Our Energy Future – Transition Somerset

On October 20th, in Taunton, I facilitated an event called ‘Our Energy Future’ for Transition Somerset. I was keen to do so because it gave me a chance to try out four scenarios about our responses to peak oil and climate change.

To start with, I acknowledged, but then ignored, two scenarios at either extreme:

A. Climate change and peak oil do not happen in this timescale, or, if they do happen, the effects are minimal.

F. The effects of peak oil and climate change are so severe that society collapses very quickly.

The titles of the four scenarios we concentrated on were:

B. We try to grow as fast as we can and deal with the consequences.

C. Green growth

D. A shift in focus to the well-being of people and planet

E. Oil was a one-off: we have squandered it and cannot replace it

The first question about each scenario that we asked the participants was what would happen to their lives and to the Transition and other groups of which they were part. Here are some of the points – many rather striking – made about scenario E:

  • Transition ideas will be needed. Rise in the local. Does this mean greater antagonism to the ‘other’?
  • Feudal? Back to bartering system?
  • Fear and greed can be allies: greater motivators.
  • People need to get used to keeping things for a lifetime
  • We will have acquired a new set of skills, and those that haven’t will be in trouble!

We then asked whether, given that we can’t foretell the future, there were approaches for people’s organisations or for Transition Somerset as a whole that would work under most of the scenarios. (This is one way of understanding the fashionable but slightly tricky notion of ‘resilience’.) Again, here are some of the most interesting points:

  • Reward value creation – collaboration
  • Overcome short-termism – new style of leadership
  • Whatever the scenario, there may be isolation, individualism and separation, so we need to build local communities
  • Giving people the inner skills to develop resilience
  • Change comes out of desperation not inspiration

Perry Walker



Transition US on Occupy and lasting change

The latest Transition newsletter has some interesting looking links to conversations on all kinds of Occupy related topics. You’ll find them on the Transition US website under the heading of resources for creating lasting change. Sounds good to me.

As with all these things there are links to pages with links and so the journey goes. If you come across anything particularly good (I’m sure it’s all good), let us know about it.


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….

The Tao of Leadership and Facilitation

The Tao of Leadership and Facilitation with Gary Reiss

Process Oriented Group Work Training on Rank, Power and Conflict Facilitation

Bowden House, Totnes, South Devon. Friday evening July 15th – Sunday afternoon July 17th 2011

Process Oriented Psychology, founded by Dr. Arnold Mindell, offers powerful tools for making group life flow more smoothly in connection with an earth based approach to life. It recognises that anyone can help facilitate a group, whether you are a participant facilitator or an official leader. This seminar is for anyone interested in improving their understanding of groups and in gaining methods to use as facilitators, participants, therapists or in organisational development.

There will be some opportunity to focus on themes emerging through the Transition Movement, as well as other themes emerging in the group, with a combination of teaching, training, practice and feedback on process oriented group work. Large and small group practice and experience is available for those who want this, with the aim of strengthening existing leadership and facilitation skills. There are a limited number of scholarship places for those working within the Transition Movement.

Cost £180 (£160 if £50 deposit received by 1st June 2011). Registration & info contact Sue Milner: smmilner@onetel.com or 01364-643108.

This seminar will cover : Process work approach to leadership – developing your own style | Facilitation skills – how to keep your organisation moving and flowing with change | Conflict work skills – how to make conflicts short, less painful, and how conflict can connect and bring groups together | How to deal with rank and power issues in a facilitative way | Facilitator training – how to deal with being attacked or challenged as a facilitator | Burn out – treatment and prevention of burnout | Dream and vision work – the healing and unifying power of being connected to dreams, myths, and visions on both an individual and organisational level.

Gary Reiss, MSW, PhD, holds a Masters in Social work, a Doctorate in Psychology, and is a Certified Process-Oriented Psychology Trainer. He has been in private practice for thirty years, with specialties including family therapy often involving sex and intimacy issues, and anger problems; and developing techniques for working with patients in comas and their care-givers.  He frequently facilitates conflict work with large groups in hot spots in the Middle East where he has developed tools for working with trauma at the personal and community level.

Two worlds collide on one small planet (or getting cross over culture)

Here at Rhizome we talk a lot about activism, though we like to think we have quite a broad view of what that actually means . We see it as both the more obviously political ‘campaigning’ work and the building of alternatives, building community. What’s one without the other, right?

