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Diary: Thinking about group dynamics

In March I spent a week in the eco-cabins at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, at a workshop organised by trainers from three training collectives – Rhizome, Tripod and Seeds for Change.

ImageThe workshop focussed on naming and exploring many of the dynamics that so often go unspoken and unprocessed in groups.

I was part of the mainstream of the group – I come from a grassroots ‘activist’ culture, I’ve been to university, I’m from the UK, I’m white. Being part of the group’s mainstream meant I was one of the people who had the power to make the subtle decision of what behaviours and attitudes were acceptable in the space; essentially, I helped define what ‘appropriate’ meant. This included shying away from expressing strong emotions, and speaking in broad generalisations rather than naming a direct experience. This felt like a pretty comfortable place for me to be in.

One of the first exercises of the workshop explored the difference between values, attitudes and behaviours. There were about 100 words all written on different pieces of paper, dumped in the middle of the room. We were to put these words into three categories – ‘values’, ‘attitudes’ and ‘behaviours’, with no further instruction on how to do it.

Immediately one person suggested to the group that before diving into the exercise, we first decide together how we’re going to do it. There was a brief discussion, where a few people including me offered suggestions.

Eventually ‘we’ decided to work organically – people could work alone, in pairs, or small groups, in any way they wanted. I really liked this little discussion, and that at least some people were actively deciding a way forward. I thought it was brilliant that we’d formally decided to work informally!

The exercise continued with some rich discussion about whether words like ‘love’ and ‘respect’ referred to values, attitudes or behaviours.

Afterwards, the facilitators made space for us to reflect on what had happened. One participant, who hadn’t spoken in the whole group until now, had a different perspective to the chirpy voices, including mine, who felt the exercise was enjoyable, challenging, interesting.

He said ‘I felt nauseous’. Wow. It took me a few seconds to really take that in. While I was busy having a thoroughly engaging, participatory experience, someone in the same room, doing the same exercise, felt nauseous.

He said he felt nauseous because of how some of us were behaving. He thought we were being inauthentic with each other. While we claimed that we were behaving in an inclusive way, a small group of people actually still controlled the group process. I reflected back to the little discussion the group had at the beginning of the exercise.

I was grateful that we’d had a group discussion first – it takes control away from a self-appointed dictator. But now I realised that there’s another kind of control going on. Those who can most tolerate a calm discussion in a large group, and those who are quick to get their ideas out, are the ones who have the power of how the discussion, and the decision, takes shape.

It was around that time that I felt the guilt creeping in, like a fat slimy snake coiling round my neck and my gut. The guilt of being someone who feels empowered, comfortable, and able to participate in most situations, most of the time.

This guilt has been dragging me down like heavy, old, dusty suitcases. Each suitcase has a different label: ‘university-educated’, ‘British’, ‘supportive family’, ‘white’, ‘able-bodied’. Inside each suitcase is a lot of power, which I take with me whether I like it or not.

Guilt is so suffocating! Its absolutely detrimental to building diverse, healthy groups who are working for change. It doesn’t make my privilege go away, it doesn’t share power, it just stifles me and those around me. So often I’ve been led by guilt to silence myself during meetings.

Guilt has even made me consider not being part of social change movements because they are too full of privileged people like me. Enough of this! Changing how our society works needs every one of us to be fully in our power – the kind of power that is enabling for all of us. So now I’m working out how to use my power responsibly.

Topics: Activism | Training


power in groups

This is an interesting topic - thanks to Hannah for writing. What I'd really like is people to write about what they do next to change this dynamic. Hannah notes 'mainstream' behaviours include broad generalisations. This is what I feel happens next when people start to talk about using their power responsibly or privilege checking.

This workshop must have had experienced facilitators - so what did the group actually do or try in order to make groups more equal and just? what do other groups do? what do we do to stop guilt dominating the dynamic? In my experience guilt from those with power often ends up with others doing a lot of emotional work to look after the guilt feelers - or the group gets more shut so those with power don't have to deal with uncomfortable outsiders.

Using power responsibly is a nice aspiration - but peaceniks and others need practical suggestions and specifics.