The Groan Zone Journey

I’m preparing to host a session with a diverse group of passionate citizens committed to making change on an important community issue. The session is about co-creating a small number of strategies the group will move into action.

One of the maps I carry with me is Sam Kaner’s diamond of participation. It illustrates the journey that groups go through when they are learning together and moving towards decision and/or action.

Groan Zone

In the divergence zone, people explore ideas, and become aware of diversity and become aware of possibilities. In this zone the group needs to be open and share ideas. It’s opening, expanding, generative.

In the groan zone, new ideas emerge, ideas that seem not to be the property of anyone in particular but rather the groups as a whole. This zone is called the groan zone, because individuals and groups enter a period of struggle as they try to integrate what they are learning. Where is this going? We’re stuck! Are we going backwards? That’s off topic… In this zone groups need strong relationships in order rely on one another to get through the struggle. Good process matters here.

In the convergence zone, excitement and clarity builds and decisions become clear. Groups need processes that take them to meaning making, clarity and decision making for sustainable results.

More about the groan zone:

After a period of divergent thinking most groups enter the groan zone. Suppose for example, the members have just finished a brainstorming process. In theory the group’s next task seems simple: sift through all the ideas and discuss a few more in depth. But in practice that task is often gruelling. Everyone has his or her own unique frame of reference, and communication can easily break down.

This phase of work is truly difficult to tolerate. It is a normal, natural period –but it’s still a struggle. The effort to understand one another’s perspectives and build a shared framework of understanding is the defining work of the groan zone.

Two kinds of thinking are needed in the groan zone: creating shared context and strengthening relationships.

Create shared context happens through activities that advance mutual understanding. The simplest way to help group members gain a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives is to encourage them to ask direct questions of one another and listen carefully to the answers. Group processes like circle create containers for good listening.

Strengthening relationships happens through activities that support people getting to know each other. It is easier to listen to a person’s thinking when one has experienced that person’s humanity.  People who know one another are more likely to overcome their differences and find common ground than people who remain personally isolated from one another. Don’t wait until the groan zone to strengthen relationships – this is important work to do beforehand.

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In my design for this session I have followed the flow of the diamond: we’ll have a divergent phase, the anticipated groan zone, and the convergent phase, and a decision point. I’ve also paid special attention to creating space for questions and listening and strengthening relationships. We’ll do this in different ways: talking piece councils to slow the conversation down and allow all voices to be heard around questions that matter, pair/triad reflection questions for smaller group conversations, and some creative time-constrained team sharing of key ideas with the whole group. We will be having lunch together before the session which will help weave the social field, and the check-in question will also support people getting to know each other.

And when we talk about the agenda for the session I’ll draw the diamond and name the groan zone, so it isn’t a surprise when we discover ourselves there. We don’t want to avoid it – the groan zone is an important part of the journey, otherwise we sacrifice sustainable results. My intention as the host will be to support the group to keep working through the groan zone, sensing what process shifts might be needed and to not rush to convergence too soon.

Want to learn more about the diamond of participation? I highly recommend Sam Kaner’s book Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.