Confidence, community, consolidation…..and cop-outs

It’s been a busy week. The last 8 days have seen me working with Hannah co-facilitating a days training for Greenpeace volunteer Greenspeakers – building their skills and confidence in their role as public speakers. A few days later I spent an afternoon with Warwick University students helping them prepare for nonviolent direct action on the arms trade. The following evening Maria and I facilitated a meeting and skills building session with Community Harvest Whetstone, a community supported agriculture scheme that’s party of the Transition Leicester movement. And then this weekend Perry and I worked with Hackney Cohousing Project on their consensus decision-making skills (and mindsets, naturally).

Not every week is like this. I couldn’t sustain it. As I type, my concern is that my co-facilitators and I won’t find the time to fully reflect on the work we’ve done. That reflection is essential. We always try to ensure the participants in our workshops are given enough time to reflect and consolidate their learning, but sometimes we fail to do the same ourselves. I know I sometimes cop-out and tell myself that there’s reflection and learning going on at a subconscious level, and I’m sure there is. But there’s a power in making it conscious. One way that I personally reflect is on this blog. So you’ll soon know how conscious that reflection is if you see posts on all of the work I’ve just mentioned in the next few days and weeks! If not you’re well within you’re rights to assume I’ve copped out.


Facilitating Footpaths

Last weekend Emily and I co-facilitated another round of Transition Leicester’s Footpaths project’s Facilitator Training. 13 volunteers had come forward to take on the facilitation of small groups of people wanting to explore reducing their carbon footprint. This was the 4th such weekend we’ve run and we’re definitely crafting a stronger training each time.

We had an added extra dimension this time around. A third facilitator joined our team – one of Transition Leicester’s volunteers who is very experienced in facilitating the Footpath groups and wanted to build her skills and confidence in facilitating the facilitator training as well.

It was useful challenge because it forced us to revisit and articulate the reasons behind choices we had made as long ago as 2010. It also made us look at things that were safe to assume about each other but not so safe to assume about the new dynamic of a 3-way co-facilitation. And of course a new perspective helps shift some of those little stuck spots.

We made changes and real progress with Saturday’s ‘bad meetings’ activity, as well as with Sunday’s process-work inspired roleplay on facilitating problem behaviour. Both worked so much better this time than before. Our exercise on framing and weather reporting is getting sharper and clearer, but still has a little way to go.

In our debrief of this latter activity we identified some interesting dynamics and some changes we’ll make for next time. One dynamic we observed was the tendency of participants to resist and critique the activity because the task they’re given is a hard one – externalising the difficulty into the exercise itself. Of course that’s not to say that the exercise is flawless. Hence the changes we’ve decided to make.

The evaluations were positive, though not entirely, of course. The training was perhaps a little fast paced for some, and Leicester’s EcoHouse not the ideal venue (but one of the few that works for the Footpaths budget due to Groundwork’s generosity at letting us use the space more or less for free). And, of course, a whole weekend is a lot to give up for busy volunteers. Once again we’re reminded of the dedication of the people who volunteer to facilitate Footpaths’ groups, and countless similar projects.


Catching up…..

