The label “plenary vortex” occurred to me the other day. It describes something quite destructive that seems to happen a lot in meetings of much size.
Once you get more than around five people in a meeting trying to work together, it easily slides into a discussion that appears animated and productive, but where the quality of engagement really suffers. In large part, it’s because with too many people, everyone’s natural wish to speak means there is a scarcity of time. So you get more interruptions and a general spirit of competition for airtime. Even if things are polite on the surface, a sense of conflict becomes almost inevitable. People talk faster because they fear being cut off, and people stop listening carefully as they try to crowbar their way in. Some people are more effective at getting heard, and others clam up.
When people don’t speak much, not only do we miss what they have to say, but they also miss the chance to think differently by speaking. We often don’t realise that speaking is not only about explaining things to others, it’s actually an important form of thinking. So unwieldly plenaries can be incredibly wasteful.
So there’s much to be said for breaking into smaller groups.
It is possible to have great plenary sessions but I increasingly think we need to do so quite carefully, with more sensitivity to the pitfalls of the vortex. That means including more reflective processes and a different sense of the kinds of conversation we can hold. What easily happens is that in plenary, people deal with the stress by having a conversation with one or two of the participants across the room. This creates a dynamic where a small number of people have a conversation, while everyone else just gets to watch and not feel included. It can be changed by focussing on speaking to the whole group, and encouraging a less linear way of listening to the ideas being shared – where we consciously listen for variety and not try too hurriedly link to whatever was last said that we feel strongly about.