Language, laptops and lethargy

A few things grabbed my attention whilst preparing for and facilitating the World Carfree Network‘s annual general meeting. As mentioned in the report back post, it was a very international gathering. I’ve noticed that these gatherings bring with them specific challenges for participation that I don’t encounter so often elsewhere.

There are the obvious ones like language, but in this instance we were able to use English as a common language with very few problems given the high standard of spoken English of all the participants.

No, the main challenge is the laptop or rather all of the laptops. Maybe it’s a ‘being away from the office’ thing – a perceived need to keep up with work via email. Maybe it’s more human than that – taking advantage of a venue’s wi-fi to skype friends and family back home. But laptops are suddenly everywhere in meetings. Look round your circle of participants and there could be as many as 30-40% of them with an open laptop on their knee. To my knowledge only one is taking minutes….. So are the rest distracted or focused? Does the laptop replace the visual learners need to doodle in order to increase access to the discussion? Or are they only half-listening and half web surfing?And during every break there’s a rush for the laptop with a comparable reluctance to return to the meeting at the end of the break.

I’m used to ‘phones off or on silent’ being a standard part of most group agreements that I negotiate with groups. Should laptops be added to the list?

Perhaps symptomatic of the same underlying issues is the lethargic response to calls for concrete action. After all, especially in the third sector, we’re busy people. We’re all stretched. Many of us are campaigners by both day and night. A group has done tremendous work reflecting, discussing, planning, consenting and then we get to implementing… and suddenly no one has the strength left to lift either hand or gaze when the moment comes to volunteer to take a project forward. OK so I’m exaggerating slightly, and I’m certainly not reflecting only on World Carfree Network here (they were pretty good as it goes), but all that hard work is in danger of slipping away unimplemented for lack of a volunteer working group… As a facilitator I find it a tough one. Sure I can throw a bit of weight around and cajole people into finishing the process off, but that’s not a role I’m comfortable with. Is it a reflection of the lack of substantial communication available to international working groups – that phone conferences don’t inspire in the way face-to-face meetings do, requiring more input for less outcome?

As always more questions than answers…

But before I stop, a brief reflection on agenda preparation. In this particular instance the WCN had done most of the hard work by the time I came along,and that seems to be common with the international organisations I’ve facilitated for. But it’s always harder to feel that you can inhabit such an agenda. It’s easier to live and breathe (and therefore facilitate) an agenda you’ve known and nurtured since conception. And yet I don’t always remember to have that conversation with groups. It’s an important one, and I enjoyed reading Gillian Martin Meher’s recent post on it.

Building the capacity builders

On 11th February, we facilitated a couple of sessions at a facilitators’ skill-share. 35 capacity builders from 10 or so of the UK’s campaigning organisations came together to build their skills. The Rhizome contribution was to facilitate a session on ‘facilitating learning’ and co-facilitate one on dealing with ‘difficult’ behaviour in meetings and workshops.

This was the first event of its kind for a little known group called the NGO Forum. It’s a meeting of capacity building staff from a wide range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from Friends of the Earth through to Campaign Against the Arms Trade taking in CPRE and WDM along the way. The Forum’s been around for 4 or 5 years now and in one guise or another we’ve been involved. We sneak into meetings once in a while to see if we can be of use.

The ‘facilitating learning’ session went down well. It was a very short taster of a longer ‘training for trainers’ workshop. For us the key message is that people need to be involved in their own learning. As facilitators we need to bite the bullet and accept that it takes more time, but participation gets better results. Yes, it adds unpredictability to a training session – once you open up the learning to the group you can never quite tell what direction it will take, except to say that it will go in the direction of whatever the group want to learn at that moment. We don’t see this as a bad thing.

Dealing with difficult behaviour is also about participation. Commonly it is barriers to participation that spark off difficult behaviour. We facilitators can be as guilty as anyone of stereotyping people as ‘difficult’. We write them off and try to either ignore them or marginalise them so they cause as little disruption as possible. This doesn’t work for at least two reasons. Firstly these problems rarely go away because we sweep them under the carpet. It might seem to work at first, but they’ll come back sooner or later, probably magnified. Secondly, if we take the time to think about what’s going on then we’ll often see that the problem lies with us, or with the group as a whole.

This session focused on analysing group dynamics in order to understand what the barriers to participation might be and only then trying to find a solution. When you step back and understand that the group, or our facilitation of it, has limited someone’s participation in the group in some way, the ‘difficult’ person can be seen in a new light.  A common example is that our ‘difficult’ person simply hasn’t been listened to, and is feeling undervalued and alienated. No wonder they kick off in some way. Once we understand that we’re failing to meet the needs of the person in question, leading them to behave in a way we see as difficult, we can take action.  Take a breath. Look around. Understand the situation and then use an appropriate facilitation technique. It’s often as simple as a bit of active listening