Emptying Meetings and Fulfilling Participants
Ensuring that encounters are fruitful
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There is a very heavy investment in meetings to facilitate change. This
investment takes the form of:
financial resources, especially in the case of international meetings
requiring travel and accommodation;
people resources, especially when efforts are made to ensure the presence
of people of renown;
intellectual resources relating to the treatment of the content, especially
in the case of preferred methodologies;
facilitation resources relating to the meeting procedures and processes,
especially in the case of commitment to a particular procedure with a particular
The manner of this investment is one of the factors inhibiting fruitful
It serves little purpose to repeat evaluations of the prevailing style of meetings
Whether it is a G-7 summit, or a group of international colleagues dedicated
to some cause, the fruitfulness of such encounters is often challenged, either
by participants, external observers, or subsequent events. This may be accompanied
by a range of positive appreciations that it is difficult to distinguish from
politeness and tokenism of various forms. However, it is also frequently
true that it may be better to meet than not to meet -- whatever the consequences.
The situation in electronic meetings may be better in some respects, but it
has not proved to be the breakthrough that was hoped for -- and may curtail
forms of communication that are valuable despite reservations about face-to-face
1. Complexity versus Simplicity: Participants are torn between
the need to communicate insights of sufficient complexity (to be appropriate
to the issues discussed), and the requirement for simplicity (if anything
is to be commuinicated at all -- especially to those unfamiliar with these
issues). For some it appears obvious that new ideas should be expressible
simply, if they are to be meaningful. For others, it is challenge enough
to be able to reflect insights in words -- and simplifications should follow
rather than precede such articulation. Embodying complexity within simplicity
is an art cultivated with difficulty. Whether a paradigm leap can be made
comprehensible on a buck slip to the president is a real dilemma.
2. Discursiveness versus Brevity: There is a natural tendency
for participants to speak longer than desired by the average member of
their audience. This may be due to the perceived complexity of what needs
to be communicated or argued, or to the need to disguise the limitations
of the speaker by the use of decorative rhetoric. Brevity, whilst appreciated,
tends to have less conceptual impact than a more extended discourse. The
art of deriving greater significance from a succession of brief interventions
remains to be developed and appreciated.
3. Distraction versus Amusement: There is always a tendency to
introduce parentheses, asides and extraneous questions. In a wide ranging
meeting, who is to determine what is relevant, when and to whom? If one
has nothing to say on the point, why not create a suitable impression by
saying something substantive off the point? Whos is determining what is
the point anyway? Andecdotes and humour are much appreciated as a means
of enlivening a weary session. They may even successfully make the most
fundamentally point most appropriately. But again, when is a joke a distraction,
and to whom?
4. Exclusiveness versus Inclusiveness: It is to be expected that
speakers would tend to present their own particular perspective and to
persuade the audience of its merits. In so doing they will tend to ignore
perspectives of others articulated in earlier interventions -- or in those
to come. It is a challenge for speakers to devote any proportion of their
limited speaking time to acknowledgement and inclusion of perspectives
5. Position-taking versus Pattern-making: Participants
in many cases have positions to take and defend in what is often necessarily
a struggle with others present. Absent dimensions must often be introduced
with vigour. In doing so the possibility of weaving other perpectives into
a larger pattern may have to be sacrificed. Such larger patterns may then
be treated as of secondary importance, ignored, or regarded as unrealistic.
Participants then leave the meeting with little sense of a meaningful larger
context. But how is a richer pattern to be articulated and held for appreciation?
6. Covertness versus Overtness: It is frequently the case that
a gathering may be, in some measure, a subterfuge to advance undeclared
agendas. Some participants may be party to such hidden agendas, others
may be in total ignorance of them -- some are just "tourists". Individuals
may all have their hidden reasons for attending a meeting -- if only "to
make contacts", "to network" or to advance their careers. These covert
purposes may be of much greater importance than those which are overt.
Collective efforts to articulate and honour a shared agenda may be privately
viewed as exercises in tokenism. Ensuring transparency in an encounter
may prove challenging -- and apparent transparency may be questionable.
7. Certainty versus Doubt: Participants of consequence must necessarily
bring certainties to an encounter -- certainties derived from their experience
of what works and what does not, as well as from what they believe in.
They encounter others with different experiences -- unless affirmation
of commonality is the only purpose. Participants may also bring their doubts
to the encounter, or allow doubt concerning their own certainities to be
triggered by the alternative perspectives of others. Speaking from certainity,
a participant can only endeavour to persuade others and must remain deaf
to the merits of their arguments. A measure of doubt enables a participants
to learn and to benefit from the perspectives of others. For the meeting
as a whole, it is a challenge to determine an appropriate balance between
certainty and doubt -- especially when reaching any conclusions to which
others are expected to respond.