Not for everyone. This week I engaged with a discussion on the Transition Network website. In fact I kicked off the comments on a piece about how more and more transition initiatives were interacting with activist groups and how this was worthy of more reflection and discussion. Right there you can see where I might have come at it from – the separation of transition from activism as if the 2 communities operated in total isolation with no cross over. From the response my thoughts received it seems like some folk wish they did, but I get ahead of myself….

It’s all placards and balaclavas

I posted a comment in which I tried (badly perhaps, I’ll let you judge – feedback always welcome) to express my feeling that there was an artificial difference being created between activism and transition-type work, that most, if not all, of the activists I know did both – perhaps not formally under the banner of transition, but transition-style community and resilience building. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of things like creating housing and workers co-ops, involvement in permaculture projects, community development work and so much more. The response wasn’t exactly warm and welcoming. Recent comments have thawed things a bit, I’m glad to say.

with apologies to Cath Tate cards

It seems that to those who don’t identify as ‘activist’ those of us that do are not as well thought of as we might like to believe, nor is what we do understood:

“How can people who have spent years seeing what is wrong and reaching for their placards and balaclavas adapt to a movement that is focussed on enablement and solutions?”

“as soon as you get a group going to build local resilience, that immediately attracts a lot of campaigners that say: “But if you believe in all this, why don’t you come to this or that?” The answer should be: “Because the time I use in campaigning isn’t used in building resilience locally in this or that way.” In reality, most people aren’t very strongly pro or anti campaigning, so they are swayed by whoever offers the most tempting package. And it usually the campaigner package is the most tempting, because it offers like-minded company and entertaining activities at a very low price: just be another one in this march, just put your signature there, just do this very little bit. Things like growing an allotment or organizing a local Energy Fair are way, way more work intensive, and a lot of the work isn’t as much fun, no matter how you try to make it fun.”

What I find interesting are the assumptions present here:

  • Activism is purely negative. “No”, “Stop”…etc (or as friend once put on their placard “Down with this sort of thing”. No sense of the positive worldview that might inspire people to try to prevent harm to humans, non-humans and the planet
  • Activists are not only not engaged in positive activity, but wouldn’t be any good at it if they were – hmmm see above
  • We wear balaclavas (implied violence??) – last balaclava I wore was probably aged 6 and almost certainly knitted by my nanna
  • If we engage with transition or similar movements it’s with an agenda, to get them to campaign (against their will) – now there may be a grain more truth in this one… but it’s certainly not true of all activists
  • That campaigning is easy, not time-consuming and great fun

What I find worrying are the possible consequences for community groups. Picture the scene: an activist who’s also keen to work locally and help build alternatives to the systems that s/he campaigns ‘against’ attends a transition meeting. Somewhere in that meeting s/he uses the word “activist” or “activism”. Worse still s/he uses it with reference to the assembled masses. Hackles are raised and the temperature gets a tad icy. Maybe our activist is told in no uncertain terms why transition is not activism and their sort shouldn’t try to make it so. Maybe nothing’s said and s/he returns home knowing that something’s wrong but not sure quite what. Another missed opportunity to build a stronger and more diverse movement….

If we can’t tolerate those who are fundamentally on side how are we going to build the resilient community that is at the heart of the transition ethos? If we make enemies of our friends, how will we deal with those we have least common ground with?

Falling off the high horse

Ah, but here’s the rub. Firstly reverse the scenario – are we the ‘activist’ movement really any different? A transitioner who’s keen to add an international, political element to their work walks into the meeting of her/his local direct action collective. How long before the hackles go up here? How long before s/he says something that’s not suitably anti-capitalist or direct action orientated (“we could visit our MP….”). OK so I’ve deliberately used a part of the movement that has a less mainstream culture and is harder to ‘join’ than, say, a local Friends of the Earth group. But are those more mainstream groups really exempt? Don’t all groups have a culture and aren’t cultures always a source of difference?And aren’t there as many assumptions made about those who choose not to campaign?

Secondly, how have we contributed to these assumptions being made? How have we communicated in a way that allows them to seem reasonable. There’s no reason to doubt that the authors are reasonable, intelligent and committed individuals and yet there are assumptions aplenty about the nature of activism. Have we communicated our difference in an exclusive manner?

And in conclusion

Back to the main thrust – how do we handle difference? How do we as folk that are committed to a better reality work to overcome that seemingly fundamental human trait of highlighting difference and using it as an excuse for having ‘power over’, for discrimination and oppression.

