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Laetus in Praesens Alternative view of segmented documents via Kairos

May 1998

Emptying Meetings and Fulfilling Participants

Ensuring that encounters are fruitful

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There is a very heavy investment in meetings to facilitate change. This investment takes the form of:

The manner of this investment is one of the factors inhibiting fruitful encounters.

It serves little purpose to repeat evaluations of the prevailing style of meetings (see Whether it is a G-7 summit, or a group of international colleagues dedicated to some cause, the fruitfulness of such encounters is often challenged, either by participants, external observers, or subsequent events. This may be accompanied by a range of positive appreciations that it is difficult to distinguish from politeness and tokenism of  various forms. However, it is also frequently true that it may be better to meet than not to meet -- whatever the consequences. The situation in electronic meetings may be better in some respects, but it has not proved to be the breakthrough that was hoped for -- and may curtail forms of communication that are valuable despite reservations about face-to-face meetings.

Challenging factors

1. Complexity versus Simplicity: Participants are torn between the need to communicate insights of sufficient complexity (to be appropriate to the issues discussed), and the requirement for simplicity (if anything is to be commuinicated at all -- especially to those unfamiliar with these issues). For some it appears obvious that new ideas should be expressible simply, if they are to be meaningful. For others, it is challenge enough to be able to reflect insights in words -- and simplifications should follow rather than precede such articulation. Embodying complexity within simplicity is an art cultivated with difficulty. Whether a paradigm leap can be made comprehensible on a buck slip to the president is a real dilemma.

2. Discursiveness versus Brevity: There is a natural tendency for participants to speak longer than desired by the average member of their audience. This may be due to the perceived complexity of what needs to be communicated or argued, or to the need to disguise the limitations of the speaker by the use of decorative rhetoric. Brevity, whilst appreciated, tends to have less conceptual impact than a more extended discourse. The art of deriving greater significance from a succession of brief interventions remains to be developed and appreciated.

3. Distraction versus Amusement: There is always a tendency to introduce parentheses, asides and extraneous questions. In a wide ranging meeting, who is to determine what is relevant, when and to whom? If one has nothing to say on the point, why not create a suitable impression by saying something substantive off the point? Whos is determining what is the point anyway? Andecdotes and humour are much appreciated as a means of enlivening a weary session. They may even successfully make the most fundamentally point most appropriately. But again, when is a joke a distraction, and to whom?

4. Exclusiveness versus Inclusiveness: It is to be expected that speakers would tend to present their own particular perspective and to persuade the audience of its merits. In so doing they will tend to ignore perspectives of others articulated in earlier interventions -- or in those to come. It is a challenge for speakers to devote any proportion of their limited speaking time to acknowledgement and inclusion of perspectives of others.

5. Position-taking versus Pattern-making:  Participants in many cases have positions to take and defend in what is often necessarily a struggle with others present. Absent dimensions must often be introduced with vigour. In doing so the possibility of weaving other perpectives into a larger pattern may have to be sacrificed. Such larger patterns may then be treated as of secondary importance, ignored, or regarded as unrealistic. Participants then leave the meeting with little sense of a meaningful larger context. But how is a richer pattern to be articulated and held for appreciation?
6. Covertness versus Overtness: It is frequently the case that a gathering may be, in some measure, a subterfuge to advance undeclared agendas. Some participants may be party to such hidden agendas, others may be in total ignorance of them -- some are just "tourists". Individuals may all have their hidden reasons for attending a meeting -- if only "to make contacts", "to network" or to advance their careers. These covert purposes may be of much greater importance than those which are overt. Collective efforts to articulate and honour a shared agenda may be privately viewed as exercises in tokenism. Ensuring transparency in an encounter may prove challenging -- and apparent transparency may be questionable.

7. Certainty versus Doubt: Participants of consequence must necessarily bring certainties to an encounter -- certainties derived from their experience of what works and what does not, as well as from what they believe in. They encounter others with different experiences -- unless affirmation of commonality is the only purpose. Participants may also bring their doubts to the encounter, or allow doubt concerning their own certainities to be triggered by the alternative perspectives of others. Speaking from certainity, a participant can only endeavour to persuade others and must remain deaf to the merits of their arguments. A measure of doubt enables a participants to learn and to benefit from the perspectives of others. For the meeting as a whole, it is a challenge to determine an appropriate balance between certainty and doubt -- especially when reaching any conclusions to which others are expected to respond.

