Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Dialogue: Meeting participant contract

Transformative Approaches Project


This note is an experimental outline of a proposed contract between participants at a meeting. It is designed to acknowledge specifically the interacting roles at the shadowy "roundtable" hidden within every meeting. This roundtable and the relationships are illustrated by Figure 1. The emphasis is on the nature of the specific contractual bonds between participants. Metaphoric roles explored are:

0. Preamble

0.1 Since it is in the minds (and hearts) of meeting participants that the problems of the world emerge, it is in our minds (and hearts) as participants that these issues should be addressed. Endeavouring to respond to societal problems as though they were purely external and distant, fails to respond to the mind-set which continues to reinforce them and ensures their continuing unfruitful treatment in the meeting environment.

0.2 The collective impotence of the 1990s (including the creative diplomatic delays over Yugoslavia, Somalia and the Sudan) justifies a certain impatience with regard to conventional meeting processes. The low expectations and levels of satisfaction associated with events like the Rio Earth Summit suggest the need for a sharper focus and a more radical evaluation of meeting performance. The systems of checks and balances, or challenge and support, need to be rendered more explicit in meetings. There is a need for "tighter ships" following the limited successes associated with meeting permissiveness in the past decades.

0.3 The conceptual and behavioral challenges of "sustainable development" are too easily projected onto the formulation of larger, global strategies conveniently beyond the control or responsibility of individual meeting participants.

0.4 Meeting participants need to take greater responsibility for the quality of the meeting as a whole rather than designing personal participation strategies which effectively delegate such responsibilities to others. Participants can no longer afford to be primarily concerned with their own track or function. Operational content needs to be consciously given to values such as solidarity or the Japanese concept of group harmony ("wa").

0.5 In endeavouring to respond to the challenges of meeting structures and processes, the tendency to delegate or allocate responsibility to another is somewhat similar to electing a "mummy" or a "daddy" or a "police chief" -- leaving the electors free to be playfully disobedient and to scorn any seemingly heavy-handed disciplinary measures. It is part of the problem for which each participant needs to take greater personal responsibility.

0.6 Each role in a meeting is supported and handicapped by other roles. The task in the meeting, as in wider society, may be seen as one of becoming conscious of and working with the complementarity of these roles in order to achieve higher orders of consensus and sustainability.

0.7 Can meetings and their participants cultivate a greater sense of self-awareness, self-reflexiveness, or sense of presence appropriate to the challenges of the times?

0.8 The following draft invites further revisions that build in sharper and clearer understanding of the lessons for meeting processes from the major clusters of social challenges that tend to be their concern. It is valuable to see the roots of such challenges in the dynamics of meetings -- where people as participants may well find the clues to more creative responses to the equivalent problems in wider societies.

Role 1. "Unemployment" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to respond to the tension between waiting for opportunities offered by others and creating opportunities which others will find beneficial in the meeting. It also requires that each be attentive to the ways in which his/her initiatives effectively exploit others without appropriately recompensing them.

We are less rewarded for our involvement in a meeting when we assume that our role has been more central to its processes than when we are able to question its value to other participants.

In this mode each experiences the anguish of being underemployed in the meeting. This may be perceived as the failure of others to acknowledge the role that s/he performs in the gathering or their failure to create openings to make use of the skills that s/he brings to the event. As a consequence there is a frustration at not being able to contribute effectively, associated with a sense of not being appropriately rewarded for what s/he has to offer. But at the same time, and when given the opportunity, each will tend exploitatively to use what others have to offer, offering minimal acknowledgement and psychic rewards.

More fundamentally, through this mode the meeting and the participants are challenged as to how to make best use of the opportunities of the occasion and how to be appropriately rewarded. The frustrations of underemployment can easily expose participants to a sense of alienation and purposelessness.

Role relationships:

Role 2. "Degradation of environment" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to take on a stewardship capacity in caring for the many features of the cultural ecosystem constituted by the meeting. This involves recognition of the build up of potentially negative consequences of any intervention and the manner in which others must be depended upon to help render them innocuous.

We degrade and pollute the meeting environment more when we assume that any negative impacts of our initiatives on other participants are of little consequence than when we have doubts concerning the ability of the meeting to deal with them.

In this mode each degrades the meeting environment by exploiting the resources it offers in ways that ultimately threaten its viability. As a socio-cultural ecosystem, the meeting is effectively a habitat for a wide range of psycho- social roles. Conventional meeting processes, that are most "productive" in the short term, exploit this system in ways which progressively degrade it and deprive it of any capacity to renew itself. Favoured meeting processes generate waste products which tend progressively to pollute and poison the emotional and intellectual exchange processes and to render infertile any common meeting ground.

