I was talking with a friend recently about some regular team meetings she attended. She (and most of those there) were frustrated with their lack of productivity. Her sense was that they found themselves going round in circles over the same things. Even acknowledging that they were going round in circles had itself become part of the unproductive pattern.
We also reflected on a recent event we’d both attended where there was a plenary discussion. We realised the same sort of thing was happening. On the surface an exchange of views and ideas was taking place on the nominated subject. Not far below the surface, we were stuck in a status game where everyone was wanting attention. Each contribution was being processed, in part, in terms of status. There could have been a soundtrack of ape noises to much of the conversation.
Sometimes it’s good to interrupt these trances. One of my favourite stories was told by another friend of mine. She was working with a board that complained they often got stuck in unproductive meetings. She asked them to perform for her 10 minutes of a typical meeting, trying to make it as real as possible.
After they finished, she asked them to repeat the performance, and to try to keep the words exactly the same as the first time. Only this time, there was an additional instruction: they were to react to everything said as if it was hysterically funny. The effect was to shake up how they played their meetings and realising, essentially, they could afford to drop the pomposity.
Whatever process or model we use, it’s useful to realise there will be shadow process. Whatever happens on the surface, something else, often at odds with it, is happening underneath. Any rules about politeness are liable to means the contempt has to find someplace to go. Any constraints about “positivity” will mean “negativity” will be processed below the radar. There’s energy in that shadow and if we don’t acknowledge that, we risk ending up in boredom and torpor.
Tapping into that shadow requires playfulness and some courage.