Meetings: getting caught up in anxiety

I was struck recently by how much anxiety a meeting provokes and how this leads to counterintuitive behaviour, even by very intelligent people.

At a seminar, one which was convened to discuss power and politics, we were at various stages forced to play games, or to disrupt our conversations to take part in exercises which were supposed to  encourage alternative thinking. Instead of  being allowed to let our discussion follow its course, which might well have led to alternative thinking,  we were given instructions to stop what we were doing after half an hour and to send an emissary to another group, which would also send one to us. We were told in advance how we were supposed to respond to the emissary when they came, which was to listen to what they said and then to criticise them severely.

We might have questioned this task, the seminar was after all about power and politics, but some of our group became very anxious about fulfilling the requirements of what we had been asked to do. We spent some time, then, discussing how we would do what we had been asked, and after we had interacted with the other group, whether they had also played by the rules or not. The disruptive task and its fulfiment became more important to us than what we were talking about.

Of course it would have been an interesting topic to talk about in the seminar itself, particularly as we were discussing the way that dominant ways of working come to shape what it is and is not possible to do. We had in our own way given a very good demonstration of how we had internalised authority with our own anxiety, and more or less willingly become complicit in a way of working that was disrupting what we would have liked to have been doing. The way we had reacted was a very good example of how dominant ways of working become dominant – we ourselves were taken over by our own anxiety about not offending, about doing what we were told, about being obliging.

One aspect of human behaviour that most worried Hannah Arendt was our tendency to undertake tasks in an unthinking way. This,  she said, gave us the potential for evil, which was not necessarily  something grotesque or melodramatic for her, but could consist in the daily habit of oppressing or subjugating others in a routine and unthinking way, what she termed ‘the banality of evil’.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the exercise we were obliged to undertake was in any way evil: it was very well intentioned. However, our ability to jump straight into it without for a moment questioning what we were doing, particularly in an evironment where we had gathered to talk about hegemonic ways of working, was very instructive.

We never did find a way of talking about it in the seminar though.


2 thoughts on “Meetings: getting caught up in anxiety

  1. sbilling

    Hi Chris,
    Isn’t it amazing how these very common workshop techniques inveigle us into acquiescence. Even when we know what is going on and even when there has been discussion amongst the group about not conforming. I remember being in one of these sessions and being told that I was to lead one of the sub groups. I think this was to get my “buy in” to the results of the group. I refused to do anything that looked like leadership although I listened and participated in the conversation. Inevitably the group had to present back and once again I refused to do the presentation. Someone else did a great job and the group had even come up with some new ideas. The other group had a leader who dominated what went on the flipcharts and when they presented the presenter (who wasn’t the leader) couldn’t even read the notes on the flipchart. Apparently they hadn’t been that interested in the discussion but the presenter had to perform in front of peers, and so did what ended up to be a passable job. It was all a waste of time as far as I was concerned.

    The upshot was, though, that I was ostracised from the group and excluded from further work with the project team. In spite of the fact that the group I was with actually came up with a good idea or two.

    The way you put it, it does seem ridiculous to tell people how they are to respond to a gesture from someone else. Being the emissary from one group, going to tell another group what you did, and then knowing that you are going to be criticised severely would inevitably affect what you chose to tell and how you would protect yourself against the criticism that the facilitator had requested as the response.

    By the way, I get that you wanted to continue with the conversation and not do the world cafe / open space thing. How do you know that the others were of the same opinion? Perhaps they were keen to hear what the other group had done. And perhaps they were keen to get critical…

  2. Chris Mowles

    Your story of being ostracised shows just how powerful, sometimes vengeful group processes can be. I guess that’s why Freud was so suspicious of them.

    As for my knowing or not knowing that others felt the same way I did, I guess I was interpreting their gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions. And of course it would have been interesting to hear what the other group was talking about but why did it need to be done in such a manipulative way?


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