I don't know how many hours I've done this week which could count towards my social change quota, but I do know that they have virtually all been in meetings.
Meetings are the means by which things get done in almost any organisation or movement, and they are also the bugbear of almost everyone involved. Their reputation for being long, torturous, contentious, stressful or just plain boring precedes them by a mile, and puts a lot of people off the thought of getting involved in a project in the first place, however marvelous they might think that it could be. Very few people enjoy the prospect of a good juicy meeting, and even fewer the reality.
Fortunately, I am one.
I don't know when I first started to love meetings, but I do know that I first started to go to them regularly when I was living at a housing co-op in mid-Wales. When we got ourselves together to have a meeting, it would sometimes be wonderful and sometimes be dire. Since you never knew which way it would go, it was hard to look forward to them, and although a lot of productive things got done one way or another, a lot of time was spent feeling frustrated that your point was just not going to be listened to. I still loved them though, because when they did go well, we all felt good about ourselves, and our community.
Meetings can bring joy.
The next meetings I routinely encountered were for a community woodland project near to the housing co-op. A few of us from the co-op went along from the very start, excited that plans were being made to increase the usage of the beautiful woodland at the end of our track. Over time it became clear that these meetings were hierarchical in the extreme, with secret financial elements which were held before the time given for the start of the meeting, so that finances were disclosed, discussed and decided upon by a select few before the main proceedings started. It was deemed by these few that it was irrelevant for us to know what was going on as we wouldn't find it interesting, and thus we immediately felt disempowered and cut off from understanding the full nature of what we were involved with. After attempts to change this unusually secretive method of decision making, we simply didn't feel able to continue involvement in the project.
Meetings can bring doom.
And so to the two radically different types of meeting I have been involved with this week. The rush of excitement brought by discovering that a house that we very-much-liked-but-couldn't-afford-previously was up for auction meant that the Golems had two meetings this week. Since our first encounters with Radical Routes we have been trying to incorporate as many aspects of consensus decision making into our meetings as possible. At first we giggled at the hand signals; now we have invented two of our own and often slip into using them outside of meetings if it will improve the flow of conversation. We're a funny bunch, I know.
Because of the urgency around the auction date, there was a lot of Very Serious Stuff to be discussed at our meetings. Emotions ran high. Opinions were asserted, confronted, and shaped before our very eyes. Conflicts arose, were debated, and were dealt with, and at no point in all of this did we raise our voices. The tools of consensus decision making meant everyone was heard, and every issue addressed, without the need to talk over each other to get a word in. With someone to 'hold' the meeting, to ensure that no one was left frustrated or shouted down, we not only got things done, but all left the room as friends. We're not at all perfect, and the whole thing took hours, and to be fair, by the end of it we were all knackered, but we still wanted to live together, and that's the important thing.
Learning that we can disagree, sometimes vehemently, but get through it, and still be able to live, work and socialise together, is one of the most incredible exercises in building trust which I have ever been a part of. As a tool for building community, bringing a sense of achievement, and dealing with all the nitty-gritty that any ambitious project entails, meetings can be second to none.
Meetings can bring people together.
Which brings me to the meeting I attended today. I shan't give many details, except to note my sadness that it gave me the opposite of the wonderful feel-good vibe that meetings have been imbuing me with of late. The organisation it was for has a history of long and difficult meetings, but I go because I love the end result, the people involved, and the ethos of the project enormously. I stick with it because those things are important, and meetings have to happen for it all to come about. Sometimes I even enjoy them.
Today was particularly difficult, and as yet none of us know what the repurcussions will be. Wires were crossed, and some of those involved felt that their only choice was to leave. I dearly wished that as a group we were able to hold the space better, to perhaps use hand signals or an equivalent, to speak using non-violent communication, and to give everyone the space they needed to express their opinion freely without everything becoming impossibly tense. Maybe in the future this will become possible, and we do have a consensus training weekend planned in the new year, but in the meantime there is a lot of repair work and conciliation that needs to take place, diverting precious energy from the main business of the group.
The gist of all this navel-gazing, such as it is, is to allow you to contemplate the meetings that take place in your own lives. For most people, and particularly those of us who try to be, in some small way, the change that we wish to see in the world, meetings are inevitable. Whether attended through choice, through gritted teeth, or because we must, the way they are held - and the way we hold ourselves within them - is something that we can make choices about.
Meetings can be empowering, they can be productive, and above all they can be joyful. For this to happen we need to accept that they are a skill to be worked at, and not a test to be endured. We need to come to them with open hearts, yes, but we also need to engage our heads and make the conscious decision to give them our best, and most patient, selves.
In summary; meetings are the solution, and not the problem.
I have rambled too long, but I shall leave you with a positive wish:
May your meetings be wonderful spaces for discussion and debate, may the work of your meeting be done to the satisfaction of all involved, and above all, may your meetings be joyful.