It was 1983. I was living in a communal house with four other adults and a baby in Kitsilano, Vancouver, BC. We were all members of Agora Food Co-op which was a short walk from the house. All the members of the co-op had to be part of its running, starting with shifts in the store and moving onto the various committees that kept it going. The idea was not just cheap food but also healthy food.
After a few years I became part of the steering committee. In this committee facilitation circulated amongst the members, each person in turn facilitating two consecutive meetings. Now in the three preceding years I had been to many meetings of grass-roots environmental groups, anti-nuclear groups and peace groups. But I had never facilitated.
My turn came to facilitate. It was chaos. It seemed like no-one was paying any attention to me. The meeting went over time and everybody seemed to be in a bad mood at the end. I had no idea what I had done wrong but I was very conscious of having to facilitate again in a month. I went to the library where the librarian helped me find a book entitled, How to make your meetings work. I took this book to the next meeting and started out boldly, saying, “As facilitator it is my job to take care of the process so that you can focus on the content of the meeting. I am the process police and I want your agreement that I am the only one permitted to interrupt people.” We agreed an agenda and set times to each item. I kept track of the time and things went in an orderly fashion. Until, that is, until Jim, who usually took the lion’s share of the airtime, went off on a tangent. I instantly started feeling nervous. It was time for me to intervene! I said, “Excuse me Jim. You just introduced a new topic, circumvented discussion of whether we want it on the agenda and circumvented discussion of the topic, offering your own solution. Can we backtrack?” The group agreed to put the topic at the end of the agenda, making time for it, then we moved on. With each item on the agenda we came to a common understanding of the problem, brainstormed solutions, chose the best fit and found volunteers to make progress and report back at the next meeting. We finished on time and goodbyes were warm and friendly.
I was flabbergasted. What a difference between the two meetings! It was clear proof to me of what a difference good facilitation can make. I realized that I, like everybody else, had assumed that I could do it without any education or training. (I do think there is such a thing as natural aptitude too.) Think of all the organizations where someone gets voted or promoted to chair meetings without any knowledge, training or aptitude in how to do it!
Now when I went to meetings I could not help having a critical eye. Mostly what I saw was disastrous. My old schoolfriend in England told me a story that exemplifies this. He had gone from shop-floor apprentice to manager of a factory. The company sent him to a management seminar at Harvard. On his return this is what he noticed. Every week there was a production meeting with all the department heads. They discussed issues informally during the week discerning the best courses of action. The chairman was the only person who didn’t work in the factory and so was not party to these discussions. He would start with, “Ok, item No.1. I think we should do this… What does anybody else think?” They all said, “Yes, that seems like a good idea.” often contradicting what they had said earlier in the week. My friend quickly pointed this out to the chairman in private and henceforth he withheld his opinion until everyone else had spoken. Their decisions became much more effective.
Ten years later and many twists and turns in life found me in a course training to teach inter-personal communication skills. This was twelve weeks sitting in a circle with sixteen participants and two facilitators. We learned to be more effective listeners, to be more aware of our feelings and able to share them, how to make I-statements and give and receive feedback. Every morning we started with a check-in round. Every evening we finished with a feedback round. I saw that the check-in helps people to let go of issues from elsewhere, to bracket them and be more fully present at the meeting. The feedback round at the end lent a sense of completion to the meeting: nobody leaving with unspoken feelings or resentments. I saw how different education would be if teachers asked for feedback at the end of every lesson. “How was this for you today?” Teachers would adjust their style and material to suit their students’ needs and students would feel more engaged and respected, less imposed-upon.
I had read Scott Peck’s The Different Drum, about his experiences leading community building workshops and in 1993 found the opportunity to attend one. Forty strangers in a circle and, after a day and a half, we were all feeling palpably connected. As predicted the process unfolded in four stages: pseudo community, chaos, emptiness then true community. With my recent training in communication skills I quickly understood these stages. People started out being polite but not real. Then conflict arises with the facilitators observing it without comment. The anger that surfaces is a step closer to being real. They say that anger is a secondary emotion, a reaction to a deeper, more vulnerable feeling that often is not expressed. Chaos raged for the rest of the first day. The next morning people had let go of their anger and began to share what was underneath it, their despair about the process and about ever finding true community in their lives. This was emptiness. This is what it takes to create community. After some time of people sharing in this fashion it was clear how connected we all felt.
I got a practicum teaching communication skills to groups of unemployed people. Into this I incorporated the community building process with some remarkable results. I remember the woman who said she was pleased to have figured out that she could scream aloud in her car without anyone knowing. I remember the time I said I felt tense and wondered if someone in the group was angry. A guy exploded and said he was angry at me for not giving guidance.
I volunteered in Alternatives to Violence workshops in the prison, hearing hair-raising details from the violent experiences of the inmates, many in jail for murder. I discovered they were just like me in many ways. I remember the little guy who grew orchids in the prison greenhouse. He described in detail the evening leading up to his murder of his wife (which he did not remember), the alcohol and drugs he had consumed. I said, “It sounds like you feel ashamed.” “Yes, yes!” I remember Clive, a young guy who obviously worked out a lot. We were doing an exercise where we were asked to identify some things that triggered negative emotions for us. He said, “I have done so much work on myself that I don’t have any specific triggers.” I said, “Clive, you are so full of shit!” I saw him start pumping up and before he exploded, said, “Just kidding.” It was like letting the air out of a balloon. At the end of the workshop he came and thanked me.
The prison workshops led me to a group of volunteers working for restorative justice, an alternative to punitive justice where perpetrators of crimes are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions and make restoration to their victims. For the next five years or so I facilitated their monthly meetings. We became so familiar that I only had to clear my throat and someone would say, “Watch out, here comes the hook!” Just occasionally I allowed myself to be drawn into the discussion but then was able to see how detrimental this was to group process.
I use the term ‘group process’ but an alternative is ‘democratic process’. How can a government be democratic when some voices go unheard? I have left some groups because of democracy deficit, where ‘some animals are more equal than others’. It does seem like some people can stomp on you with jackboots while mouthing the words of democracy. Most Americans believe they are bringing democracy to the world while their government props up client dictatorships all over it.
I had a friend in the bureaucracy when the last New Democratic Party government was in power. She said that different ministers had different styles. One was consultative while others were authoritarian. It was a matter of personality not policy. The same is true of course in Ottawa where the democracy deficit is growing alarmingly. As the prime minister and his un-elected office gain power individual MP’s are disempowered.
This problem is not a moral issue. It is a consciousness issue. I have no doubt that dictators, petty or not, all believe that they are doing what is best for the people. Hypocrisy is an unconscious tribute to what is right by those who are in denial of what they are doing wrong. As Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How can we expect people to have democratic habits when they spend so many of their formative years in an authoritarian education system where the hidden curriculum is, “Follow orders without question!” (There are some democratic teachers but again by personality not policy.)
Scott Peck wrote another book, A World Waiting to be Born, in which he described the outcome of some of the community building workshops he had led. He indicated how different the World would be if such workshops were the norm. I still believe that necessity is the mother of invention, that we are coming to a time when we will have to collaborate effectively to deal with global environmental crisis. Consciousness of group dynamics is, in my opinion, one of the keys.
Photographs of Cambodia: Angkor Wat. Just click for full screen.