from Laird’s Commentary on Community and Consensus (Monday, May 18, 2009)
Two days ago, the FIC held a Community Building Day at Kimberton Hills (30 miles west of Philadelphia) and about 56 people joined our crew of 12 presenters and support people to create a wonderful experience (while most participants were from the region, one came from as far away as Arizona, and some from Arkansas). During a general Q&A session right before dinner, one woman asked, “What are the three most critical agreements that a community should have in place in order to succeed?”
What an excellent question! Over the course of my 22 years as a process consultant I’ve slowly accumulated an understanding of a goodly number of key questions that healthy groups need to address, so limiting it to three was a challenge. What trio do I feel encompasses the most pivotal issues?
Here are my nominations:
1. Working with Emotional Input
The main model for appropriate group communication in our culture is to offer one’s best thinking. While rational thought is a wonderful tool, it’s hardly the only one available to us, and it really doesn’t make much sense to paint with only one color. As human beings we take in, process, and communicate information in an amazing variety of ways. It’s my view that groups function best when they openly embrace a wider range of input than just what’s available through ideation.
In addition to rational knowing, humans can access knowing that is emotional, intuitive, instinctive, spiritual, and kinesthetic. (While I don’t presume that this is a complete list of the alternate channels available to us, it’s enough to make my point.) Though not everyone operates with the full bandwidth; multiple channels are nonetheless available, and a group’s work will tend to be more sophisticated and dynamic to the extent that it consciously embraces more kinds of information (not just more data).
For the purpose of identifying a key agreement, I will narrow my focus to a single question: how does the group work with emotional input? Sadly, most groups never explicitly ask that question and have no clear answer. In consequence, they are unsure of their footing when emotions enter the equation—and the stronger the feelings, the more unsure the footing. Mostly groups discourage the expression of strong feelings, or relegate that kind of sharing to heart circles only (where they won’t “infect” the business meetings).
Strong feelings can be scary for groups because their expression is often associated with attacks or manipulation, and groups (understandably) want to limit both from occurring. There is fear that the expression of strong feelings may undermine safety and lead to people being afraid to share their full thinking on a topic.
Best, I think, is that groups appreciate that emotions can be distinguished from aggression, and that it’s possible to welcome feelings while objecting to attacks. Emotions can be an important source of both information (people may know something more profoundly on an emotional level than on a rational level) and energy—let’s bring passion into our work!
Too often group banish feelings all together in a baby-and-the-bath-water response to nervousness about how to handle emerging conflict. Surely we can do better.
2. Critical Feedback
In biological systems, feedback loops are crucial to survival. Think about it: if you step on a nail, it’s important that it hurts, alerting you to the need to pull the damn thing out of your shoe. While you’d rather not hurt, you certainly don’t want to be walking around with a nail in your foot.
I don’t think it’s any different in groups. If Chris and Pat are both in a group and Chris is having trouble with something that Pat is doing as a member of the group, then there needs to be a known avenue through which Chris can communicate their concern directly with Pat. Absent a known channel, it can be hit or miss whether Pat ever hears what’s going on for Chris. Not only will this means that Chris doesn’t get the chance to work with the information (which may enhance their effectiveness in the world), but it will likely lead to a degradation in trust and an erosion of relationship between Pat & Chris. This can be very expensive.
While I’m all in favor of people having choices about the timing and setting in which feedback is delivered (some prefer to get it on the spot, others prefer advance warning; some prefer that it occur one-on-one, others prefer to receive it in the whole group), it’s important that everyone offers something and that that preference be known. A mysterious feedback loop is the same as no feedback loop. And no feedback loop means the flow of life-giving information has been choked off. It’s hard to thrive with a poor circulation system.
3. Talking about Power
Cooperative groups tend to have trouble talking openly about power dynamics. They typically strive to flatten hierarchies and to share power as broadly as possible. While there’s nothing wrong with that goal, the reality is that power is never flat; it’s always distributed unevenly. The key question is whether the group has a clear way to discuss the perception that someone has used power in less cooperative way (power over instead of power with) than that person thinks they have.
Healthy group need people functioning as leaders. Leaders need to exercise power to be effective, and there needs to be a way to examine how power is being used. We tend to bring into our current cooperative realities damage from past abuses of power and we have to sort out how much of our current discomfort is projection from the past, how much is misuse of power in the current situation, and how much is a misunderstanding about what’s actually happening (never mind what was intended). It can get messy in a hurry and we need a pathway through this morass.
In the end, if a group fails to address any one of these three issues, I guarantee that the ensuing ambiguity will be crippling. Though I’m not saying that this will necessarily be fatal, it will certainly be expensive, and seriously limit the group’s capacity to realize its potential.