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Capacity Building Resources

Connecting with Others:  Team Building and Interpersonal Skills

Women generate and release energy through the power of connection.  We build trust and credibility through creating our personal reputation - "People can count on me.  I do what I say I will do."  While it seems a natural skill for women to collaborate, working with small groups effectively is one of the greatest assets a woman can have, and worth taking time to develop specific skills.  Margaret Mead, a U.S. anthropologist, is quoted as saying "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." 

Convening a Group:

Convening a groupIn the same way that we, as individuals, need to know our own strengths, skills, values and vision, groups also must have that self-awareness.  Formal, or informal, formed for short term or long term purpose, productive groups need to discover:

  • Who is in the group?
  • Why are these individuals here; what do they want?
  • What do they have to contribute?
  • What can we create together that we cannot create alone?

The most effective team-building strategy is simple, honest conversation about these questions.  Such conversation allows each person to be seen as an individual, exposes commonalities, and reveals differences.  The commonalities provide a foundation for working together.  The differences expand the resources of the group.  Very frequently groups skip over this conversation, perhaps because members think they already know one another, or because there is high energy for engaging in the task.  And, more than anything else, failing to take the time and care at this beginning step undermines the potential of the group. Diverse understanding of the goal diffuses energy and leads to confusion.  Individuals may have knowledge, skill, contacts that could benefit the group, but which are overlooked.  Differences surface later and become obstacles and sources of conflict.  In fact, it is helpful to revisit these questions from time to time, because individual members, as well as the interactions among them, are continually changing.

Maintaining the Momentum:

Group Norms:

Simple, honest conversation may seem elusive, because such conversations depend on a sense of safety and acceptance which must be created within the group.  Some groups choose to name a few principles that they will use to guide their interaction.  Everyone has had group experience.  Asking a question such as "What are three guidelines that would help us work effectively together?" can elicit ideas from the group that are grounded in members' personal experience.  Selecting three from among those offered will provide a team a sense of structure for engaging with one another. 

It is important to remind the group that these belong to the group, and can be revisited and changed at any time.  It is not necessary to spend hours trying to arrive at the perfect set of norms.  Choose three and use them.  See how they work.

Communication Method:

Recognizing that our life experience and background means that we each interpret events and information in our own unique way, it is important to find ways to draw out those various interpretations so that we can make decisions and take action based on common understanding.  This Method is simple and helps us do that.  It is a structure that honors the characteristics of women's leadership: relationship, inclusion, collaboration and nurture.

  • At the beginning of each meeting, after a shared event, or following important input to the group, ask each member in turn, "What phrase or image stands out for you in regard to . . . . .? (our work so far, this presentation we just heard, etc.)
      • There is no discussion.  This is an opportunity to learn what each member of the group is thinking.  Thoughts are expressed in a one or two sentence statement.
  • Then ask each member, in turn, "When did you get emotionally engaged?"  That is, when did you get excited, frustrated, discouraged, energized, etc.
      • Again, there is no discussion.  Our emotions have as great, or greater impact on effective group work, as our thinking and our ideas.  We ignore them at our peril.  When we honor them our work seems easier and more joyful.
  • Now, the question becomes,  "What does this mean to us?"  "What meaning do we make of this?" 
      • By this point, the group has heard from each member two times.  This is the time for discussion, commenting on what you heard, building on one another's ideas, clarifying understanding, allowing new meaning to emerge from the group.
  • And the final question is  "What action if any, does this meaning prompt?"
      • It may be that the group needs to take action, and they are now in a good place to decide what to do.  They have heard from each person.  They know where the energy is.  Perhaps no action is required.  Perhaps it is up to individuals what action they want to take, if any.

Leadership Roles for Effective Groups

In collaborative groups, leadership is shared.  Individuals take leadership, when they feel called to do so - when the topic is one with which they have a lot of experience, when they have skills that are needed at the time, when they have the energy the group needs, etc.  In other words, they take leadership when their competence seems to match the needs of the group.

There are four fundamental roles that are needed by every team, both for its on-going viability and effectiveness, and for each project.  Being aware of these is one way of noticing when you skills might be needed.  It is also a way for the team to make sure these important functions occur.

