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Best Meetings

Posted on December 7, 2008 by
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Author: Tree Bressen
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #141

Q: The theme of this issue being scarcity and abundance, how about, instead of hearing yet another crisis or problem to solve, we focus on abundance as it relates to meetings? Please tell us a story of one of the best meetings you ever attended (as participant or facilitator). What was great about it? What do you think made it turn out so well?

Tree Bressen responds:

Upon thinking this question over, i’ve realized that my responses fall into two categories: One is that i love it when a group that’s not in crisis calls me for facilitation; often this happens for community visioning. The second category consists of decent outcomes to intensely challenging situations, including when the result is an amicable “divorce” between one or two members and the rest of the group. I’m writing story #1 here; perhaps a story from category #2 will appear in the future.

A few months ago a local ecovillage hired me to facilitate their visioning process. While there had been people living together on site for several years already, over time the group was gelling and becoming more intentional, and now they were ready to take the next step of drawing up vision documents together. When i met with the core team initially, they stated a clear goal of coming up with a vision statement within a one-day meeting of the full group, and filled me in on various other issues they hoped to address. I warned them that there was only so much we could accomplish in one day, and promised to do the best that i could.

Shortly before the date of the meeting itself, a dear friend with many years of group experience challenged me on the topic of visioning. “What’s the point of it?” he asked. “Have you ever really seen a community use its vision statement to any real effect?” His query and our rousing conversation pushed me to clarify my own thinking. I realized that the groups i’d seen use their core documents in a way that felt alive had more than just one or two sentences; they had a set of basic principles that were meaningful to them.

On the day of the meeting, we got off to a good start. I employed an “Appreciative Inquiry” process, using a mixture of interviews, small group discussions, and other formats, and the group seemed to respond well. But as the day went on, members started approaching me one-on-one to warn that dissent was fomenting in some of the small groups. Chronic issues were reemerging during this process, and some people were starting to get triggered and upset. What to do?

I was concerned that if we took the focus off visioning in order to address the upsets, the group might not meet its goal of coming up with a statement by the end of the day. At the same time, glossing over the difficulties seemed disingenuous. Thinking back to the conversation with my friend, i realized that a visioning process should include the possibility of grappling with real issues for that group, not just coming up with a glossy statement that nearly any community could sign off on. I suggested that we come back together into one big group, and give some time to the biggest controversy in the room, which turned out to be about membership standards (that is, how far did this group want to open the door to residency?).

The members were committed to listening well to each other, and each person understood that theirs was not the only viewpoint in the room and that they might not get their way. The two people holding the poles of the discussion had a friendly relationship with each other outside the context of this particular meeting. A few times while facilitating i fell into treating dissenting opinions as problems instead of as “a piece of the truth,” but then caught myself and pulled back into a wider and more welcoming frame. After about an hour of discussion, all these factors resulted in an agreement to have membership standards and the beginnings of a rough outline as to what those expectations would be.

After that we returned to the visioning process, and successfully passed a statement, thanks in part to the grace of one member who stood aside with some concerns, knowing he could suggest revisions later. In this particular case, we started with a statement that happened to be drafted by the community founder, but revised it substantially before the group agreed to it. There was even time for a bit of wordsmithing–in spite of the groans, i figure that one good thing about wordsmithing is that if a group reaches that stage, it means the more substantive issues have been resolved!

Furthermore, the group adopted a stepped-up schedule of meetings in order to stay connected with each other, move additional pieces of the visioning process forward, and keep addressing other community issues. All in all, i was impressed with how well the group worked together. The community founder, a builder rather than a process person who’d been skeptical of our plan for the day, was naturally quite pleased when we emerged with three key agreements (vision statement, membership, new meeting schedule). I felt deeply trusted by the group, and was able to use their faith in me to help serve them powerfully.

Beatrice Briggs responds:

Some of the best meetings I have attended in Huehuecoyotl, the ecovillage in Mexico where I live, were planned and facilitated by a group of 10-12 visiting university students.

Four the past four years, in collaboration with Living Routes (www.livingroutes.org), we have hosted a three-week course in “Leadership for Social Change.” The curriculum includes training in group facilitation and consensus decision-making. Using these tools, the students research options for a community service project, prepare and present a proposal to the community and, if it is accepted, implement the plan.

The meetings at which the proposal is presented to the community are consistently excellent. Here are some thoughts about what makes these meetings so memorable and what we can learn from them.

Beginner’s mind. The meetings are 100% planned and facilitated by the students, who bring fresh energy and enthusiasm to the task. Having just learned the basics of consensus decision-making, they do not cut corners on the process. LESSON: Do not become jaded in our approach to community meetings.

Short, single-focus agenda. The meetings have only one issue on the agenda, i.e., the project proposal, and are scheduled to last 45-60 minutes. LESSON: Most of our agendas tend to be packed with a too-long list of disparate topics and go on for what seems like forever. Sometimes it is better to focus on a single issue – and then adjourn before everyone is exhausted.

Clear purpose and roles. Everyone in the room knows why they are there. The community members have been interviewed by the students during the “information gathering” phase of the proposal development and are aware of their role as decision makers at this stage in the process. LESSON: Too often we arrive at meetings with no idea of what we will be asked to do or why it may be important.

