It Ain't the Meeting It's the Motion

By Alexandra Devon

Have you ever been in any of the following situations?

You go to a meeting of a group for the first time because they're doing work around issues you've begun to be interested in. Everybody there seems to know everyone else already, and they're all so knowledgeable. No one even asks your name or why you have come. During they meeting you're too intimidated to say anything and no one seems to notice or care. You go home depressed.

Someone has called a meeting. It starts late. There's no agenda so the group wanders from topic to topic for what seems an eternity. People constantly interrupt each other. A few people dominate. The quieter people are ignored. You go home with a headache.

You've just broken up with your lover but you got to your meeting anyway. No one asks how you are. The agenda is set, typed and passed around. A decision has to be made on an important course of action. People are divided on it. After ten minutes of discussion a vote is taken before you've even expressed your point of view. The outcome is not what you had hoped but you have to live with it - after all, majority rules. You go home and don't come back.

The above scenarios are common but not inevitable. Somewhere between Robert's Rules of Order and "tyranny of structurelessness" lies a method for working with people in groups which is not disempowering, painful and tedious and can be affirming, creative and effective.

Learning about group "process" (or paying attention to how you interact with other people in a group setting) is for many of us a trial and error thing. Unfortunately, because we get together in groups to get things done, we are often more interested in the end than the means of getting there, little realizing that the process would be much more enjoyable and the end product enriched if we're better able to harmonize means and ends.

In the early days of putting out this magazine [Kick It Over!], when our collective was larger, our meetings were such a shambles with people all talking at once that we half jokingly and half in desperation used to appoint a "dictator for the day" to try to keep us on track. A lot of wasted, fruitless time could have been saved if we had recognized a few simple things about human nature and how to accommodate it. Having been raised in a competitive, hierarchical society we retain the unpleasant skills needed to survive in that type of culture, which makes creating a new culture based on different values, inherently difficult.

Putting the Personal into the Political

One of the most important allowances to make in setting up meetings or gatherings is to provide time for "personal sharing". People come to meetings or join groups, not simply to "get things done", but for companionship and the feeling that one's values and concerns are shared by other people. It is good to try to have a social time before the meeting, whether sharing meal or a cup of tea and conversation. This allows for people to bond on more than just an intellectual level and sets a more relaxed atmosphere for the meeting especially if the one flows into the other. If new people have joined the group, it's a good time to make a special effort to connect with them, find out why they've come and make them feel their presence is valued.

Even if one doesn't have time for a socializing period it's a good idea to have a "go-around" structured into the agenda. This can be a minute or two for each person were they can say (if they are new) why they came and who they are or, for people who know each other, what type of day they've had and how they're feeling. A friend who first stressed the importance of this told me that meetings are much more efficient and less stressful as result of this simple exercise. People often come to meetings with psychic baggage (positive or negative) and if they are not allowed to check it at the door, the room is soon crowded with it and by the end of the meeting you may have people stressed out because of a personal misfortune or tragedy that has happened to them in the day or week before.

The Basics

To back-track a bit, it's been my experience that a facilitator (as opposed to a dictator) is necessary for a well-run meeting. This person is someone to whom the group has given the power and responsibility to shape the evening's tasks into an agenda and to gently keep people to the agreed upon format. This is a position of some power so it is important that the job be rotated from meeting to meeting. It's good to ask for a volunteer and trust people not to elect themselves more often than is warranted. A minute-taker should also be solicited at the same time.

Taking minutes is important for action groups because it is a record of what has transpired for those who weren't there and for those who have agreed to do things it serves as a reminder of what, in the heat of the moment, they have agreed to do. These can be elaborate or brief depending on the needs of the group. Another bonus of taking minutes is that you have a history of the development of the group.

Setting the Agenda

The facilitator with pen and paper in hand (or flip chart on wall) asks for items to be put on the agenda. This is a way of getting everyone's input into the planning of the meeting. After all the suggestions are written down, it's important to determine whether there is too much to cover in one meeting. If it's agreed that there is too much, the facilitator can ask (or the group can volunteer) what can be held over or left to the end. Next the facilitator, with input from the group, decides on the most reasonable order of events and allots time for each phase, determining first how long the overall meeting should be. Many groups also set aside time at the end to evaluate the meeting itself. This is a time to comment on frustrations with process or to compliment the facilitator and to sum how meetings could be improved. Remember that you should stick to the time frame as closely as possible because this is what the group has agreed to. The facilitator is responsible to renegotiating time when necessary, to everyone's satisfaction.

Once the agenda is set it is up to the facilitator to introduce each item (or have other group members do it) and ensure that everyone gets to speak to an issue who wants to. It's easiest if a group can self-regulating and speak in turn but when it is not possible, it is the facilitator's responsibility to have people speak in the sequence in which they've raised their hands. A few rules of thumb which make for equitable discussion is that everyone should speak to an issue (who wants to) before people who've already spoken speak again. Extended discussions between two people should be discouraged as this can be alienating to the group. In larger groups, or if men are tending to dominate, it's good to alternate between women and men speakers.

