts in his latest post Birth of the activity meeting.

I’m more in tune with this post than his last one – it’s hard to disagree that meetings should: be activity-based; enable learning; give early responsibility; be fun and social. Chris calls these activity meetings. But I’m still a little uncomfortable with the possible interpretation that newcomers to activist meetings need a step by step introduction, hand-held all the way. See the middle step of his 3 posts Inspiration for the resurrection – it’s a fine line between peer support and coming across as paternalistic, patronising and worse.

Let me clarify…. given the choice of the way things are at the moment with your ‘average’ activist meeting, or the ideas that Chris offers, I’m sorely tempted to side with Chris. But it’s not that binary. Better agenda-based meetings are possible (paint that on your banner for the next march!). And they can be made accessible to newcomers.

Yes, have more (much more) activity in your agenda meetings. But the polarisation between the two creates a danger that we have a ‘committee’ doing the back-room drudge of agenda meeting stuff (including planning activity meetings) whilst newcomers have fantastic meetings. That way informal hierarchy and burn-out lie. So let’s take the drudge out of the agenda meetings we have whilst simultaneously organising parallel activity meetings. There’s no need to choose.

One choice is clear though, the way most activist groups currently meet has to change if we’re to encourage newcomers to join, and enable the current generation of activists to continue to make change.