So a few thoughts for those of us doing capacity building work…. I’m more and more convinced that this needs to be central to the work we do. I know that recruitment and retention is a key issue in a lot of networks, often with a clear ‘difference’ problem (older group members having difficulty in recruiting younger people, for example). It’s not just about set piece responses. It’s not even just about the basic group dynamics stuff, though that can’t hurt. It’s about supporting and enabling ourselves and the groups we support to cultivate an attitude that helps them welcome difference.

And, crucially, that same attitude allows those same people to engage the wider world more effectively as campaigners, meeting people where they’re at. It also allows us to climb down off our moral high ground and see the more subtle human causes behind the issues we face and deal with them more intelligently.

I’ve been reading George Lakey’s latest book, Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners and I’m sure this won’t be the only reference in this blog over the next few months. George suggests that we need to suspend our attitude of judging difference and get back to simply being curious about it

“Curiosity is abundant in small children. By the time people are adults, judging seems to have replaced curiosity as the primary mental operation. As an impediment to intellectual development,the loss of curiosity is particularly marked whenever difference appears”

Recent news coverage of police officers beating up a submissive terror suspect remind me that this kind of behaviour is inevitable when we’re briefed to be afraid of difference and believe that difference is a threat to us. In this case the police were apparently briefed to expect violent resistance, and they acted out all of the fear, tension and excitement that the warning had created in them even though they didn’t meet the predicted resistance. Aren’t we activists sometimes the same? Aren’t we in danger of seeing all employees of certain corporations or government departments as ‘bad people’ and using that stereotype to legitimise inhumane treatment. Now, admittedly with activists that’s rarely the cause of administering a beating, but it can lead to other behaviour that fails to recognise and respect the full dignity of the human being we’re dealing with.

Back to where I started – how to work together in an atmosphere of difference and mutual respect, firstly with those with whom the differences are, relatively speaking, slight, and then with those with whom we are more profoundly different until we can honestly say we have the attitudes, skills and knowledge to create resilient and sustainable communities.

Please share your thoughts and experience.

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.

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.

Sharing values, Graphic Guides and Common Cause

Following our earlier phone meeting which I blogged about at the time, I met with Steph and Jeannie today to progress work on creating “effective meeting” resources for Transition initiatives.

Steph and her son have produced a great 3 minute video – a Graphic Guide to Groups which draws on John Adair’s action centred leadership but adds a values twist:

There’s the promise of more to come.

Steph’s also created a values-mapping activity that helps groups sort out what are their group values and what are their personal values. I plan to try it out soon and will report back on the blog.

This took us on to discussing the dangers of values-based groups. It’s a short hop, skip and jump from values to high horses and a fundamentalism of sorts. In short we can become judgemental and that alienates people. The values of compassion, common humanity, diversity, and open-mindedness can sometimes get lost.

And whilst we’re talking values, we also spent a little time talking about the Common Cause report which explores campaigning from a values standpoint, and more particularly campaigning in a way that reinforces the more selfless values. If we’re going to make bigger-than-self changes we need to appeal to bigger-than-self values.

Sharing values

I spent an hour and a half on the phone today to Jeannie and Steph, 2 of the facilitators that attended the Transition Network Dreaming Circle back in December. We were talking about meetings, more specifically trying to shape some meeting training agendas for transition groups.

Very quickly the conversation turned to values, and how we facilitate a process of helping groups articulate their values, shared or otherwise. Values seems to be one of the areas prone to assumption. We assume everyone else has the same ideals, beliefs and principles until we discover otherwise – a discovery that often leads to confusion and conflict and can be a real obstacle to groups functioning well. We noted that many groups hit problems when they expand. The founders are drawn together by a sense of shared values. Because that sense is strong they don’t feel the need to carefully articulate what they mean. Why should they? After all they all agree… Then new folk join and cracks begin to appear as the realisation dawns that there’s now a diversity of perspectives, and worse still of values. Sound familiar?

OK, time for a quick step back, because one of the problems is that it’s not always clear what we even mean by values. It’s a slippery word that can mean different things to different people… and as such I’m hesitant to try to pin down a definition here. I suspect for some it’s an emotional affinity with certain ideas or actions. For others a more cerebral yardstick by which to measure the ‘right way’ forward. As a facilitator I think it’s more important to raise the question “What do we mean by values?” than try to have the ‘right answer’. Phew, that’s wriggled out of that one.