Making Decisions

Many groups make decisions through discussing an issue (with greater or lesser degrees of thoroughness) and then voting. Unless you have unanimity (which is rare) some people are placed in the uncomfortable position of carrying out or living with decisions that they are not comfortable with. This is called democracy. I don't mean to denigrate this style of operating completely; it may have a place in certain situations but the small group or collective is not one of them. Consensus, on the other hand, allows each person equal and complete power in the group. Everyone must be happy with a decision or at least not unhappy with it for the group to proceed. This is not based on an abstract principle of fairness but on the "belief that each person has a part of the truth and no one has all of it ...and on a respect for all persons involved in the decision that is being considered" (Carolyn Estes, "Consensus" in the spring issue of Social Anarchism).

This style of working requires trust between group members and more time than the democratic process. It also takes some getting used to because it requires that we express our views, explain them, listen to the views of others and modify our views when others make points which we might not have thought about. Although it is strange at first, for those of us who are used to defending our position to the death because it's ours and we want to be right, it allows for more give and take than one would normally think possible in a group situation. Once you get used to consensus it is frustrating and disempowering to go back to other methods.

Consensus is not new. It has been used for thousands of years by tribal peoples, early Jesuits in the 17th century (who called it "Communal Discernment"), Quakers, and more recently by some feminists and social change groups, to name a few. It is worth noting that the groups who most often use consensus are "communities" of some description: herein lies its greatest strength and possible limitations. Because of the high degree of trust and openness required and because each person should be allowed to contribute if they would like, I feel that size and shared values are important. For this reason, I am skeptical that a group of several thousand diverse people could effectively use this approach because there needs to be a degree of bonding and shared history for the conditions to be right. Carolyn Estes in a recent article on consensus in Social Anarchism argues the contrary.

The facilitator has a great deal of responsibility in seeing that the group is helped towards reaching consensus. S/he must make sure that everyone who wants to address the issue does so, state and restate suggestions, sum up the sense of the meeting and make sure that everyone is comfortable with the final decision. All this requires time and patience but the process can be quite enjoyable and interesting and teaches us to let go of our own preconceptions without sacrificing our individuality or autonomy and allows us to work effectively with a group.

When Consensus Breaks Down

When very strong differences of opinion recur (and they undoubtedly will), there are a number of things one can do depending on the resolvability of the situation. For example, during a Free University collective meeting, it was suggested that there be a women-only anarcha-feminism workshop. One of the women in the group was adamantly opposed to this as she felt that this was not appropriate for the Free University, which was supposed to be a forum for all. Tempers flared and an hour of solid debate seemed to take us no closer to a resolution. Neither "side" would budge. Finally, a compromise by one of the other group members was suggested and after more discussion both "sides" agreed to it. Now we had a solution. There were no winners and no losers. Yet, in a way, the group "won" something. The integrity of the group in the face of a divisive issue was maintained and the ability of one individual (although she had support) to maintain an unpopular position without fear was proven. After the meeting (in spite of all the high emotion) we were able to join hands and sincerely say we respected each other's concerns.

Sometimes when a compromise is not possible, one or two people can "step aside", which means that while they don't necessarily agree to a particular proposal and don't wish to participate in it, they are not willing to block consensus or keep others from pursuing it.

If more than a few people "step aside" from a decision it can be a bad sign and may indicate that more time and discussion is needed.

Occasionally, a person in the group may feel at odds with the group most of the time. They may, for example, feel that the group is not doing the right things. If this seems to happen constantly, it's possible that the person is in the wrong group and that they should seek out others who want to put their energies into projects they feel to be important.

To avoid coming to this realization after the group has been formed, it is well to go through a "clearness" process in the beginning. This is, of course, an ideal scenario and difficult to implement once a group is formed but might be helpful in admitting new members to a group where a high degree of trust has been established. The Quakers developed this process for helping members decide to embark on any major undertaking.

This article is far from complete for considerations of space and because I'm still in the process of learning, but I wanted to begin the discussion. I feel that it's important for us to be conscious not simply of what we do but how we do it. Unfortunately, because of the culture in which most of us are raised, to be unconscious of process is to unconsciously duplicate the authoritarian, elitist, competitive, and sexist, etc. models which we have passively learned since childhood. To choose new forms of interacting with people means that we must unlearn the powerlessness, competitiveness and fear of conflict that characterizes much of our experience with working in groups. Jane Mansbridge in Workplace Democracy and Social Change writes that "the main reason people tolerate hierarchy so well is that it buffers them from having to deal with people at a more authentic, conscious level of emotional depth." So, developing good process skills for those of us trying to change the word is not just a better way to get things done, but a conscious recognition that the world which needs changing is not just "out there," but within us and between us.

Thanks to Taylor, my women's group and the Free University collective for teaching me and learning with me about different ways of being.

Published in Kick It Over! #16 and in the Connexions Digest Volume 12, Number 1.
For Ulli Diemer's response to this article, see One Vote for Democracy.