Practical ideas and tactics to reclaim local democracy
Registering as an Independent
As we have mentioned the IEC requires you to be formally nominated together with the signatures of 50 voters, but it is very easy. You must submit the required documents during the candidate nomination period, which is detailed in the election time- table published once an election date has been proclaimed. An Independent can be nominated by anybody who ordinarily re- sides in the municipality in that ward; and is registered on that municipal segment of the voters’ roll.
You have to submit the following documents:
- A nomination form signed by the Nominator. This is published before municipal elections.
- A prescribed acceptance of nomination form signed by the candidate which includes an undertaking to be bound by the Code of Conduct and a declaration that the candidate is not disqualified from standing in the elections in terms of the Constitution or other applicable legislation together with a copy of the first page of their ID book.
- A copy of the page of the candidate’s ID book on which the candidate’s photo, name and ID number appear (this does not need to be certified).
- A form containing the names, surnames, ID Numbers and sig- natures of at least fifty (50) voters whose names appear on the voters’ roll of any one of the voting districts of the ward the candidate is contesting.
- A deposit of R1,000.00 paid by means of a bank guaranteed cheque in favour of the Electoral Commission.
- An A5 colour photo (head and shoulders) of the independent ward candidate as first choice, but black and white will not be rejected.
Understanding local elections
In Metropolitan Municipalities, Council is made up of two types of councillors. Half are Ward Councillors and half are Proportional Representation Councillors (also known as PR Councillors).
Ward Councillors are elected by the residents living in ward on a first-past-the-post basis. This means that the Councillor with the most votes wins the seat. You don’t need to belong to a political party to run to be the Ward Councillor. Anybody can register and appear on the ballot as an Independent.
PR Councillors are elected by everyone living in the municipality on a proportional basis. This means that the seats are allocated to political parties based on what proportion of the vote they received. Only political parties can contest and win PR Councillor seats.
The PR seats themselves are not allocated proportionally. Rather the Independent Electoral Commission or IEC allocates seats using a formula to ensure that Council overall is proportional to the number of votes that a party receives. Parties submit a list to the IEC and they fill the seats from the list based on the number of seats that they win.
Making Meetings Accessible
It is hard to get around in the city. Distances are long and public transport is unreliable, expensive, and not available in the evenings. Many people are unemployed or only have money to get to work and back with little left over to pay for transport to meetings. Walking to and from bus stops and taxi ranks, waiting outside and riding public transport can be dangerous for everyone – especially women.
It is hard to bring people together in these circumstances and it is not fair or inclusive if the only people who can organise and meet are those who have their own transport or can travel. At the same time it is also not sustainable to fundraise for transport for everyone each and every time we want to get together. So how do we effectively organise community/ward assemblies and other meetings?
Days and Time
- Day time – The majority of people who work may not be able to attend meetings during working hours. People may be more flexible in the late afternoon but often have to rush to catch public transport home before it is too dark. But morn- ing and afternoons may be good times for stay-at-home par- ents; elderly people who can’t come out at night; people who work from home, people who do shift work or whose working hours are flexible or who are unemployed.
- Evenings – People, especially women, who feed and care for elderly parents or children may not be able to attend meetings in the early evenings. It may help to schedule meetings a little later to ensure everyone is able to attend to their obligations. If the meeting is at night, make sure everybody has a way to get home or is able to walk home with someone they trust, especially in communities where it is not safe to walk around in the dark.
- Muslims may not be able to attend meetings on Fridays, especially around prayer time. Jews may not be able to attend meetings on a Friday evening or Saturday. Christians may not be able to attend meetings on Sunday mornings.
- Many people, especially women, are responsible for shopping, washing and other weekly household chores on the weekend in the morning.
Transport and location
- Develop a culture where paying for your own transport is publicly acknowledged as a valued contribution to the collective.
- Encourage everyone to partner up. People with resources could regularly sponsor the transport costs of someone else without money having to be managed centrally. Encourage those who do have cars to give lifts.
