How to organise an empowering open meeting. Radical think tank training document July 2016

By Roger Hallam

We all agree that we want to create empowering situations where people want to take collective action to make a better world. This “how to” document takes the radical view which is supported by overwhelming evidence from many fields of psychological and social research, that people get empowered by doing it for themselves – not being told what to think and do. Or as a Spanish activist mate told me “people know it sucks” – the task is to create spaces where they can gain the collective identity and confidence to do something about it.

Concretely this means a massive change from the old progressive left/activist way of doing things – talks and speeches are out – small group discussion and practice exercises and role plays are in. My own research shows that people coming out of the participatory type meetings laid out below are 80% empowered while those coming out of the old 4 speakers and a short question and answer period come out with 20% empowerment. It’s that stark – so let’s get with the programme and do what works!

Okay so below is a basic routine for a participatory meeting. There are of course variations on the theme and once you have “got it” on what turns people on – them doing stuff not you – then you can play around with the details and adapt designs to particular circumstances.

Here then is a detailed description of a first open meeting for a campaign or on an issue.

Promotion

The meeting – call it a get together, meeting, gathering – whatever makes it sound not too old boring political. And use everyday language not lefty language. Say what people are doing in the third person not want you want people to do. “People are pissed off about X . There is a plan for 100s of us to get together on the 4th September to decide what we are going to do about the situation. It’s gonna be cool – tell your friends” – use street language – make it sound like a meet up of mates.

Before the meeting

Have 2-4 people (depending upon the numbers expected) to explicitly welcome people as they come into the room. There should be no time for people to start feeling nervous or unsure of themselves. The opening line should be “Hi I’m Jo, thanks so much for coming. You coming about this x issue right?… great (let them say why they’ve come). Great okay so this is the situation… sorry what’s your name… great..” Note: get them to speak about why they’ve come – their name – and affirm and feed back to them what they tell you “so you found this recent pay cut a real bummer”.

Then go through what will be happening a bit and lead them to a table or circle of chairs for 7-8 people. As people come through the door fill up the circle’s one after another. Introduce the other people in the circle – you are a host to the party! “So this is Jack – he’s from Hackney too – Jack this is Joe and Tracy.. “ – say something they have in common so they have something to start a conversation about. So they are straight into having a chat before the meeting. Again, no time for feeling awkward – the aim is they feel welcomed, appreciated, and valued – and hey, they are now talking with some cool people in a nice small group.

Next bring round the nibbles – so they want a drink – have some on hand? People love food. Not just because it is nice but because of the sub conscious message that this is a relaxing space. It gives something to do with their body so they are more relaxed. The body affects the mind – that’s how it works.

Run up to starting

Start the meeting a bit late but not too late, 15 minutes max. This gives more time for pre-meeting chatting and for late people to get into the room but not so late that it starts to piss people off. Everything so far then is telling people this is familiar, it’s nice, it’s relaxed. Remember most of these people may never have gone to a political meeting before. The Golden Rule is people cannot move too far out of the comfort zone in one go without wanting to go back into it – there is a sweetspot – challenging (I.e. exciting) but not too challenging. In the meeting all the non-verbal cues need to be reassuring – the welcome, the chatting – people like to meet other people – and the food.

Starting the meeting

Two people introduce the meeting – two voices holds the attention better. The two people need to reflect the audience – and be biased towards the less confident groups – I.e. they should be women and ideally a minority group. This sends a reassuring message to these groups that this set up is run by “people like me”. Again, this is empowering.

They first welcome people enthusiastically – they may say something self depreciating – “ Hi this is the first time I have organised a meeting like this so bear with me..” this is good again as it sends the message “these people are like me” – you want to avoid the “they are the experts and I am just here to learn from the great and good “ which subconsciously sends the message “you cannot act from your own initiative because you know fuck all”.

They introduce the theme of the meeting – not more than 2 minutes otherwise people start to get turned off and starting thinking the space is where they learn from the top guys rather than each other.

You also want to introduce the procedural values of the meeting in clear and accessible language. “Okay so we want everyone who has come this evening to be able to have their say – everyone is important and valued here and so everyone should have time to speak. So at the beginning of each time in the groups people will speak in turn around the circle to start off with. Remember this is about listening as well as speaking and working together as a group not just mouthing off. Its also about making sure people who often not get to speak get really heard so we will ask women rather than men to summarise the discussions in the groups…. “ and so on.

Keep this short – you can remind people about stuff more in the second input. Again put stuff in the 3rd person – “at this meeting this is happening because .. (say value in ordinary language)” not “I / We want you to do this because…” This then subconsciously informs people of the rules of play and 90% of the time people will accept this if they know it beforehand. It is so much more effective than trying to shut people up in the middle of their flow when they have not been told what the rules are.

