Why and How progressive groups get stuck

cvrs and collage by the author

Recently I attended a two hour meeting of Radical Elders, an online zoom meeting. It was their first meeting with two smaller breakout room sessions.

Since I’m 71 this year, the good news was it was lovely to spend time with 91 fellow activists of my generation. They understood me! Several people acknowledged this “homecoming” feeling.

The rest of the news was another example of what does NOT work bringing people together for a project. Since one of my reporting beats is Best Practices in Group Process Facilitation, the webinar clarified some things for me.

The host’s announced goal at the start was to gather consensus and direction on what to do: Form a radical elders political party? Compose a platform of issues relevant to radical seniors (he showed us his draft platform)? Something else?

As I’ve often seen, none of his stated goals came to fruition. Why? As I view it, all the usual misunderstandings and ignorance of Best Practices in Facilitating Group Process pertained.

For example, the host’s instructions for the first breakout-room were to first take his radical seniors agenda and (A) voice which issue we were individually most in favor of; next (B) voice which issue we were individually least in favor of.

In our breakout room, since up to this point only a few leaders had introduced themselves to the group, we took time to do 1–2 minute introductions. These sharings gave us a sense of this group, a classic, real need of people in new groups.

After introductions, we found most of us did not agree starting a new political party, with a Radical Seniors agenda, made much sense. One woman said, “We already have two political parties of seniors, the Republicans and the Democrats.” We all laughed at this.

Again and again in the two hours, the host called for coming together over some agenda, some set of issues, etc. This never happened.

As best I could, I listened energetically to the unspoken tenor (consensus) of the group. I sensed the usual confusion I’ve sensed in most failed-failing progressive groups. The unspoken confusion comes from a “train-wreck” of assumptions and expectations, too many assumptions and expectations, going in too may directions. The host, God bless him, was primarily this, leaving the group with a no-go lack of group momentum. The host was calm; yet, clueless about what to do.

I suspect this will be familiar to many readers. If you have ever attended a meeting whose purpose is “to make something happen” or “get something done,” which then goes nowhere — well, this was another of those meetings. It was sad in that the 92 people gathered were motivated, ready, willing and wanting to come together over something.

Did I speak up and suggest anything? I did, in the breakout room, briefly politely and without attachment, about what could be done, testing the waters. As is often the case, healthy group process topics were too unfamiliar. There were too few ears able to grasp what I was suggesting.

What COULD have been done

What the host was missing, what many activists hosts especially miss, is it’s not the issues which PRIMARILY attract and bring people together. It’s values, shared values held in common. This is especially true of women and of Cultural Creatives. Meeting others with whom they share values is what they hunger for.

A course the meeting could have taken, was for the host to talk about his personal values. For sure, good to name some issues which illustrate-support his values. This would have MODELED and created SOCIAL PERMISSION for attendees to share their values in brief break-room introductions.

Then the host could have shared his VISION of how Radical Elders together could make the world more wonderful. More precisely, his VISION of how this group could address His VISION could have given the group DIRECTION and FOCUS for how to address the overwhelming problems around us.

Then he could have stated the MISSION of today’s event, what it might accomplish, in his view.

His sharing of VISION and MISSION would likely have created a lot of consensus.

Then he could have assigned a breakout room task — after brief introductions — of brainstorming FEEDBACK for his VISION and his MISSION (a Radical Elders org).

Instead, the group felt confused and bogged down with various ideas about how to fill the void where the host’s lack of Group Process facilitating skills were needed.

Having been thru this same movie 15 times or more myself, I looked deeper for what else I could learn from this latest failure of group process. What I perceived was, If a host focusses on language, ideas and issues — the host is virtually guaranteed to miss out on creating a safe, supportive, heartfelt look and feel. A safe, supportive social environment, a heartfelt look and feel is the best foundation to gather a group around a Vision and Mission.

Why does the train go off the track so often in progressive groups?

Spoken and written language is more a left hemisphere activity than a right hemisphere activity. Left hemisphere likes words and issues it can manipulate with language. Left hemisphere has very little capacity or intelligence for how to create a safe, supportive, heartfelt look and feel.

The intelligences needed come from right hemisphere:

- Capacity to FEEL THE WHOLE group as one,

- CURIOSITY, and

- EMPATHY for those present.

I am not claiming the host lacked these capacities. I’m pointing out he did not manifest them in a way attendees could access. Doing so is NOT done with words alone.

If simpler, the above right hemisphere intelligences are more Mother Skills than Father skills. Gender roles is a small yet significant piece of why males are less able to create and facilitate a heartfelt group process than women.

To Learn More

Group Process as an Art-form Series, putting healthy group process at the center of thriving, Progressive orgs

1) Heartfelt Facilitators Notebook; Best Practices Facilitating Large/Small Group Events (2022)

2) Milling and Dyad Questions for Learning Conversations in Personal Growth Live Events (2017)

3) Scripted Closed-Eye-Processes for Live Personal Growth Event Facilitators and Group Leaders (2017)

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Bruce Dickson

Bruce Dickson

Health Intuitive, author in Los Angeles, CA