Solid preparation, dynamic presentation. The students struggle among themselves to define criteria, gather information, and develop and evaluate options before reaching a decision on what they want to present. By the time the meeting starts, they have explored the issue in depth and fully “own” their proposal. The whole team works on preparing a dynamic, visual presentation that explains clearly what they propose to do, why, and how. LESSON LEARNED: Do not come to a meeting with only a vague, poorly documented idea and expect the large group spend hours making sense of the issue in plenary. Delegate the preliminary thinking to a small group.

While none of the student proposals have ever been turned down, neither are they automatically approved. The community members ask penetrating questions, make useful suggestions, and propose modifications before reaching a decision. Nevertheless, the students’ initiative, creativity, enthusiasm, and solidarity, as well as their careful attention to the norms of good participatory process, almost ensure a successful result.

Laird Schaub responds:

One of the predictably difficult aspects of group dynamics is Challenging Personalities–folks whose style and behavior is frequently disruptive, or at least commonly problematic. I’m not talking about people whose views are often not aligned with the majority (though that may be in play as well); I am focusing here on those whose manner and bearing are regularly grating on the group. It’s a relatively common phenomenon.

While this can manifest in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins has ice cream, one of the most prevalent is the person with high energy and a forceful delivery. They are often perceived as upset, or on the verge of it, and don’t seem to mind either the tension or the chaos that typically surrounds their contributions. Their comments are not always germane, yet they are invariably delivered with conviction and high amperage.

In consequence, the group is often faced with tough choices around how to work with their input, and there tends to be a weariness and knee-jerk irritation that follows this kind of person around like a cloud of miasmic gas. Understandably, a considerable amount of resentment often builds up towards such a person, and their contributions are often marginalized (if they can’t behave, then we shouldn’t have to give their input as much weight). To be clear, the marginalization does not happen as a result of any explicit decision by the rest of the group; it occurs organically as everyone withdraws their support and good will in response to feeling ill-treated and disrespected. It may look like a conspiracy to the person being pushed to the side of the road, but that’s rarely the case.

Dale (a pseudonym) was just such a person. I had worked with Dale’s group multiple times and knew the community fairly well. I also was aware of the group’s story about Dale. She was labeled “a problem,” and I was cautioned (regularly) about the need to contain her behavior and not let Dale hijack the meeting.

All of this is prelude to the story of a meeting in Dale’s community that I witnessed several years ago. During the prep for the meeting the facilitator fretted over how to handle a particular topic on the agenda. It had to do with how well another member (a single parent woman) was monitoring her kid’s behavior in common space, a topic on which it was known that Dale was sitting on some critical feedback. The facilitator also knew that the parent was not ready to hear everyone’s feedback and wanted to talk first with the group about the struggles she was going through in finding time to earn enough money and also be a hands-on parent. She was struggling.

I was coaching the facilitator (a man in this case) and he was shaky about how he’d handle Dale. To complicate matters even further, once the community meeting got underway Dale arrived late, missed the introduction of the key topic, and wasn’t in a good mood. (Great start, huh?)

Sure enough, within minutes of Dale’s appearance and her realization that the topic she wanted to speak to was on the table, she tried to launch into her upset (with all the subtlety of a Wagnerian opera). The facilitator took a deep breath and tried to explain to her in measured tones why the group wasn’t going to tackle feedback at that meeting. Dale wasn’t having any, and kept her bulldozer in gear. After a few more futile attempts at stopping Dale’s gathering momentum, the facilitator turned to me with the expression of a drowning man and I stepped in.

Turning to Dale, I made sure I had eye contact, and then walked her through the sequence with a firm voice (louder than that used by the facilitator, but quieter than Dale’s): “Here’s where we are. The parent is not ready for feedback at this meeting. We thought she would be, but she isn’t. Since having that go well is a high priority, we’re accommodating her wishes. At the same time, it’s important that the feedback happen and we won’t leave this topic until we’ve agreed on a time to reschedule the feedback. As we know that you have something to say on that, we’re glad you’re here and can tell us when will work for you. Meanwhile, the parent wants the community’s attention for discussing what she’s doing to find a better balance between earning a living and time with her kid. Will this work for you?”

After a moment’s reflection, Dale said, “Yes,” at which point I responded, “Good,” and sat back down. I didn’t step in again for the remainder of the meeting, and wasn’t needed. Having been met energetically and acknowledged (without being chided or condescended to), Dale changed her behavior. For the rest of the meeting, her focus was good, she didn’t speak off topic, and she left her bulldozer parked outside the room. In short, she behaved markedly better than you would have thought possible if the only thing you knew about Dale was the group’s story about her.

It was an unusually good meeting, and the key moment was the exchange I had with Dale. Used to getting a lot of resistance to her contributions, Dale typically responded with either getting sullen or pushing harder. When she got something different from me–being heard and met–she responded in a way people weren’t used to (and didn’t think was possible): Dale got more flexible and listened better. Instead of focusing on Dale’s bulldozing (which was absolutely no fun to be around and was potentially traumatizing for the parent), I focused on acknowledging Dale’s needs and accepting her energy as not ill-intended.

Does this always work? No. Sometimes I don’t hear someone accurately enough or otherwise fail to find a bridge that will connect the difficult person with the rest of the group. But if you believe it’s possible and are looking for a bridge, you may be surprised how often you’ll find one is there–and people can start exchanging ideas instead of salvos.


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