So then you say:

“Okay so let’s have a bit of time to get to know each other. I know some of you have been chatting before the start of this meet up so what you can do is go round with each person speaking in turn – say who you are, why you came to the meeting and what you feel about the situation/issue X”

Note don’t tell them what to do – frame it as “what you can do .. is”. Also note the word feel – we want people to emote a bit – share feeling – this is the quickest way to overcome isolation and build connection “ Well to be honest I was pretty fucked off about this whole situation. I tried to put it out of my mind but really I was pretty angry about it all.” “Yeah you know I actually feel the same. You know you try to just get on with stuff but deep down I know it sucks”.

… Make sure the 3 questions are written up on a big board or sheet. Most people need to be told 3 times something new to take it in. Give people 15 minutes for chats in their group of seven people – once the go round is done they can chat if they have time. Organisers go round each group and checking everything is okay – bit of “social stroking” – … “Hi you all okay? Great.. That’s right just go round in turn and each person talks about the things to talk about are up on the board – who you are , why you’ve come and how you feel about all this stuff”.

All this then is doing two things – first people are relaxed – they are in nice small groups – they are getting to know each other – it is feeling safe. Second they start to own the issue. This process is two-fold. First the act of speaking on the issue makes me feel more in touch with how I really feel ( I may not have really voiced my feelings about it up to this point). Second you suddenly realise there are other people who feel the same. This gives rise to a great feeling – at last you are not alone and isolated but we are all together – part of a group. Maybe we can do stuff together on this issue…

Second input

Go around the groups and tell each group they have 1 minute to close up (this gives them some forewarning and so it is not such a big interruption when the minute is up). Then someone at the front calls everyone together. An option here is to ask for 2-3 testimontials – “would say 2 men and 2 women like to get up and come to the front and say what they have been talking about – just for 2 minutes nothing longwinded”. This means again people see “people like me” who I can relate to saying stuff I am thinking but which I have previously largely kept to myself. And people are not afraid of saying it.

Okay then you introduce the second break out group (note don’t use jargon – EVER!) – say “ okay we’re going to go back into our groups and talk about what we want.” Here you may have some proposals for a campaign – e.g. a rent cut – or wage increase – or a cut in pollution levels. You can have a number of proposals already to discuss or get the groups to think up new ones depending on the state of the campaign.

Again give people 15 -20 minutes to discuss.

In the second input you can give more information about the campaign and the issues – several people here can give input – Note you do this at this point in the meeting not at the beginning. Once people now feel they “own” the meeting and are comfortable in their groups they can hear information without thinking that the speakers own the meeting. So this is why you do this stuff here. The inputs though need to be short and a different person doing each one. Ideally a 5 minute input could be shared by 2-3 people – “okay so Tracey and Joe who are from around here are going to speak about X”…

Second break out group session

By this time the groups will be nicely functioning – people know each other – they are mates and everyone should be empowered to speak (people can be reminded of this before the break out and/or there can be another go round to start the break out group period). They can be asked to agree on 3 proposals. One woman from each group then feeds back to the main group the 3 proposals and briefly says why they are important. It is especially important all the feedback people here are women as this is the part of the meeting which is most technical/political and the social learning we all have socked in is that this is a man’s thing. Women doing it makes it clear this is for everyone especially the women present in the room – the message is “we are definitely (still) part of this”.

The ideas are written on the board and if similar or effectively the same proposals come forward, then they are grouped together. Then each person in the meeting comes forward and ticks three ideas they like. Note don’t ask people to do the three they like the best as this tends to create pressure and they spend too long thinking about it. This is a group thing – not one individual deciding for everyone. Note again the use of bodies being involved in the voting process – the act of your body ticking the sheet sending a unconscious message to the brain which goes “My body is doing this – therefore I believe in what I am ticking – and I own this process – I am participating in a democratic situation”. The bodily movement then reinforcing the feeling of being part of something and so a sense of empowerment comes through the shared ritual.

There will then be 2-3 proposals which come out on top. Read these out and have a clap and cheer for the winners. This creates some excitement – we are acting as a group and decided in a transparent democratic way what we think should happen. Note a key part of sustained empowerment is the creating a transition from individual feelings to group action. Feelings are great but without action any empowerment goes away within hours or a days after the meeting “that was great but nothing is changing – it was not real”. In many meetings then this is the stage at which a new stage of empowerment starts which is quite excilerating – “something is actually going to happen here – and I am part of it –wow!”

So lastly split people into groups with a list of stuff they can do. This can be done in a number of ways. Note: make sure there is enough time for this in the meeting.