- Take collective responsibility. Make a list of everyone who needs transport money home and pass a tin around at the meeting to try and raise the funds there and then.
- Organise locally. If we are organising where we live, then nobody has to travel too far. It may just be a short taxi ride or walk. Host smaller satellite meetings rather than one large meeting.
- Sometimes a meeting is the only way to bring people together. Especially when most people don’t have access to the internet, email or data on their phones. But we can use digital tools to help us beat distance and save time. Digital tools may be especially useful for women who want to participate but may have other obligations preventing them from taking the time.
- Not everyone always has to participate in a meeting for it to have standing. It is more important for everyone to know what will be discussed, have the opportunity to join in if they wish, and know what the outcome is.
- Decide what actually needs a meeting. Meetings are best for resolving issues or making complicated decisions. Announcements, updates and administrative decision making doesn’t always need a meeting. These can often be communicated digitally.
- Do group calls. We can make better use of our time if we use group calls and online meeting platforms more often. It’s possible to listen in to a meeting while travelling home or while doing chores.
- You don’t always have to be in a meeting to participate in the meeting. Digital polls and ways to contribute ideas can help everyone participate and share their experiences. You can also share suggested decisions digitally and gather sup- port or votes to choose final outcomes or ratify decisions that have been made.
- Many people, especially women, care for children and can only attend meetings and events if they have someone who can look after the children or are able to bring children with. Let’s create environments where children are welcome.
- Let everyone know when advertising meetings and events that children are welcome. Ask parents to look after their own children and where possible include children in the activities that are taking place. If it’s appropriate, children should be welcome to sit with adults in the meetings. Older children should be able to listen and join in.
- Alternatively set up alternative activities for children. If it is feasible then ask for volunteers to help care for children and rotate this duty. Men should be welcome and included in child care activities. We have a duty of care to children. Ensure their safety comes first.
- Often moms and dads feel more comfortable if they can see their children. Moving in and out of a conversation as child management requires should be encouraged but we should avoid a culture where parents sit outside the circle or at the back.
- Often children come in and out of meetings and events and parents may need to take a few minutes out to settle children or redirect their attention. Others may be more comfortable reading or working close to their parents.
- Fidgeting and moving about is normal behaviour for a child and we only need to intervene if we can’t work together to do what we need to do. Within reason expect a fair amount of noise and distraction as inevitable. Expecting absolute silence can mean the space is not inclusive for parents and they stop coming.
Setting up a ward platform, contesting local elections and sup- porting community/ward projects all take money. Anybody who is in charge of managing money and resources or has access to sources of finance has some power. This can be a problem when there are a lot of resources and also when there isn’t enough to go around. But managing money and resources doesn’t have to cause problems when it is done with consent and trust and where there is transparency.
Everybody who can should contribute
It may be easier to try and secure large donations from very wealthy people to fund a collective but this has its problems too. While it is helpful to have proper resources to work with, large donations often impose an administrative burden that is hard to manage as volunteers. At worst, large donations come with strings and hidden expectations attached and they are rarely sustainable over the longer term.
When we all give a little bit we can raise significant funding and we as a result all care more because we own what we spend it on.. Collective contributions help to generate collective ownership.
- Small donations add up. At the end of the month, everybody is paying bills and saving for the days ahead and it’s often hard to find money left over. But throughout the week we often have small change in our purses and pockets.
- Make it easy and visible. Use a tin can. Put it in the middle of the circle or pass it around during the meeting. Have a box at the entrance of the meeting – don’t be shy to ask people to contribute. If you do it regularly people will remember to make sure they have cash on them. Set up digital ways to con- tribute for people who have access to Snapscan or can EFT on their phone.
- Keep it regular. Make donating a regular parting of meeting and events –every time. Whenever we meet, whenever we plan an action, collect what you can. Every little bit helps. Ask people to set up regular weekly or monthly donations when they get paid.
- Acknowledge other resources. Not everybody can give money. Get into a habit of thanking the donations in kind or time that others contributed. The people that helped to set up the space. The people who helped print flyers. It’s nice to be acknowledged and it encourages others to join in next time.