Seems like a while since I got round to reflecting on the work we’ve been doing on the blog, so here’s a quick catch up. Common Ground Since its inception Climate Camp has been an amazing experiment in working by consensus, a kind of petri dish or hothouse. It’s tried to create a process capable of bringing together hundreds of activists spread across the whole country to plan and carry out very complex action camps as well as many other activities. The process has had to be capable of dealing with large group consensus,  and a structure that has included spokescouncils, emergency spokescouncils, working groups,  a neighbourhood system, and open meetings. All that on top of the usual challenges that face a group using consensus decision-making. Inevitably it’s had its highs and lows. And some of those highs and lows have seemed exaggerated – as you might expect from anything grown in a hothouse. I still meet people for whom Climate Camp has been their introduction to consensus decision-making, who have found it empowering and liberating. But the process hasn’t managed to build a coherent and united community, which effective consensus should. As a result, in early June there was a meeting of some of the survivors of the process, coming together to take stock, reflect and begin to move forward. Myself and Emily Hodgkinson, mentioned elsewhere on this blog, and doing her first piece of work under the Rhizome banner, co-facilitated the 2 day meeting. We negotiated considerable time and space for looking at process (not enough by any means, but a significant proportion of the overall agenda). Climate Camp has had action at its heart. Any activist movement has a huge momentum for doing. Being and processing often suffer as a result. Besides, what’s the point of having a process oriented psychologist on the facilitation team if you don’t tap into her considerable skill? It was a useful weekend for everyone involved. I continue to learn loads from the process work approach to groups and what at first seemed almost mystical is now making loads of sense. They’ve invited us back for the next meeting, so it can’t have been that bad an experience for them. Evaluation comments included the very affirming “Wow, incredible stamina, energy and capacity to ground the group”, and “Very impressed with the focus you managed to inspire and great diversity of methods” to a couple of comments suggesting we “intervene a bit less, sum up less” and a challenge to explore the dynamic of own working relationship more deeply “Perhaps Matthew – as a white male you could look out for moments where you appear to be silencing or overriding Emily”. That provided the topic of conversation for the journey home…

The following weekend I was facilitating a 1 day workshop for Transition Towns folk, and related groups on Facilitating Consensus. A follow on from an introductory workshop last October, this one drew folk from Transition Leicester and Chesterfield as well as the local Steiner School community. My sense of the day was that the participants found it useful. There was a wealth of experience in the room (isn’t there always?) and the interactions between participants were clearly very valuable, and once more I’m reminded that our role is simply to put structure to those interactions. I was left aware that the group was quite diverse and that finding scenarios that worked for everyone in the various experiential sessions was a challenge. I certainly didn’t get it ‘spot on’, and that impacted on the depth we go to. We played with doing some of the group ‘discussion’ activities in silence, which had a profound effect on the group dynamics and opened people’s eyes to how they usually work. As is my current wont, we focused primarily on the role of facilitation in cultivating the co-operative values behind consensus rather than the ‘technical specification’ of the decision-making model.

definition of facilitation negotiated by the group in silence

The last few weeks have been dominated by some work we’ve taken on for a large NGO with whom we have a long-standing relationship. We’re supporting them in involving their grassroots supporters to design a participatory approach that gives those supporters a more effective voice in the organisation. We’re currently engaged in a consultation exercise, though time constraints mean more is being done by phone and web than face-to-face. We’ve brought in Perry Walker, originator of Crowd Wise, and we’ll put a raft of ideas that emerge from the consultation into regional Crowd Wise sessions where the grassroots will get a second chance to engage: shaping, prioritising, and merging proposals into one front-runner that has widespread support.

What’s coming up in the near future? We’re at the Peace News Summer Camp, UK Feminista Summer School, facilitating some training for mediators, and facilitating an Open Space and skill sharing day with the NGO Capacity Building Forum….

Facilitate local, change global…

The last couple of training sessions I’ve facilitated have both been local. They’ve also been with groups I’ve worked for before: Transition Leicester’s Footpaths project and the local Steiner school interest group.

I’ve spent a good number of years running round the country working with a large number of diverse groups. That’s been a fantastic experience. It feels like a positive contribution to have made, and of course I’ve learnt loads. I’ve rarely made significant local connections. But increasingly my work is about community-building and the irony of not being active within my own geographical community has become too much to sustain.

So a week ago I ran a morning’s skillshare with 2 of the Steiner interest group’s core group, coaching them through a deepening of understanding of the role of facilitation in groups including the realisation that ‘the facilitator’ doesn’t need to do all the facilitation. We covered a lot of ground in quite a short time in what felt like quite a lively session. It helped that both Tamsin and Susan were very eager to learn and have a genuine commitment to making the group’s processes participatory and equitable.

