When you sit around a meeting table, what purpose, what interest are you trying to serve?
At Sunday’s meeting, I deliberately sat away from the conference table, in a chair along the wall. It’s an old technique of mine, a way to be less challenging and threatening to others in the room.
When Deborah Tannen, who has done important research in gendered patterns of communication, asked two teens to talk about something important in front of a video camera, she took a quick look at two boys chatting. They were sitting akimbo to each other, not head on, and without much direct eye contact. In her first pass, she dismissed the conversation as not being important. But when she took a deeper listen, beyond the body language, she heard the boys talk about deep and important topics.
When men talk, they often need to avoid direct confrontation so that they don’t feel like they are in conflict, Tannen realized. That’s a technique I learned. Of course, I know women do the same thing, but they use vocal tones and pleasantries to remove the confrontation. “You can say ‘Fuck You!’ in so many nice ways!” a woman born female told me after allying herself with me in a meeting. Yeah. I have learned to defuse confrontation in many genders.
The reason I do this, though, is usually because of the purpose, the interest I try to serve in meetings. Unless it’s my meeting, I rarely come in with an agenda, with something I want to achieve. I don’t have a personal hobby horse or axe to grind, no pet project or underlying goals.
Serve the process is my usual goal. I want to help the process of consultation, focus and consensus building occur. I’m not there to serve my needs, I’m there to serve the process, to facilitate the group dynamic. I really am not invested in the outcome, but rather in the way people come together to create shared interests and commitments.
This makes me valuable in meetings. The Chaplain who attended that last meeting saw my contributions as valuable, short and strong comments or questions that demanded group attention and engagement. I helped shape the outcome without owning the outcome, helped empower the group to address the important issues.
She wanted to see me at the table, wanted me to be more active. She didn’t understand why I held back, worked with some distance.
I remembered a trans group in the past who loved video. I went to one of their meetings and was the only participant outside of the three organizers. I decided that I would help by sitting with the camera over my shoulder and interviewing them. I lead them through questions about their organization and focus. By the end of an hour and a half, they all felt that they understood their own organization more, and that I was a good interviewer.
I was committed to the process, not the outcome. And that means often keeping my mouth shut, even when I disagree or could offer other solutions. My service isn’t to some lofty goal or deep desire, my service is to the journey to enlightenment, to revelation and empowerment.
My experience, though, is that usually I am the only one in the room with that goal. That kind of service to the group isn’t what people come to meetings for. They have their own personal desires, needs and agendas. They also have their own personal fears and need to control the process, not to surrender to it.
When others aren’t willing to open to the voyage, my role in facilitation is always limited. I can only move things so far. That’s the way most growth happens, of course, one step at a time, a slow progression from where we are now to where we need to go. I know that helping people move a step or two is a big deal.
Chaplain wanted me to keep coming to these meetings, as she saw my value to the process. “Spending two hours of people playing out their own agenda just so I can contribute my two minutes of focus can be very taxing,” I responded. She understood, but really still wanted me to help.
I went, because that was my process for that day. Maybe I will go again. I’m not really bound to any outcome. That’s the point.
But I ask you again, when you sit around a meeting table, what purpose, what interest are you trying to serve?
Do you have an agenda, an outcome in mind, or are you willing to be open to and engaged in the process?
Can you get to service?