Steph is facilitating a session to explore values for her local Transition initiative, so the whole discussion was given a definite context. We talked about tools and techniques for exploring values. The interesting thing, for me, was the realisation that we didn’t have a whole host of them at our fingertips. So we shared the ideas we did have, customising tools we’d used to for other more conceptual discussions. Many of the tools I use for this kind of discussion share a common approach – using some form of provocation, ie: a statement to bounce off that helps clarify our position. I’m thinking of spectrum lines, or of the process I co-facilitated with Rich from Seeds for Change last summer to explore the values people used to make strategic campaign choices. Here we used images of action, followed by a local radio-style interview using a few simple questions (see below) to provoke thinking and discussion :

  1. tell us about the action you’ve just taken part in
  2. what were you hoping to achieve?
  3. do you really feel this one action can make that kind of change?
  4. what would you say to those people listening that are thinking this is well-intentioned but won’t change the big picture?

It seemed to work, and it can’t be that hard to rework these or similar questions for different ‘values’ contexts. And I’m sure that provocation can be used Edward de Bono style for this purpose to.

The conversation also took in the work of John Adair, specifically his action-centred leadership model which balances the group’s task, with the needs of the group and the needs of the individuals. This could easily be rewritten as the group’s task, the values of the group and the values of the individual. Now I’m not a fan of top-down leadership, but strip out that assumption and replace it with a co-operative one and the model has useful implications for supporting groups to consensus through shared leadership. Clashes of personal and group values are often at the heart of blocks to consensus.

All in all an hour and a half well spent. As always, your thoughts, comments and, of course, tools and techniques are very welcome.

Dreaming of Transition: sharing assumptions

There’s a joke amongst facilitators that groups of facilitators are the hardest to work with.

Last week’s Transition Network’s Dreaming Circle saw 24 facilitators drawn from diverse cultures and facilitation approaches come together to talk groups. It was an immensely creative space, but inevitably there were things that could have worked better. Apologies in advance for concentrating on the “could do betters”. It’s where I do most of my learning.

Here’s a couple of things that stood out for me….

The common thread is making assumptions. Every group does it, and it’s a stumbling block to good process in groups. We make assumptions about what the group believes. We make assumptions on the process the group will use. We make assumptions on what the group wants to achieve. We make assumptions about what the group knows or understands. Usually these are based on what we as individuals believe, know, understand, want to achieve, and the processes we are familiar with. Making some of these things explicit early in the life of a group can save a lot of pain later.

What it means to facilitate:

In the Dreaming Circle group we didn’t do that explicit work. At one point on the second day there was open conflict involving facilitators wanting to move a process on, a participant not yet ready to move on, and others in the group unhappy at how the conflict was being expressed, and the patterns it might set if left unchallenged. In the debrief of the incident one key contributing factor was different parties’ understanding of what it means to facilitate.

Our facilitators (from Transition Network) were, consciously or unconsciously working to a model that required them to take responsibility to move the process along. This clashed with another take on their role (drawn from process work) – simply to name what was going on in the group, but not to attempt to do anything about it. That was for the group to decide. The issue wasn’t whether one model was right or wrong but that these assumptions had never been articulated and shared with the group. A useful reminder to all of us to ask a group, nice and early, how they see our role as facilitators.

Do you speak facilitator?

Every group of people has a certain amount of their own language – in other words, jargon. Facilitators aren’t exempt. What I feel that we should be exempt from, however is assuming that everyone shares our jargon or at least understands it in the same way. There were regular requests for clarification of terms such as ‘pattern language‘, and ‘constellation’.

It felt like this was one area in which the group was less successful in learning and modifying its behaviour, at least in the 2 days I was there. After so many requests we really ought to have been taking greater care to check out the assumptions in the language we used. It’s hard – when you speak these words so often, and when they’re part of your identity as ‘facilitator’, but it needed to be done.

A concern that I have about this ingrained jargon is that we might carry it with us when we work with groups who are not facilitators, and embed it into our training materials, embedding the assumption that it’s universally understood with it.

“What assumptions am I making?” is a powerful question. And the Dreaming Circle has reminded me to ask it all the more often Inevitably I’ve made some in this post, so feel free to point them out.

Dreaming of Transition

It’s been a busy week. I spent a couple of days mid-week last week in Oxfordshire at Braziers Park. Transition Network were running a “Dreaming Circle” that drew together facilitators from across the UK and further (Norway, Germany). The common bond? Wanting to support transition initiatives in creating good group process.

Like so many other networks, a few years in, some transition groups are struggling. And group process has been identified as one of the major reasons why initiatives are crumbling, and in some cases collapsing.