More fundamentally, through this mode the meeting must create a space for the natural expression of participants, giving pattern to their relationships as an ecosystem. It challenges belief in the possibility of any underlying homeostatic principles governing the global relationships amongst participants and their initiatives.

Role relationships:

Role 3. "Ignorance / Mal-education" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to be sensitive to the inadequacies of his/her perspective and to compensate for the inadequacies of others in the meeting, whether or not these can be effectively brought to their attention.

We exhibit a greater degree of ignorance in a meeting when we assume the adequacy of the knowledge we demonstrate than when we question its validity from the perspectives of other participants.

In this mode each is complacent about his/her level of ignorance to the point of revelling in the adequacy of their comprehension of the dilemmas faced by the meeting or its participants and the appropriateness of the answers s/he can supply. This ignorance is further nourished by communications which pander to easy modes of understanding and do not attempt to challenge them. Education from such a perspective then tends to reinforce this sense of adequacy and ignores its own irrelevance to the real inter-sectoral challenges faced by the meeting.

More fundamentally, through this mode the meeting is faced with the challenge of what kinds of learning experiences within the meeting can meet the needs of participants with quite different knowledge bases. Especially challenging is the need to communicate a sense of historical perspective, notably when participants have lost any sense of relationship to historical roots or to the value of the collective wisdom of the past.

Role relationships:

Role 4. "Undernourishment / Malnutrition" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to be attentive to the forms of information and energy which are nourishing to others and their initiatives. Ways should also be sought to encourage others to supply forms of information which can ensure their survival in the meeting. It also raises dramatic questions concerning the conception (and "tabling") of issues during the event and the manner in which this should be curtailed, if at all. 

Our contributions are less nourishing and enlivening to other participants when we assume that they are naturally fruitful than when we question their fruitfulness to others.

In this mode each experiences the limited nourishment offered by others to interests or projects that s/he seeks to further -- to the point at which people and/or projects suffer a form of emotional, intellectual or spiritual "starvation" during the meeting. But equally each intervention tends to contribute relatively little to the meeting in a form which is experienced as palatable and nourishing by others. As such each is both a cause of malnutrition in some and a victim of undernourishment from others. Few participants enjoy a healthy information diet throughout a meeting. These effects are often a consequence of the rapidly rising numbers of initiatives and perspectives clamouring for attention as the meeting progresses and creating an insatiable demand for project resources. 

More fundamentally, it is through this mode that the meeting is faced with the question of who should be allowed to originate and present new issues and initiatives -- of what kind, in what quantity, and under what circumstances. The tendency of the meeting to be overrun by new issues, to which adequate attention cannot be given, then raises the question of whether and how such natural creativity should be curtailed -- especially when it may be perceived as either one of the principal joys of meeting or vital to the sense of security of the originator.

Role relationships:

Role 5. "Domination / Red tape / Mismanagement" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to act responsibly in developing the governance of the meeting, recognizing that regulations that may be satisfactory and logical to some could well be totally inhibiting to others. Any conflicts can be seen as challenges to collective learning.

We contribute more to the mismanagement of a meeting when we assume that our favoured procedures are the most useful to other participants than when we have doubts concerning their efficacy for others. 

In this mode there is a tendency to subscribe to simplistic meeting structures and processes which do not have the capacity to deal with important latent conflicts or to move the meeting forwards in a fruitful way. As such failures become evident, in the face of new challenges within the meeting, these procedural devices are experienced by some as increasingly inadequate and artificial. They may also be judged as primarily serving the interests of the meeting establishment, and other vested interests, rather than the participants in general or the declared purpose of the event.

More fundamentally, it is through this mode that the ways in which power in the meeting is distributed and controlled can be understood, especially as they are used to mediate between opposing initiatives, to articulate new goals, and to ensure the implementation of acceptable new steps towards them. It is in this sense that concerns about a policy vacuum are expressed.

Role relationships:

Role 6. "Underproductivity / Overproductivity" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to be sensitive to the levels of involvement of others in the meeting and to ensure that the attention is challenged so that each is effectively present there. Each should take some responsibility for questioning his/her own tendency to cultivate other agendas or to overstate a particular case.

We are less productive in a meeting when we assume we are responding productively to other contributions than when we have doubts concerning the contribution of our efforts to the productivity of other initiatives.