  • Vision - every team, every project needs a sense of vision.  What is our purpose here?  What are we trying to achieve?  What is our goal?  If we do our job well, what will the result look like?  Someone(s) in the group needs to be providing such ideas, or raising these questions for the group to consider.  This need not be the same person each time. 
  • Organization - every team needs to organize to get their work done, to pursue their vision.  How are we going to divide the work?  How are we going to coordinate our work?  Who will be responsible for what?  What timeline shall we establish? How will we monitor our progress?   What will our benchmarks be?  How will we evaluate our work? How will we be accountable to one another?  Leading in this way is crucial for effective groups.  Who does this, again, need not be the same person or persons.
  • Relationship/Team Process - paying attention to how we do our work is essential for productive outcomes.  It is not necessary that we like everyone in our group.  It is necessary that we respect each person.  Leaders in team process are noticing who talks, to whom, how much?   Who does the team listen to?  When does the energy gain momentum; when does it drain?  What topics seem "undiscussable?"  How is conflict handled?  Who is engaged?  Who is not?  When do we need a break?  Is there a better way to discuss tough topics?  Are we able to give helpful feedback to one another?  How do we support one another?  How do we hold one another accountable?  Leaders in relationship and team process are able to raise questions that will help the group become aware of the dynamics that are operative.  They are able to suggest ways to move forward when the team seems "stuck," and, in general, help the team create a safe environment where members feel free to contribute.  While some individuals find it natural to lead in this way, others are intimidated.  It is important to realize that anyone can learn to lead in this way.  Know that simply raising some of the questions above is helpful to the team. There is usually wisdom within the team to create an effective response, but often the question is not asked that will create the awareness and call out that wisdom.
  • Connecting to the Larger System - some individuals network effortlessly.  These are valuable leaders in the team.   They know people in other departments, other organizations, other countries, or in professional organizations, people active in the community, industry representatives, and so on.  They may be persons who can make good presentations - showcase the work of the group, market the product, seek funding, attract new members.  Or, their contribution may be in the fresh ideas they bring in, their knowledge of trends, or simply in the more "external" perspective they bring to the team.  Again while some lead naturally in this way, anyone can learn to "tune in" to the larger system.  And the team benefits in a big way.  Every group depends, to some extent on information or resources from outside the group, and, provides information, product, or some other outcome, to those outside the group.  Paying attention to this relationship enhances the value of the team.

Women's leadershipAs an individual, the more of these functions you can provide, the greater your value to the team.  Don't hesitate to move out of your comfort zone and provide what the team needs.  This is how you expand your competence.

Paying attention to these functions can be a useful self-assessment for the team.  Since every team needs these four functions, effective teams take time to reflect together:

  • Do we have a clear vision?  Is it what we really want to create?
  • Are we organized in a way that will help us achieve our vision?
  • How are we working together?  What patterns have we developed that help us achieve our vision?  What patterns are getting in the way?
  • Are we paying attention to our environment, to our interdependence with other systems?

Building Community - Talking Stick

Groups that are able to create a sense of community become joyful, life-giving, energy-creating experiences.  There is a climate of openness.  Members feel appreciated and trust one another.  They care for the common good of the group, and are committed to giving their best because they don't want to let down the other group members. 

Talking stickThe Talking Stick is a listening and speaking method that encourages understanding.  It is useful in helping group members really "hear" one another, and may be especially valuable when members have different cultural backgrounds or when they hold conflicting views about a topic. 

The Talking Stick was a method used by some native American groups, to let everyone speak their mind during a Council meeting, a type of tribal meeting. According to the indigenous American's tradition, the stick was imbued with spiritual qualities that called up the spirit of their ancestors to guide them in making good decisions. "The Talking Stick reminded us to listen for the wisdom from our elders and ancestors, and from outside our thinking at that moment,"  comments Carrie Chesnik, author and photographer.  The stick ensured that all members, who wished to speak, had their ideas heard. All members of the circle were valued equally.

This is how the process works:

  • With chairs in a circle, one person holds the Talking Stick and speaks first.  She or he then holds out the Stick and another person can take it. 
  • Whoever holds the Talking Stick is the speaker.  
  • She or he is asked to speak from the heart about the topic or issue in question.
  •  All others are to listen to the speaker, concentrating on their words and seeking to understand their meaning.  No one comments on what another has said. 
  • The process continues until everyone who wants to speak has had a chance to do so.

It will be meaningful for your group to create your own "Talking Stick," using decorations or symbols that are significant to the group.  The symbols are reminders to the speaker, that he or she should speak truthfully and wisely from the heart, and to the listeners, that they should listen for the meaning of the speaker and trust that the right words will come when it is their opportunity to speak.

Talking stickAs each individual listens, with silence and respect, a whole world of understanding opens up within the group.  It is important to have silence when all have spoken. Call a break.  Or adjourn until the next meeting.  This experience provides an expanded, more wholistic awareness.  We need time to absorb what others have shared.  We lose that if we rush right into the next agenda item or try to make a decision right away.