This describes a very simple and effective structure and process for a support group that engaged senior people and gave them excellent value. Each person has equal time to use the resources of the group in any way they wish. However, the focus remains with the person whose turn it is. The design draws on the theory and practice of re‑evaluation counselling http://www.rc.org/ which shows how another’s attention helps to clarify ones thinking.
Senior people in industry and commerce have very busy and fragmented work lives. People typically make demands on them for their help and attention; excessive stress is common. I decided to experiment with providing an environment that is a contradiction to this. This environment would be relaxing and give busy people uninterrupted attention for a significant time.
I also thought that they would enjoy the opportunity to help each other. Helping other people is very rewarding and increases self-esteem and self-confidence, in my experience. So I offered a series of small support groups to four senior European HR Directors from different organisations and backgrounds and also did a similar event for four clients of mine. (I am an independent Organisation Development Consultant and counsellor)
The support group
We met at my home in a small room I had built and decorated to support relaxation and learning. I work there with individuals and small groups. It is comfortable, looks out over a garden and has a wall lined with books. The homely atmosphere helps people be their whole selves not just their work roles. Each meeting lasts from 1000 to 1600 so it’s a fairly short, but full, day.
Each person in a group of four has about an hour to use the group the rest of the group to help them with their issue. The only rules are
- That we keep the focus of the work on the person’s issue
- The person who has the issue takes responsibility to get what they want.
Then most the job of the facilitator is done so I add my insights, questions and methods as appropriate and give lots of attention to the person with the issue and also bring people in if required, but this is quite rare.
People usually choose to have a very open and, sometimes it appears, a not very structured talk with people throwing in ideas and sharing experiences as well as listening. I used to try to structure them but it does not work as well as this form, which is driven by sharing, cooperation and the fun of being creative together. It can be a bit tiring, so I need to become even more laid back and let busy people just enjoy a day out for them!
I asked people for their feedback on their sessions and was astonished that they had gained so much from such a simple exercise.
I give some quotes below: –
It’s just too simple, if you made it complicated you could publish it in the Harvard Business Review and have a real winner!
A small group of people with similar professional backgrounds.
A relaxed environment.
People with experience of group work who could challenge effectively.
Ample time to develop ideas.
A loose structure, but structured nevertheless..
I learnt some new options to break out of my dilemma.
None of us has enough time. There is always too much to do. At work, and increasingly at home we are in a constant rush. What these meetings do is provide a momentary haven from the rush. When you slow down, it is immediately easier to find some perspective and to think. When you add to this a process that allows you to express safely and free from interruption key live issues, (and thus often for the first time to crystallise the problem) and then to leverage both heavy duty experience and real brainpower to explore options and solutions, there is an opportunity to make some step change movements in your thinking.
I always take something away from the meeting even if events subsequently overtake me
We can explore issues that are current, immediate
It is interesting to hear perceptions from people I don’t normally work with
The atmosphere is relaxing
I prefer a lack of structure although it is important to allow each member some time for his or her issue
Once the group get to know each other they know the ground rules instinctively
Some ideas are quite radical, some plain common sense
Some ideas would not work in what is my ‘real world’
It is useful to think away from everyday work pressures, just for a few hours
Most of us were feeling unfulfilled in some way, either frustrated about some element of the job we could not see how to change or wanting to change the job and/or ourselves but not knowing how or what to.
Anyway I left feeling that some progress had been made for some of us. Some people seemed to leave with a new idea that they either liked or accepted that they ought to consider even if they were treating it with considerable suspicion on first acquaintance.
I suppose felt that I left with no clear idea of a way forward but a general reassuring acceptance that what I was trying to deal with must be frustrating and needed to be sorted out. I suppose that puts me further back than others in that I did not seem to be able to be open to new approaches or techniques.
I wondered afterwards if I just wanted to stay fed up and frustrated because I did not seem to be doing much about it really. However I also felt that I was a bit drained when it came to my turn. I felt as though I had been putting a lot of effort into others discussions and had little energy left for my own turn. Maybe one needs to give people 2 shots at it of shorter length so that no one gets the fag end of the day?
I thought too that we needed to get to know each other a bit more than we could by just explaining who we are and what we did. It was clear that some of us were enthusiastic by nature and others more restrained and perhaps a little less prepared to open up.
I liked: –
The opportunity to meet with people from other businesses and organisations.
Share experiences in a relaxed atmosphere.
The opportunity to spend some time with people who have “no axe to grind” discussing an issue.
Consider issues without the politics of ones own company or vested interests.
Share similar experiences
Hear a totally unbiased view; this encourages a new look at an issue, with new ideas and which tends to go right to the heart of the problem.
So what has “Re-evaluation counselling” got to do with this?
The central idea in re-evaluation counselling (RC) is that we are all innately good and flexibly intelligent; for more detail look at http://www.rc.org/. The only thing that prevents us behaving that way is old hurts. When we are hurt we don’t think straight and do things that hurt others or ourselves. We also find it hard to think straight when we have an experience that reminds us of a time when we were hurt or observed someone else being hurt. We become healed of our hurts and recover our ability to think when we are listened to and express the hurtful feelings by talking, crying, laughing, sweating, shaking, angry movements (storming) or yawning. In RC you set up two-way sessions where each person helps the other get rid of the effects of past painful experiences.
The implications of this theory for a facilitator are profound. It makes it impossible to sit in judgement on people and to blame them for being difficult. They are finding the situation difficult and that is not their fault! Taking turns using the theory and practice with a cocounsellor sharpens your ability to think flexibly and greatly increases the amount of attention you can give to other people. Giving good attention encourages other people to do the same. As the amount and quality of attention increases so does the quality of the thinking and problem solving. Giving good attention and being non judgemental provides the atmosphere and modelling that enables everyone else to make the process work.
I deliberately load these experiments for success by inviting along the best people I can find. These are people who want to make this work and are prepared to invest their energy to make it work.
What did people work on and what were the outcomes?
Some people talked about their own situation at work. One had a particularly difficult boss, another was going to leave the organisation because he did now wish to commute down the M25 for hours each day and another person needed a strategy to provide a personnel service in a greatly expanded company without having any more resources to do it!
People have also shared best practice about managing major IT projects outside the group
This very simple approach seems to work surprisingly well in the two stranger groups described. I think it could work inside organisations to create understanding across and within functions. When it happen spontaneously within and between the political forces in our society then we will be starting to get somewhere!