- It’s not always necessary to collect money centrally. This of- ten requires an administrative burden and creates problems where different expenses need to be prioritised.
- Sometimes it’s better to match people or projects with specific resource needs to people who are able to support them.
- If you build a culture where you put out a call for donations for specific causes then people who wish to give are able to choose what they give to and know what their money was spent on.
Take it online
There are allies in our community/ward, in our city and across the world who are inspired by the politics we are building and want to support. For many, many people the best way to sup- port is to take a principled stand to donate a small amount to a community/ward platform. Make it easy for people to donate but setting up online mechanisms so that anybody in the world can contribute. This takes work to promote and maintain but you will be surprised at how generous people are.
Every community/ward has people who are good at hosting and managing fundraising events. Fundraising is a good way to bring people together around a common cause. Keep it fun.
Record keeping and transparency
Normally few people want to be responsible for managing money because of the responsibility. If decisions about how to use resources are made collectively then it is easier to find volunteers who are willing to give time to keep records.
- Avoid a culture of secrecy and auditing of records – rather build a culture of simple, public and transparent record keeping. Nobody should have to ask about resources, it should be publicly available. This builds trust and helps to ensure resource management is purely an administrative question and not one of power.
- Count the money. Everybody appreciates knowing how much was collected. Always count the money before people depart and announce the total that will be recorded. Share totals in newsletters online and on noticeboards. Say what you se- cured and what you spent money on. It keeps things transparent and inclusive and builds morale.
- Keep record keeping simple so that everybody can do it. A book or file with income generated and expenses recorded.
- Many eyes. The easiest way to avoid theft and fraud of collective resources is to ensure there are many eyes on the books. Consider simple checks and balances.
- Declare every donation. Everybody who donated money to the cause should have their name recorded.
Make it public
It’s easier to be transparent around money and to ensure resources go to where they are needed when we build a culture of making it public. Information is a powerful tool and public information helps to make sure everybody has the same access to information so that people can find out what they need to know without going through gatekeepers.
- Build a culture of maintaining both public and digital notice boards of everything that is happening, what resources are required and what has been collected and spent or used. When resources or money is collected make it immediately public. Count money in meetings. Share donations in Whatsapp groups straight away.
Contributing in kind
The most valuable contribution you can make is your time and energy. Getting involved and volunteering to take on responsibilities, lead initiatives or join in is the only way to build and sustain a collective. Everybody has different skills and experience and there is space for everybody to get involved.
- Don’t wait to be invited by others to start initiatives. Make a start and invite others in. Everybody appreciates people who act more than people who talk.
- When initiatives are going to need resources, or will involve many people, then look to build a group of people who can work on it together. Share ideas and offer input in whatever forum or assembly is the most appropriate.
- If you don’t have time then donate resources. See what initiatives are happening and what specific resources may be needed. The most valuable resources are meeting spaces; furniture for community/ward projects like tables and chairs and cupboards
- Don’t hide your skills. Advertise them.
Working with Food
People in our communities are hungry. Too often there isn’t enough food at home and when there is it isn’t very nutritious. We can’t talk politics or do work in our community/ward when we are hungry. And yet, we often treat food as secondary when we organise for change.
Food is a basic right and at the heart of how we build and sustain relationships in our families and communities. When we welcome good news, when we open up our homes, when we celebrate achievements, or pay our respects we do it around a shared meal. We can nourish ourselves as we nourish those around us when we recognise that making and sharing food is a political act.
We can place food at the heart of how we build relationships of solidarity and trust across the community/ward. Food can be a powerful mechanism to bring communities together across divides and promote a healthier, more nourishing diet and a more sustainable relationship with animals and the environment.
- Ensure making food is part of the programme and not a side activity. Too often the main programme goes ahead while some people are cooking behind the scenes. If we are to eat together then we should try to cook together too.
- Encourage everyone to bring and share food from home at meetings and events. For smaller meetings, events and actions we don’t always have to cater if everybody brings what they have left over at home. There is always enough to go around.