In this mode we may, at one extreme, respond minimalistically to the formal requirements of the meeting with little sense of engagement or involvement. Such "working to rule" can be so skilfully done that no criticism is justified. It may also manifest as various forms of "absenteeism", whether simple inattentiveness or actual involvement in alternative activities and agendas, possibly outside the meeting. At the other extreme we may each choose to exploit every opportunity to produce and develop a favourite argument or insight beyond the needs of the meeting or its capacity to benefit from it. 

More fundamentally, it is through this mode that the productivity of the meeting as a whole is assessed. This may involve such primary activities as the "mining" of bodies of knowledge, the evocation and accumulation of various forms of psycho-social energy and commitment (notably as funds), or the cultivation of perspectives vital to the nourishment of the meeting. Aspects of the work may involve refining or processing the results of such activities for wider distribution amongst participants. The work of the meeting may be seen as directed to its social (re)construction, whether in the form of team building, the creation of fellowship and solidarity, or the design of specialized environments (commissions, workshops, etc). As such there may be concern about the quality and weaknesses of the meeting infrastructure and its associated services and facilities. From this perspective, the concern here is with the meeting as a habitat and with the sustainability of its development.

Role relationships:

Role 7. "Injustice / Criminality / Injured innocence" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to be vigilantly attentive to the tendency of others to take unfair advantage of situations in the meeting, whilst at the same time recognizing that others must necessarily impose similar constraints on his/her propensities. 

We are more threatening to other participants when we assume that our role is not experienced as intimidating and discriminating by some than when we question how others may be threatened by our actions in the meeting.

In this mode each may at one extreme rejoice in an air of innocence, whether sincere or deliberately assumed, concerning the fairness with s/he responds to others. Such innocence then defines anything offensive or discriminatory as being the responsibility of others at the gathering. At the other extreme, the role exploits opportunities in the meeting for action in an underhanded or unfair manner, often behind the scenes and possibly with accomplices. Such initiatives may well be unconscious. They are often undertaken at the expense of vulnerable groups represented at the meeting, whether minorities of one kind or another, or those subjected to some special handicap. Part of the challenge is that any such "success" may be valued as a mark of superior meeting gamesmanship. The only constraint may be seen in the shame or guilt of being "caught" and subject to formal censure. The consequences for the victims of such practices are considered incidental.

More fundamentally, through this mode the meeting is faced with the challenge of insecurity and fear engendered amongst participants and its destructive effects on the meeting as a community. It raises the question of the pattern of rights and responsibilities amongst participants and how it is to be protected.

Role relationships:

Role 8. "Illness / Malformation / Therapy" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to be sensitive to the unwelcome challenges s/he brings to the emotional, mental or spiritual hygiene of the meeting. Each should be prepared to act in a supportive/therapeutic role to others, whether they are in distress or causing it. But enthusiasm for any therapeutic role or fashion should be conditioned by recognition of the difficulties of challenging its use as a panacea.

We bring more malaise to a meeting when we assume that we are paragons of well-being than when we have doubts concerning our degree of health in the eyes of others.

In this mode we each exhibit unhealthy behaviours and attitudes which, due to their infectious or contagious nature, may directly threaten the behavioural health of other participants. As disabilities or malformations, such behaviours may also call for some form of therapeutic intervention, including use of prosthetic devices, to enable us to interact on an equal basis with others. The therapeutic measures evoked, and any need for constraint or quarantine, can seriously inconvenience the flow of the meeting. Such unhealthy psychological conditions make it difficult for innovative initiatives emerging within the meeting to survive into maturity through their period of dependency.

More fundamentally, it is through this mode that we distinguish those processes which enhance our sense of well- being as a participant as opposed to those that contribute to unproductive forms of stress. Both raise questions concerning our understanding of the nature and direction of our personal development.

Role relationships:

Role 9. "Impoverishment / Exploitation / Wealth maldistribution" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to explore the kinds of wealth produced and distributed during any meeting and the ways in which such processes can be made more equitable. Although a rich experience for one may be judged as unfruitful by another seeking different benefits, the "gap" between the "rich" and the "poor" should be a matter of continuing concern.

We are more exploitative in a meeting when we assume that our initiatives do not impoverish the experience of other participants than when we question this possibility.

In this mode we find ourselves, on the one hand, impoverished by the quality of the meeting dynamics to which we are effectively exposed. We experience ourselves as exploited by others more skilled in manipulating meeting processes in which we would like to participate more fully in order to benefit to the extent that they do. On the other hand, when the situation presents itself, we use our skills to exploit others, however much it impoverishes their experience of the gathering, in order to profit more fully from the event ourselves.

