The Contemplative Toolbox
III. Contemplative Meetings
Meetings can create familiar group dynamics--ways of collective communicating, sharing, and understanding. These ways can provide us with useful information and tools to help us get our work done. They also have their shadow sides, which can prove challenging to overcome. For example, in a traditional meeting format it can be easy for a group to become easily distracted by cross-talk, for participants to take rigid positions, and for the voices of less-outspoken people to be drowned out by others. Investigating new forms of group process may help us to overcome some of these pitfalls and give us access to new kinds of information and ways of knowing.
Sometimes it is not the format of the meeting which is problematic, but our lack of adequately taking advantage of what it may have to offer. We don't need to scrap our old ways of gathering, but it may be of great benefit to us to understand these formats more fully and tailor them to fit the needs of a particular group.
In this section, we will offer some basic ideas and guidelines regarding the design and facilitation of traditional meetings, as well as offer some alternative formats that you may find worth exploring.
There are a few basic elements of traditional group meetings which support good contemplative process. Making sure that these elements are in place will aid in creating high-functioning and fulfilling discussions. It is always important to have clear expectations and goals for the discussion, in order to help orient the participants to the conversation. Some of this can be done by distributing materials before and during the meeting. Agendas and relevant information can help prepare people for the discussion before the conversation begins. Short readings such as poetry or inspiring passages at the meeting’s beginning can also help ground the conversation in a specific intention that gives people focus and motivation.
Taking time to review the agenda at the start of a meeting in order to have room for additions or suggestions helps make the most out of your valuable time. If there are unfamiliar members at the meeting, it is always good to do a round of introductions.
We recommend introducing short periods of silence at the beginning and end of each meeting. Silence is a great way to clear our minds and settle into our intentions before delving into conversation. At the end of a meeting, taking another few moments helps us to absorb the conversation more fully and reflect upon the outcomes of our discussion.
Sometimes, if the group is large and the discussion is expected to be long, the introduction of a “mindfulness bell” can be a useful component to the group process. Often, in intense discussions, people can lose their awareness of how much time and space they are taking up in the group process, and a gentle reminder can help them be more concise and clear in their words. A soft ring of a bell helps bring this awareness to the person speaking. If this tool is going to be used it must be used as equally as possible across the board, so that certain people don't feel attacked or shut down by the bell while others are allowed to run on for longer periods. The device ought to be introduced in the beginning of the conversation as a tool for awareness, rather than as a tool for control. Inviting the bell to ring is not an attempt to silence someone, but instead to draw them into awareness of their role in the group. Perhaps the timer or facilitator commits to giving everyone one or two minutes of speaking before striking the bell, in order to provide a sense of objectivity to the tool.
In the midst of a dialog, “dipping” is another way for participants to stop and notice what is happening in their internal landscape. The facilitator will ask them to simply “dip” into their experience--to take a moment and notice what is going on within. This could include thoughts, emotions, judgments, body sensations, and other reactions. Then people are invited to verbalize what they observed, perhaps with one or two other people.
The art of facilitation is one that takes many years of practice to master, but the basic elements can be learned in a short period of time. This includes management of information and maintaining a balance of spaciousness and decisiveness for the group process.
How does the facilitator maintain a sense of space that allows people to participate fully while still assuring that the group stays on task? When to be permissive or directive in a conversation? How much information is needed for a group to begin a discussion or process? How much information is too much?
Answers to these questions arrive through experience and trial and error. However, we do have some suggestions and ideas that we hope will be helpful in developing these qualities and knowledge for you and your group:
- Make sure all participants know what the discussion is regarding and why they are holding it.
- Let your own behavior be a model for how other participants should be engaged.
- Have someone keep track of the conversation visually, such as written on a whiteboard, which all participants can refer to. This provides for deeper and less repetitive conversation, allowing people to look back to earlier points in the discussion and extract themes.
- Use your intuition to determine what the group needs at any given moment.
- Help summarize the conversation for people who may not be looking at the whole picture. Pulling out themes and being aware of direction can be very helpful for the group to get its bearings.
- Gently keep participants on the subject. The group will benefit greatly if the conversation stays in close proximity to the stated goal.
- Try to stay aware of the difference between facilitating and participating. It is important to remain present and fully involved while still maintaining the responsibilities that come with holding the broader perspective of the discussion.
The two forms presented here are not new. One is certifiably ancient and the other is at least several hundred years old. Still, it can be quite challenging to adapt ourselves to what may be a new form for us. Creatively using new forms requires patience and commitment and can help us not only uncover wells of untapped resources within our collectives, but also give us insight into our relationships to form itself. Please invite your group to discuss which aspects feel the most helpful and which are the most challenging, in order to come up with forms that work best for you.
The process of Council comes from a number of Native American traditions and has been used by many non-native people for generations to facilitate meaningful interaction. The structure of a council can vary from place to place and has had a number of innovations and alterations over time, but the basic form remains constant. A group is gathered in a circle for a conversation about a specific topic. The opportunity to speak is given one at a time to all members of the council, often passing a “talking piece” clockwise around the circle to identify the speaker. Members only speak when it is their turn and are encouraged to listen intently, without comment, while others are speaking. All members have the right to keep silent or “pass” when their turn comes. A facilitator is charged with maintaining the boundaries of the circle to protect the process.
There should be one person designated as the facilitator, who sets the initial intention of the circle and offers the basic structure and ground rules. This person also helps the group maintain circle boundaries either in terms of content or behavior, and should use gentle reminders to individuals and the group to adhere to the basic ground rules. This person should be empowered to call for brief pauses in the conversation or for a break if the group is too tired to continue in a productive way.