If the meeting is part of an ongoing recruitment process then there can be a list of collective activities that people can sign up going from low commitment to higher commitment. Each person in the go round says what they want to do. Then everyone has a “commitment sheet” to take home with them on which they write what they are going to do and then sign it”. This is just for them – but they each person stands up in their group and say what they are going to do. This process is a standard way to ensure that after the meeting people are not overwhelmed by the “noise” of their busy lives and their commitment falls by the way side. There are two processes here. First again it is bodily thing – the body writing down what you will do informs the mind that this is real and has to happen – this is unconscious but can increase follow through to action by 30%. Second telling people who you now know and respect that you are going to meet with them next Thursday to do X puts your reputation on the line. Everyone has heard you verbally commit – it’s not just down in the minutes somewhere where you and they can easily forgot (“ah sorry mate I didn’t realise I was down to do that”.. routine). If you don’t turn up people are likely to think you are crap and we are all super sensitive to what others think of us – particularly those within our support network.

Alternatively if this is a new campaign or you want to provoke more initiative you can split into themed working groups for the last break out group, e.g. outreach, coordination, direct action, social media and press, design and art stuff etc. Each group again has a go round each person saying what they think could happen and any contacts/skills they have. Then there is a discussion on priorities for the group “okay so we are going to do X next Wednesday, and Y tomorrow” . Then you repeat process above – each person writing down what they are doing, they sign it and then read it out to the group.

A third variation on the theme is that the meeting is designed to raise participation in one or more actions. If the action is civil disobedience then it is useful to use conditional commitment – “ I will if X number of others do the same”. If there is a target for the action to go ahead on the commitment sheet you can have the following question:

I will do X if at least Y other people commit to doing it as well”. Yes/No.

Then people can put down their details. People can discuss it in the group and encourage each other to do it.

Alternatively (e.g. if there is no set target yet) people can be asked:

how much other people would have to do X for you to take part as well”

Circle one option below:

I would do it however many other people do it

I will do it if (please circle) 5 10 20 50 100 400 1000 5000 other people do it

I would not do it however many other people do it.

From this information you can get an idea of where the critical mass is and then go back to people with the critical mass target. E.g. if 30 people in the meeting say they will do it if 20 or more others do it then it is on for those 30 people. If 40 people say they will do if 50 or more people will do it then this could be set as the target.. “look 40 people will do it if 50 do it so let’s get out there in the next week and get the extra 10 people and then it’s on!”

Doing conditional commitments in meeting is still in its infancy so more feedback is needed to polish this up. However, the principle is that people are encouraged to act on the basis of other people acting and for many this is the key issue for direct action and other higher risk/commitment collective activities.

Note: the admin back up needed for this is CRUCIAL – a record of all the details of each person is needed here and then need they need to be contact within 24 hours of the meeting (see below)

Note: during this section 2-4 people go round with a bucket (make sure already some change and notes in there before you start) asking for donations “for organising the meeting and getting thing to move forward”. You can combine it with helping a political group “and 50% goes to XXX group”. Put the bucket in the middle of the circle so people can see each other putting in money. This encourages everyone to do it.

Note: this is also the time to get names, emails, and telephone numbers. This is best done on a laptop so people type in the correct letters. 20% of written emails are difficult to read! So if you use a clipboard sheet, layout it out so it says “IN BLOCK CAPITALS PLEASE” in the email box for each person. You can also have a section for what are you interested in “please circle .. admin, doing stalls, helping on the 25th july demo, doing direct action etc. “ This is vital information for the follow up and maximising the escalation process after the meeting. Remember we are building a movement here, not having a nice one-off get together.

Finally coming back together

Here it is great to have 3-4 final testimonials of 2-3 minutes again biased toward women and minority speakers. People go “ “Well to be honest I was pretty unsure about coming tonight but well it was really great – I’m really thinking we can go places with this.. I particularly like… e.t.c.)

After each person there is a clap and cheer e.t.c.

Then do practical summary of the state of play – next meeting – next action e.t.c.

And then a final testimonial from the 2 faciliatators – and heart felt thanks for coming along and final clap and cheers. (Traditionally somewhere in hear everyone sings a song – like in the American civil rights movement!)