And this weekend I co-facilitated a second training for Footpaths project facilitators. We’d learnt a lot since the first one last year. The agenda was more spacious and also more focused on the facilitation of change. After all the volunteer facilitators are working with a group to make behavioural changes in order to make ecological change. So we spent a little time looking at the stages of change drawing on a model developed out of work with addiction. The extra space we created allowed us to look at the rank and privilege material we had to heavily edit last time around, although we changed the language this time (to inclusion and diversity). It was a thought and emotion-provoking session that took people into their discomfort zones, but it was valuable stuff and gave everyone a taste of the strong feelings that such material can inspire. Of course the practice sessions, in which participants facilitated for each other, were full of learning for everyone.

If there were an underlying theme I’d say it was consciously taking the group into an uncomfortable but fertile space. This is at the forefront of my mind having recently spent a weekend exploring Training for Change’s direct education approach, one important aspect of which is building  a strong ‘container’ for groups – that is creating and holding a space in which it’s safe to be uncomfortable and to take risks. Given the task of the Footpaths groups being comfortable working with discomfort seems important. They’re working with challenging material both about changing personal behaviour for the greater good but also about working together to make change in communities. Neither is easy or comfortable.

My co-facilitator, Emily, took the evaluations home with her. Once she’s done I’ll get my turn. Then I’ll share them with you.

Are we nearly there yet?

From time to time I find myself in discussion (or facilitating discussion) about whether or not campaigns and campaigners should declare their true colours and publish their vision and the route map for getting there. It’s not often that happens. More likely an organisation takes a step by step approach, raising awareness of, and lobbying for a ‘next step’. Yes the info on aims, vision, strategy might be available, but it’s not what the public encounter.

An example that springs to mind is fair trade but there are many other possibilities. The campaign for fair trade has focused on getting consumers to switch to fair trade brands of common goods. That’s gone hand in hand with working on companies to provide a ready source of those commodities that meet fair trade standards. In that respect it’s been a stunning success with the Fairtrade mark being very widely recognised and being the top ethical mark, in recognition terms here in the UK.

The problems sometimes raised are that this approach, fair trade or otherwise, simplifies issues, and leads consumers to believe that if they just switch to fair trade tea and coffee then all’s well with the world, which obviously it’s not. So what we need to do, the argument goes, is place fair trade in context of the wider issues of trade justice and the global economic system. Others argue that that’s too much for Joe Consumer to cope with in one bite and so on. I’m sure you’ve ‘been there had that argument’.

And of course it’s far too simplified a summary. Many fair trade insiders will (with much justification) say that they do a lot of awareness raising about wider trade justice issues. The problem is that work can get lost in the process of trying to formulate a simple understandable message for the public. It doesn’t fit easily on the side of a packet or on a leaflet.

There’s a danger that we end up with something akin to taking a small child on a long walk – “we’re almost there…. just around the next corner…. just keep walking for a while longer”. It’s a parallel I draw consciously, because it risks being a rather ‘parental’ approach.

Give it to me straight, I can take it

Last night I attended an open meeting of the Transition Leicester steering group. The group was looking for fresh energy and input. Several new folk , myself included, turned up. In one small group discussion I was part of we were looking at the strategic direction of Transition Leicester and very early on the question of whether the group revealed its full agenda arose. Was that too radical for folk to cope with? Do we talk changing lightbulbs and making your own compost and sideline talk of alternatives to capitalism until a later stage?

I prefer straight talk, cards on the table, and all that. But it has to be framed right. It seems to me that intellectual argument, facts and figures will only get us so far. What makes people undertake lasting change is a shift in values. In fact I’d argue that it’s a reconnection with existing values that The Man prefers us not to remember we have. All that commonly held stuff about equality, justice, humanity and compassion’s inconvenient for a consumer society, but I do think it’s present in all of us. We’re heavily sedated by all our consumer toys and told that self-centredness is a virtue. Turn on the TV for long enough and it’ll scream “me, me, me” at you.

So it’s not about radicalising people’s political views (although for some that might go hand in hand), it’s about articulating our values and connecting the dots to actions that embody those values. And if you buy into this argument then I think it’s good news because it’s simply (!) a case or reminding people what they already know to be true and showing some ways forward to rebuilding a society based on that truth.

