Group as expert

I’ve just debriefed with Denise and Annie, fellow Turning The Tide folk . This weekend we co-facilitated a residential on “effective group working” as part of a year-long course that TTT offer.

A lot was learnt  – including about the vulnerability of the facilitation role as well as the need to sometimes tell a group like you see it,  to hold up the mirror even if the image in it isn’t pretty. For their part, one of the many things the group struggled with (and learnt) was about their own authority, their ability to decide the rules, to question, and to direct their own learning.

And then I read the FacilitatorU post on Finding Value in Our Ignorance – an appeal for facilitators to step away from the role of expert for the sake of the group’s empowerment. Many of the same themes run through their post. Here’s a taste:

“In most cases, facilitators are highly regarded professionals. We must present a strong and professional image as we’re “on stage” much of the time, performing an important function for our clients, employees, students, neighbors, etc. And as is often the case with people standing in front of a room, orchestrating processes, offering feedback and advice, we are looked to as authorities, as experts, as wise men and women.

So it’s not surprising when we begin to believe these things about ourselves and feel we have to live up to the “image” of the professional expert. As this image takes hold in our own minds, it may be difficult at times to not have the answer or know where to go next. In and of itself, this is not a bad place to be, however, we can really short change those we serve by withholding this information…

… I suggest that one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader or as a facilitator is to empower your people to access and utilize their own wisdom and problem-solving skills as a group. This is not likely to happen when they are focused on you as the authority.”



Nonviolence for a Change

From September 2011 to June 2012 Turning the Tide in collaboration with Huddersfield Quakers and other local peace and social justice groups are hosting a series of workshop called ‘Nonviolence for a Change.’ This is a training programme for people with some experience of working with others to address injustices and make changes.

Dates and Themes for the Huddersfield 2011 – 2012 course

  • 24 September 2011: Nonviolence, a dangerous idea
  • 15 October: Playing with power 1: Understanding the system
  • 19 November: Playing with power 2: Changing the system
  • 17 December: Campaigners do it together! How we make change
  • 21 January 2012: Don’t just sit there! Exploring direct action
  • 17- 19 February: Is everybody happy? Tools for effective group work (This session is residential and for year-group only – see beolw)
  • 17 March: The living revolution: building the alternative
  • 21 April: Inner and outer: spirituality and activism
  • 18 – 20 May: We can do that! Empowerment for social change (This session is residential and for year-group only)
  • 16 June: Celebrating nonviolence

Year-long or Drop-in

As in previous years, you can sign up for the whole course, or just dip into the sessions that interest you. This course tends to be oversubscribed and we anticipate a similar response for the 2011-2012 course. So get in touch as soon as you can if you’d like to participate either in the whole course or particular workshops.

Fees and application process

Year-course: Participation on the course is via application due by 10 August 2011. The fee is £350 for the year; £35 per workshop, and concessions and payment plan options are available. February and May residential are for the year-group only.

One-day: Spaces for one-day participants are limited, so please get in touch to put your name on the one-day list as soon as possible. We get in touch before the workshop to confirm that you are still able to come and take care of some administrative business.

For more applications materials and more information see our website, or email: or, or call: 020 7663 1061 & 1064

Planning the year ahead…but no blue tea thinking

blue tea - somewhere between black and green

Carl and I met this week for a general catch up and planning session. He very kindly made the journey to Leicester and after an early lunch we adjourned to a local cafe and explored a wide range of topics.

Naturally we had to cover the mundane stuff like finance, developing this website, publicising our existence and so on. But we talked about the year ahead as well. So here’s a taste of what we discussed and decided:

research and writing…

We already share our learning through this blog. But we realise that we’ve written loads of stuff over the years about building, supporting and empowering grassroots campaign networks, community organisations and so on. So we decided that the time has come to pull it all together into one place. We’ll be looking for funding to write a book that we hope will be of use to anyone involved in the life of a local campaign group or community organisation, NGO capacity-building staff, national networks and so on. If we get the funding we’ll blog it chapter by chapter so you can interact with it, and help shape it. Then it’ll be stuck together and made available to download, for free we hope.

We’re also considering a piece of what we like to call barefoot research, to look at participation on a community level – the aspirations and the obstacles. Barefoot because we’re practitioners not academics, because we want to approach it from the bottom up and work with communities. Whatever we come up with will shed some light on why people do or don’t get active in their community. This seems like essential knowledge to have in a world in which rebuilding community  and localising our economy may be our biggest hope in the struggle against climate change.

new media

Our conversation took in the social media. Clearly we already blog and the good news is that Carl has offered to write more regular posts, so look out for those. But it’s easy to believe that without a Facebook page you’re nothing. Nothing personal to those of you on Facebook, but we feel that right now we can live without it. Same goes for Twitter. We’ve played around with the odd tweet, mainly directing people to our blog or another blogger’s post that’s grabbed us, but in general we decided it was a technology we could live without for now.

