Group Process (Oh, How I Hate It)

This is me doing standup.

I'm good with microphones. As a preacher, I learned to tell stories from my heart, to invite people into my inner pilgrimage and entice them to accompany me on my quest for awhile. During my second (and ultimately successful) attempt at ordination, several pastors came to observe me preaching a sermon. They took me out to lunch afterward, and one of them told me, "What you do is very powerful. Please use it for good." It gave me pause, made me think about Virgil Howard, one of my preaching models back in seminary, and a sermon he had delivered in the seminary chapel that was so revealing that, even as I was enthralled, I felt my skin crawl. I have wondered ever since if that sermon, however effective it was at delivering its message (I believe it was about overcoming fear), went too far, maybe even committed a kind of emotional assault. I preached revelatory sermons for many years, talking about my inner struggles, fears, inadequacies, using myself as a model for overcoming such difficulties. And then I heard those words, "Use it for good," and decided to pull back. People still appreciated the way I preached, but now I revealed less of myself.

Good standup is about revelation. That's why I tried it for a little while at ComedySportz After Hours open mikes, and it felt briefly like a good fit. But standup is also about funny. And mine just wasn't funny enough. It needed more jokes. I'm better with stories than jokes. So I stepped back once more. But I don't resent stepping back. Being the center of attention has never felt natural to me. For the most part, I'd much rather keep my thoughts and feelings to myself.

I am an introvert. That should come as no surprise to those who've known me for any length of time. In group settings, I tend not to say much unless I'm in charge. In smaller gatherings, I'm more engaged, especially in intimate settings with just a few people. For the most part, I'm content to let others, especially extraverted others, run conversations in large groups. For many years, I resented this, projected impoliteness on the constantly interrupting extraverts, excused my own silence with an unwillingness to be rude and insert my opinion without first raising my hand and being called on. Such magical thinking did no one any good. To be heard in a large group, I have to enter into the fray, as uncomfortable as that may be for me. It's not about politeness, it's about group dynamics. My opinion matters as much as anyone else's, and there are times when my ideas really are good enough that they need to be shared, even if it means raising my hand and voice and assertively getting attention. But I don't like it.

Group process has, in recent years, become the preferred way of arriving at collective decisions. For the twelve years I was a part of Metanoia Peace Community, I witnessed group process in its purest form, as meeting after meeting devolved into showcases for individuals whose devotion to their own personal issues overwhelmed whatever items were on the agenda. I chaired the Community Council for a year, and it made me want to quite membership. Once I was rid of that job, I made myself scarce whenever the council met, knowing I just couldn't handle them. Nothing ever got done. Oh, some egos got massaged, and some insecure extraverts got to feel like people were listening to them, but Gawd it was awful. Meeting after meeting, I saw it wear down the sincerest Christian I've ever known, the founder and sole pastor of Metanoia for its entire existence, who wanted nothing more than for the community to serve God in the city of Portland. He brought his vision to council meetings to watch it die, again and again, and it broke my heart. Like me, he was and is an introvert who believed in letting everyone have a say.

Looking back now on the far-too-large portion of my life spent in meetings, I can honestly say they don't work for me. Meetings are where ideas go to die. Meetings are chaotic gatherings in which introverts, who often have excellent ideas, are only heard if an assertive presider tells the extraverts to shut up and listen for awhile, then draws out the quiet folk to see what they have to say. In most cases, I would rather work on problems by myself than engage in brainstorming group process chaos.

Most groups I've been in don't arrive at decisions democratically. It's rule by decibel: whoever has the loudest voice, and the most assertive personality, dictates the decision. To have a voice, to offer up an alternative to such forceful articulations, introverts have to wrestle down their inner doubts and bravely insist on being heard. It's hard work, and we don't usually wind up feeling all that good about the process, however attractive the end product may be.

Extraverts love meetings. Introverts hate them. Extraverts are outgoing, attractive, sexy, objects of envy; introverts are quiet, cautious, polite to a fault, shy, inward. Extraverts take on leadership roles with ease. Most Americans would rather have an extraverted leader. Consider how much grief Barak Obama has been getting for his quiet, considered approach to leadership, his discomfort with working the room. In an election between an extravert and an introvert, the extravert is far more likely to win, unless the introverts rhetorical gifts are such that voters cans be fooled into thinking he or she is outgoing. People used to be baffled by how much I shared from the pulpit, compared to how awkward I was shaking hands at the door after the service. Because we choose extraverts to be our leaders, we accept their chosen approach to generating ideas and decisions, group process. This is true even though half of us are introverts who would rather have a root canal than sit through another pointless, extravert-dominated meeting.

Root canal aside, what we'd rather be doing is receiving an assignment from our supervisor, and working up a solution to the problem on our own. Then we could have an organized sharing of our ideas at which we followed a strict agenda weighing each proposal, followed by a highly structured process for arriving at a decision. Structured meetings are actually nice places for introverts to be. We know we'll get to say what needs to be said without having to interrupt anyone.

Reading this, you might be thinking, "Yes, I'd like that too!" You might even be an extravert thinking just that. But how many meetings have you been to where such a process was used? Speaking for myself, it's been precious few. Does that mean there's no hope? Hardly. Each of us quiet folk can make a case for more thoughtful, productive work sessions, for scrapping brainstorming in favor of brainscaping. But we'll have to go into the rough to do it, engage in impolite-feeling tactics, make ourselves heard, and insist on the efficiency of civil, structured process. Yes, introverts of the world, it is time to rise up! We have nothing to lose but our frustration, and the world will be a far better place for finally listening to the quiet half of the population.


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