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Putting the "Us" in Pluribus

A couple of years ago (!) I wrote a post about the often-unrealized potential of group decision-making processes.  Recently some reading[1] reminded me of one reason we persist in group efforts – the chance to be part of a positive outcome that’s grander than ourselves.

It’s rare, in my experience, that groups actually generate something in that direction.  We’re happy enough if we feel like we got anything accomplished, let alone something transcendent.  I’m stubborn in my belief that we can reach a higher bar more regularly, and grateful to the reading for prodding my thinking about the mechanics and the attitudes that facilitate it.

One ingredient is the necessary movement from individual preferences – often where we start - to a collective agenda (prioritizing what’s best for us).   Making this transition explicit can be helpful.  A friend once told me about a skilled facilitator who passed out squares of green plastic grass to every participant.  As they deliberated, they were asked to “relinquish their turf” in a basket as they were ready.  Some turned it in and took it back repeatedly.  The visual helped people understand which direction they were pulling, and kept the intention of moving beyond self present in everyone’s mind.

Probably the greatest aid for groups in achieving this state is having been there before!  If we know what it feels like, we can do what it takes to orient towards that outcome.  Groups without that knowledge need a clear vision of what it can be like, aligned desire for it, and reminders for support.  A facilitator can take that on.  For example, the facilitator can remind participants how they’re likely to feel in such a process – calm, curious, unafraid, free from needing to defend or prove a point – and have them check in internally.  If people are repeating each other, the facilitator can remind them to listen to what’s emerging as opposed to fixating on what they want to say.   

Meeting structures can also play a key role.  Many of the groups I work with incorporate tools to manage pacing, for example including a talking piece or speaking in “rounds” (one at a time, in an established order.)   For the uninitiated these can feel like restrictive rules or formalities, but as Ted Rau writes[2],    

“Rounds change the rules of the game so it doesn’t become a game of convincing each other. Instead, it becomes a game of sharing your thoughts and co-creation. It sometimes feels like we’re all giving our offering and put it in the middle of the circle where it can grow into something bigger and better than I could have come up with.” 

We come into these sessions with often unexamined training and expectations –efficiency over exploration, competition over deep collaboration.   We need individual motivation as well as group direction and structure to check our tendencies and develop habits that allow that grander thing to finally unfurl.

[1] Including Miki Kashtan’s book, The Highest Common Denominator


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