Anti-capitalism, for example, frightens many people. But if it’s just about relating to others from  a position of common humanity and letting that run its natural course…. nowt too radical there. Make it a ‘system’, conceptualise it, and it can become too distant, too irrelevant for many, and risks becoming the preserve of the academic or activist elite. Whatever change we are making, and asking others to make, it has to be framed in human terms, or so it seems to me (today at least!)

The spark for today’s sermon was a lively debate I found myself in last night on making change. One member of the small group seemed to be advocating a very traditional top-down, academic, model of change. I’m going to paraphrase, and I’m aware it’s not an argument I have immediate sympathy for, so apologies if that comes through loud and clear and I stereotype…. “To make change we need knowledge, to access knowledge we need to speak an appropriate language, and oh dear, how do we communicate that to the masses who don’t speak the language? We need to educate them as they aren’t currently capable of understanding the change that is required”.

I’d prefer an approach that allowed for the possibility that people already have the answers and the experience to make change and all that’s needed is a drawing out of that experience, a sharing, and a collective analysis. And that can happen in any language. The best one? The language of the people making the change and not the language of academics, facilitators, professional campaigners or capacity builders.

So step by step or let ’em have it? I’d like to think that if we take the time to connect with the humanity in the issues we are active on, and phrase them in the language of the people we’re communicating too, then we can afford to be open about our vision from the start.
Implications for day-to-day activism? There’s a comments field below….



Introducing consensus to non-consensus groups

It’s common for people who value consensus to want to make the meetings they have as part of their everyday lives more consensual. So the question of how to use consensus in more  traditional, often hierarchical, settings comes up regularly. Saturday’s Transition Leicester group was no exception and it’s spurred me to share a few thoughts:

Saturdays group's initial thinking (click for a clearer view)

Down, down, deeper and down: Consensus requires some level of sharing – shared values, shared goals, or both. The deeper the sharing the deeper the consensus that can be reached. Many ‘alternative’ groups – action affinity groups, co-operatives have very deeply held shared values and consensus is a powerful tool for them. It becomes a method of not only making decisions, but of building a group that strives for deep understanding of equality, and deeply challenges oppression in all it’s forms. But in the workplace, for example, that level of sharing might be far more shallow. So realistic expectations are important.

Consensus in this setting is probably going to be far more functional than the transformative consensus happening elsewhere. However it should still be able to transform poor meetings to useful ones and challenge some of the assumptions of power and leadership that go unremarked in most organisations.

What’s in it for me? My biggest single tip to anyone wanting to introduce all or some of the ideas of consensus where it might not naturally seem to fit is to offer a clear, practical rationale. Consensus as a transformative-decision-making-process-that-radically-challenges-societies-norms probably won’t go down well with the boss. But consensus as a tool-to-increase-ownership-of-decisions-and the-quality-of-outputs might pique a bit of interest.

So, make sure you let people know what’s in it for them. Can you improve the quality of the ideas generated? Can you ensure that decisions are implemented more proactively? Can you cut down on the amount of time spent remaking decisions that were poorly made the first time around? Can you leave staff and volunteers feeling increasingly valued, with inevitable consequences for job satisfaction? The answer to all of these should be ‘yes’.

When it’s working well, consensus decision-making involves:

  • clarity on the decision being taken and the process being used
  • good listening and a feeling of being heard
  • broad discussion that actively explores possible concerns and looks to include diverse opinion
  • co-operating to find a solution that works for everyone
  • reflection – revisiting proposals to ensure they’re as strong as they can be
  • the final safety check of the ‘test for consensus’ which allows for shades of agreement and has the ultimate safety valve of the veto (aka the block, the major objection)
  • clear actioning of tasks
  • an on a process note it slowly but surely builds the group into a better functioning, cohesive unit

This makes it a highly pragmatic way of making high quality decisions.

But does it take more time? At first, probably. However you’re trading time for quality and possibly saving time in the long run. If you make a poor decision it’s poorly implemented, or not implemented at all. So you waste time chasing up the people who took on (or were given) action points. You waste more time having a repeat discussion at your next meeting because people have expressed dissatisfaction with the decision. And the result is at best half-hearted.

I’m not advocating consensus for all decisions. Don’t waste time using consensus to make unimportant decisions (as long as they are genuinely unimportant to everyone!), or choose between a range of bad options. Toss a coin, roll a  dice.

