By Christine Carron
Once upon a time I was brought in to lead a team-building workshop with a research group that was having challenges with communication, trust, and collaboration. The opening exercise of the workshop was one that pretty much any adult who has taken any workshop or class has probably experienced (and dreaded to some degree) . . . the icebreaker.
Facilitating group workshops for over twenty-five years, I am used to the subtle groans and eye rolls that can greet the orchestrated social bonding of an icebreaker. But never in all my facilitating career did I meet the pushback that came from one of the researchers in the group that day.
First she told me the icebreaker was stupid. Okay. I received that objection with sympathetic murmuring and attempted to keep the flow going for the folks who were playing along. The woman interrupted again. “This is fake and a waste of time.”
Again, I took the receive-and-release approach, i.e., flowing with (and respecting) her objection, rather than fighting it. She was having none of it. She was ready to rumble. “This is ridiculous. You are forcing a conversation that should happen naturally. I don’t even know why we’re here. We have real work to do, and this is not it.”
I let silence, fraught and awkward, fill the space, giving her objection the air time she clearly wanted it to have. I was also giving myself a few beats to more consciously and analytically track the dynamics of the room.
Those dynamics included her vociferous frustration with me and the process. The team members who were nodding their heads in agreement with her. The team members who were doing their best to mask their frustration with her, conveying a sense of “here we go again.” The team members who clearly just wanted to get the icebreaker over with already.
There was also the boss, who was dismayed that things were going so off the rails in the first few minutes of a workshop that was intended to decrease tension. And of course there was my own rash of reactions: adrenaline, worry, frustration, etc. I took a deep breath, and . . .
I embraced the awkward.
My brain and body shifted, letting go of the planned agenda. The path forward became very clear. Receive-and-release had not worked. It was now time for receive-and-deal. Because what was happening was not about me, and certainly not about an icebreaker.
It was about the conflicts and resentments that had been the catalyst for hiring me in the first place. The plan had been to ease into this discussion. Reality had decided there was no need to pussyfoot around.
“You are right,” I said. “Ideally these conversations, this process of building deeper connections with one another, would happen naturally. But you all have been working together for three months. If it was going to happen naturally, wouldn’t it have done so already?”
That last question had no oomph of challenge. I posed it from a place of curiosity. Because I was curious. I always am when conflict is about, always fascinated with: how did this particular group of smart and caring people end up in such a tangled place? The good news is that the question opened the door to a frank and much needed discussion.
Was it an easy conversation? No. A comfortable one? No. Was everything resolved immediately? No. But once we had the issues on the table, in all their uncomfortable awkwardness, the workshop continued, and folks were engaged, communicating with more truth and courage, and even flashes of humor.
(Even the woman who kiboshed the icebreaker.)
Writing is a solitary endeavor. The writing adventure is not. One of the most not solitary aspects of the writing adventure is participating in a critique group. And like that research team I worked with, along with doing their “real” work, critique groups must manage the group’s processes, logistics, communication, personalities, expectations, etc. If not . . . hello conflict.
In a dream scenario, we could come together as writers, critique each other’s work with generosity, insight, and candor, and all the other process stuff would automatically sort itself out with rainbow lightness and gumdrop sweetness. And even though we know in our heart of hearts that won’t actually happen, we still kind of cross our fingers and hope that it will.
I get that. And it’s not just about conflict avoidance, though that can play a role. It’s also that we are busy people. Time is precious. We want our critique group time to be about the writing. Not about egos. Or personalities. Or process. Or conflict. We just want everyone to play along.
Unfortunately, healthy group dynamics are neither automatic nor magic. In order to have grounded, useful discussions about our creative work, some of the group’s time will be spent on process maintenance. Think of it like getting your car’s oil changed.
Not sexy, but important. And sure, you can ignore an oil change for a while and have the illusion that your car is fine. But eventually, and possibly dramatically, the car will break down without it. Critique groups are the same.
The dramatic breakdown of a critique group could be an explosive shattering of the group with hurt and angry feelings all around. No fun. But the destruction could also be quieter, like when valued members exit without explanation because they’re so fed up with the tension and dysfunction. Not good either.
What is the conflict management equivalent of the preventative oil change?
The easiest form of conflict management is to preempt it. To burst its bubble before it turns into a massive, seething mess. In their book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen talk about a particular skill of individuals they call “supercommunicators”: They are willing to be hyperexplicit, perhaps sometimes even awkwardly so, in their efforts to get things back on track. (p. 244)
If we take that line and add one phrase, then we have a solid description of how a critique group can keep itself in thriving territory: The group is willing to be hyperexplicit, perhaps sometimes even awkwardly so, in their efforts to get things back on track, or to keep things from going off track in the first place.
