Where there’s a Pattern, there are people who are part of it

June 17th, 2010
Last summer I participated in a seminar.  The format included group discussion, and discuss we did.  But one member of the group, Bernard, didn’t discuss so much as pontificate…at length, and often on topics that were tenuously connected to the subject matter of the class.  And, when Bernard got to a pithy phrase, he repeated it three times:

Trust (pause) is the essence of change. (Meaningful look around the room).

Trust (pause) is the essence of change. (Meaningful look around the room).

Trust (pause) is the essence of change. (Meaningful look around the room).

Most of us in the group made our point in a minute or two.  Bernard went on for five or six.

I found myself feeling annoyed.

I also found myself waiting for the seminar leader to do something…redirect Bernard, bring him back on topic, give him feedback, something.  But the seminar leader just listened to Bernard, and nodded her head.

When we gave 5 minute presentations, Bernard’s presentation lasted 15.

I still found myself feeling annoyed.

I still found myself waiting for the seminar leader to do something…point out the time limit, give Bernard a sign he was over time, ask him to wind it up.  But the seminar leader just listened to Bernard, and nodded her head.

When I looked at my own motives, I realized that at first, I was giving space to Bernard, since I didn’t know him, and wanted to withhold judgement. But by the second meeting of the seminar, I was keeping quiet because I didn’t want to appear biased, since Bernard was from a different culture.

In short, I was participating in a situation where I felt annoyed (by Bernard), let down (by the seminar leaders), and put upon (by myself, for holding back). I was also withholding information from Bernard, and that was getting in the way of my having a constructive relationship with him. I wondered how many other people in the workshop were experiencing something similar.

Now, often our inclinations in such situations is to look at individual behavior, give feedback, and ask individuals to act differently. Sometimes that’s absolutely the right thing to do.  Other times, it’s more helpful to look behavior of the group as a whole.

One day, after Bernard went on a sententious ramble for the upmteenth time, I had a moment of recognition: we have a pattern here—repeated events that have meaning over time—and I am part of it.  I was colluding with the pattern, helping to hold it in place.

This time, when Bernard started his presentation by declaring he was going to play some music for us and announced “This is your time, I want you to get up and move to music,”  I decided not to participate in the pattern or wait for someone else to change it.

I took Bernard at his word (at least the first part of his sentence).  Rather than swaying to Bernard’s music for 10 minutes (as the rest of the group did), I checked my email.  I responded to a couple of items that needed quick attention.

When Bernard finished (15 minutes beyond the stated timebox) the entire group took a break.  During the course of the break half the group members talked to me about my action.  I was not the only one who was irritated by the way Bernard was interacting with the group—nor was I the only one colluding with the pattern. Bernard was taking up a lot of air time because we let him take up a lot of air time.  We had a choice. We could continue in the pattern, or we could shift it.

And we did.  When Bernard started down a topic that was unrelated, someone would gently remind him of the topic at hand. When he got close to the end of a presentation timebox, some one gave him a signal that he had two minutes left.  The first time it happened, Bernard looked shocked—a shift in the pattern can be disconcerting, especially when the previous pattern worked (at least for Bernard).

And we formed a different pattern. We stopped waiting for our “leaders” to solve all issues with the way our group handled disucssions. One of the people who had a closer relationship with him, spoke to him directly about how Bernard’s tendency to go on affected him personally. And we all started being more honest with each other.

4 Comments

  1. Adrian Segar says:

    Hi Esther – a revealing, instructive story! One of the things that fascinate me about group dynamics is how often we are reluctant to speak out about disruptive behavior. That’s the reason I like to have some ground rules in place (one of which is usually about staying on time or sharing time appropriately) at the start of a group’s time together.

    • Esther says:

      Hi, Adrian -

      Setting initial ground rules is useful some of the time.

      It depends the purpose and intention of the group. If the purpose is for the group to learn about managing their own dynamics, then imposing rules isn’t so helpful.

      In general, I find that groups are more invested in working agreements and ground rules that they choose for themselves.

      And, there are cases when I am coming in as “the expert” for a particular process that I provide a starting set of ground rules if they are essential to the process.

      • Adrian Segar says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that I’d impose rules on a group – I agree that in general it’s better for the group to come up with them on their own.

        On the other hand, if you’re working with a large group and a limited amount of time, providing a set of ground rules that you’ve found to work well in similar situations in the past may be the way to go.

        • Esther says:

          Of course. It’s about setting the container and holding the space.

          In Open Space with the four principles and one law set a tone for participation–one that assumes that the people who show up are adults and can manage most situations on their own.

          Another way to establish coherence in the group is with simple rules (a la Eoyang) which will inform all interactions, decisions, and activities with in the system. Thus, simple rules are broad, rather than narrow and specific, as ground rules usually are.

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