It Ain't the Meeting It's the
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.