With such a diversity of facilitators in one space it was always going to be interesting, exciting and challenging in equal measure. I’ll post something soon about the way this group interacted and what I learnt from that. But for now I’ll focus on what it was all about and what came out of it.

The first day was spent getting to know each other, sharing our understanding of the symptoms and needs of struggling transition groups and talking about what we could bring to the network.

Day 2 was more practical – we used a variation of Open Space to set an agenda which was a mix of facilitators sharing their ‘trademark’ ideas and techniques and some practical planning around the type of support that we could offer transition groups and how it could be delivered.

The support topics that were proposed included sustaining involvement, effective meetings, choosing an appropriate organisational structure, starting an initiative and conflict resolution. A very long list of ways of delivering support was created, with quite a lot of energy around using humour, animation, video and cartoons to demonstrate some of the pitfalls of groupwork in an accessible way.

There was also talk of how to support individuals who want better process for their whole group to access support and then be effective changemakers within their group. This was a thread of conversation I initiated, so I’ll put down some thoughts on this blog soon.

Sadly I had to leave a day earlier than planned, so missed Day 3. But I understand that a working groups was formed to take the practical task of planning and delivering support further. Everyone was invited to sign up to both the support and the delivery mechanisms that most interested them.

Why the small ‘t’?

Whether we were together to support Transition initiatives (ie formally affiliated to the Transition Network) or any initiative doing the work of transition was a contentious issue. It wasn’t resolved whilst I was there. For the sake of inclusion I’m opting for language that allows for the latter. I know that here at Rhizome we’d be willing to support either.

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.

Transition Trainers’ Dreaming Circle for “Groups

Here’s some news in from Transition Networks folks….

  • Are you a trainer, workshop leader, consultant or coach who teaches people how to get groups to work well?
  • Are you interested in joining a collaborative group sharing good practice and developing cutting edge workshops?
  • Would you like to be part of a group of practitioners offering this kind of training to Transition groups?

If you have a Yes! to all of these, please join Naresh and Sophy of Transition Training at our first Dreaming Circle for people with expertise in teaching how to create and sustain effective groups at Braziers Park, on Dec 1-3rd, 2010.

View or download the full details as a pdf: DreamingCircleForGroups

Footpaths – Community Carbon Reduction: training the facilitators

The Footpath project Handbook- for facilitators and participants alike

This weekend myself and Emily Hodgkinson (process worker, facilitator and Transition Leicester stalwart) co-facilitated a day and a half training for facilitators at Leicester’s Eco House. More specifically facilitators of the Transition Leicester Footpaths: Community Carbon Reduction project, which I’ve blogged about before.

The group of 12 was made up of some people already experienced in facilitation and others completely new to it. The agenda was part orientation to the project, part orientation to working in groups and part practice of the core skills of facilitation. The excitement for me was getting to see, and work with, Emily’s approach. I was aware of process work, but not really familiar with it.

One activity that extended the active listening that’s at the heart of most facilitation training I’ve delivered we called ‘Weather reporting’. That is sensing and then naming the state of the group – the mood, the energy, the vibe – call it what you will. Making groups aware of their collective energy, especially when it’s low or negative, has the power to transform it, or at very least allow them to do some conscious work to improve it. Participants raised weather cards whenever they thought it appropriate to comment on the groups ‘weather’.

We also looked at groups as a collective entity using imagery and story. We explored rank and privilege in groups. And of course we gave participants the opportunity to prepare sessions from the Handbook and deliver them to each other for peer feedback and support. The quality of the delivery was impressive. Finally we looked at 2 complimentary approaches for understanding and dealing with ‘problem’ people and ‘nightmare’ scenarios.

The evaluations were positive. Transition Leicester’s evaluation form used both scoring and space for comments. Over 90% of participants said that the training had lived up to their expectations ‘well’. No-one scored the training ‘poorly’, but sadly there was one person scored it ‘neither well nor poorly’. One too many.

Unsurprisingly the participant practice sessions were most frequently named as ‘particularly useful’. The session on rank and privilege was seen as ‘least useful’. I suspect that’s because it was more theoretical, and needed to be grounded in application, but time was short…

We’ve scheduled 2 follow-up drop-in sessions, one in October and one in November. Those will be the real test of the weekend’s work as participants will have facilitated 2 or 3 meetings of their Footpaths group by then. Let’s see what they bring us to help them troubleshoot….

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.

