Chris Corrigan has a thought-provoking post on power games in supposedly participatory processes. I guess this is the nub but the whole thing is worth reading.
Those of us who are facilitators of participatory process often make grand claims about the power of processes like Open Space Technology and World Cafe to even out power differences. In a circle everyone is said to be equal and leadership can come from every chair. While participatory process does provide a useful methodology for decolonizing how we meet, it has several risks associated with it. For one thing, if we fail to take into consideration the context in which we are working, power can show up in participatory process in a dangerously invisible way.
I am fascinated by the often unconscious ways we play status or power games when we assemble in groups. I totally agree with Chris that to get over zealous about any particular process is effectively a powerplay. Like him, I like Open Space but like any process there are loads of ways in which its intention of equality of participation can be subverted.
In Saskatoon last week, one of our participants in the Art of Hosting was carrying the question “how do we collaborate with dictators?” as a way of trying to discern the limits of participation. In several conversations over these last two weeks I have come to ask that question of myself, and reframing it as “how do I collaborate with myself when I am being a dictator?”. With that inquiry active, we may find that dictatorship behaviors are present everywhere, and we may also allow ourselves and others the grace to be imperfect in our lives and behaviors. This doesn’t excuse violence or oppression, but rather it gives us serious skin in the game in trying to address oppressive systems.
I think that’s a good enquiry; it takes us away from coming up simplistic “solutions” and invites us to try to feel our connection to what’s going on. There’s a visceral quality to that which can’t easily be put in words.