photo: Phil Bourne working on the collaborative design process of Commonground Co-op with David Holmgren, 1983

This piece was written by Phil Bourne to lend his expertise in the area of ‘people processes’ to the final chapter of the book: Decision making, interpersonal relationships and conflict resolution. It has a few additions from David Holmgren. Phil is a long term member of the Commonground Co-op and has extensive experience in working with a wide range of groups.

Context The built and biological aspects of how to live well in challenging times are the most attractive to contemplate. Having solar panels and water collection at our households, riding a bicycle, growing our own food and sharing the cost and use of a mulcher with neighbours, are relatively easy targets to reach and do contribute to a better world. After 30 years of personal experience in communal living, I believe the least ‘sexy’ and hardest aspect comes with sharing the mulcher!

When we have to develop and negotiate the system to share the mulcher, all will usually work well, until something breaks or it is not returned for the day someone had set aside to use it or when it was lent to another neighbour without the agreement of the first neighbour and on it goes.

This relatively simple component introduces human dynamics and the probability of conflict. There is no easy way around it, negotiation can be fraught for us humans. From my experience there are ways to explore and maximise the potential for things to work well. There is no guarantee that if well thought out processes are used, all will work well. But one can almost certainly guarantee that if no thought or effort is put into people processes, things will soon go sour.

It is self evident that more people equals more power, not only in a simple metabolic sense but also in the creative capacity and solidarity provided by groups and gatherings of all sorts. How to harness that power for collective good while maintaining personal autonomy is a balancing act that draws attention to the underlying construct of power. In this context, power is the capacity to exercise decision making authority over, for, or with a gathering or group of people (including a household).


A basic guide to models of personal power

A simple way of understanding the process is the ‘power over’ compared to ‘power with’ model. We can influence decisions by using tactics that ensure we are in charge and control a situation. This can come from our position, our personal style and our knowledge. This is the ‘power over’ model. We can also influence decisions by genuinely believing that the group wisdom is paramount and recognising that our input is only one part of the picture: the ‘power with’ model.

It can be a revelation to analyse how an individual in a group setting experiences and enacts their power. Our desire to experience personal validation often overrides our capacity to put ideas ‘into the middle’. The goal should be to be assertive with our knowledge but to be able to let go of authoritative decision making and trust in the group. Given our social influences, this is not so easy, but is the cornerstone of true democracy.

All interpersonal relationships have asymmetric power dynamics. The adult /child relationship is most pointed because of the obvious difference of capabilities. But in couples or friend relations, there will always be areas where one person is more powerful than the other, even in the most ’equal’ of relationships. Negotiation is the mechanism for dealing with these imbalances with the framework of listening deeply and speaking the truth.

Within family or close relationships, there will be areas where prior negotiations and boundaries have been set up that mean we don’t need to constantly re- negotiate. Occasionally we may renegotiate these boundaries. The boundaries around behavioural expectations will happen whether we are conscious of them or not. It is always better to be conscious of these boundaries rather than them happening without our consent or power. Engaging with each other in these processes is ‘power with’.

It is extremely important to be clear how we personally exercise power and where authority lies re decision making. It is the cause of much angst and conflict in group settings.

Within household structures the family is where most people first learn about power. Parents or guardians are powerful compared to children. Landlords have power compared to tenants. How we exercise this power and how we deal with our relative powerlessness are critical factors.

Parents and guardians have a responsibility to care for their children. We learn from our own childhood and upbringing including any institutional settings such as school, about how to behave with power.

Children are ever active in exploring what are the limits to their capabilities and behaviour. As adults we need to decide where boundaries are for the children in our care. The children need this.

How we deliver the message of limits is the tricky part; not too punitive but not simply letting the children do their own thing. An example of ‘power over’ would be never letting children have their say about why they think a certain restriction is not fair, or being overly protective that smothers children’s initiative (their power). A misunderstanding of ‘power with’ would be always letting children have what they want even if it contradicts one’s own values about safety or wellbeing.

To implement a ‘power with’ approach, being clear on one’s own position is a starting point. Being clear but not absolutely fixed. Genuinely listening to the other’s point of view, then implementing the outcome clearly but without malice, and being prepared to review the outcomes and acknowledging any mistakes. Again easy words but not always readily implemented. The key ingredients to any ‘power with’ model are captured in the idiom –“Listen deeply, speak the truth”.


A guide to meetings and facilitation

Meetings are something that most people dread most of the time. Whether it is a meeting between two neighbours sorting out the mulcher challenges, an organisation board meeting setting future directions, or a family meeting sorting out who takes the rubbish out, they can be hard work. Because we are social animals, and especially those of us wedded to the work of creating more sustainable realities, meetings of various kinds are unavoidable. We can chose to hate them or embrace them, and possibly even sometimes enjoy them; well at least finish them with increased clarity and some satisfaction.

Meeting process workshops have been done to death by organisational consultants from John Cleese to the local Neighbourhood house. One aspect often under emphasised is decision making and the role of facilitation. Clarity is vital to not only what is the decision being made but how is it being made, and competent facilitation can help. Meetings need clarity to work well: clarity on what the meeting is for and what is to be discussed, and then decisions clearly and accurately recorded – who will do what, by when.