- Crowdsource ingredients for meals. Share a list beforehand of what you need. Most people, even on low incomes, can contribute some onions or a bag of rice.
- We don’t need to shop every time. Rice, potatoes, and other basics can be donated and kept for the future. Many supporters want to know how to contribute. Donating food is an excellent way to get involved.
- Partner up with local gardens and farms. Encourage everyone to grow food to contribute.
- Share the burden. Too often women end up cooking and cleaning. Everybody can contribute, even if it means peeling or scraping dishes.
- Reuse. It’s not sustainable and too expensive to buy take away containers and cutlery. Have a stock of old plates and cups that can be washed and reused or ask everybody to bring their own utensils and plates and take them home to wash. We have many different food cultures in Cape Town. Food can bring different people together, but it can also divide. Welcome and promote different food cultures and help every- one across race and class divides to better understand why people eat particular foods and create opportunities to learn how they are made.
- We can encourage everyone to try new, more sustainable and nourishing food cultures that include more vegetables and less meat. Vegetarian food is often the cheapest and most widely eaten food that everybody can share across religions. It helps to talk about this and foster a culture of appreciation for vegetarian food as the most inclusive. If there is meat, make sure that it is from a halaal or kosher source where appropriate.
- Incubate food co-operatives to manage production and even cater for mass events while training young organisers in these skills in our community/ward.
Meetings are inevitable when we organise collectively. But if we set up healthy inclusive and effective meeting cultures we can ensure that everyone is involved and comes back the next time.
Setting up a meeting space
- Too often we arrange a meeting space in rows with a table at the front for speakers. This immediately sets up power relations between different people in a meeting depending on where they sit. It creates a dynamic where there are speakers and listeners rather than contributors.
- Circles are the most open and democratic form of meeting. Here, even though there may be facilitators and invited speakers, everybody sits as an equal and is able to listen and contribute. Circles also help everybody to see everybody else and better read their emotions and body language. It keeps everybody in the conversation. If the group is large it’s better to have a few different circles or to put chairs into rows around the first circle.
- Most meetings will need spaces to break away into smaller groups for discussions. Think where these will be and help to indicate them beforehand with posters or signs.
Roles for meetings
- One facilitator cannot manage a large group without support and cannot see all the dynamics. It helps to have defined roles in any meeting and spread the responsibility for making sure a meeting is a success.
- Vibe checker – Someone who is responsible for taking the emotional temperature in a meeting. Noting who is engaging and who is shrinking back. Keeping an eye on body language. This person can bring issues to the attention of the whole group; suggest breaks or other interventions; help particular people who need support; or resolve conflicts or disagreements outside the main plenary.
- Time keeper – an effective meeting starts and ends on time. When meetings end on time people are more likely to come another time. A dedicated time keeper can help and it’s an easy job to do.
- Stacker – in large groups or plenary sessions there can be more than one person who wants to speak. A stacker can take names and hold them “on stack” ready for the facilitator to invite them to speak. It’s helpful if the stacker collects and calls out people’s actual names rather than pointing or saying “the lady at the back”. That way everybody gets to know who the speaker is.
- Scribe – a scribe is a public writer who helps to make sense of the conversation as it happens. Scribing is useful for jotting down ideas, keeping track of discussion points, or writing up instructions. Many people get lost in a conversation or have to take a short break. The scribe can help provide a visual reference that people can use and can help to give a conversation a logic for visual thinkers
- Co-facilitators – it’s always helpful to have co-facilitators. You can share the burden and take turns or split up and manage different aspects of a meeting.
- Minute takers – sometimes formal minutes need to be kept and circulated.
- Welcomers – Someone to welcome new people and help orientate them, hand out materials or update them quickly on the purpose of the meeting. If that person knows other people it’s useful to make introductions, especially in smaller groups. Sometimes people have time to help and the welcomer can have a list of tasks. Immediately helping to put out chairs or chop onions is a sure way to make someone feel included and welcome.