Awkward preventative, preemptive hyper-explicitness, here we come!
In this step, you’re preparing yourself, and your fellow critique group members, for the reality that integrating new processes often feels awkward and strange. Basically, pre-framing means you would say something like, “These changes will feel awkward, but let’s do it anyway.”
Pre-framing is a technique to handle objections, by making them explicit. You air objections you already suspect exist (in this case, the expected objection to awkward process moves). Pre-framing allows you to confirm if your understanding of the objections is correct and also makes it okay for folks to air more objections. Ones you didn’t anticipate.
That is actually good. Really good. You are getting more data and clarity about what is going on, which is part of your overall awkward embracing goal.
Another benefit of pre-framing is you get to set the tone. I could have titled this post, “Three Important Process Tips to Help You Better Manage Critique Group Conflict.” Painstakingly accurate but a little dry. Instead, the title I used, coupled with the image, creates a fun spin on a potentially stressful topic: handling conflict in your critique group.
The title/image combo creates a subtle (but now explicit) pre-frame. When you are confronted with a conflict in your critique group from here on out, you (hopefully) will have a little blip of an internal smile, remembering our so-not-pleased pup who is clearly feeling a bit awkward in his petal power get-up. And then that inner smile might just give you enough pause to remember to stay loose, take a deep breath, and embrace the awkward.
Pre-framing the awkward is a powerful tool to add to your critique group management toolbox. (Feel free to re-use Mr. Petal Power Pup as needed.)
Write out and share your critique group rules of engagement. These ideally include how often you will meet, how often folks will be critiqued, how long meetings will last, how long each critique session within a meeting will last, how long writers can stay in the group without submitting, etc. Make expectations clear and ensure everyone, including existing members and potential new members, has access to a copy.
Objections that may come up in Awkward Move #2 is that writing things down is a waste of time, and that people already know what to do and how to engage. What is usually surprising to groups who embrace this awkward step is how much discussion results. They learn that things weren’t so clear to everyone, and/or people had different expectations about what is the right way to engage. Good info to know sooner rather than later.
If tension comes up during this move (and it might), keep the focus on embracing the awkward. The ideal outcome is that you end up with a set of rules of engagement that help your critique group as a whole move forward with greater clarity and cohesion. It is possible, however, that the process will also clarify for some members that they are not a right fit for the group.
That is actually a successful outcome, too. An informed, proactive departure from a group based on a person-to-process mismatch is so much less fraught then that mismatch festering in confusion until it boils over into person-to-person clashes.
Once you have your written and shared rules of engagement, you are ready for . . .
Every few meetings*, set aside at least part of one session to check-in on the process. What is working for folks and what is not in context of the agreed rules of engagement. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation, but it must be held in earnest, really creating a formal time and space for process feedback.
Doing this move will feel awkward. So much so that there will be resistance to integrating it. I say this from experience. Even in corporate groups well versed in the benefits of regular check-ins, people want to ditch this step. All the time. Why? Reasons I often hear:
It may feel like peripheral work, but it is actually foundational work. Foundational to the longevity and long term health of your critique group. If you don’t set aside time to have this airing option regularly, small things that are going awry will fester. And get bigger. And bigger. And BOOM! Conflict conflagration!
Where, of course, you will be dealing with a whole different level of awkward.
Integrating preemptive awkwardness is a superpower tool for critique groups. One that requires directness, courage and calm, for sure. But aren’t those all qualities that are useful in the critique process, too? So you’re just getting double practice.
Plus, awkwardness is so gorgeously human:
Sometimes there is such beauty in awkwardness. There's love and emotion trying to express itself, but at the time, it just ends up being awkward.
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray
So take these three Awesomely Awkward Moves (pre-framing, rules of engagement, regular process check-ins) to your critique group and strive for the beautiful awkward. An awkward fueled by care, by curiosity, by generosity, and, of course, by a shared love of the writing adventure.
What a glorious gift to your fellow writers (and yourself!) that will be.
* Without knowing how often a critique group meets, it is difficult to recommend how often to hold the formal check-ins. In the corporate world with development teams, these check-ins usually happen once every two or three weeks, but that is with a project team working together five days a week. My gut instinct with a critique group would be to have the formal process check-in at least once a quarter, with a clear understanding that if tensions start to simmer, the group would book an off schedule check-in.
The Goodjelly Prompts of the Week