8. Absence versus Presence: Despite the physical presence of
a participant, it is by no means certain that the participant is psychologically
present and engaged in the gathering. There is a marked tendency to bring
other work, or reflect on other matters -- treating presence at the event
as a formal requirement. People may absent themselves for coffee and private
discussion. This is especially the case when interventions are long and
of little interest. However, people may, in one way or another, need
to "absent" themselves from the encounter in order to bring new resources
to bear upon it. What encourages people to be present at an event -- in
spirit as well as in body? What does such presence imply for the moment-by-moment
dynamics of the encounter?
The above factors tend to play off, and reinforce, one another. The
meeting may become an essentially unconscious event in which the effective
interactions are largely those below the conscious level. Participants
can play games with themselves (cultivating their own illusions) or with
one another (reinforcing each others' illusions). The net result can even
persuade participants that the event has been a success -- and that it
should be repeated. As a community activity, there may be no reason to
question this assessment.
This might be called the era of CFC's -- namely Content Free Conferences
-- suggesting the need for a reduction of "emissions"! The above factors
indicate some of the reasons why meetings are decreasingly fruitful and
attractive -- why (like churches and temples) they are being emptied of
significant content, of significant participants and of significant interaction.
They also suggest the need to respond to such dysfunctionality by "emptying
meetings" in a more fundamental way. Using religious metaphors:
the "money changers" need to be cleared out of the temple;
the role of "priesthoods" (selling "indulgences") needs to be challenged;
the use of "vestal virgins" to placate petitioners needs to be examined;
the justification for "sacrifices" needs to be questioned; and
the conceptual appropriation of aesthetics and iconography needs to be
Clearly there is a strong case in many meetings for much briefer interventions.
The acknowledged challenge is to ensure that each intervention is set both
in a period of reflection and in an interaction dynamic. Insights need
to be sharpened through reinforcement and challenge -- in part to recognize
the identity of the participant -- or those represented by the intervention.
But it is the relationship of such insights to a larger dynamic pattern
that needs to be established. Better insight capture would avoid
the need for repetitive presentations to disguise uncertainty. There is
a real issue whether a cluttered meeting, full of jarring interventions,
creates a space within which a larger pattern may be experienced. Precisely
because there is no sense of this larger pattern, some seek to impose an
old-style pattern and others seek to disseminate their particular view.
Perhaps meetings also suffer from effects analogous to "light pollution"
-- the bane of astronomers. Too much reflected light from mundane human
activity inhibits our recognition of the wider contextual pattern within
which our planet is situated. We are reduced to the obvious features, such
as the other planets and the brighter stars -- given such prominence at
any modern meeting.
It is an irony that the principal problems of society are only too evident
in the condition and behaviour of participants at a meeting: unemployment
(mal-employment), ignorance, undernourishment, underproductivity, impoverishment,
environmental degradation, misrepresentation, and the like (see detailed
exploration at https://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/contract.php).
Who would consider themselves fully employed at a meeting? Some participants
acquire access to disproportionate meeting resources. Some acquire positions
of power at variance with principles of democracy and justice. There are
the "haves" and the "have-nots" -- and the challenges of "social
exclusion". In this sense there are those that are over-fulfilled and others
that are essentially unfulfilled -- if not undernourished (or even "starving"),
whether emotionally intellectually or spiritually.
How might the healthy fulfillment of participants be fruitfully understood?
What is to be understood as healthy interaction between participants as
a temporary community? What is essential to their "diet"? What "exercise"
do they require? How does requiring the unemployment of some during the
gathering, to ensure the meaningful employment of others, undermine the
quality of life of some participants during the event? Who is ignorant
and of what? What does it take to transform a gathering into a productive
learning event? How are healthy dynamics to be distinguished from unhealthy
dynamics to ensure the sustainability of such a community?
However, although it is appropriate to ask whether participants are
fulfilled, it is also appropriate to ask whether individual participants
fulfilled their obligations and commitments. Other than the "rights" of
a participant, what are their "responsibilities" during the event? The
debate between "individual" and "collective" values is thus also reflected
in the dynamics of a meeting.
It is one thing to make assessments about an event -- or to ask pertinent
questions. It is quite another to be able respond creatively to such opportunities
-- and respond in practice to the implications of questions such
as those above.
As insights into the inherent inadequacies of contemporary gatherings
increase in the light of new understanding, the dilemma for potential organizers
of such initiatives increases. This is also true for potential participants.
Organization of any event, and participation in it, involves significant
costs. The benefits may be marginal or negative. There are significant
risks. Perhaps the dilemmas of organizaters and participants may best be
summarized by the old joke:
There was an important meeting to be organized. Somebody should have
organized it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got
angry about that, because it was Everybody's responsibility. Everybody
thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody would not
do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what
Anybody could have done!
But that is surely neither the end of the story nor an adequate response
to the challenge. In terms of the famous quote: Organizers can fool some
potential participants all the time, or all of such participants some of
the time, but organizers cannot fool all potential participants all of