Warming up a meeting
- In many public meetings we don’t know each other. It’s too easy to attend a public meeting without ever having to actually engage with other people on a personal basis or build relationships. We will struggle to understand different points of view if we don’t know each other or have a sense for who is in the room.
- At the same time many people feel uncomfortable with activities that force them to go beyond their personal boundaries with people they don’t know. It is healthy to reach out across races, genders and languages if done carefully.
- Too often new people join in meetings and they are not acknowledged or welcomed. Try to have a formal welcoming culture or ceremony that brings new people into the space and sets the tone.
- Many meetings take place in situations of crisis or bring together people who are stressed or tired. It can help to acknowledge this through a practice or ceremony. Introductions, moments of silence, prayer or reflection, stretches, or inviting intentions into the room are all useful ways to start a meeting together.
- Singing together is the most important way South Africans come together. In a public meeting with different races, classes and languages, not everybody will know the same songs. It helps to teach everybody the song first before singing it and have a choir or good singers lead the way. Different languages and traditions should be encouraged.
- There are any number of ice breaker activities that can be used effectively. Bearing in mind you may be bringing together people from different cultures and ages, try to choose activities that allow people to interact and have fun but retains their sense of dignity and doesn’t force them to do something beyond what they are comfortable with.
Thinking about agendas
- Agenda are useful roadmaps for a meeting. It helps people understand where we are in the discussion and set their expectations.
- Keep it tight. It is tempting to try to put everything that needs to be discussed on the agenda. But this means a meeting loses focus and can drag on. It’s better to have a smaller group sort through items and decide what is most urgent.
- Announcements. Meetings are time for discussion, deliberation, action and decision making. Often too much time is taken up with admin and announcements. This should be reserved till the end when people are tired rather than the beginning. Often announcements are better communicated in writing on noticeboards, on pamphlets, in whatsapp groups or via email.
- Closed agenda. It can be helpful to crowdsource an agenda before the meeting so that the agenda is democratic and clearly communicated.
- Open agenda. Some meetings require an open or blank agenda. If the group is small enough you can solicit items in plenary. If the meeting is too big you can ask people to write possible items on sheets of paper. Sort similar ideas and ask people to vote for the most urgent item.
Using Hand Signals
- Hand signals are essentially for keeping a group working well together without the need for interruption.
- Get to the point – It’s a big job for a facilitator to keep everybody on track and on point. It helps if the group takes the responsibility with humour and goodwill – bring your fingers together in a point if you want the speaker to “get to the point”.
- I’m confused / please explain – Often people assume other people know what they are talking about or they use language or acronyms that other people don’t understand. It helps if this is pointed out straight away so everyone keeps on track – in large groups lift your arms up with palms upturned to ask the speaker to explain themselves.
- We can’t hear – you can’t engage if you can’t hear – raise your hand cupped up and down above your ear to let the speaker know to speak louder.
- I support that – clapping is useful in crowds but can down out speakers in meetings. It’s helpful to know if an idea or comment has broad support – maybe wiggle your fingers.
- Be prepared. Anybody can chair a meeting with an agenda but only the most experienced community/ward organisers can facilitate without preparing. Every different meeting may require a different approach depending on what it is about and what needs to be decided and who will be in the meeting. Good facilitating requires preparation and resources. It’s better to have a team to think through how to make the meeting a success.
- Don’t jump into an activity without being clear what we all need to achieve together. If this has already been decided then it helps to restate it for everybody in the room. If it has not been established then it helps to spend some time work- ing this out.
- Too often a large part of a meeting is dedicated to giving and explaining instructions for tasks and activities. Write these down on large sheets of paper or on handouts. It’s easier to explain instructions in small groups than in a plenary. Circulate and make sure everybody understands what to do before it’s too late.
- Keep it simple. Not everybody thinks at the same pace. It’s better to do less in an assembly and do it well. The larger the group the simpler the activity.
