Time for comfort HERE and NOW – Time, the ever-present elephant in the room of our meetings (2/4)

In the previous post about ‘time’, I covered the topic of time as a driver of process design. In this second post, I want to look at time as ‘the measure towards creating a comfortable space to reveal ourselves’ on the spur of the moment.

Time is perhaps the most uncomfortable unavoidable element of our life. Ditto with time at work and in our engagements and interactions…

We constantly clash against time, in the spur of the action: not enough time to chat, not enough time to hear everyone, not enough time to fully explore a topic, not enough time to get to conclusive statements, not enough time to take a proper stab at a decision-making process that leads to sustainable agreements (here quoting language dear to Community At Work) not enough time to do it all…

Part of it has to do with how we may have designed a particular engagement. And then part of it is a reflection of how we are and how we go about time, and how we need it to fully express ourselves.

Our Twitter-sized and TikTok-paced modern lifestyles increasingly require us to shorten time for this or that, to divide our attention to ever more things. We are children in the candy store and have difficulty to focus at all the great things we need to do, want to do or simply that come our way…

Let’s face it: we really do need time. And yet not one uniform version of time, but several parallel pacings and timings.

quiet days (des jours tranquilles)//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Individual time to compose ourselves

Not all of us have fully developed thoughts on just any topic. In fact, most of us don’t have that. Some of us are introverts and need individual thinking time to gather their thoughts, some of us are simply thinking more slowly, because we’re distracted or focused on emotions or other aspects even more than on our thoughts.

It does help to make sure that our interactions also allow us to find that individual time. A check-in does wonders to get people to break the ice with each other, but it can also serve the purpose of gathering and composing ourselves. An exercise like ‘Spiral journal‘ can really serve that purpose, among other options. Veera Hyytiä talks about similar ideas in this blog post.

Creating individual thinking time for people before socialising, as embedded in a lot of Liberating Structures, also goes a long way to create ways for us to find our own groove and tune in to the situation, the people, the topic at hand.

And even, as my multi-stakeholder collaboration buddy Paul Barrie recently invited us to do at the start of a virtual study cycle session, getting people to think about what conditions they may need to be fully present and not distracted by the many invitations and notifications online, is helpful to give ourselves some time to simply ‘be there’.

Time in pairs to develop our conversation, and develop our trust

Stepping forward from individual time, we also need time as pairs of people to have a conversation that goes beyond platitudes and helps us more fully reveal our whole self – disclosing the conversation in our head. Because that time is really listening with intent, with the meaning to understand, and perhaps even empathise. Following the ‘art of conversations’ that Celeste Headlee brilliantly outlined for us.

Other things that can help? Active listening (I do disagree with Celeste about the fact that paraphrasing is not helpful). But also understanding how our patterns of supporting each other can create a better conversation, such as Helping heuristics.

But at any rate, we also do need time to share our ‘first draft ideas’, to draw each other out to find out more, to listen and support each other, to balance the air time among us, to develop the conversation to different corners and new heights…

Time in groups to hear everyone and ‘get somewhere’ (or not)

One step forward and we are in small groups – or even the full plenary group – and there again we do need time to feel comfortable. Because there are more people that need to be heard, understood, integrated.

Of course this is the most challenging space to give time, because there are annoying communication patterns (like these ‘four kinds of people who ruin academic conferences‘). And if there’s a need to elaborate on each other’s thoughts and to ‘get somewhere’ specific, there is more pressure to be efficient, but it’s not always possible. When we try to shorten the time, quicken the pace, cut people off, we ruffle their feathers, we run the risk of getting them to clam down, we may even irritate or disengage them. So it’s risky business to seek efficiency at all costs.

And sometimes the best conversations are not with a productive aim in mind. The ‘Bohm dialogue‘ established by David Bohm is a fresh take on how we structure our conversations, and it really invites us to slow down and really speak truth and honesty without trying to impose our views or advocate etc. There is a lot of value in there, as there is in the art of the unhurried conversation that Johnnie Moore and Viv McWaters are championing.

Then again, time is precious and we can’t always just go on and on and on. And sometimes we do our best thinking in quick iterations. This is also the hypothesis behind a lot of Liberating Structures (LS).

In any case, the hidden wicked question here is somewhere along the lines of ‘how is it that we have an objective to achieve in a given time and at the same time we want everyone to really engage their authentic self and to find a solution together?’

Combining times, pacings, and transitions

The art of creating ‘comfortable time’ might lie at the junction of all of the above. Whether we are together ‘strictly for business’ or because we want to develop and deepen our relationships, we may have to find a mix of individual time, slower time in pairs or even in groups, quicker paces, or first draft thinking iterations à la LS. Because in doing so we are also offering ourselves different options to let our thoughts and emotions develop, intertwine themselves, and let new options and questions come to the surface.

And in doing so, it helps to be mindful of transitions between different pacings. Because we also need time to adjust our mind, our lived experience, to the different settings we are in (individual, together, with the full group) and to the deluge of ideas that might have just happened.

The LS ‘punctuations’ (back to back listening, flocking), or changing ways of interacting (e.g. by drawing together, by silently interacting as was done a while ago by the Never Done Before collective), or simply a breathing exercise, a change of location can really help readjust ourselves, all together. The breathing exercise that Nancy White offered us to do in the middle of our KM4Dev Knowledge Café on Liberating Structures turned out to be a life saver at a moment when lots of people were just overwhelmed with a very high pace / high energy sequence.

Whose time are we following?

Exactly like we may wonder whose feedback is at stake, we should wonder who is dictating the pacing, how we negotiate for more time, or less time, how comfortable we are with the pacing, how uncomfortable we are and how helpful that might actually be or not…

The political nature of time reveals its true nature when we realise who controls time and why. And we should all be aware of that question, because it bears on the trust that develops between people and also vis-à-vis the people sponsoring an interaction.

Questions to sharpen our practice around ‘time in the moment’

So in short, what are some guiding questions to accommodate comfortable ‘time in the moment’:

  • Who is defining and controlling time and pacing in our interactions and why?
  • What process is there to check whether the time indeed feels comfortable and productive for individuals, groups, the plenary collective?
  • What process is there to renegotiate the time there is for this or that segment (and who is bearing the implications on the rest of the planned time together)?
  • Is there attention to the time that people spend with themselves, in pairs, in groups etc.?
  • How much of your planned interactions is on the side of getting to a productive end as opposed to having an ‘assumption-free’ dialogue (see short video below) or cultivating deeper relationships, and how is timing and pacing geared up for that?
  • How is the set of conversations unfolding before our eyes informing our theory of how right timing and pacing is?
  • Are there cultural elements to be aware of, about the group’s preferences to install a comfortable conversational time?

And as a bonus, one little video about David Bohm and his invitation to suspend our assumptions in dialogue, as the ticket to elevating our conversations and relations – which is what we are ultimately seeking beyond whatever time we give ourselves for a structured conversation…

Check trainings on ‘Group facilitation skills’ and ‘Multi-stakeholder collaboration’ offered by Community at Work here.

For Liberating Structures, find the whole repertoire here, and feel free to join us on the upcoming Liberating Structures immersion workshop (January-February 2022).

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