Hello, and welcome to a Treehouse Village Ecohousing meeting. We’re glad that you could join us.
Perhaps you’ve been to meetings of other groups. You might be familiar with discussions that bounce back and forth between two people with few others able to get a word in edgewise, or meetings that stray far off topic or otherwise go off the rails…
Meetings are run a bit differently here. You’ll find some impressive things (like a group being completely civilized and focused on reaching an agreement quickly) and other things that make you wonder what’s going on (like the process of checking in at the beginning and out at the end). Here’s a quick overview of what to expect and why we run our meetings this way.
The first thing to know is that we practice (as best we’re able) sociocracy. That’s not a fancy word for “socialism.” Sociocracy is people working together to govern themselves. We use it because it works, and works well. But, until you’re familiar with it, you might feel a bit off balance. Here’s how it usually goes…
The meeting starts. Look first for two people, the leader and the facilitator, who you can spot this way: The facilitator does most of the talking. Their job is to keep the meeting on track and on topic, and to look after the housekeeping details. The leader will usually give the first report. The leader typically does most of the work, an important part of which is to bring an agenda to the meeting so that we can achieve our “aims” within our “domain.”
Aims and Domains
We’d better define those words before moving on. Every group (aka “circle”) has one or more aims within a clearly-defined domain. The aims provide guidance for the circle’s purpose. If a circle’s domain is the gardens, one aim might be “Keep the gardens healthy and weed free.” If the circle’s domain is the guest facilities, an aim might be, “Ensure that guests enjoy a pleasant and welcoming stay.” The members of the circle, and nobody else, are responsible for looking after whatever needs to be done to achieve their aims. To that end, there will be tasks. Tasks are what the circle (and nobody else) decides to do in order to meet the aims.
You may have noticed that twice in that last paragraph, the phrase “and nobody else” was used. In sociocracy, authority rests with those who are responsible for a domain. There’s no boss beyond the agreed-upon aims. Even the leader isn’t the boss. People join a circle because they care about an aim, and then they are the ones in charge of achieving it. It’s their domain.
Back to the meeting. It starts with what we call a “check-in.” People who aren’t familiar with the process have complained about the time that it takes, but check-ins are important. We arrive as people, and we take time to recognize that. We want to hear a few words from each person so that we can recognize and treat each other as fellow humans. (Brevity is also important!) If you are impatient to start, say that. If something great happened, say that (briefly!). If something terrible happened, at least say that things are not going well, even if you don’t want to share the details. Remember that we have gathered for the purpose of a business meeting, not a support group. In an extreme case, we’ll excuse someone from the meeting and catch up later to see what we can do to help. (Or we may excuse someone else to help right now if it’s truly urgent!)
Next, there are some housekeeping tasks and we decide whether we consent to the agenda. Let’s pause right now to define that word, “consent.”
In sociocracy, to consent means to agree (or not object) to something that is within our range of tolerance. We might not be thrilled with every proposal, but if it’s good enough for now and safe enough to try, we can (and should) consent to it.
To get consent, the proposal must be within the domain of the circle, and it must help achieve the aim. If both aren’t true, then we must object and we must say why. It’s possible that someone doesn’t like an idea that is within the domain and does help achieve the aim. If they’re going to object, they have to say why and at least try to suggest an alternative that’s better. Objections that are based on the aims and domain are good things. They help us to craft better policies and spend our time on better tasks. Objections that are entirely personal, or that ignore good information, don’t get to stand.
Let’s assume that today’s agenda is in line with our aims and domain, and therefore we consented. Onward to the agenda items, of which there are three types: reports, explorations, and proposals (decisions) (and sometimes a combination of those).
Reports bring information relevant to why the circle exists. While the report is being presented, nobody interrupts with comments or questions. We listen carefully right through to the end, knowing that we’ll get a chance to speak later.
After the report, we ask questions. We are responsible for what the circle does, so we ensure that we understand what’s happening. To not ask a question and then to complain later that we don’t understand what’s going on is to fail in our job. We might ask questions in a round (everybody gets a chance, in order, around the circle), or we might just signal to the facilitator. But nobody ever jumps right in and starts asking. The facilitator keeps things under control, makes sure that questions are on topic, and ensures that nobody is left out. Another important feature is that nobody ever interrupts while questions are being answered. We always listen carefully, confident that if we have another question that’s on topic, we’ll be able to ask.
There is also a chance for reactions. If we like what we heard, we say so. If we see a problem, we say that. If we have useful information to add, we say that. We do not take the opportunity to go off topic. Circle meetings are exclusively about working towards our aims within our domain.
Explorations are for brainstorming ideas on how to fix a shortcoming or accomplish a new task. It’s an interesting process because before we begin to think about what to do or how to do it, we focus on all the possible aspects (dimensions) of the question to ensure that we have a solid understanding of what we’re going to try to do.
A proposal is a clearly worded and specific task to accomplish an aim within the circle’s domain. The leader might make a proposal based on information gathered earlier, or the facilitator might create one right after we finish an exploration. After the proposal is read, we do rounds of questions, reactions, and consent, just as described before. Proposals need to be crafted carefully before they’re presented, which is why most meetings are heavy on reports and exploration. To be part of a circle means committing to do what it takes in order to contribute thoughtfully and effectively.
And so it goes through to the end. To finish the meeting, we check whether anything prompted new items to be added to the agenda of the next meeting. We review what worked and didn’t during this meeting, in order to improve the next meeting. And we check out, leaving as we came: humans who are part of a team working together.
Adding to the Agenda
You might wonder how to get your concerns onto an agenda. In some groups, people just say what they want to talk about, and the meeting goes off on a tangent. That doesn’t happen here. So, how do you get this really important thing onto the agenda? Turns out that it’s pretty easy: Tell the circle leader about it. Make sure that the topic is within the circle’s aims and domain (find the right circle if it isn’t!) and provide all the relevant details. Don’t expect an instant reaction and don’t expect someone else to do your homework for you. The circle leader is probably busy enough right now without more to think about. But make your case clearly, and they’ll do what they can.
If you’re planning to come back to another meeting (and you’ll certainly be welcome!), please take time to learn about sociocracy. And, please reach out to ask questions! This overview barely touches what there is to know about the hows and whys of what we do. Most of us are still learning, doing our best, and trying to become better members of our community.