‘if you do not trust the people, they will become untrustworthy.’ – lao tzu, tao te ching
i am writing from biloxi mississippi where i am co-facilitating a gathering of activists coming together around extreme energy extraction – organizing around the processes and impacts of a society run on coal, oil, natural gas, uranium. we had an amazing gathering, and it inspires me so much to put the emergent strategy approach in action.
one of the primary principles of emergent strategy is trusting the people.
often, facilitation seems to do the opposite of this. we sit with the organizers of a gathering and try to figure out ahead of time every single necessary conversation we want to see happen, and then create an agenda that imposes our priorities on the people who we have invited to gather, ostensibly because they are the experts and front line thinkers on the issue. then, a few hours or days into the gathering, we are harried and desperate because the people have realized what we are up to, or simply aren’t feeling heard, and/or we have missed something crucial that is at the center of the gathering. there emerges a sense of facilitators and participants working against each other, instead of everyone working in collaboration to meet the goals.
i have been experimenting with what it means to ‘trust the people’ in practice.
i’ve been facilitating for a while, and although i know that the common wisdom is that every meeting has a flow of ‘form, storm, norm’ – the group comes together, then explodes in opposition to what is happening and creates what they need, and then a norm emerges where there is a sense of accomplishment and deepening into their united identity – i have often wondered if there was another option, one that would save us time, resources, stress, division and energy.
it’s happening. none of the meetings i have facilitated this past year have had a significant storm component. facilitate means to make it easy, and i feel like finally it is happening, it is getting easier for the participants and for me and my cofacilitators.
here are some of the practices for trusting the people in practice.
1. goal setting.
why are we meeting? what can this group uniquely accomplish?…i have to thank taj james for this clarifying question. there are always a ton of relevant conversations that could happen, but there is usually a very small set of conversations that this particular group, at this particular moment in history, can have and move forward, given their capacity, resources, time, focus and beliefs.
the organizers should have this question at the center of their planning for the event. i also find that it helps to survey the group of invitees to sharpen the goals.
2. invite the right people.
we invite people to meetings for a lot of the wrong reasons – obligation, guilt, representation…even love. the questions to ask when shaping the invite list are ‘who is directly impacted by this issue?’ and ‘who can move this work forward?’
inviting the right people means we aren’t wasting time by renegotiating the goals nonstop throughout the meeting, and/or managing the dissonance that occurs (righteously in my opinion) when a participant who shouldn’t be at the meeting tries to make it worth their time by derailing the process of advancing the stated goals.
now, right people doesn’t mean easy people – conflict and difference are often an important part of advancing the work, bringing the real issues into the room. trust is built when the right people are in the right room, and can bring their opinions and work into a container that advances their individual and collective goals.
the right facilitators are also key. i love co-facilitating with people more creative and meticulous than me. inca mohamed, hannah strange, autumn brown, raquel lavina, kavitha rao, jodie tonita, anasa troutman, alicia garza, the generative somatics teaching body, many more – this is a time of brilliant facilitation!
3. individual participant articulation.
there are real language barriers, both literal and cultural, that mean we often think we are hearing each other, but really we have no clue about what others are saying. we all have filters, only some of which we are aware of.
in a gathering, this can create the utmost confusion. folks are using different cultural references, different touch points and acronyms, coming from widely different experiences and passions – even if what they are saying is similar, they can’t hear and understand each other.
giving everyone room to say what they want to prioritize and discuss, and then synthesizing that set of topics as a group, grows the common tongue of the participants, and allows for genuine clarity to happen in the dance of organizing all of the desires into a manageable number of conversations. my friend allen gunn taught me a way to do this with post its and a blank wall, and i just keep iterating off of that exercise to create self-generated agendas.
when trying to determine which articulation to prioritize, go with that of the most impacted people in the room – it is usually the most relevant, and often the clearest and most accessible.
4. a living agenda.
develop a spacious adaptible agenda where the participants can shape the meeting. again, our tendency is to fill up every minute from the beginning to the end of the day with formal session time, creating schedules that are hard to change when new information comes along. not to mention, these agendas sometimes underestimate how long conversations may actually take.
most conversations need at least 1.5 hours to adequately cover orienting around the content, identifying what is needed and identifying clear next steps. and that’s conservative. a meaningful full group conversation for thirty people or more needs roughly a minute person participant. underscheduling means that energy will start to build up looking for release.
folks are so used to not being heard. so used to not getting their needs met. when folks feel heard, the time starts to expand as people move past expressing and start to be able to listen.
it is a beautiful thing to give people space and time, but within the agenda also point continuously towards collaboration. in the u.s., which is where i do most of my facilitation, there is a socialized tendency towards competition – ‘my idea is the best and i am just here to sell it!’. well…no thank you. what can we do together from our passions?
collaboration can only be built on relationships and shared vision. relationships have to be respectful (‘oh i totally see why you are here and why i would want to work with you’) and real (‘what you just said offended/disrespected me, and i can tell you about it because i want us to grow!’). and shared vision doesn’t mean a ten point shared utopia – it means you can generally state that you are moving in the same direction.
the spacious agenda often leads to ending the meeting early, or right on time. try it! it’s magical.
5. listen with love!
the participants absolutely mean to be listening to each other, but their own agendas might fill up their ears with misunderstandings or frustrations. your work as a facilitator is to listen to the needs of the group, help the participants to be clear to and with each other, and make sure you actually understand what folks in the room need.
listen to the feedback you request, and to the other feedback that flows in from the edges, the participants who need something more. my confession here is that i have, at times, grown annoyed with those participants who tend more towards deconstruction, anxiety or frustration…they are the ones often less able to state clearly what they want. however if i can drop in and set my annoyance aside, those folks are sometimes trying to get at the heart of the matter, or name the root schism in the room – the thing that is unnamed because it hard to name. taking time to hear the participants in the margins of the agenda can actually help get the event on point. and i can’t count the number of times a disgruntled participant was actually just misunderstanding something that, when clarified, made them a star participant.
6. know when to say yes and when to say no.
yes to those things that deepen the gathering – cultural grounding, local welcome, clarifying questions, learning in real time, suggestions to slow down. no to manipulative efforts to quiet others, pontification, ignorance. yes to singing, bio breaks (bathroom, fresh air, snacks, self care), ending early (when the group has run out of energy for the day), talent shows, parties and efforts to synthesize. no to judgment, delays, circular conversations and people who are rejecting the process.
7. what you gonna do?
my friend gibran rivera once articulated a question to me: ‘what is the next most elegant step?’ oh i love this question. too often we come up with plans that don’t take into account the fog on the horizon. then we go off and the work doesn’t happen, perhaps can’t happen, and then we feel demoralized because our energy doesn’t flow into action. an elegant step is one that acknowledges what is known and unknown, and what the capacity of this group actually is. an elegant step allows humility, allows people to say ‘actually we need to do some research’ or ‘actually we need to talk to some folks not in this room’ or ‘actually we need a full day to build this plan out into something realistic and attainable’.
in any conversation – and i would say in any moment in life – there is a next elegant step – one that is possible and strategic based on who is taking it and where they are trying to go. find it and you cannot fail.
as with all things, these practices are emerging as i learn them. feel free to add on. love y’all, and let’s keep learning to do our movement work better and better.