- Sometimes it’s not possible to reach an objective for a meeting. Maybe we don’t know enough to decide; or not everybody is at the same stage of understanding. Maybe the issues are more complicated and require more discussion. It’s better to come together again or delegate to a group than try to rush to conclusion if we are not ready
- Maybe the activity is not working. Don’t be afraid to be flexible and adapt if something is not working. Maybe we need to stop and translate.
- Model. Many people don’t understand or are not confident enough to take part in an activity if they haven’t done it be- fore, they haven’t totally understood what needs to be done, or they don’t know what is expected of them at the end. It always helps to model and activity. If you want everybody to share a personal experience then share your own first. If you want people to work in a pair then choose two people to demonstrate.
- It’s often necessary to share different points of view and experiences in a meeting. Try the “World Cafe” method (see here) or the “six hats” method (see here)
Discussions are at the heart of democratic deliberation. They help everyone to discuss the issues, share their experiences and find common ground.
Thinking about language
- Being able to speak in the language you are comfortable with is essential if we are going to open up politics to everyone.
- While few people speak English as a first language, it is often the most common language spoken when bringing together people who speak different languages. If you decide to hold a meeting or event in English then make sure that everyone knows they can still speak in their own language. Ask what language people will be speaking in during any group agreements and ensure there is someone who is able to translate where necessary.
- At the same time, if only one person doesn’t speak the majority language, then it is not necessary to conduct the discus- sion in English. Hold the discussion in the language that the majority speak. You can support anybody who doesn’t speak that language by having someone who can translate sit next to them or periodically summarising the conversation.
- When translating, try not to translate every line, this breaks people’s thoughts. Don’t translate at the end of a contribution, this often leads to a very basic translation without nuance or detail. Get used to speaking and translating in conceptual blocks.
Introducing new information
- Meetings are called to discuss a response to an issue. But often not everyone starts on the same page understanding what has happened or knowing how to understand the problem. It helps to find ways to bring everyone up to speak if everyone is going to participate.
- We often revert to certain forms of knowledge when bringing people up to speed such as written documents. There is an important place for reading before discussions, and it can be useful to read original texts or aspects of law or policy. If the discussion requires reading then make time to read together. Make sure everybody has a copy so that they can read along. But this should not always be the most dominant form of in- formation sharing.
- We often invite speakers to introduce a topic. Try to be careful about setting up people as experts when most people will have an experience of an issue that is equally as important. A short snappy talk can do the trick every now and then but should not become the dominant form. Panels are only useful when speakers are talking about the same issue and have different viewpoints. Do not have more than three. Panels are best if speakers sit in the circle rather than up at a table.
- Oral history and experience, storytelling and witnessing, visual and physical expression are all equally valid ways to stimulate a discussion. A well-rehearsed skit is very inclusive and can help open up a discussion. Everybody loves stories. Sharing a story or experience is a good way to start a meeting.
- It can be very effective to use props such as a photo, a news article or a song to help stimulate a discussion.
Working in pairs
- Many people know what they want to say but don’t feel confident they will be able to express it well. Talking in pairs is very good as it helps people practice and arrange their thoughts. Pairs help everybody to share a reflection that needs to be spoken out loud.
- We don’t always need to hear as a whole group from all the pairs. Just speaking is enough to bring people into the conversation.
- A facilitator can walk around and listen in to gather the gist; or you can choose to popcorn (jump around from participant to participant, selecting a few to share) in order to give a sense of what the other conversations are like.
Working in groups
- Breaking into groups can be useful to ensure that everyone is able to contribute. It’s important to think carefully how you want to group people. If you want people to talk with those that may have a different perspective then group everyone randomly. If you want people with similar experiences or interests to sit together then group by theme. Self-selection is useful to test which ideas have the most traction. Feel free to subdivide a group working on a similar theme if it’s too big.
- Giving people numbers often leads to confusion as people forget or they change their number to sit with a friend. Rather hand out numbers on a piece of paper.
- The most common form of group work is where people are asked to discuss a question and then report back on their discussion. It is useful but can also lead to repetition where groups come up with similar ideas – the audience then hears the same idea multiple times. If you follow this format then get into a habit of affirming ideas rather than repeating them. Make it clear who will report back and how before the group gets under way. It can also be useful to write up a summary and display these, giving other groups the opportunity to circulate and read them.
