Working With People
Community building is not a project that can ever be deemed complete. A community is processual and continually in flux and the efforts put into developing it are more akin to a day–to–day practice than a single task. Team-building can be one of the activities within a community but there is a difference between a team and a community. In the former a limited group of people works towards a common goal, while the latter is based on a genuine bond between at least some of the members. Since relations between members are at the base of community building, fostering the ability of each part of the community to articulate its views, attitudes, and needs as well as creating procedures to address conflict openly and constructively4 are of utmost importance for a healthy and thriving community. This in turn will create a resilient base for the SSE enterprise and help to develop it creatively in prosperous times and support its operation in times of crisis.
Whatever the shape of the endeavour it is fundamental to have a clear idea and rules about how decisions are taken. There are a variety of methods and principles of decision making that will shape the initiative and the relations of the people involved. It is important to remember that involving people in working out solutions together may be more time and energy consuming than top-down management. However there are many benefits, such as a shared feeling of ownership, more lasting decisions that take into account different needs, not excluding minority groups, and simply better and more creative decisions that take advantage of the diversity in membership. This is because inclusive decision making has the advantage of getting to know the needs of participants, rather than just their opinions.
Sharing power and involving people in addressing their needs and jointly shaping a common enterprise performs a crucial function from the perspective of community building. When the group is relatively small, it should be feasible to use consensus for most decisions. This implies opting for solutions that are acceptable to everyone. When the community has grown substantially, some modifications may be needed, such as the introduction of the supermajority method. This allows more room for disagreement.
Many smaller decisions will have to be taken by working groups or by core members. The more complex the operation, the more it should be clear how decisions are taken and who is allowed to decide on what. Participatory decision-making can be a complex process, so don’t expect quick results or universal agreement. Remember that everyone is different, so not everyone has to share the same enthusiasm for a proposed solution. The key is not to exclude anyone from the process.
Further reading and resources:
seedsforchange.org.uk/consensus – great materials on consensus decision- making and other relevant topics.
www.loomio.org – online tool for inclusive decision-making.
Good meetings are vital for the group to feel empowered and motivated. If meetings are ineffective and too long, they can drain the participant’s energy, and make them feel tired, confused or go round in circles. A successful meeting will ideally give rise to new ideas, boost involvement and produce tangible results. This may be challenging and depend on many circumstances, but following a few rules and guidelines will help you to become aware of any given issues before things go astray.
Make sure the meeting is announced in advance and that you have a clear agenda of what should be discussed and achieved during the meeting. If there are important things to be discussed, people should be well informed in advance. Leave some space in the agenda for new subjects and ideas. If possible assign roles beforehand: there should at least be a facilitator and note-taker throughout the meeting, a timekeeper can also be useful. Sort the different points according to urgency/priority and try to estimate how much time you will need for each point. Matters requiring discussion and decisions need more time, so it is useful to share as much information as possible before the meeting and be ready to present the subject matter in a concise form before the discussion.
The facilitator plays a key role during the meeting. While most people will concentrate on the content of the things being dis-cussed the facilitator’s role is to take care of the process, that is to keep track of time (it’s easier to have a separate timekeeper!), make sure the meeting is inclusive (this can be the task of a separate person too) and that everyone is sticking to the subject. The facilitator should also structure the discussion and lead it towards conclusions and decisions. Some key things for the facilitator to keep in mind are:
• Agree on communication rules and make sure no-one breaks them.
• Keep an eye on the aim of the meeting or agenda point and try not lose time by diverging too much from the subject.
• Keep as many people involved as possible, don’t let the same people speak all the time.
• Listen carefully to the different voices, clarify them and give structure to the discussion.
• Be careful not to fill silences (sometimes people need time to think, or to prepare to speak)
Another important role is that of the note-taker. Meeting memos should be available to everyone and well structured. No-one likes to read lengthy notes of everything everyone has said, so focus on getting down the decisions taken as well as the proposals, challenges and actions planned. Every meeting should conclude with the next steps to be taken: what, who, and when. The notes should be available to other participants to verify or correct if needed.
In the case of online meetings you need to take care of additional things.
• Test the system in advance. Whichever tools you decide to use make sure you know exactly how they work and reserve time to explain them to other participants.
• Teach everyone to use the “mute” function when they’re not speaking and use microphones for better sound quality.
• Be verbal about whatever is happening during the meeting and who’s turn it is to speak. During online meetings eye contact and body language are very limited.
• Prepare and use collaborative online tools to enhance participation and diversify methods.
Further reading and resources:
Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, Sam Kaner with Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk and Duane Berger, Jossey-Bass, 2007, ISBN:978-0-7879-8266-9
seedsforchange.org.uk/meeting and seedsforchange.org.uk/facilitationmeeting – hands-on guides to conducting effective meetings and facilitation.
www.kialo.com – online tool for structuring complex discussions. Can beused to prepare ground before taking a decision or before a strategic meeting.
Building and maintaining healthy relations within the project, especially within teams and working groups requires the skills to communicate both positive and negative things, the ability to address emotional states and work out constructive solutions. Regularly giving and receiving feedback is a great way to evaluate activities, keeping up-to-date with co-workers and resolving tensions before they develop into arguments and conflicts.
There are however a few things to keep in mind for the feedback to work as intended.
• First of all choose the right moment. The person you are addressing should be ready and willing to receive feedback and not overworked, very tired, distressed, etc.
• Be honest and specific, present your point of view and express how the aspects mentioned have affected you.
• Remember to only address actions and behaviour, not the personality of the receiving person. It is much easier and useful to agree on something that could have been done differently than to quarrel about how someone is or isn’t.
• Get the person involved: ask how they see the issue and encourage him or her to propose a solution.
• Make sure the feedback is constructive and useful for the person concerned.
• Don’t focus solely on the negative parts of the situation, make sure to mention what you appreciate.
It is just as important to know how to give feedback as well as receive it. Receiving feedback can also give you hints on the kind of things you should avoid when giving feedback yourself. When you are on the receiving end, remember to listen attentively to everything that is being said. Don’t interrupt (verbally and non-verbally), and don’t get defensive. Consider the information to be the sole opinion of another person and an important source of information. The act of receiving feedback is sometimes difficult, but it is a good way to learn and develop.
https://seedsforchange.org.uk/feedback – short, handy guide on giving and receiving feedback.