It’s a bit like the blue tea on offer in the cafe. We’re very comfortable with black tea, green tea, even white tea… but there comes a point when the latest tea doesn’t really add much to the sum total of humanity’s tea-experience. Facebook and Twitter are a bit blue tea for us right now.

training, facilitation and coaching….

Lots in the pipeline, which you’ll read about as we reflect and report back. Specifically we talked about addressing the issue of the lack of funds in NGO training budgets to send staff on the training they want and need (at least at the end of the organisations that we deal with, network support and capacity building staff). We’ve tried to co-ordinate a couple of courses this year with our friends in the NGO Forum, but budgets have been tight and we haven’t been able to make it cost-effective. Given that we rely on work with the NGO community to fund us to work, for free, with other groups, that’s a problem. So we’re going to explore some funding options to work with NGOs as partners and design and deliver bespoke courses for their staff.

We’re also thinking about more coaching, as we’re often approached by people who want skills and want tailored support, but are the only person in their group or organisation that requires the support. Training isn’t appropriate, so coaching is the way forward…


We haven’t co-facilitated anywhere near as much as we’d have liked to. Shame – opportunities for learning from each other would be welcome. In general it’s been a pragmatic choice – the paid work we’ve been offered rarely pays enough to warrant two of us. And we’re a tad busy to co-facilitate the pro bono stuff. So we’ll keep looking for opportunities including outside of Rhizome. We’re both Turning The Tide volunteer resource people so we may well co-facilitate some of the work we do for them.

And for the curious – Carl’s was breakfast tea, mine mao feng green tea.

Groundrules – empowering or oppressive?

Daniel Hunter of Training for Change has contributed a thought-provoking article to Turning The Tide’s latest Making Waves. In it he talks about ground rules and the various ways in which they can, ironically, undermine the safety of a group.

This flows from Training the Change’s emphasis on margins and mainstreams – that every group has a mainstream and a margin. Even groups of radicals who see themselves as the margin have a mainstream. If our ground rules (or group agreements – Daniel talks about agreed rules) reinforce the mainstream we do nothing to enhance the accessibility and safety of the spaces we facilitate and even undermine it.

I’d recommend taking the time to read the whole article, but for those in a hurry, here’s a few excerpts

Ground rules, to me, reflect a mistaken activist belief that we can and should legislate out oppressive behaviors. Safety requires more than rules…. Legislating oppressive behavior rather than dealing with it when it arises can reduce safety

First, ground rules need to be understood as a real group process. After a list has been made, the facilitator should test for agreement in a genuinely open way. The question should be understood: is this a list of behaviors you agree to hold yourself accountable to as an individual? If there’s not some open resistance to the list, you’re not asking enough. Therefore, if you plan on ground rules taking 10 minutes, you are rushing the process. Rushing makes it a ritual and reduces its meaning

Secondly, the list needs to name behaviors that can actually be regulated…Take “active listening”. It is so broad and means a whole range of behaviors that are understood very differently by different people. The facilitator should help the group break that down into specific behaviors. That might include: no talking while others are speaking, letting people finish saying a point, reflecting back during disagreements

Ground rules tend to be created by the mainstream of the group, who are clueless in their coerciveness. Take, for example, “no interruptions” as a ground rule. It explicitly privileges one communication style over another… African-American cultures and other cultures that may be marginalised have different styles of communication and may view interruptions differently — they can be part of keeping the pace of conversation moving. It’s still rude to cut off someone if they have not been able to make a single point, but even more rude to hog the floor making multiple and even unrelated points. But “interrupting” allows people to handle a conversation point-by-point, keeping a flow of a conversation.

Every group will have its own set of mainstreams and margins, and when the full group is asked to make a decision, who tends to get their way? The mainstream or dominant culture of the group!

And for another recent conversation on ground rules, check out Lynn Walsh’s Away with Ground Rules.

Why not read Part 2 of this post?

Telling the story of strategy?

smartMeme's Re:imagining Change

Simmering away in the background for the last 12-18 months has been a 3-way conversation between facilitators from Rhizome, Seeds for Change and Turning The Tide. As you’ll have seen from other posts in this strategy dialogue all have encountered enough issues with facilitating strategy for activists that they’ve been looking at new approaches. One such has been the story-based approach from the smartMeme collective in the USA .

