Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Common Ground

Last night I experienced one of those triumphs that may have looked inconsequential to someone else but that I enjoyed.

I facilitated the weekly community meeting of Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community.

For these meetings we previously had sat around a table. Back when our complex still was under construction, and we met in the board room of our marketing office in a shopping mall, we sat around a large table. There we didn't have any choice. That pretty much was the only configuration that was feasible in that space.

More recently, after the completion of construction, we switched our meetings to the communal dining hall in our Common House. Yet, although we had masses of space and almost unlimited options, we continued to sit around a table. Actually in this case there were three smaller tables that we placed in a row. But the effect was the same. It felt like one large table.

Now and then I had mentioned to the members of my community that I would like us to sit in an open circle without a table. But there had been resistance to that idea. It felt to me as if it was impossible to dislodge the table. It was almost as if it was carved in stone.

From November 5th through 8th, I participated in a meeting facilitation workshop at Roberts Creek Cohousing on the "Sunshine Coast" of British Columbia (BC). It was one of a series of quarterly workshops in which we are learning how to implement the consensus decision making model that intentional communities use. Representatives from eight intentional communities in Coastal BC -- six cohousing communities and two ecovillages -- attend these workshops. The participating communities take turns in hosting the workshops.

In comparing notes with members of other communities, I discovered that they'd all adopted open circles for their meetings. The last hold outs, besides ourselves, had been Cranberry Commons Cohousing. They had switched from a table to an open circle in the spring of 2009. Their representatives reported that the quality of their meetings had improved dramatically after they'd changed their format.

You may wonder why I'm going on about this. Why is seating such a big deal? Well, as it turns out, it is quite significant. You may not be aware of it, but a physical barrier in the midst of a group creates an emotional barrier. It affects the quality of your communication.

When I was at Roberts Creek, I sighed and said that Pacific Gardeners seemed unable to let go of our table. A member of Cranberry Commons suggested that I lead by example. She said that, if I stood while I facilitated meetings, that alone would shift the energy.

Oh yes, that's another part of this that I forgot to mention. In the other cohousing communities, they not only sit in an open circle, but their meeting facilitator stands throughout the meeting. A standing facilitator is much more equipped to engage with the group than a sitting one. A standing facilitator can jot notes on a flipchart or whiteboard to capture salient ideas. He or she can take a step or two towards a meeting participant who is talking for too long. Interestingly enough, that small movement can have the effect of "waking up" a person who is rambling and making him/her aware of what he/she is doing. If two people get into conflict, a standing facilitator can step between them and break their line of sight. A standing facilitator is better able to see the raised hands of people who want to speak. A standing facilitator gets tired of standing -- I mean physically tired -- and is motivated to keep a meeting to a reasonable length.

So, at our first community meeting following my return from Roberts Creek, I did just that. I was the facilitator, and I stood while everyone sat around a table. After that meeting, one of my community members emailed me, complimented me on the flow of the meeting, and said it had been an improvement over our usual meetings. This person did not make any reference to the fact that I had stood, but I suspect that that had contributed to the perceived improvement.

Then, when I facilitated our community meeting a week later (last night), I took a bold step and asked for an open circle. To my pleasant surprise, my fellow Pacific Gardeners agreed to give it a try.

At the end of the meeting we spent a few minutes evaluating what had gone well and what could have been improved.

Some meeting participants disliked the open circle. They were the people who liked to take notes, to have minutes of previous meetings readily to hand so that they could refer to them when questions arose, and so on.

Other participants liked the open circle. They said it felt to them as if everyone was more equal, they had a better view of everyone else, there were fewer opportunities for distracting side activities such as eating or drinking, and they found themselves remaining more alert.

I suggested a compromise. I asked if the people who liked to take notes would be willing to bring trays that they could put on their laps. I then floated out the idea of TV trays (small trays on legs that originally were designed for eating while one watched television). It transpired that one couple in our community had a large collection of TV trays. They agreed to lend them to us for our meetings.

So that was where we left it. Next week we will assemble in an open circle, but some folks will have TV trays in front of them.

When I went to bed last night, I had a warm, fuzzy feeling. The members of my community, who had been polarized on this issue, had found common ground.


BruceElkin.com said...

Fascinating description of an important challenge.
Good for you, Judy: for going to these facilitation course, for practicing, and for easing your co-housing cohorts into change that is comfortable for them. Very elegant!

Time Seeker said...

Hi Judy

Great to see that the experiences at Roberts Creek are being put to such good use at your home community! Thanks for sharing...

Time Seeker said...

(btw "timeseeker" is my blogspot ID -- Megan (from Kelowna))