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).

Time, the ever-present elephant in the room of our meetings (1/4)

Time, the ultimate obsession of human beings, is nearly the only variable we have no control on whatsoever, and the measure that separates us from the end of our existence.

Time
Time, the big obsession of our lives and meetings (Photo credit: CathRedfern / FlickR)

Time is not only a reason for existential angst at the macro level of our life. It also creeps into our meetings and interactions in a myriad of significant ways:

  • In how we obsess about time generally and the overall conduct of the meeting
  • In the expectations we have about what it takes to realistically achieve an objective in a given amount of time
  • In how we are respecting people’s time and finishing every segment of interactions on time or not
  • In the pacing we use to interact with each other
  • In how people are monopolising the conversation and depriving others of air…time
  • In how much (or rather how little) we should focus on passing information – which can easily be done asynchronously and individually – as opposed to conversing together, which asynchronously can’t be done with quite the same effects as face-to-face interactions
  • In our tolerance to go further than business-as-usual or not
  • In how we manage our energy in our collaboration and interactions
  • In how we create space for meta reflections, sharing our feelings, disclosing our private conversation etc.

These manifestations of time in our interactions have a major influence on the quality of our interactions and what we can expect out of them.

So, what have I learned about time in our interactions?

It’s such a big topic that I’ll split it up in several posts, to explore in four breaths:

  1. Time as a driver of our process design
  2. Time as the comfortable space to reveal ourselves
  3. Time as the uncomfortable measure accompanying our collective groaning
  4. Time as an adjective of our interactions, to be thought again radically (towards…?)

Time as driver of our process design

Time is one of the finite resources in our gatherings. When designing a conversation or event, it is one of the hard variables that requires us to think carefully about what is possible and what is not.

And as this quote illustrates, we do not make a particularly rational use of time when thinking about what is possible.

Like so many things in our human beings’ existence, we want to bend time to our desire, control it and manipulate it, fit it in our mental boxes so it can be dealt with neatly and efficiently, dare I say ‘pperfectly’. And here our first lessons about time emerge.

Meaningful interactions take time, and so do our deepest outcome desires

What can realistically be achieved in the space of two hours? One day? Three days? Four sessions over one month?

Even if we ‘just’ wanted to devise a strategic plan, review a programme, brainstorm around a topic, imagine a future together, we have to be realistic as to what can be achieved in the artificial setting of a gathering. What’s more, when we superimpose an objective of getting people to know themselves and to get to know the others and acknowledge their differences and commonalities, ie. when we are also working on the relationships and on achieving trust between people, we have to be even more humble about the baby steps can that be achieved.

Human interactions are characterised by all the quirks that play out at the interplay between our ideas, our feelings, our inclinations, values, our language, our habits, our self-consciousness, our degree of empathy, our understanding of group dynamics etc. etc. Do we seriously take all of this for granted? Are we back to the hypothesis of homo economicus who deals with life with the rational precision of a robot? When you think about how feelings shape even (vividly) our memory of things, let’s realise that we are dealing with homo sentiens and one homo sentiens is complex enough, let alone a whole group of us trying to get somewhere together.

We have wild dreams about solving the world, finding quick and durable solutions. So when will we learn that these objectives are inseparable from the relationships that contribute to these outcomes? In ‘real life’ we don’t (or hardly ever) become friends for life in just one moment spent together. Developing relationships takes care and momentum.

Our impatience to achieve our most deeply desired outcomes is a reflection of our core misunderstanding of human dynamics, and of how real time plays out at a completely different pace to what we hope.

Humility is the key here… And breaking down our outcomes into achievable steps. Better two small and concrete steps forward that will effectively be taken than 10 big leaps that will remain another abandoned intention on the way to hell.

Time is hidden in many aspects of our interactions, and remains a blind spot

Interestingly, even when at a strategic level we may have accounted sufficient and realistic time for specific conversations and desired outcomes, we may remain blind, in our process design, to the time-crunching quirks of interactions… which comprise, for instance:

  • Making sure that everyone is around before you can start an activity with the group
  • What it takes to frame, explain, introduce activities
  • The problems that happen with technical interferences (internet connection going down or slowly, a program with a glitch etc.)
  • The time to transition from one activity to the next, from one speaker to the next, from one (physical or virtual breakout) set-up to the next
  • The time it takes on average for someone to express themselves in front of a plenary group
  • The time it takes to get responses to questions in plenary, and the domino effect it has on inviting other contributions

Are we seriously thinking about all these chronophage activities in our design? Do we then have an even more realistic sense of how much real time we have on our hands? Or do we simply assume that a 60-minute segment means 60 minutes of productive time, when in reality it’s probably closer to 50 minutes, or even (much) less…

Time is not the measure of choice to manage group interactions

Unlike (some) children, adults want to finish a task that is given to them. Finishing on time per se is not the ultimate goal to cherish for a group, unless you are just illustrating a point and not exploring an issue ‘for real’. It’s better to come to the bottom of things, and get the group to feel (at least somewhat) complete than to manage only by time.

And I know, sometimes our participants seem perfectly happy to just finish an exercise on time rather than to go on and follow the logic until the end. But is that not a case of intellectual laziness or simply checking out from the overall interaction, settling for ‘business as usual’ or whatever point some people have decided (“I don’t care, this is not for me anyway”)?

So here is another assumption to seriously shake off: managing by time is not respectful of peoples’ intelligence, capacities and desires. It just gives the epidermic sensation of release and of having ticked the box. But meaningful relationship-building and developing sustainable solutions is no box-ticking or back-patting exercise. It is raw, it is rough, it is intense, and it takes whatever time it has to take, because it’s meeting people where they are, not where they should be.

The health of a group also depends on respecting their time

All of that said, we cannot get completely oblivious to the personal time that people are dedicating for interactions. Going over that time significantly, repeatedly, and/or without giving them a choice, is not respectful of the gift of their presence. Ditto for all these interactions where basic needs (food, drinks, bio-breaks, need to take a full break) are ignored for the pretentious sake of the greater good. But a hungry person is not a rational being. A thirsty fellow is not a happy participant. Someone who badly needs to go to the toilet is no longer capable of working in the service of the group, and someone with their head rammed in with information cannot take it any longer.

We simply need to respect the breaks and closing times agreed, generally, and keep our realism in what can be done outside of these boundaries.

Respecting peoples’ biological needs is a requirement, not a variable that can be messed around with. Productive time is all that happens between those ‘biological adjustments’.

So for that matter, an event I attended once (as a participant documenting sessions) where people were sent to lunch past 3pm after a slow and evidently painful death by Powerpoint (with very little or no time left for something as dry and as timidly participatory as a Q&A session) is a caricatural example of what not to do.

Time, in process design, is a measure of our outlook to either control or to embrace the world around us

Whose time are we actually accounting for? In many cases, it’s the sand timer that is playing out in the head of the sponsor or organiser, not of the contributors (participants)…

Time is a measure of our impatience and of our self-centredness. Instead, we would be much better off happily embracing time as the landscape running behind a genuine encounter with ourselves and with others, where we are, where they are, not where we should be. That outlook determines our capacity to cope with time early on in the process, and that’s not the end of story about time, only the beginning…

I’ll unpack the next level of the sand timer in the next blog post.

For now though, let’s ponder this humbling quote from one of my favourite jazz trumpet players…

(certainly not my favourite tune performed by Miles, but here you go, on par with the theme…)