Here’s a brief intro to what it’s all about, and a brief critique to explain why we’ve felt the need to customise the approach for a UK context.

Are you sitting comfortably?
In Re:imagining Change, smartMeme argue that the medium of stories gives us a new model for strategy. They talk in terms of Narrative Power Analysis, an analysis which runs something ike this:

We’re brought up on stories – everything from the creation myths of our religions to the existence of Santa Claus. We hear stories every time we turn on the news or read a newspaper – “the war on terror is keeping us safe”, for example. Just the phrase ‘war on terror’ evokes a whole cast of characters from the caves of Tora Bora, the streets of Kabul, Burnley and Wooton Bassett, the burning towers of New York, and the cells of Guantanamo Bay, along with all the cultures (and clashes of cultures) that come with them.

A story-based approach to campaign strategy homes in on the stories that people have heard so often that they’ve accepted and even internalised. These smartMeme call control myths – stories we’re so familiar with that we even propagate them through our own actions, lifestyles and conversation. Which of us, in our culture, doesn’t play a role in spreading the story of the need for consumerism, for example, even if it’s ethical consumerism?

The art of story-based strategy is to subvert these stories and create new endings that bring about the changes we want to see in the world. And because stories are engaging, story based strategy can also be more engaging.

Challenging assumptions
Buying into the prevailing control myths, by definition, means that we’re making assumptions such as: “I’m at danger from terrosrism”, or “the government wouldn’t lie to me”. Often we activists assume that if we could just shout loud enough about an issue and give people the facts they are lacking, they would join our cause. But people are conditioned to ignore information that doesn’t fit into their existing understanding the world –  the control myths that they’ve bought into.

The story-based approach says we’re much more effective as campaigners when we forget about bombarding people with facts and figures and find ways to challenge their control myth assumptions. The “facts” alone are not enough to persuade them. Their assumptions and pre-existing attitudes stop the facts making sense, so we need to meet them where they are at, join them in their story, and then subvert the ending.

The tool that smartMemes use to analyse control myths and find tactics to subvert them is called the Battle of the Story

The Battle of the Story
The Battle of the Story is a set of steps that help activists get inside the heads of those we campaign against and find the most useful points in their story to intervene and rewrite the ending. for example, we commonly take action at physical points in the story – at the factory gate, the annual general meeting, the supermarket or the government office. smartMeme advocate taking action at the point at which the assumptions are being made – what they call the Points of Intervention. This may well be the same physical location, but our action will be different. Will blocking the factory gate challenge control myths? If not we find new tactics…

smartMemes advocate the use of the meme: an image, action or phrase that can act as the capsule for our message a way of getting our message into the minds of those we campaign against in such a way that it opens those minds to a new ending to the story. They use case studies of banner hangs, billboard subverts, and dramatic action-stunts to illustrate the concept of the meme. An example would be the WTO/Democracy banner hang before the 1999 WT talks, which, they argue, reframed the talks and made new endings possible…

a meme?

A critique
OK so that’s a whistle-stop tour of quite a complex theory. We’ve been playing with it for a while, have trialled it at last year’s Peace News summer gathering, and used other facilitators to test out the exercises. And that’s led to the development of the following critique

On the plus side the theory shows:

  • the potential for a more creative and engaging analysis of the context in which we’re campaigning and which we want to change – a step away from dryer approaches to strategic thinking
  • the potential to get into our ‘opponents’ head in a more useful and constructive way
  • the potential to challenge us to use tactics that effectively take on the assumptions of the powerholders and help make change happen.

On the downside there are still problems we’re ironing out:

  • UK campaigners have been wary of the ‘meme’ – their response so far is that it feels like a PR exercise rather than a more meaningful action. The smartMeme approach has the feel of a very media-savvy technique which not all activists are comfortable with. To be fair we’ve tested it out with activists who tend to be wary of mainstream corporate media. For activists who believe in the power of that media, the response may be the opposite
  • the language and case studies used in Re:imagining Change are very US-focused and non-US facilitators might need to take the time to find alternative, and more culturally appropriate examples
  • the tools that smartMeme suggest don’t seem to live up to the creativity of the theory as a whole. For example key stages of the thinking process such as the Battle of the Story are offered as rather dry worksheets, and facilitators might need to liven the exercises up a bit
  • the language of traditional strategic thinking has always been full of jargon. With the smartMeme approach there’s a danger of replacing one set of jargon with another

In summary, the Battle of the Story is a useful process (though it may need streamlining), and the concept of Points of Intervention articulates a useful alternative for finding a focus for our actions. Memes? At the moment we can take them or leave them but that might change as our understanding of the process matures!