- Often we expect people to answer a question in a group but it’s also possible to work on definitions, resolutions or affirmations, decide actions, make proposals or agree on commitments. Groups are useful for telling stories and sharing experiences. Make sure the facilitator models what everybody is expected to do. Groups are useful for sorting and sequencing information that need simplifying.
- If talking about a difficult issue, it can be helpful to do a problem tree. On the roots write the causes of the problem. On the trunk write how the problem manifests. On the branches write the symptoms of the problem.
There are different ways to report back from a group discussion or activity
- Summarising the main discussion points is common practice but can often be repetitive and drawn out. It’s not always necessary to listen to every group.
- An alternative would see each group elect a speaker who then sits in a circle with everybody else observing. These speakers then have a summary conversation sharing insights from their group. Conversations that demonstrate convergence and divergence are easier to follow and help to make meaning than repetitive summaries. This is called a “fish bowl”.
- Drawing diagrams, situations or stories can help to represent ideas visually and are fun to look at. Making up a role play is fun and entertaining in some situations. It forces people to think of everyday ways to explain complex ideas and is memorable.
- Rather than summarising bullet points in order of what was said it may be helpful to pre-digest a conversation for others and group what was said in useful ways. You can summarise points that everybody agreed on and point that there was disagreement around; you can split ideas into categories (like values and actions items); or you can rank ideas in terms of urgency or importance.
- If each group rights their main discussion points on separate pieces of paper these can then be put up on a wall. Similar points from different groups can be clustered as they come up and help to make sense of the overall shape of the conversation. This is called “cloud sourcing”.
Keeping discussions inclusive
- Meetings feel open and inclusive when a culture is established that helps everyone contribute and be heard while avoiding attacking or excluding anybody. Differences of opinions and tensions are normal in groups and managing them is a normal part of any meeting.
- Group agreements help to set the objectives, principles and behaviour that make our values clear when it comes to work- ing together. It helps to have some basic agreements and add to them. If we all agree to abide by the rules it makes facilitating and helping each other a lot easier.
- Meetings require discipline. It’s not fair to others if you can’t stick with the group agreement. We’ve all come together to achieve something together. Anything that distracts us or takes us off course isn’t helping us. Let’s gently remind each other and keep the meeting on track.
- Sometimes it’s clear a particular person or group is managing to assert themselves very strongly. Don’t silence people, but encourage those who may not have spoken yet to join in the conversation. This could be for many reasons. They may be nervous, not feel what they have to say is important, or feel uncomfortable saying what they think publicly for fear of of- fending or saying what they feel is the wrong thing. It helps to invite people into the conversation proactively or change the activity up so that others can get involved.
- Polite interruption is okay. It is the facilitators job to make the meeting easy for everyone. This may involve interrupting people who are breaking the group agreement or encouraging people who need some help expressing themselves.
- It’s useful to invite people to play an active role in asserting themselves by saying: “If you are a person who likes to speak or is often listened to on this topic then try to take a step back. If you are someone who doesn’t often speak then try to step up.”
- Pay attention to your and others body language. Make eye contact with everyone you are talking to. It helps to keep them engaged and follow what you are saying.
- Try not to repeat what other people have said already. It’s enough to say that you agree, don’t try to say what they said in your own way. Men especially have a habit of repeating what other people say rather than just acknowledging what has been said or saying nothing at all.
- Make what you have to say personal – use “I” language wherever possible. It makes what you have to say easier to listen to and relate to. Try not to say “Sewerage is a problem”, but say “I’m upset because of the sewerage running in my street.”
- Try not to say, “You are being offensive!” but say “I’m feeling upset at the moment because…”
- Don’t wait for others to deal with a situation that is disruptive, uncomfortable or inappropriate. Everybody can help demonstrate the culture we expect.
Making Sense of Discussions
Making sense of a discussion can be hard, especially where many different views have been shared. In any meeting plenary or group discussion we need to be able to sort and synthesise meaning out of all of the contribution. It’s useful to make sense of discussions before moving to any decision making. How to do that?
It’s helpful to think about contribution in terms of three dynamics:
- Weight – sometimes a contribution is based on deep experience or describes something completely. These contributions are recognised as meaningful and worthwhile and should be included in any synthesis.
- Frequency or echos – sometimes the same experience or idea comes up again and again in different ways. This frequency is a good indicator and should be clearly summarised and included in any synthesis.
- Volume – sometimes a contribution gets an immediate response from the whole group because it’s funny, shared widely, or provocative. Volume helps indicate an idea that should be included in the synthesis. Look out for hand signals, body language and spoken queues that show agreement.
Synthesising is bringing together the most salient points that resonate with everyone. There are two types of synthesis and it helps to know what you are looking for:
- Baking a cake – we take all the contributions and we add them together and we come up with something new together. If we are planning an event we summarise and synthesise the different ideas and try and make them work together.
- Composing music – music is made up of many different components that work in harmony together. Synthesis helps to better understand their relationship with each other. If we are discussing housing, it helps to understand its relationship with health, gender relations and access to work. A synthesis helps us understand collectively the experience of poverty and inequality.
- It helps to have dedicated people in charge of listening for and consolidating areas of synthesis to report back and help everybody understand where our common values, experience and work ahead lies. Let them report back periodically or at the end. Be sure to indicate if what they say resonates with you.
- Always try to arrive at a synthesis when everybody is together as it helps to inform decisions and actions. Sometimes it takes someone to look over the minutes and think deeply about the different comments and it can be suitable to send out a summary after the meeting.
There are different ways to make decisions in groups
- Encourage Deliberation – it is not easy to come to a collective decision when we all have different experiences and needs and we come from different backgrounds. But if we are to stand together then our collective work requires us to be deliberative and hear each other. Be firm in articulating your thoughts but be open to listening to others and being convinced. If we all leave with the same position we walked in with, then we can’t do our work together. Compromise is a valuable quality.
- Make Elevator Pitches – in any deliberative process it can be helpful to practice making elevator pitches. These are short timed sessions with lots of energy where participants are asked to take a firm position and sell it to everyone. This can help to clarify different positions and convince people to change their mind. It is very good practice in politics and helps to train speakers able to speak to other audiences.
- Find Consensus – we should always strive for consensus. Consensus does not mean everybody agrees. It means that nobody firmly disagrees. Silence is not consensus so don’t assume it. Test if there is consensus.
- Resolving differences – there may be broad consensus by a majority but full consensus is being held up by a small group or a few people with a strong position. This might be because they fundamentally disagree with the majority position; they want to amend it or tweak it; or they have a question of values or principles that needs to be addressed. Sometimes it’s worth taking a break and meeting in a smaller group to iron out our differences. Often it is a question of miscommunication or interpretation. If there are compromises made, then report this to the wider group and seek consensus.
- Voting – it is sometimes necessary to vote if consensus cannot be achieved. We should always aim to have an over- whelming majority for a proposal in any vote. If the vote is evenly split then the proposal can be passed by a simple majority but it is likely to not carry much weight and indicates that more work needs to be done to close the gap. If there is more than one option it can help to have rounds of voting to eliminate some. The option with the most votes is not necessarily the solution. Sometimes it may be better to allow people to rank options in terms of whether they strongly agree or disagree and tally up the ranks. In this way you might find a compromise solution that most people agree with or at least don’t strongly disagree, rather than a solution that only a slim majority agree with. Here are some practical ways to vote:
- Show of hands
- Division into groups
- Secret ballot
- Ticking ideas on a wall
- Digital polls on apps and social media.
- Using your body – It’s always helpful to show consensus or voting by moving around physically. Raising hands only works when the question is clear, everybody takes part and they are clear on their response. Often people are unsure of the question or change their mind raising or lowering their hand. It helps to vote with your body by moving to a position. It’s then clear who is in the middle.