The Elephant in the Rooms

deck photo

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. namingA 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 deckdownload a free PDF copy and learn about the project on our website, 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. 

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14 Responses to The Elephant in the Rooms

  1. John Powers says:

    “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?”

    I think that’s the best. “Broad and deep” doesn’t come without practice.

  2. Pingback: Waiting for the apocalypse «

  3. I agree with John about the need to practice. I’d also point out that helping people to appreciate and acquire essential skills probably fits better with Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour than does pointing out something that most don’t want to acknowledge.

  4. Martin says:

    There’s no way to know, for sure, what is “…a waste of time, of energy, of their lives…”, whether you believe it is or not is irrelevant. What you are providing is an empowering tool for possible future peaceful leadership in the coming stressful times – whether they pick up on the empowerment it provides is up to them to choose. Some will, many won’t, and that’s o.k.

    Will it make a difference?

    Who knows?

    But in any case, I suppose your ‘job’ is to keep on keepin’ on and enjoy the moment…

  5. Pawel Klewin says:

    Dave, I quoted the “naming” part of your text on Occupy cafe thread about collaboration ( Wouldn’t you like to join the discussion?

  6. Pawel Klewin says:

    Dave, I quoted the “naming” part of your article on Occupy Cafe collaboration thread (
    Wouldn’t you like to join the discussion?

  7. Pingback: The Elephant in the Rooms « how to save the world « Poor Richard's Almanack 2.0

  8. Poor Richard says:

    Wow. I feel you, Bro. You can lead a horse to information but you can’t make him think. Sharing.

  9. Dave, it’s my first time commenting on your site – I just discovered you yesterday through Carolyn Baker. I’m in 100% agreement with everything I’ve read so far, and have been writing from the same place of awareness for a few years.

    You have to decide what’s most important – imparting the skills or shifting the mental context of your audience. I think it’s very hard to do both at the same time. If you “name the elephant” you’re going to be shifting the context quite unexpectedly,and they’ll be so busy trying to cope with that transition that their ability to learn anything like a new skill set will be seriously impaired. Their magical thinking is part of the context – leave it alone for now, and give them the skills. The context will change out from under them in due course as events push them out of their boxes, but the skills will stay.

    Changing people’s mental settings in this way, as much as you (and I) would like to do it, is impossible unless your audience is expecting it. Even then it needs to be framed and presented very carefully. If it’s not what they came for they will deploy all kinds of defensive rationalizations to block the discomfort.

    I know the temptation to shake people awake is really strong, but unless people are ready to wake up it rarely works. After 20 or so attempts to do it in public talks, I’ve stopped trying. As far as I can tell, people make this kind of major shift in just two ways. One is as part of a deep personal process, the other is in response to events that happen to them. A talk or lecture can form part of their process if that’s what they’re already doing. Otherwise it’s just upsetting.

    Nowadays I drop hints into related conversations, and if I see someone’s eyes light up I engage them more deeply one-on-one. Otherwise, I leave it alone and just talk about the climate or the price of oil.

  10. terrapraeta says:

    Hey Dave —

    It’s been a while, and I see you’ve been dealing with a dose of discouragement. I’ve had the feeling for some months now of “waiting for something to happen.” This sense that not only can I not move on to the next step until the world gives me the go, but also that if I fail to pay attention I may miss it and my chance. It’s kind of bittersweet, but we plug on ;-)

    As to your question here…. I would suspect that your “naming” card addresses immediate considerations as opposed to long term planning. And, as mentioned above, naming this particular elephant within the context of these conferences does seem very much in contrast to Pollard’s Law. And I think you already know that, but felt a need to put it out there, maybe to get a little confirmation, or maybe just to get it out of your head for yourself!

    We’ve all been doing this for long enough that we know people will come to us when they are ready to face this elephant. In the meantime…. any useful skills, strategies, knowledge or happiness we can offer has to be enough.

    Take care sweetheart,


  11. Bill Martin says:

    Hello Dave,
    I resonate with your “naming the elephant” dilemma. During my career as a psychotherapist that metaphor was popular in dealing with an alcoholic/addictive family system. Until the family members were ready to withdraw all support from the alcoholic/addict, they were merely doing the dance of keeping the system intact and the addict continued to set the tone and agenda. My wife and I are gradually withdrawing from participation in the addictive system as much as possible. I agree that teaching skills is helpful. But “working for change within the system” feels much like the classic efforts of the spouse of an alcoholic – “If I just work harder I can fix him. He has so much potential.” Nope. Leaving the set-up is the only option.

    No, I don’t know exactly what that means in practical terms. I only know that tinkering around with a dysfunctional family system is doomed. This is especially meaningful as we here in the U.S. face another “election.” For the first time in my life I am considering not voting. Actually I’ll probably vote “Green” as a statement but sooner or later I think I’ll have to withdraw my efforts and focus them elsewhere.

    Thanks for being there,

  12. Elah says:

    Hi Dave,

    Just found your blog and wanted to let you know that I can relate to your perspective. There many I would assume who share this understanding of our collective march toward the end of this “civilization” like lemmings into the sea. And yet, there are those who are taking some action toward preparation and working at ways of preserving the best examples of the positive aspects of human creativity, philosophy and scientific work. Have you seen Cliff High’s website? He has an interesting perspective too.

    Best wishes for an amazing life on this beautiful planet,

  13. viveik says:

    You have to understand that most
    of these people are not ready to
    be unplugged and many of them are
    so inured, so hopelessly dependent
    on the system that they will fight
    to protect it.

  14. Janet says:

    Sure enjoy your blog postings – & the thoughtful comments on this one! Love that ‘You can lead a horse to information but you can’t make him think’ comment. I also blog & I also try to call the elephants & mostly the people closest to me are (sort of) appreciative of my efforts to change the world (I think most of us have given up on the “saving” part) & mostly not about to do anything about any of it. What to do what to do what to do?? I think Eckhart Tolle & others think that our becoming conscious is the ticket. I think I’m conscious! I guess I am trying to share consciousness. I think that’s all we can do. Oh, & love as well as we can the people we love. That’s about all I’m up to now (that & in my case, still working on the anti-nuclear front).

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