I’m also not advocating it for all groups in all settings. If it’s used to create the illusion of ownership, beware. People will soon see through that and lose, not gain, trust in the organisation. There has to be a genuine commitment to power-with rather than power-over, to participation and transparency. And of course, it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Consensus gives people a taste of being respected, listened to, and valued. ‘Ordinary’ meetings won’t ever seem the same again.

More posts on consensus decision-making

Transitioning to consensus: in Leicester

On Saturday I had the rare experience of having to walk just a few hundred yards from home to deliver a 1 day workshop on consensus decision making to the good folk of Transition Leicester. We met in the Friends Meeting House (well-priced, good access, well equipped kitchen, lovely garden).

The group was wide-ranging in it’s experience of doing consensus (from 25 years of working in housing co-ops to never having come across consensus before) but had a sophisticated understanding of what consensus could and should be. Some of them were from the Transition Leicester steering group. Others, like me, are on the periphery of the movement and had an interest in using consensus in other areas of their life – for example at work and in other voluntary groups.

My plan was to cover the ‘how does it work’ side of consensus and still dedicate a considerable amount of time to the underlying ethos – the values, the states of mind without which consensus can’t flourish.

To that end I picked up on some of the activities I used at Consensus: in at the deep end workshop in October – activities that encourage the exploration of different positions, empathy, deep listening and deep understanding.

I added a new exercise to help explore the different shades of agreement that exist within consensus: what does it feel like to have a strong personal opinion or concern and to put it aside for the benefit of the group as a whole? It was a reflective pair exercise with one partner supporting the other through a series of reflections (or for some, imaginings). Judging from my observations on the day, and from the feedback, there’s room for improvement. Not everyone was able to engage with the style of exercise, and it’s a little too complex. It would benefit greatly from a demonstration. But for me it’s an exciting development, and one I’ll keep playing with.

We also used an activity I’ve been using for a number of years – a consensus-orientated variation on active listening that I call listening for synthesis. In other words using active listening skills to draw together the energy, excitement and concerns that the group has expressed into a way forward that works for everyone – part summary, part ‘where next’. I asked the group to come back together and share their top tips, some of which were:

  • do it!
  • flag up that you’ll be summarising and moving forwards at regular intervals
  • be succinct
  • check with the group that your summary was accurate

We left some time at the end to discuss where to apply consensus. About half the group talked in terms of consensus in Transition Leicester. The rest talked about using something ‘close-to-consensus’ in contexts where consensus wasn’t the norm – hierarchical work environments, for instance. I’ll come back to that latter one in my next post…

About half of the group expressed an interest in more work on consensus – particularly with a focus on facilitating it. I’ll be contacting them in the next few days to see when and what format of workshop would work for them.

The evaluations were useful and positive. On the downside I failed to some extent to successfully combat my natural desire to talk too much (an ongoing piece of learning for me, especially in workshops on topics that invoke considerable passion). And the pace was a little fast for some. On the plus side, the atmosphere and environment we created as a group was safe, supportive, and enjoyable, and people appreciated the clarity of presentation and discussion

a snapshot of the participants' feedback

Footpaths – Community Carbon Reduction: lessons learnt

Emily, from Transition Leicester, and I finally got round to debriefing the Footpaths Community Carbon Reduction training for trainers that we co-facilitated in September. We’re preparing for the first of 2 drop-in evening sessions to give ongoing support to facilitators and wanted to ensure we’d learnt the lessons of the training for trainers.

Whilst the training was an overall success, and Footpaths groups are meeting successfully at the moment, there are always things that can be learnt and built upon. 4 sessions dominated our thinking, and I’ll talk about those here – group agreements/groundrules, weather reporting, what is a group, and rank and privilege.

Group agreements – a topic that’s cropped up a few times on this blog. We set out to create a group agreement for use throughout the training. We started with flipcharts with the words “safety” and “respect” written on them and asked the group to think about what they needed to make the training a safe and respectful space for them. The catch? Ensure that their need was expressed in terms of specific behaviour – what they or others could actually do to make their needs manifest.

