For the last couple of weeks I’ve been attending conferences and small-group meetings in Seattle, Washington DC and Toronto to show people the Group Works deck: a set of 91 cards representing a “pattern language” of best practices and processes that can be invoked in various group activities: Meetings, group deliberative and learning sessions of various kinds and sizes, and even small group conversations.
The message at all of these events has been the same: By learning to be a better facilitator (formally or informally) of such group activities, you can dramatically improve their effectiveness — how much people learn, the quality of decisions made, the depth of relationships built, the level of mutual trust and appreciation, and the conversational, deliberative and collaborative skills of all participants.
The audiences were of two “flavours”: People concerned with civic/community engagement (consultation with and/or recruitment of citizens for political or volunteer awareness or activism), and people concerned with the effectiveness of learning, knowledge-sharing, technology and decision-making in their (mostly business) organizations. Both types of audience readily admit to the need for better group processes and facilitation skills. But because filling this need is no one’s “job” there is little awareness of, or consensus on, just how this might be accomplished. The Group Works card deck provides a fun, intuitive way to gain appreciation of what these processes, practices and skills are (and how they might be improved). As one of many authors of this non-profit tool, I take every opportunity to be an evangelist for it.
I’ve written a rather silly, short 9-scene play exemplifying “worst practices” in group process as a means of introducing and orienting people to the cards. I pick volunteers from the audience to act out the script, and my audiences really seem to like identifying what “went wrong” in each scene and how invoking the patterns on the cards could have led to much better outcomes. So when I visit with people at these events, show them the cards and how to use them, “play” with them in front of audiences, and practice employing the cards in simulated meetings, conversations and other deliberative activities, the decks practically sell themselves (we’re a non-profit, and we charge just enough to recoup printing and other development costs).
I am pleased that, in this work, I am helping people to improve learning, decision-making, meeting effectiveness, trust, relationships and interpersonal skills. This is important, in just about every context of our modern lives.
But since I retired from paid work two and a half years ago, I’ve become aware of just how radically different the context of most people’s lives (including those of my recent audiences) is from my own. A few of the attendees are aware of my blog and the worldview it attempts to convey — one of a civilization on the brink of an inevitable, wrenching series of cascading economic, energy and ecological crises that will culminate, in the latter part of this century, in its collapse, and usher in an unrecognizably different, relocalized, low-tech, subsistence way of life.
There is even some quiet acknowledgement that my “joyful pessimist’s” take on our future is probably right. But for the most part, beyond a sad smile and a shrug from those familiar with my writing, there is little interest in discussing such a dark future, or even discussing how the skills and capacities that facilitation in general, and the Group Works deck in particular, might be applied to help us all cope with such a future.
So I have felt, for the past two weeks, as if there is a giant elephant in the room that has followed me from Seattle to DC to Toronto, and will probably follow me home to Vancouver, one that almost no one but me is able to see.
The audiences that I have met are, at heart, believers in one form or another of what I have called “magical thinking”. They believe that the crises we face today can be resolved by education or persuasion or activism or prayer or innovation or greater consciousness or a million small acts of intelligence and kindness, or some combination of the above. And that through this resolution we will be able, somehow, to continue to live the privileged, resource-exhausting, extravagant life that we have come to see as the only way to live, and perhaps even allow the 90% of humans who can now only dream of such a life (and probably do, as they see it depicted in the ubiquitous global media) to share in it as well.
I wonder why I do not challenge this belief, which, I can see in the eyes of many I meet these days, is becoming ever more tenuous, more doubtful. Magical thinking continues now, I suspect, not because people really believe it, but because they want to believe it, they cannot bear to not believe it. I should, if I am a believer in taking my own medicine, be “naming” this doubt, this foolish magical thinking. As the “Naming” card in the Group Works deck says: “Call it out, stating directly what is perceived. Naming functions to birth things not yet recognized by the group, sometimes things that are taboo… to name can be to transform.”
So what if I were to stand up in front of a group of business people or a group of believers in the power of public engagement, and tell them I believe everything they were doing was a waste of time, of energy, of their lives (and why I believe that)? What if I were to tell them that I want them to learn to be better “group process facilitators”, not so that their organizations will be more innovative or better learning environments, and not so that they will be better able to achieve consensus and creative ideas to transform our industrial growth society, but because our 30,000 year old human civilization is about to come to a crashing halt over the next 50-75 short years, and deep and broad group process skills are going to be absolutely essential to coping with this crash?
In other words, what if I were willing to “name” the elephant in the room that most cannot see, and those who can see, or intuitively sense its presence don’t want — or can’t bear — to acknowledge? Am I really doing anyone a favour? Or is it enough, and is it better, that I help people learn to appreciate and acquire essential skills to do things that, in the long run, don’t matter, so that when those skills are desperately needed to do things that do matter, things that will make a critical difference in a world without an industrial “growth” economy, without abundant cheap energy, without a stable climate, they will have learned and practiced those skills?
You can order copies of the deck, download a free PDF copy and learn about the project on our website, groupworksdeck.org. The cards can be used to prepare for a group event, to reflect on and debrief a recent event, to learn, self-assess and teach facilitation, conversation and other group process skills, to deal with group process nightmares in the moment, and as an inspiration or “oracle” for thinking about your group process work.