More fundamentally, it is through this mode that what is valuable to the meeting is defined and the manner of its distribution within the meeting is controlled. This can readily lead to manipulative transactions between groups of participants that amount to "profiteering", "rip-offs" or "dumping". Some groups may build up debts to others, conditioning their behaviour and creating long-term dependency. The pattern of who owes what to whom becomes a major determinant of meeting dynamics, making it difficult to undertake new initiatives freed from such burdens of past debts and obligations. Groups of participants can be plagued by inflationary conditions in which too much energy and enthusiasm is chasing too few concrete initiatives.

Role relationships:

Role 10. "Shoddy workmanship / Overskill / Overdesign" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to be sensitive to the quality and reliability of the contributions made, avoiding specious arguments, ploys and appeals, and discouraging their production by others in the meeting. But care should also be taken to avoid sophisticated arguments which disempower others and reduce their ability to participate. In either case, all participants are required to perform a maintenance function in response to defects in the contributions of others.

We make more inappropriate contributions to a meeting when we assume that they are naturally appropriate than when we have doubts concerning their degree of appropriateness to other participants. 

In this mode we each contribute inappropriately to the meeting. At one extreme, this may take the form of ill- conceived or ill-crafted interventions that are far from being the best of which we are capable. Such "unreliable" interventions force others present into a "maintenance" mode, to the point of devoting excessive resources to compensate for such inadequacies. At the other extreme, this may take the form of highly skilled interventions which others are unable to match and which are beyond the real needs of the moment. This has the insidious effect of creating dependency on the supply of such "overdesigned" contributions and the peak experiences that they seem to offer. It devalues simpler contributions which may well be more appropriate to the evolution of the meeting.

More fundamentally, it is through this mode that the issues of the appropriateness of the psycho-social sciences used in the meeting are assessed, together with any supportive communication technologies. Both raise questions concerning the degree of responsibility with which insights and know- how are developed, brought to bear, and transferred amongst participants in the meeting environment.

Role relationships:

Role 11. "Misrepresentation and Disinformation" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to recognize the limitations of language and philosophies in honouring the complex richness of the realities experienced by those at a representative meeting. Each needs to recognize that failure to understand how s/he is part of the communication problem guarantees failure in understanding the nature of any response that might be appropriate.

The representation of reality that we endeavour to communicate to other participants is experienced as more incoherent when we assume that it offers unique integrative advantages than when we question whether this may be the case for others.

In this mode each seeks to cultivate a particular representation of the reality of the meeting and the world of issues of which it is an articulation. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the selective presentation of information can be used to give substance to certain issues and to deny it to others. In this way each effectively denies aspects of reality favoured by others at the meeting, emphasizing other aspects in ways which some will judge to be exaggerated and even dangerously distorted, however seductive they appear to others.

More fundamentally, through this mode enthusiasm is expressed in the meeting for particular philosophies, ideologies and belief systems. This is matched by efforts to reconcile them and, through them, the vested interests with which they are associated. This presents a dilemma between partial perspectives of greater relevance to some as contrasted with more integrative perspectives which cannot be effectively grounded or widely comprehended.

Role relationships:

Role 12. "Tokenism / Hedonism / Ritualism" Metaphor

Contractually, this role calls for each participant to manage the tension between the "public relations" challenge of the moment and the deeper work of the meeting with its implications for the longer-term. It calls for each to be sensitive to the aesthetic or spiritual sins, whether of commission or omission, that may accompany the resolution of this tension.

We are more effective in turning cultural and religious celebrations into meaningless rituals when we assume that they are not experienced as such by some than when we question why this may indeed be the case.

In this mode the unique, celebratory opportunity offered by the event is recognized as a vehicle for the spirit of the moment that may be important as a symbol within wider society. This may take the form of special rituals, declarations or appeals, which constantly run the danger of being experienced or judged as tokenism. It may also offer much welcomed opportunities for social and personal exchanges. These may however be sought for their own sake as recreation and judged by some as a hedonistic betrayal of the purpose of the meeting.

More fundamentally, it is through this mode that the meeting draws upon its cultural, symbolic and spiritual resources to clarify and affirm the meanings and values that are the justification for more tangible initiatives. Both culture and religion may encode insights into potential relationships which the intellect has as yet been unable to articulate in a comprehensible manner. It is in this sense that concerns about a spiritual or religious vacuum are expressed.

Role relationships:

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential