Practitioner’s reflections (part 3)

The first plan and prepare session had its challenges. This was a meeting where our group felt the tensions of the unknown process ahead. The group found itself having to repeat and reword what they have discussed previously which created a growing sense of frustration, since some words used by the group had a meaning that was not shared by others outside the group, creating defensiveness in the communication.

In hindsight, it looked as if the language-game shared by the group was not understood by the project coordinators who were gravitating between groups to help with the discussions. But, as in all human communication, it was not that simple. That evening session was particular: a full day of work; a day filled with difficult circumstances, and; everyone’s life stories came into play. These factors were far more important for some participants who needed to feel heard and supported, informed the project’s discussion creating a growing sense of frustration from the lack of common understanding between us all. There was anger for some, silence and withdrawal from the discussion from others, and a sense of loss of control in the project. It felt like all of it was going to crumble. It didn’t. This is part of working in a participatory way with sensitive issues. 

With difficulty, I have learned to let it flow. As I watched this dynamic unfold, I have tried my normal approach to push for an outcome, to call everyone back to the centre of the topic, and synthesise the discussion. Soon enough, I realised this wasn’t working and I started panicking inside. I felt like I wasn’t performing my role successfully. This internal moment lasted for a few long minutes, after which I decided to:

  •  let go of control. I have made a conscious choice to listen;
  • hold the space for the participants who needed to feel heard (they were indirectly touching our theme, but it was still hard for some to let go of personalising our discussion);
  • mirror and voice their concerns using their own terms, trying to help in the translation between them and our three coordinators.

I perceived the three coordinators as wanting to keep the group away from personalisation, back to the purpose of this project with a future-facing mindset, and with a grounded approach to their next immediate task. It was the time for it but the group dynamic wasn’t helping. At that time, I didn’t know if the other two groups were facing similar challenges because we worked in separate rooms. So, my learning from this session was that even when there is pressure to keep going (be it due to time, funding, etc.), some work needs more time to be conducted effectively as it happened later on with the reorganisation of our working schedule. This new schedule was welcomed by us all and it allows for more immersion time in the task. The coordination team didn’t add more time to the project but condensed the shorter sessions into more interspersed full-day sessions. After this session, a number of young people chose to leave the project, and our group kept working without two valuable citizens (i.e. young people).