Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In Praise of Group Meetings

Once in a while, an idea emerges almost inductively from a group meeting that almost certainly would not have emerged from a series of one-on-ones.

My chairs have been a little out-of-sorts this semester, both individually and as a group. Even the most even-keeled ones just haven’t been quite right lately, but I couldn’t put my finger on the reason.

We had a meeting yesterday that I thought would be fairly brief and pedestrian – a quick run-through of a few logistical things, and everyone leaves early. Nope.

In the course of what I thought would be a very quick gloss of agenda item six, which I considered unremarkable in itself, one of my smartest and most level-headed chairs had a complete meltdown. That was surprising enough, but it was compounded when her colleagues joined her.

As the group meltdown progressed, they started connecting issues – some valid, some shaky – that I had considered unconnected. They fed off each other, until one of them found a common theme underlying the disparate issues. When that happened, they started echoing each other.

At that point, I tried repeating their refrain back to them, to make sure I got it right. Once we agreed on what was bothering them, I fell silent for a while as they elaborated variations on the theme. I took copious notes, interrupting only when something was either unclear or patently false. Before we adjourned, I thanked them for connecting those dots for me, and for being as candid as they were.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to solve the issue, or even how or when to address it. It’s pretty fundamental, and far too inflammatory to blog about in any detail. (I also can’t say I agree with them on every count.) But at least now it has a generally definable shape. I have some sense of why they’ve been so edgy, and of why they’ve (in my mind) wildly overreacted to what were really some pretty ordinary things. If they and I got it right, I should be able to predict a little more accurately what’s going to set them off. Best case, I might even be able to shift some frames of reference in some other offices to avoid needless drama (conceding that some drama will always be necessary).

This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t met as a group.

In retrospect, a few conditions were necessary: we had to be all in the same place at the same time, we had to have enough respect for each other to speak freely, and I had to be willing to shut the hell up and toss my planned agenda when we obviously went off the rails. (For some reason, the ability to shut the hell up and listen is remarkably rare in both management and faculty ranks.)

The next part is even harder: figuring out how to package it to other parts of the college, to try to preserve what’s of value in their collective insight without tarring anybody (including myself) as merely negative. It won’t be easy. But at least know I know there is a next part.