Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Intentions and Default Behaviors


For a few years I was part of the second oldest Dialogue Group in the world. The oldest, we thought, was going on in Britain. Such groups have a life cycle and so, like my Community Building group before this—much of the group memberships overlapped—we eventually shut down. During our final year Foster Walker sent me an e-mail. He was excited by my off the cuff observation, during a meeting, that "Dialogue cannot be seen." He urged, "Write one of your essays, and be sure I get to see it."

... In our western society the natural thing, the default, is to discuss and argue and debate and have nice conversations. Dialogue, with a capital D, is different than all these, for it is a blessed state of ego-less shared inquiry. It would sure help if we could "see" when we are into Dialogue and not our default state.

The key that opens the door is not so much motivation as intention. I suppose at our meetings we allow for this by our two minutes of silence at the beginning, and again after the break. During the silenced I get centered, yes, but I am also switching from default mode to inquiry; I am affirming and settling in to my new intention to Dialogue.


The power of intention is something I became especially aware of years ago as part of a start up company (that is still going strong!). Our meetings were enthusiastic and chaotic and there was always so much to do. We were creating the first holistic outdoor pursuits company ever seen in our watershed. We still had lives, and day jobs, but our meetings, unfortunately, kept going into overtime. Then Lynn Russell proclaimed, "Intention is everything. If we set our intention, at the beginning of the meeting, to end on time, at certain hour, then—"...and it worked. A room of holistic talkative anarchists found they would magically calm and merge the flow of chaos near the intended end of the meeting.

Sounds like new age magic, doesn't it? It was the old 19th century classic children's writer, E. Nesbit, who first taught me intention. Back in the Edwardian age children couldn't afford alarm clocks. But Nesbit had advice for a child who wanted to go on a pre-dawn adventure. All a girl had to do was choose an hour to wake up at, then thump her head against the pillow for the number of chimes in the hour. As an adult I still do this, but I no longer have to thump my pillow. It seems queer to believe in old wisdom while writing on a state of the art (for this year) computer. There are reasons why old wisdom is slow to become widespread common sense, reasons that include the need to "see" not just our faults but our defaults.

When I was in college I took a leadership class taught by Municipal Consultant Gerry Bruce. It had a proper course number, but we students called it the "how to run a meeting" class. All semester we practiced Robert's Rules of Order. The stuff you can "see," such as Robert's Rules, were easy to learn. Does the chairman "gate keep" so that everyone has their say, is the agenda clear, are chairs arranged, do the windows open if need be, are there felt pens and lots of flip chart paper? ... All of the books on meetings that I found in the library stopped about there. I suppose new leaders would later in their career "peel the onion" to find deeper ways to lead, but at first novices like the comfort of reading a checklist for things they could see and measure. Certainly this had been true for me as a young army squad leader. For Corporal Crawford the hardest challenges had been nice concrete ones.


Where the library books ended our class was just beginning. We learned how a meeting is a group, and how a group, just as though it was an individual, has its avoidance behaviors and procrastination, its defenses and denial. We learned what to do when a group seems to be "working hard" but actually is running away from a problem that is too fearsome... And then, one day, we had a midterm. With essay questions. Open book, since we would have our books to help us in the real world. (We used Dynamics of Groups at Work by Herbert Thelen)

I wrote that, having come from the army base across the road, I hadn't even realized that a group has emotions, or at least, not the emotion of fear. After all, if a squad is given a mission then fear is not relevant—it's downright counterproductive. It's not like soldiers can run away from a task. We students had thought it was common sense how to behave in a meeting. Such behavior was common, yes, but now we were to be sensitive to a hitherto unseen world of emotional currents. In deep water, what is our default?

Our classroom had a low stage. After writing our test we had yet another practical exercise: a meeting in front of our peers. Some of us, including me, were picked for roles, pretending to be various people in the community, while other students merely watched events unfold. Did we achieve the purpose of the meeting? No. Did the group make any decisions at all? Let me put it this way: the emotional currents swamped our boat... we spun our wheels... we kept getting helplessly dug in deeper and deeper.


At last the teacher sent us back to our seats to put us out of our misery. Then he raged at the whole class while we sat there. Both actors and observers were mute. He demanded, "What the heck went wrong?" Silence. "Come on, you just wrote the midterm... ...you all know how to conduct a meeting!" Silence. "Well?..." The first humble student to snap out of it was I. "Uh, we could have called a ten minute (to calm the waters) recess?" "Yes!" Once the mental logjam was broken our teacher knew we would all rush to review our textbook and bag of tricks. But before he dismissed us to go do so he pronounced judgment on us: "You all reverted to old behavior patterns!"

Down the years I have tried to be open minded; I have used a "concerted effort" with the intention of getting new abstract knowledge etched in enough that I don't revert. It may take me considerable effort to ingrain a new default setting. Liberation has always worked this way for me, as, at first, I war against my former ignorance.—Now... we are in a war on terror.

My own little part of the war effort is to apply this lesson: it is not practical to expect a male Muslim immigrant to Europe to instantly agree that his primitive and terrifying honor killing of women in his family is wrong. Better to expect him to revert. To ask him to instantly put a liberal society's criminal law above his old world culture, is not possible—a concerted effort is needed. Meanwhile, the goal of the U.S. "occupation" is to have Iraq be the first democracy in the Arab world. Since I have written entire essays on small aspects of democracy it is obvious to me that giving the Iraqis a few sound bites, or a summary, about the outer forms of democracy will not suffice: there needs to be a concerted effort to become democratic between the ears. It takes intention, time and repetition to explain, for example, how as women become more equal then the whole nation becomes more "healthy" and prosperous.

Focus and intention is like plowing a field: if you take your eye off the prize, if you relax at all, then you and your "furrow" will drift off and you won't even know it.

Down the years I've tried to enhance my awareness of what a group looks like when it is working, not avoiding a problem. It's not easy to see. Neither is Dialogue easy to see or do.

And I know, with awe, that society's default, the primitive old behavior patterns, are always waiting in the wings.

Sean Crawford,
Less than a month after Remembrance Day (Armistice),
Five seasons after hearing a lament for Corporal Nathan Hornburg,
Trying not to avoid my responsibility,

Calgary, Alberta, Canada
(re-posted to complement recent essays, July 2012.1)

Queer footnotes:

As gay women were given equal rights it became hard for society to justify not allowing feminists to have "male" jobs such as becoming lawyers, doctors and police officers. As there was less stigma of gays, there was less power to silence "women's libbers" by slogans accusing them of being homos. (Yes, I'm mixing the flow of time.)

In Europe it is an immigrant enclave ideal for Muslim females, literate or not, to be taken out of school at puberty.

As Muslim women in Europe are given equal rights they will feel more free to get educated, and, as housewives, to educate their children. As there is less stigma, in the enclave world, for freedom of thought it will be harder to to use old slogans to justify in-house violence or down-the-street and across-the-border terror.

Not all Muslims believe in terror. (And not all North Americans can ride a horse) In South Asia, weeks before "global reach" Pakistanis shot up the Mumbai (Bombay) financial district, the Indian Muslims issued a fatwa (holy decree) against terror. Canadian Muslims have done so too. During my lifetime I expect to see Muslims in Europe and the rest of North America issue the same fatwa.

No comments:

Post a Comment