8. Absence versus Presence: Despite the physical presence of a participant, it is by no means certain that the participant is psychologically present and engaged in the gathering. There is a marked tendency to bring other work, or reflect on other matters -- treating presence at the event as a formal requirement. People may absent themselves for coffee and private discussion. This is especially the case when interventions are long and of little interest. However, people may, in one way or another,  need to "absent" themselves from the encounter in order to bring new resources to bear upon it. What encourages people to be present at an event -- in spirit as well as in body? What does such presence imply for the moment-by-moment dynamics of the encounter?

The above factors tend to play off, and reinforce, one another. The meeting may become an essentially unconscious event in which the effective interactions are largely those below the conscious level. Participants can play games with themselves (cultivating their own illusions) or with one another (reinforcing each others' illusions). The net result can even persuade participants that the event has been a success -- and that it should be repeated. As a community activity, there may be no reason to question this assessment.

Emptying meetings

This might be called the era of CFC's -- namely Content Free Conferences -- suggesting the need for a reduction of "emissions"! The above factors indicate some of the reasons why meetings are decreasingly fruitful and attractive -- why (like churches and temples) they are being emptied of significant content, of significant participants and of significant interaction. They also suggest the need to respond to such dysfunctionality by "emptying meetings" in a more fundamental way. Using religious metaphors:

Clearly there is a strong case in many meetings for much briefer interventions. The acknowledged challenge is to ensure that each intervention is set both in a period of reflection and in an interaction dynamic. Insights need to be sharpened through reinforcement and challenge -- in part to recognize the identity of the participant -- or those represented by the intervention. But it is the relationship of such insights to a larger dynamic pattern that needs to be established.  Better insight capture would avoid the need for repetitive presentations to disguise uncertainty. There is a real issue whether a cluttered meeting, full of jarring interventions, creates a space within which a larger pattern may be experienced. Precisely because there is no sense of this larger pattern, some seek to impose an old-style pattern and others seek to disseminate their particular view.

Perhaps meetings also suffer from effects analogous to "light pollution" -- the bane of astronomers. Too much reflected light from mundane human activity inhibits our recognition of the wider contextual pattern within which our planet is situated. We are reduced to the obvious features, such as the other planets and the brighter stars -- given such prominence at any modern meeting.

Fulfilling participants

It is an irony that the principal problems of society are only too evident in the condition and behaviour of participants at a meeting: unemployment (mal-employment), ignorance, undernourishment, underproductivity, impoverishment, environmental degradation, misrepresentation, and the like (see detailed exploration at Who would consider themselves fully employed at a meeting? Some participants acquire access to disproportionate meeting resources. Some acquire positions of power at variance with principles of democracy and justice. There are the "haves" and the "have-nots" -- and the challenges of  "social exclusion". In this sense there are those that are over-fulfilled and others that are essentially unfulfilled -- if not undernourished (or even "starving"), whether emotionally intellectually or spiritually.

How might the healthy fulfillment of participants be fruitfully understood? What is to be understood as healthy interaction between participants as a temporary community? What is essential to their "diet"? What "exercise" do they require? How does requiring the unemployment of some during the gathering, to ensure the meaningful employment of others, undermine the quality of life of some participants during the event? Who is ignorant and of what? What does it take to transform a gathering into a productive learning event? How are healthy dynamics to be distinguished from unhealthy dynamics to ensure the sustainability of such a community?

However, although it is appropriate to ask whether participants are fulfilled, it is also appropriate to ask whether individual participants fulfilled their obligations and commitments. Other than the "rights" of a participant, what are their "responsibilities" during the event? The debate between "individual" and "collective" values is thus also reflected in the dynamics of a meeting.

Beyond questions?

It is one thing to make assessments about an event -- or to ask pertinent questions. It is quite another to be able respond creatively to such opportunities -- and respond in practice to the implications of  questions such as those above.

As insights into the inherent inadequacies of contemporary gatherings increase in the light of new understanding, the dilemma for potential organizers of such initiatives increases. This is also true for potential participants.

Organization of any event, and participation in it, involves significant costs. The benefits may be marginal or negative. There are significant risks. Perhaps the dilemmas of organizaters and participants may best be summarized by the old joke:

But that is surely neither the end of the story nor an adequate response to the challenge. In terms of the famous quote: Organizers can fool some potential participants all the time, or all of such participants some of the time, but organizers cannot fool all potential participants all of the time!

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