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A syndicated eco-advice column
Written by Patricia Dines

"Encouraging the eco-hero in everyone!"

"Making it easy to be green!"

This Month's Column:
Encouraging Sane Group Dynamics

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Encouraging Sane Group Dynamics

By Patricia Dines
Published in the Sonoma County Gazette
October 2011
(c) Patricia Dines, 2011. All rights reserved.

Dear EcoGirl: I want to work with other folks on eco-issues, but community groups can be so fraught with difficult personal dynamics. Does it just have to be that way? Or how can we create more enjoyable and productive experiences? Signed, Agitated

Dear Agitated: Thanks for your great question. I too have wrestled with this issue, and certainly don't have all the answers. However, I think I can add some useful thoughts to the conversation, based on my various experiences and lessons learned over the years.

The Underlying Opportunity & Challenge

First, I very much understand the urge to just avoid group difficulties and conflicts, and sometimes that's the right choice for an individual.

However, I think it's also important that we overall seek to find and nurture functional community groups. That's because they're uniquely positioned to play a key role in steering us away from today's looming catastrophes, by offering us a way to multiply our power, develop fresh ideas, prioritize community benefits, and have fewer constraints.

But this freedom does bring its challenges. That's understandable given that these groups are taking on vast objectives while being powered by volunteers with diverse personalities, motivations, and approaches to conflict. Groups also feel pressure to quickly get results and meet individuals' needs so that people stick around. This can all predictably lead to impatience and conflict.

Thus, I think it's vital that, as we participate on the wild and creative front lines of change, we seek to not only generate new realities in our topic areas, but also to find healthier ways of working together, integrating diverse styles, and constructively resolving conflict.

Key Solutions

So how do we do this? Here are a few suggested ways for people in groups to avoid and address negative dynamics:

1) Empathize with individuals' different responses to these challenges. For instance, people might try to brush issues under the rug, even as they keep flaring up; seek to solve them according to their own style, even as it differs from another's style; retreat and blame others for that; or feel defeated and discouraged. These are reasonable responses, though with varying usefulness.

2) Explore how the group can create positive structures to channel people's energies and constructively address and avoid conflict. It's best if a leader doesn't unilaterally impose their personal style, even covertly, as this causes resistance. However, they can propose operating principles that encourage positive group dynamics, and invite discussion about them. This helps de-personalize differences and keep the focus on developing an effective shared approach. A leader can also create a safe space for negotiating different needs and styles, and welcome people's different skills to the group's process.

3) Encourage core group members to know each other personally. This can be as simple as going around the room and asking each person to describe their work in the world, connection to this topic, and personal goals with this experience. This helps people see and value each other's unique gifts and style.

4) Create a clear and inspiring group goal statement. This helps everyone orient themselves to a shared vision as common ground.

5) Honor people's needs for both feelings/process and action/results. People can often see these desires as conflicting, but a successful group actually requires both. Leaders also tend to prefer one of these styles, leaving the other unaddressed. Thus there needs to be acceptable ways for others to contribute and tend to the missing aspects.

6) Agree to approach breakdowns as an opportunity for team building. Once people can accept conflict as understandable and not blame individuals, they can empathetically get to know each person's style and needs, and together shape the group's working style.

Team building does take some time but ultimately saves time, and pays dividends in happier and more successful group dynamics. It can be done in time-efficient ways -- and needs to be, to keep the group feeling productive. However, this approach is saner than just letting conflict tear a group apart.

So those are my thoughts; I hope they're useful. I encourage you to explore the books and articles on this topic. I'm also grateful to the people who've helped my understanding of this. May we all continue to grow together!

• • •

Ask EcoGirl is written by Patricia Dines, Author of The Organic Guides, and Editor and Lead Writer for The Next STEP newsletter. Email your questions about going green to <EcoGirl [at] AskEcoGirl.info> for possible inclusion in future columns. View past columns at <www.AskEcoGirl.info>.

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"EcoGirl: Encouraging the eco-hero in everyone."

© Copyright Patricia Dines, 2011. All rights reserved.


Dear EcoGirl readers: I very much invite you to share your constructive thoughts and experiences on this topic! Just email me at EG <at> AskEcoGirl.info. I think we're all finding our way with this, and different people have different parts of the puzzle. So, what here resonates with your experience? What win-win approaches have you found that successfully address negative group dynamics? Do you have any favorite resources that explore the issues discussed here? I'll post your replies here. Thanks for your participation!


1) Identify external rules that help shape the group's core definition. For instance, if it's a chapter of a national organization or has an urgent money obligation coming due, this will give key structure to the group's activities.

2) Overtly agree to some shared meta-principles about how group members will relate to each other. People might think that their operating principles are "right" and should be obvious to anyone, thus putting others down for not following them. However, people's operating principles vary more than people realize, so discussing them overtly is vital. Otherwise, what one person considers helpful and appropriate behavior, another can view as negative and harmful, causing unecessary conflict. Having neutral principles that everyone seeks to follow helps de-personalize differences and develop a shared constructive approach.

3) Create a safe space to talk openly and constructively about content, process, feelings, and needs. All are important! Otherwise, these hidden needs can cause havoc in the group dynamics. Listen accurately and seek to understand. Notice what others are doing well and compliment them publicly. Encourage everyone to avoid personal attacks. Don't make assumptions about others then attack them for that. Appreciate when people step up to help, versus just invalidating how they do it. Don't scapegoat one person for the issues of the group.

4) Value diverse views and styles, recognizing that they bring in different parts to the puzzle and thus strengthen the organization. When people covertly expect conformity to their personal style, and punish people who fail to fall in line, they're missing the gift that different styles can bring to a group and collapsing its shared creativity and fun. When different gifts are valued, and people seek to present their offerings skillfully, a stronger organization results.

5) Encourage each person to make constructive positive requests for what they need, and respectfully and receptively hear those of others. It's often best to bring up difficult issues in private, kindly and with humility. If you choose not to bring up your issues, don't expect others to read your mind and attack them for failing to do so.

6) Listen accurately to what others actually say, to minimize projection. Ask questions if you're not clear. Assume that people probably mean well but might express things differently than you would. (However, also protect yourself by realizing that some people might be running hidden negative agendas that can later cause harm. That's why having overt shared values is so important!)

7) Share the priority of seeking win/win solutions that work for all people involved, instead of looking for who to attack and blame. Look to see the unique gift of each person, and support them in giving it. Support and collaborate from humility and service to the shared goals, rather than from judging and attacking individuals.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to our shared goals of creating fun and effective group experiences!

Action Groups: The First Meeting


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I hope that you find this information useful. I welcome your throughts and feedback!

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For more information on this and related eco-topics, see my other Ask EcoGirl columns.

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