In a previous post I wrote about how the conventional way of thinking about meetings separates out task from process. Instead I offered an alternative way of understanding the patterning of human interaction, suggesting no separation between task and process. The way we choose to work together will directly affect what we achieve. There is nothing separate from what we are engaged in called ‘process’ that is other than what we are doing here and now.
Recently I was consulting with a group of health professionals on a project which is set up to research and develop inter-professional working. One idea that we’ve had, as a group of researchers, is to convene four learning groups of professionals already working in the community to meet once a month to reflect upon their experience of working daily with other professionals. We meet with the volunteer convenors of these learning groups as a way of exploring how they might work with the participants in the groups and how we might work with them. Since we’ve called them to a meeting we have a responsibility to explain what our thinking is so far, but beyond that our intention is to negotiate with them what they think they might be doing.
An interesting thing happens right at the beginning of the meeting, even before we get into this discussion, as one volunteer convenor tells us that she thinks that when they start working properly with their learning groups convenors should do introductions with participants and then establish some group rules. As researchers we respond immediately to this suggestion realising that although we have been chatting in a friendly way before this meeting started we haven’t introduced ourselves in a more formal way in recognition of the task that we are undertaking together. After the introductions we researchers draw attention to this intervention and it becomes an object of attention and discussion, and a good example of what it is that we think is central to the method we are proposing. Because one way of understanding what the volunteer convenor did was to challenge the existing power relations between us as researchers who had called the meeting and the volunteer convenors, who had come mostly expecting to be told how to work. Perhaps one thing that she was implying with her intervention was that we weren’t running the meeting very well!
With this intervention we have already begun negotiating together and are exploring, in the here and now, what it means to work inter-professionally. This may feel like a direct challenge to role and identity: we might have felt, as convenors of this particular meeting, that it was our job to ‘keep in control’ and to steer the group towards what we thought should be happening. In most learning situations that is exactly what happens between the person designated as teacher and those designated as learners. And in some learning environments it may be appropriate always to try and direct. Interestingly, because of people’s expectations of what happens in these kinds of learning environments, it is often those designated as learners who are as likely as the teacher to try and keep the power dynamics as they have come to expect them. It is often very destabilising for learners to be encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning.
In our current situation we are more open to negotiate the way forward because we are about to work with professionals whose daily experience is to work with others, and we want to encourage them to articulate and explore this. We are joining conversations which are already going on.
However, our suspicion is that working relationships only change when we start to pay attention to the relationships of power that arise between us. And it is not as though anything goes even in this group. Although we gave way on this issue as it arose, we might not have given way on others. When groups of professionals come together to discuss their working relations they have to feel relatively safe in doing so. The purpose of the group is reflection on practice, it is not a therapy group, although it may also prove therapeutic for some. But being able to discuss what we are doing and to question the way of doing it enables participants in this group to experience what it is we intend in a way which no amount of grids, frameworks and powerpoint presentations would have been able to convey. We are already paying attention to the patterning of our engagement with each other as it emerges.