The following meeting procedure outline applies to groups and organisations but can also be used in family and household meetings.

Before the meeting:

  • have a pre-assigned facilitator
  • have a system for collecting agenda items, so that all may participate in contributing issues to the agenda
  • note any jobs that need doing before the meeting
  • have a detailed agenda
  • ensure the agenda is available well before the meeting
  • ensure everyone knows the time and place including the end time of the meeting
  • choose a comfortable environment – prepare the space

In the meeting:

  • start on time
  • consider having a ‘catch up’ where everyone briefly shares how they are
  • review the last minutes and actions arising
  • review the agenda and make sure everyone accepts it
  • prioritise items and assign times
  • make any agreements as necessary
  • ensure there is a minute taker and possibly a timekeeper
  • work through each agenda item adjusting times along the way by agreement
  • record all decisions and announcements
  • record who is doing what by when

Leave time for a brief evaluation of the meeting.

Consider having a post-meeting treat.

To achieve clarity meetings need facilitation. Facilitation is to help the group come to understandings and make its best decisions for this group at this time. Even if it is a less formal meeting with one’s family, having someone take the facilitator role is important to support constructive process. The basics of facilitation require one to have a degree of impartiality while listening and watching the group vibe, ensuring that topics are kept on track and supporting any feelings to be expressed. Of course there will be times when it is necessary to take one’s ‘facilitator hat’ off and be a participant. (NB Facilitation is not always that easy and we would also do well to practice the guidelines even if we are not actually facilitating. Self awareness is a significant pre-requisite for competent facilitation.)

Family and households can often baulk at the idea of having meetings. My response to that is that we are meeting all the time and decisions are constantly made about the work and processes of that group. Occasionally formalising this time can give greater opportunity for reflection on how things are going and can equalise power and constructive input to foster well-organised and happy households. Meeting too often can be an imposition but some time given to structured communication can be invaluable.


Decision making and collaboration

Clarity about decision making process is vital to positive people process. Collaborative decision making is the aim of most meetings. That is, we hope in a meeting setting to work well together to come up with positive decisions that are achievable and fulfil our aims.

What is most tricky is how to achieve a high level of collaboration. A process whereby everyone is included to the best of their abilities, opinions and ideas are all heard well, and the process moves at a pace that reduces meeting drag and repetition. Again competent facilitation helps, as does the elements of power sharing and meeting procedure clarity.


Inevitable conflict

Valuing conflict as inevitable but potentially constructive also helps, as well as clearly agreed to mechanisms to deal with more entrenched conflicts. The first step is acknowledging that most of us fear conflict and will often try and avoid it. So be self aware of what we bring to the conflict and prepare oneself by focusing specifically on the behaviour of the other person that is problematic and not looking to attack the person. Then use assertive communication to bravely talk to the person that you have conflict with.

Using the example of the mulcher issue, the assertive framework, would look something like:

“When you didn’t return the mulcher on the agreed date, I felt really annoyed because I had organised a working bee to clean up and prepare our community garden for spring planting and we couldn’t proceed well with our plans. Could you please return it immediately?”

Firstly naming the behaviour, not simply cursing the other person, then stating one’s own feelings and from there why it was a problem and what it meant practically, and finally, a request, if appropriate. Then listen to a response and possibly reflect their position. Look for ways forward and acknowledge and accept any apologies.

Remember that listening deeply to others is one of the keys to successful collaboration and conflict resolution.


Equity of contribution

– some tips re participation in and out of meetings

One thing that comes up time and again in a group working or living together is equity of contribution. I have yet to see a fail-safe method of dealing with this issue.

The issue is that not everyone will put into a project or household the same amount of time and effort. This easily creates animosity amongst the constituents.

The first tip is to recognise that this is, and will always be, the case. Different levels of enthusiasm, different work ethics and a myriad of reasons occur. The next best thing is to create a culture where equity can be discussed. (Back to meeting process and assertive communication!) If you can have ongoing dialogue to work out how participants can contribute, what is expected of each other and to iron out differences, it will go a long way to reducing animosity.

Remember to celebrate achievements so effort is recognised and rewarded.

It is vital to understand that this will be an ongoing topic, which emerges periodically, especially when one has been working particularly hard on a project and others have been ‘slacking off’. Then its back to the drawing board of equity discussion; and always remember to include some self analysis of how ‘I’ might be perceiving things in light of one’s own contribution and possible resentments.


We all need to learn to live and work well together, and any efforts to this end are valuable parts to the creation of a more just and sustainable world. This people process primer is only a brief introduction to some of the essential parameters of the topic. It is an area that any group or household would do well to investigate and give thorough attention.



I highly recommend reading, absorbing and trialling the wisdom contained in my valued colleague’s book Getting our Act Together: harnessing the power of groups (Glen Ochre, Groupwork Press, 2013). This work was her parting gift to the world of creative groupwork, garnered from lessons learnt from our many years of living and working together.

Also exploring nonviolent communication could be useful.

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