We’ve had a series of severe storms in Johannesburg this month. Parts of South Africa, including where I live, have been experiencing a prolonged drought with water shortages. The rain has come as a source of much relief. But not without a cost. The initial storms were destructive, washing away many homes, mostly in informal settlements. For a few days in a row, loud thunder with lightening would descend over the darkening city, followed by a quick but intense downpour. Over the days that followed, the rain became gentler. It was as if some pent up energy of precipitation needed to be released, and dramatically so, to allow the ‘good rains’ to follow.
The rains were happening in parallel to a process we were facilitating with a large group of participants. The group came from two different organisations – different culturally and operationally from each other – who needed to merge to create a new regulatory body. The purpose of this first workshop interaction was to see what their worlds looked like to one another, using systems thinking principles and methods. When we started everyone in the room was feeling uncertain about the future, the effectiveness of this new organisation, their jobs and the new faces surrounding them.
As part of exposing these worlds as they currently are to each other, we conducted a number of interviews across the organisations before the workshop. Participants interacted with this feedback and also interviewed one another. The result of this deeper sensing process by the end of the first day felt like the first storms. Everyone wanted to share their pent up anger, pain, frustration, and blame, which happened openly with each other for the first time. But with this level of honesty, came the risk of hurting those who represent the frustration.
The conversations on the second day shifted surprisingly easily – to what to do together to create a different culture and way of working together, in an environment in which everyone in the room could feel part of. I’ve noticed the release that’s necessary for the ‘good rains’ to follow has been a running theme over recent months, whether it’s a process about addressing water shortages in Bangalore, or violence against women in South Africa. In highly volatile and uncertain systems, the inevitable dynamics of resource constraints, power, race and gender play out personally in a group.
The big question I sit with in facilitating these interactions, is how much room to give to the destructive storms before the good rain follows. Sometimes these processes get stuck in the storm, at huge cost to personal relationships.
What we’ve found to be helpful to move through these kinds of conversations is to spend time at the beginning of the process developing a contract or agreement about how we want to ‘be’ as a group. This might include how we own our own experiences, listen with curiosity rather than judgement, allow for varying perspectives and speak from the ‘I’ rather than the ‘you’. Some of this we’ve learnt from a very helpful method of contracting from Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching. The time it takes to make these agreements upfront can help to increase safety for the group and allow the ‘good rains’ to break sooner in the process.