Parts of this post were first written for Making Waves, the magazine of Turning the Tide

Strategy: change & chaos

Steve Whiting at Turning The Tide offers some thoughts on traditional strategy tools, and whether they may only be part of the picture:

I see people getting stressed and unwell, burning themselves out for a change they must see urgently. I’ve come close to it myself and I’m convinced that such negative effects are because we make ourselves prisoners to the outcomes we want, at the times we want them. I’m not downplaying the apocalyptic issues we’re dealing with, nor saying we shouldn’t have a clear idea what we’re working for – obviously we should. But big change doesn’t always happen as we want, or when we want it, and it won’t come about through our efforts alone. This places too much on us and ultimately is disempowering.

One tool I use when exploring change and strategy in workshops is to ask groups to identify a positive change that they know about. They write what the change was and stick the paper on one wall of the room then go to the opposite wall and tell the story, stepping forwards each time the group thought a particular event signified progress – and back for every setback – until they reached the change written on the paper. This is good preparation for planning their own campaign strategy.

Strategy: maybe not so linear?

I think tools like these are helpful. But somewhere along the way I’ve realised that this is trying to understand change through a linear cause-and-effect mindset. Things do indeed look linear in retrospect, but looking forward might be different. I realised that I was approaching campaign planning like a lot of organisations do: here are our aims, here are our activities, and these are our expected outcomes. Then I’d be disappointed that, for all our efforts, we hadn’t achieved the change we wanted.

I read about chaos theory and systems and realised that this linear approach is to view strategy and change as operating in a closed system, where things can be predicted or controlled. It’s useful, and I believe still valuable, as a way of analysing and planning. But let’s be clear that many of our endeavours for change are attempts to contain an open universe into a closed controlled system. And real life ain’t like that.

Everything is in relation to everything, and everything is constantly in motion. Chaos theory tells us that even tiny encounters can change future trajectories. Remember the “butterfly effect”? Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas? The theory suggests that the flapping wing is a small change in the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been very different. People who’ve influenced me at key points in my life often are oblivious to the effect they’ve had on my future direction. And, for me, the simple fact is that I don’t know what effect my actions have. Who does? Sure, we know we can shut down trading in the City or a military base for a day – before they return to business as usual. We know about short-term effects, and those actions are entirely valid. But what about the longer term goals, the trajectories? We know the Iraq invasion went ahead anyway, but what about future military adventures?

“bringing about systemic change is less about trying to control things and force a particular outcome at a particular time, and more about trying to create the conditions for that change to happen.”

In the workshop activity I described earlier, I’m often struck by accounts of events – curiously often negative – that seemed to have come completely out of nowhere that influenced and strengthened the campaign. In retrospect, it usually was important for that event to happen, but it was never foreseen or even thought of as helpful at the time. The key lay in the movement’s ability to respond well to it.

So for me, bringing about systemic change is less about trying to control things and force a particular outcome at a particular time, and more about trying to create the conditions for that change to happen. This doesn’t necessarily mean changing what we actually do. It just requires us to be more open to different understandings about the effect we are having – and the effect on us when we do it.

Strategy workshops should of course acknowledge the variety of closed system tactics that can be deployed. But they are also to do with the group’s knowledge of itself, it’s resilience and ability to recognise its own special qualities alongside all the other forces working with and against it in the wider inter-connected universe. It’s about how it anchors itself to the alternative values it wants to bring about in the world, so helping to create the conditions for the change.

“I now think there is a greater role in strategy workshops for the creativity, resources and resilience of the group to be explored.”

So as well as planning the what, perhaps using tried-and-tested tools of visioning and analysis, it’s important to explore the how and why. I now think there is a greater role in strategy workshops for the creativity, resources and resilience of the group to be explored. Tools like group challenges, role identification, re-scripting narratives, can help reframe understandings and perceptions. Tools that practice changed habits and behaviours, widen perspectives and help loosen our grip on our prescribed outcomes.

We must plan, but let’s plan to change the plan. The vital thing is to make ourselves strong for effective action and resilient to respond to whatever comes our way. That way we can be true to our goals and visions without guilt-tripping and burning out because we must have this result now. It’s a liberating approach that is also sustainable. Just because we haven’t seen the revolution yet doesn’t mean it’s not happening!


This is just the first in a series of posts on strategy, so join the dialogue – post your comments below, share your experience, ask your questions!