The session took far longer than we’d allowed it. We planned it to be concrete – an agreement for this group, for this workshop. Talking to the group afterwards, they were working in a far more hypothetical space, naming all possible issues for all possible groups. And some people really struggled to turn concepts such as “openness” into behaviour. Indeed, I’d go as far as saying that some people found the pressure to do so a little stressful.

The learning? Reiterate, reiterate, reiterate – why say once what you can say 3 times? We talked in terms of asking the group to name just one issue each, and supporting them to turn that into behaviour – get the agreement made and then have the theoretical conversation about agreements….

Weather reporting – to me this was a welcome addition to the agenda, but one that never fulfilled its potential. Why? Mostly because people reported on their own state of mind and not that of the group as a whole. This is a natural tendency in a training for trainers. There’s always that potential for confusion between “myself as participant” and “myself as trainee trainer”.

The learning? Again, reiterate the task. Maybe add a symbol that identifies the wearer/bearer as “facilitator” – the proverbial facilitator’s hat – and ask people to wear or bear when reporting?Perhaps we could also break down the weather reporting task in 2 ways. Firstly in each activity task someone with a solely weather reporting role to avoid any confusion. Secondly we could also break down the weather reporting role and give specific briefs to people to simplify the role until they gor the hang of it…. report on time-related issues…report on the level of agreement in the group…report on the energy level of the group and so on. Finally we talked about a scripting a roleplay the demonstrates a group with no reporting followed by a group with good reporting. Let people see the task we’re giving them before they practice.

What is a group? – Emily’s material was creative, intuitive and I learnt a lot from watching it. It wasn’t stuff I’d naturally find myself using, but having seen it at work, I will inevitably find space for it somewhere in the future. The problem we encountered was her metaphor of ‘group as an animal’. For some, describing a group in these terms opened up new perspectives and fresh learning. Others struggled with the imagery and failed to engage because of it. In the dialogue that followed it became clear that offering a palette of images might well have solved the problem. Alternatives suggested were ‘group as a machine’.

Rank and privilege – this was an important session that suffered from lack of time. Emily delivered some really good material but we didn’t get as much time as we’d planned for and the group struggled to see the relevance. The learning? The material isn’t easy, and needs the application and practice elements before participants will begin to appreciate its richness and usefulness.

Footpaths – Community Carbon Reduction

In the last few weeks I’ve been working with Emily from Transition Leicester on a training for facilitators which we deliver in about 3 weeks time. The facilitators in question are going to pioneer the first round of Transition Leicester’s Footpaths project. On the surface it’s another carbon footprinting programme based on getting workmates or neighbours together to share the experience of informing themselves and taking small steps to reduce their personal impact on the planet. What’s impressed me is that the vision for Footpaths goes deeper than that.

The Footpaths materials, spread over 7 sessions, includes a conscious and sizeable proportion of material on the nature of groups and the nature of making change in the life of individuals and groups. Real attention has been paid to the psychology of working in groups and of making change, neither of which are always an easy process.

At least part of the thinking behind this seems to be a desire to seed Footpaths groups that carry on beyond the 7 sessions provided by the organising working group as well as to create group-workers who are better equipped to work within their community in the future.

And if that wasn’t interesting enough, Footpaths has adopted a model in which the role of the facilitator changes over time facilitation. For the first one or two sessions the facilitators will undertake a fairly traditional workshop facilitation role but with an increasing emphasis on devolving responsibility to the group until by the end the group are co-creating the agenda and sharing responsibility for both the process and the content. I suspect this will be a challenging transition for some facilitators to make – it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of facilitating one particular way. Part of our work in preparing the facilitators is to support them in enacting that transition.

As for the agenda we’re devising? It’s almost there. The usual struggle to prioritise the material we’ll include and that which we think is valuable but for which there simply isn’t time. There will be 2 drop-in evening sessions in addition to the initial training. These will be strategically placed to offer facilitators ongoing support and allow us to bring in some of the material we’ve not included in the initial session, hopefully at a stage of the facilitators’ journeys when it’s particularly relevant.