Regardless of where on the spectrum of formal structure a present day meeting may lie, a simple yet powerful assumption most often hangs in the shadows: “Silence means consent!” These words are specifically spelled out in Robert’s Rules of Order. Even meetings that take place with far less structure and order tend to make this assumption.
“Anyone have anything to add? Any further comments?…..(silence)… Good then, it’s decided…..” The leader smiles and nods. The formal meeting adjourns. And, the informal meetings begin to buzz in the hallways and parking lots.
These whispered conversations defy both the implied threat and presumed reality that somehow if we don’t speak in a meeting we are giving our consent. These meetings after the meeting are most often interwoven with strands of creative ideas buried under the weight of disillusioned dissent.
The flip side of the empty promise of “silence means consent” is that point in a meeting when ideas are becoming so divergent and the energy so seemingly scattered and frenetic that the leader, with a raised hand and loud voice, shuts down the conversation deeming it “unproductive,” or “better left for discussion at another time.” Frequently, this declaration is followed by a quick unilateral decision intended to “move things forward.” And, the informal meetings begin to buzz in the hallways and parking lots…. Consent is assumed while silent voices are left unheard and order is validated. Consent is lost while divergent voices are silenced and control is imposed. On either side of this same coin, creative ideas are either never heard or never given the chance to converge into meaningful action. If we can agree that our people are our organization’s most valuable asset, surely we can agree that in order to be most successful, we would be wise to leverage this most valuable asset to the greatest extent possible. When we leave voices unheard or squelch voices that diverge, we under-utilize our best asset and risk introducing unnecessary inefficiency into our decision-making process, leaving solutions unharvested in a field of unrealized possibilities.
Habit steeped in protocol, work appropriate social masking, and conformity to expectation tend to dominate our way of being together in the workplace. After all, control and order are the traditional pillars upon which efficiency is built, be it in production or service. The well thought out plan of leadership needs only to be executed and expected results should follow. So simple. So….why is leadership so often immersed in putting out fires that use systems as kindling? Why aren’t “they” embracing the system, meeting expectations, proactively solving problems, and committing to the program? Why does everything always have to be so complicated??
Because, human beings are complicated. And, human beings are meaning makers. From the first hieroglyphics etched into the walls of caves, to the tribal councils sitting around the fire, to the Bible, Koran, the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, the space age, to today, human beings struggle and revel in the process of making meaning. The gift of consciousness allows us to be aware of our ability to shape and contribute to our world. The ability to make meaning using the tools of an evolved consciousness defines our humanity, what it is that makes us human. Most of us, at some level, strive to connect, share with, and contribute to each other’s lives and the world around us. We bring our humanity into the arena of community where our individual world views are tested, welcomed, challenged, and shaped.
As we bring our humanity into our work places and organizations, we often encounter an unsettling shift that requires us to leave some part of who we are (as meaning making humans) hidden behind a mask. A tension often develops between the kind of person we feel we are and want to be and the person we are expected to be or think we are supposed to be in order to be successful. This tension may result in our giving silently resentful consent or loudly disrespectful dissent when we enter into meetings. Either way, our voices are often left unheard. And, valuable assets are left underutilized. What if instead of individuals trying to figure out what “mask” might offer them the best opportunity for success, the structure of the meeting was reshaped?
What if this structure invited the participants to show up without any mask at all? The sign outside the meeting room might read, “Humanity Welcomed!”
Circle Process is a meeting methodology that offers such a reshaping. Literally and figuratively. The rectangular table is removed and the chairs arranged in a circle. The center is filled with tokens of meaning for that particular organization, perhaps a mission statement, pictures and testimonials of delighted clients, or smiling patients recovered from illness. We speak with intention and listen with attention. We agree to guidelines that give order to the meeting as we share responsibility for holding each other accountable to adhering to those guidelines. Silent voices are respected without any presumption of meaning. These voices frequently emerge as trust is built through the sharing of stories. Divergent voices are respected without attempts to silence their input. The principles and practices of Circle Process provide a structure that allows and encourages divergence to follow its natural course increasing the opportunity for convergence around synergistic solutions. As silent voices find their voice and divergent voices find ways forward not previously imagined, human assets become highly leveraged and decision-making actually gains efficiency through the creation of sustainable solutions.
Everyone may not always agree with the final decisions. However, using a process that respects and values our humanity will more likely result in time previously spent whispering in the hallways being spent accomplishing the shared mission.
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Howard Stanten MPT,CPCC is an Executive Leadership and Professional