Last month I spent a terrific week in Cumbria, UK, where people who either live in or hail from from Spain, Mexico, Chile, Peru, USA, UK, Slovakia, Latvia, The Netherlands, England, Finland, Italy and Croatia (!! WOW !!) came together to participate in an intense hands-on group facilitation training sponsored by ICA-UK. This was a great group for me because it was very diverse in age (20s-60s), which is far more unusual than it should be. Thanks to ICA-UK (and to my friend Markus for alerting me about the workshop).
I have been involved in — and could even say at times subjected to — various consensus-oriented decision-making activities, meetings, and so on. Sometimes they were miserable affairs, where the rules became more important than the experience. People bullying others; weird personality cliques; unpleasant dominating personalities; meetings drag on for hours with little to show. Other times it was a welcoming, positive, productive experience. Why does it work? Why doesn’t it? I never thought about it systematically before.
Well this week I had a chance to do just that, to deconstruct the process of group decision-making, specifically in the context of community or social activism. This was done in the frame of the ICA’s “technology of participation” group facilitation methods. The ICA has been promoting this stuff for fifty years and so they really have it down to a science, which has both advantages (organized, a lot of experience and printed materials) and disadvantages (rigidity, over-focused on process, slow to incorporate new ways of thinking or doing things). But overall it was a very good place to start.
We worked on methods with names like Focused Conversation, which somehow I kept thinking of as “Forced Conversation”. This is a way to focus and guide a conversation by leading people through various levels of observation or involvement around a theme starting with objective observations, emotional, interpretive, and resolving action. Very useful!
Consensus Workshop is a process to help a group come to an agreement (not necessarily with equal enthusiasm) or perhaps generate ideas around a key question. The work is done in a highly visual, interactive manner — it’s not simply a matter of talking in turn with the dreaded talking stick. Here is an example of the results of what our group did with the question: What are the keys to engaging passionate and committed volunteers in community projects?
The processes are visual — people generate ideas as individuals and/or in small groups, write them down on cards, and the facilitator puts them up (not all at once.) Then, guided by the facilitator, people start discussing and figuring out how these ideas/cards fit together to form a snapshot or story of where the group is at. Ideas, words, pictures are written down and put on display. Trashformers did some variations of these visual and action-based discussion activities and they were much more popular and effective than the talking sessions.
We created a facebook group called FACILITATING PARTICIPATORY COMMUNITIES, where we can share our experiences using these methods or any others we can find — we are non-denominational. The idea is to learn and share in building communities that are open and participatory. Anyone engaged in participatory/community activism and who wants to learn and share is welcome to join.
Thanks to Nadia Giuliani for the photos!