Imagine yourself in a meeting. (Sorry, should I have provided a trigger warning?) Imagine you’re one of the “less-vocal” members of the group and you’re having a hard time getting a word in. You may have expertise to share regarding the agenda topic; you may have strong concerns, vital interests or basic questions regarding the issue. So it’s frustrating not being heard. All the more because it’s not your first experience of this and the ones sucking up the air in the room are the usual suspects.
Now imagine that the same group at the same meeting has a ground rule about sharing the air time—for instance that no one speaks twice on a topic until everyone’s had a chance to speak once. With this ground rule in place (and adequately enforced), you get your turn, your voice is heard.
Content vs. Process
If you make eggs for breakfast, you can have them scrambled, poached, over easy, hard-boiled, and so on. Eggs is what you eat, then there’s how you prepare them. In our work as consultants, facilitators and conveners, my colleagues and I often make a distinction between content and process. A meeting agenda—the topics that get talked about—would be considered “content”. How the meeting is run, including whether ground rules are in place and well-enforced, falls under the heading “process.” So we would say that content is the what and process is the how—including the who, the where, and the when. Referring to meetings, this means who is invited and who attends, and where and when the meeting is held—which influences who attends, among other things. Back to the breakfast metaphor, eggs is content; poached, fried or boiled is process.
Okay, so why do we make this content v. process distinction? Why is it important? Two reasons: one, process affects content; two, process, which is largely invisible in many groups, when unexamined, benefits the dominant group(s) involved. I’ll unpack these individually.
Process Affects Content
Keeping with our example, when and where a meeting is held will affect who comes; how the meeting is run affects who speaks and what they’re willing to say. Both of these affect the conversations had and the decisions made at said meeting. A few years ago a regional partnership engaged in a multi-year planning effort conducted meetings throughout my region to learn from residents how best to “create and maintain a sustainable, economically competitive, and equitable” region. Instead of conducting these meetings in central locations, they worked with existing community organizations—such as religious and spiritual groups, community development organizations and the like—and asked to be brought into their spaces to meet with their groups. This simple choice led to far greater turnout and diversity of attendees because they “went to the people,” rather than expecting people to come to them. This translated into planning that represented more of the people’s needs and aspirations. (This may seem like an obvious move, yet I’ve heard many times over the story of a group or organization claiming to want to increase its “diversity” and feeling helpless because “those people” aren’t showing up to their, essentially unaltered, meetings or events.)
Default Process Benefits the Privileged
When “process” is invisible or not transparent, when it is the default and not deliberately chosen, it will generally benefit those in power, the dominant or privileged group. When there is no ground rule about sharing the air, the dominant group, extroverts, benefit from the lack of attention to process. (If you’re wondering what makes extroverts a dominant group, consider which group—extroverts or introverts—gets more props in our culture. I’d also point out Susan Cain’s recent bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking; [Ted Talk link] if they were the dominant group, introverts wouldn’t need such a book written for their cause.) Depending on the situation and the mix of people in the space, other “beneficiary” groups might include males, white people, people with rank (for example, salaried vs. hourly), people with power (money and/or political sway, for example) and others.
My colleagues and I work with the US Forest Service, which is striving to have more “robust public engagement” in its deliberations and planning for how our public lands are used and conserved. Leaders who attend our programs have been noticing that how they run their meetings with their stakeholders can defeat the purpose of enticing more public engagement. One leader recently had an ah-ha moment: “We go in there trying to convince them with our science when what they want is to tell us their stories.” Holding meetings in auditoriums with fixed seating and presenting PowerPoint slides promotes one-way communication. It does not coax people to tell their stories—especially not those that have historically been silenced. This is an example of the default process (how the meetings were designed and run) benefiting the dominant group, which, in this case, is those with institutional power, federal government employees. The benefit is that it has kept power and control in their hands—even as they are consciously striving to create more openness and collaboration.
In their work with us and others, such leaders are learning to approach their meetings with a different mindset and different goals. They’re experimenting with processes designed to increase participation and insure air time for all. After a recent program, a regional planner told us how “astounding” the turnout had been at their “community conversations” and how he was seeing a similarly high level of engagement among forest staff—to the point that they had to move a meeting to a larger venue to accommodate all of the rangers, staff and program managers who wanted to attend. He said, “We’ve never experienced that before!”
When we don’t notice or talk about process, the status quo prevails. If what we want is to “subvert the dominant paradigm”—whether that’s hearing from more folks at our monthly meetings or attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce—a powerful lever for doing so is process. Being willing to examine how you’re currently doing what you do and how that is perpetuating what you no longer want; being willing to explore new ways of doing things, which may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first—these are a few ways to use that lever to create deep change, for you and those around you.