Transitioning to consensus

Sunday afternoon was spent at the rather magnificent Seale Hayne, an old country estate and ex- agricultural college near Newton Abbot in Devon. I was working with a small group of Transition Towns folk from as far afield as Paris and Forres at their annual conference. We were looking at ‘structuring and facilitating efficient meetings’.

Unsurprisingly Transition initiatives face the same struggles that any other social action group face when it comes to meetings. I heard tales of: small ‘core’ groups struggling to involve the wider membership; the spectre of invisible hierarchies; conflict in groups; and more. Hopefully by the end of the 3 hours everyone left feeling more able to take a step back and try to find the underlying causes and then effectively deal with these problems. For a participant’s view of the workshop (and indeed the whole event) see Amelia’s Magazine

I’ve been standing on the sidelines and watching the Transition movement for a while now. It has all the hallmarks of an incredibly vibrant and powerful social movement: people making change in their own community in the face of real global issues; connected in a network; and focusing on the positives and on areas of human experience such as our inner experience of life as well as the outer.

If there’s a downside it’s that many initiatives seem to be adopting some of the organising structures of the status quo, structures that many in other grassroots movements have found limiting, if not oppressive. I’m thinking particularly of committee structures and the meeting behaviour that flows from them. I’m hoping that Rhizome will be amongst those who support Transition groups to move to more consensus-based models that actively promote participation, equality and challenge oppression.

Moreover I’m hoping that we can work with Transition folk to use consensus decision-making not just as a tool for their internal dialogues but as a set of principles to carry with them as they dialogue with others in their community.

The real challenge of making change is not getting the sympathetic to show up and take part, but in getting the unaware, the apathetic or the downright hostile engaged in meaningful conversation, and consensus has some thing to offer there. I’m not envisaging that the formal model of consensus can be rolled out to every discussion and dialogue – one thing you can’t do is impose consensus. But the values of deep listening, striving to hear and genuinely address concerns, working on the assumption that positive outcomes can be reached if only we stay open to them, creativity, searching for common ground, and embracing diversity as a strength and not a weakness, will carry Transition initiatives further down their path.

Don’t vote! It only encourages them

So, the UK election date was called today. On May 6th we go to the polls. No doubt the blogosphere’s crackling with comment, impassioned pleas, and a fair amount of cynicism, even apathy.Don't vote, it only encourages them

Already the news teams are out interviewing Jo Public who are coming back thick and fast with comments such as those I heard on the news bulletin this lunchtime “whoever wins will line their pockets first”, and “they’re all the same”. And once again I’m reminded of the old anarchist sayings “Don’t vote, it only encourages them” and “Whichever way you vote the government always gets in”.

Will any of the parties make real lasting change that will take us towards a genuinely more inclusive, just and ecological society? I have my doubts. Not because of a lack of sincerity on the part of some politicians – I have too many good friends active in the Green Party to believe that. But because of a system itself which seems to grind idealism down under the vast historical weight of the status quo. Sure change is possible, but within tightly defined parameters or when it’s a choice of lose power or deliver change.

But apathy? Doing nothing? It’s tempting. It’s so easy to be a spectator in today’s world. We can even interact by phone vote or twitter. But is it meaningful or does it provide just  enough of a veneer of meaning to satisfy us and prevent us taking real action?

Rhizome’s about activism – working with people and organisations to make activism more possible for them. For some that activism might involve the mainstream political process. For others it’ll be much more do-it-yourself. For some it’ll be a campaign to challenge an injustice through nonviolent direct action. Others will be building a positive alternative. And for a few it’ll be all of the above. Stopping airport expansion, starting a community garden, voting in a local election to keep the BNP out…all of these are vital to a vibrant, changing society. All of them need people to get up and make them happen. The alternative? Another 5 years of Brown-Cameron-Clegg or their sound-alikes talking about a better society whilst our experience of it gets worse.

Each one of us has something we’d like to see changed. Why not start that process of change now. Sure, vote on May 6th if that’s your thing. But don’t leave it at that. There are 364 other days of the year needing you to make change in them.

There are hundreds of organisations out there who can help you make change – whether, like us, it’s by sharing skills, or like 38 Degrees (see our upcoming interview with 38 Degrees director David Babbs) mobilising people to mass action. There’s your local Transition Towns group making sustainable change at a local level, or you might be lucky enough to have an autonomous social centre in your town .

So, in the words of the lovely riseup.net collective “Get off the internet. I’ll see you in the streets”