Once people have gathered, it is helpful for the facilitator to begin the circle with a gesture that shifts people's attention from social space to council space. This gesture of welcome may be a moment of silence, reading a poem, singing a song, or listening to a musical interlude to invite a sense of calm presence.
Check-in helps people into a frame of mind for council and reminds everyone of their commitment to the expressed intention. It ensures that people are truly present in mind as well as in body.
To check-in with a new circle, participants may say their names and offer a brief self-introduction. To check-in with an ongoing circle, they may speak briefly about their hopes for the meeting, offer social comments, or share anecdotal stories about their lives.
The talking piece can be any object that passes easily from hand to hand. This may be an object from nature, such as a stone, stick or feather, or an object that has meaning for a particular circle. Only the person holding the talking piece speaks, and other circle members listen without interruption.
A talking piece is used whenever there is a desire to move the conversation more slowly so that everyone's stories, input or wisdom can be gathered. One member picks up the talking piece, shares his/her thoughts or story, and then passes it on. The talking piece progresses around the circle, either in sequence or by volunteering, until everyone has had an opportunity to contribute.
Checkout and Farewell. When is a circle over? There are a number of ways to define the length of a council circle. A time frame can be set or a decision made to go around two or three times. Another option is to continue the council until there is a completely silent passing of the talking piece indicating that no one has anything left to add to the discussion. Make sure that you define the limit of the circle before beginning.
At the close of a circle meeting, it may be worthwhile to allow a few minutes for each person to “check-out” and comment on what they learned, or what is in their heart and mind as they leave. Closing the circle by checking out provides a formal end to the meeting, a chance for members to reflect on anything that has transpired, and to reclaim objects from the center.
Often after check-out, the facilitator will offer a few inspirational words or farewell, or signal a few seconds of silence before the circle is released.
For further resources on council processes and training, visit the Center for Council.
From the Quaker tradition, Claremont Dialog refers to a format in which the opportunity to speak passes systematically around the circle, in a similar manner to council circle. Friends may pass or speak as they choose. Silence for reflection often follows each contribution. This form encourages a focus on the issue at hand and minimizes the tendency for discussion to fall into a debate between individuals.
The group starts with a period of quiet worship or meditation, long enough to “center down.” The leader briefly tells the nature of the dialog and explains the ground rules: this is a sharing of experience, not a discussion; we avoid analysis and theorizing; we respect what all share, and we refrain from making judgments; we do not probe or cross-question each other; we aim to answer with complete honesty and freedom, but if we do not feel free to answer a given question, we need not feel pressure to answer, but say “pass” [those that pass may be given another opportunity to speak after everyone else has spoken]. The leader begins, and then the conversation continues around the circle so that all feel they have a proper space in which to participate.
Here are some key points for using this method:
- The speaking should be from feeling and experience, rather than from theory or opinion;
- answers be made in turn rather than through volunteering; the choice not to answer be
- fully respected; there be no discussion of what participants have shared and
- furthermore, what is said be held in confidence; the leader take part as one of the group.
The Contemplative Conference Call
by Mirabai Bush, Founding Director,
the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
On 9/11 my son was in New York and I was on an island off Canada. After 10 hours or so, I finally got a call from him. He was alive and OK, and I was relieved and reassured, but somehow, after the shock of that day, the truth didn’t really register until 5 days later when I saw him and could touch him...the phone is a disembodied contact. It is limited. We have to compensate to have full communication.
A conference call is a disembodied way of bringing a group together to think together across space. It forms a circle or a net whose points may be in Hawaii, California, Missouri, Massachusetts, New Delhi...
It requires focus and skillful listening, since there are no visual clues to help give meaning. The agenda is the result of much preparation, often compressed, and may be used for building community, discussing a subject, or making decisions.
So, what is the contemplative conference call?
What are the skillful means?
Here are some guidelines:
- Set the intention with pre-call materials. Include an inspirational quote or image so that the discussion begins in a reflective way, even before the call.
- Once everyone is on the call, you can share a few minutes of silence or a guided meditation. End silence with a word, an inspirational quote, or a bell: it brings people into the space together.
- If there is time, ask everyone to share something about their life or their intention for the call or your work together. It becomes easier to imagine each other in the circle.
- When the discussion begins, here are some of the techniques we use to create a cooperative, loving, learning, awake space on the phone, using the technology at its best:
- Be modest and humble about what can be accomplished and remember that we are not solving problems, but dissolving them.
- Allow space for all voices, but stress that although the facilitator will try, each opinion may not be heard.
- Listen mindfully, without judgment--listen to understand (not to agree with or believe).
- Be kind; assume the best (there are so many possibilities for misunderstanding).
- Exercise empathy and generosity, honoring and delighting in group mind.
- Expect nothing; be ready for anything. Have goals, but defer to greater wisdom.
- If you are stressed about the situation or the process, say that—don’t attack the information. If you are worried that those who have presented don’t understand the issue, or you want it presented in differently in the future, say that—it’s just information.
- Maintain a sense of proportion--“in relation to what?”--and a sense of humor because, as a great clown once said, “If you don’t have a sense of humor, it just isn’t funny.”
- Remember: There is always follow up; this will probably not be the last call of your life. You are part of a collaborative organization.
- Use these calls only when necessary.
- Follow up with minutes or notes, announced at the beginning, so people can be relaxed and focused during the call.
- End with thanks to all participants.