Follow up after the meeting

It is totally vital people are followed up after the meeting – with a phone call, text and/or email, thanking them so much for coming, reminding them of what they have committed and reconfirming the details (eg place and date) of future activities – three things. Getting people to do this is a great job for new people – I.e. it is easy and does not involve any risk/big commitment. Also new people sound more approachable “ Hi Jane here – I am new to the group and I know it was the your first time to the meeting last night. Just wanted to says thanks so much for coming. I really appreciate your involvement and that there are more people getting involved as well as myself. I think you said you were going to do X. So we are meeting to sort this out next Wednesday… see you then…”

In small groups it can be good to have 2-3 people who have the formal role of regularly checking up on new people – so they have a personal contact in the group they can go to ask about stuff they are unsure of rather than just emailing “the group”. Personalisation is the key to the persistence of commitment and continued involvement. And immediately being given stuff to do and small responsibilities – people like to have something to do. Again the body/action informs the mind. The process is I act and therefore am committed not I am committed and then I act.

Also, in a meeting there is always distribution of enthusiasm. Usually the most enthusiastic people come up afterwards to speak to you. “Hi I’m Jack – I just wanted to say what a great meeting thanks for organising it. … “. These are your future key activists – pro-active (that come to you) and positive. So in the conversation you want to get them involved in a training process. Escalation is all about getting exponential growth. For example, you hold a meeting and get 3 people coming up afterwards, 2 of which agree to get trained to run their own meeting. They go to a 2 hour training and learn the stuff in this text. They have organisde their own meetings knowing the KEY POINT is to identify the 2 most enthusiastic people coming to those two meeting and to ask to be trained to run their own meeting. So after the two meeting there are 4 people now running meetings – then 8 then 16 … This needs to be conscious and systematic and micro-designed.

After a few meetings you can then predict an average increase in commitments. So for a direct action with a conditional commitment target of 500 people you might need 25 meetings each of which gets 10 people to make the commitment. That is 250 people in the bag, and then through other channels and then with the momentum effect of 250 asking others they personally know to come on board you get to your target of 500. The meeting then is to get to the 30% of the target identified by research as the tipping point where things take off of their own accord.

More broadly then the meeting has to be embedded in a detailed (i.e. it has numbers on it) escalation/momentum plan of mobilisation. This needs to be worked out beforehand and be part of an overall strategy. So you don’t do the meeting and then have 10 people keen to do stuff but not have any real idea of what you want them to do. Everyone needs to know the plan and off you go.

Variations on the theme and add-ons

The meeting should not go on for more than 2- 2.5 hours and stop at a pre-agreed times so busy people know the deal. Make sure that you stick to the time so the vital “getting commitments” section at the end is not rushed. In larger meetings it is good to have a time keeper. This does not prevent the vital “and we are all going to the pubs afterwards” add on which is a great time/space for forging personal connections (and having a well earned drink!)

The main add on is to do exercises and role plays. It is well established that people learn best through doing and acting out the roles they are going to do for real in the future. So these can be added into the middle section of the meeting. They need to be clear in the aims and well explained and so not too complicated. Don’t be too ambitious, particularly with new people meetings. A 5-10 minutes exercise which involves getting people up off their chairs is fine. Again this is a body thing – the more people move around a bit the more they will enjoy the meeting.

In large meetings it is still (even more!) vital to split people into the small groups. Make sure you have a big enough space to do this and have the chairs set in circles. This is totally scalable and has been done around the world in meetings of 1000s of people – you just need enough welcomers/stewards – say 1 for every 25-50 people coming to the meeting. You can have people sitting in circles with 1000 plus person picnics/general assemblies. You then need a PA to communicate the key elements. In a really big assembly you can split the assembly into 2 or more large groups and have 2 or more PAs doing the intro bit e.t.c. for each large group. The voting e.t.c. then can be done over social media (see RTT document on how to organise a general assembly/picnic).

Conclusion

Once you have read the text above you want to create your own checklist of what you need to do before during and after your meeting. Some of the elements above might not be relevant as the model covers several different sorts of meeting but a number of key elements are the same

They are:

  • Welcome people into the room one to one
  • Short intros
  • Discussion in group of 7-8 people
  • Brainstorm and ticking for getting ideas and agreeing on collective action
  • Conditional commitment to lever collective action
  • Write down and read out commitments to consolidate agreed actions
  • Bucket for money
  • Get everyone’s details
  • Pick out top enthusiasts for training to run more meetings
  • Have a training of trainers programme – think exponential growth!

Behind these ideas are basic principles

  • Most people get into stuff because they are made to feel welcomed and appreciate, often more than the rationality of the issue itself
  • People get empowered by the act of speech
  • People get empowered by moving their bodies to do stuff eg voting, exercises
  • People need a clear pathway to action to turn positive feelings into ongoing and increased practical commitment – I.e. stuff to do.
  • Everyone, however sussed, only has 24 hours in a day – growth comes through getting more NEW people involved – trained and doing stuff – so you need to recruit and have a programme.

That’s about it. Good luck!

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