Action Groups: Getting Everyone to Take Action
The third function, historically, of peer support groups, is to engage its members in action in their own behalf. The New Jersey Self-Help Clearinghouse calls this “advocacy. “However, this term also has a particular meaning in the context of people suffering from some ailment. It includes traditional “advocacy”, i.e. seeking to change social norms and government policies affecting a group (including lobbying), but also what is sometimes referred to as “self-advocacy,” where individuals are trained or encouraged to make their needs known to their service providers and increase their assertiveness in insisting on getting adequate service at the most personal level. Since NIPS has adopted the general position of some of the best know peer support communities, we do not engage in or use the term advocacy. However, we do encourage everyone to get involved in organizations which do advocacy. If we do not “do” politics, politics will “do” us! It’s a subtle, but important distinction. On any given issue (and as of this writing we are most active in two: returning veterans and climate change activists), there are many organizations both existing and new, indeed, some which get involved in the actual electoral process. NIPS does not do that, but does encourage its participants to get involved with organizations that do and to bring the tools of NIPS (listening turns, support groups, workshops, etc.) into these organization.
What we d is encourage “action.” –and we encourage an innovate approach to deciding on actions which is drawn from other peer support communities and based on our general principles of equal participation and the willingness to express feelings which may get in the way of taking effective action.
Most peer support traditions recognize the importance of moving beyond listening to one another to taking action. Indeed, the “twelfth step” is to reach out and carry the message to those who are still suffering. It is not enough to sit around telling your story over and over—although that is probably the single best thing we can do for each other. Most peer support groups and most professionals in this area recognize the need to do something to put our attention outside ourselves and our sad stories, to put our attention on something that is bigger and more important than ourselves and what happened to us.
A large number of peer support networks make this reaching out beyond themselves the key or most important of the steps in their program One key way they deal with the problem that brings them together is to spend a lot of their time and energy reaching out to others who still suffer from the problem the brought them together in the first place. For us that means building NIPS in any constituency by reaching out and finding other like-minded folks and offering them a chance to meet others like ourselves and find a place where they can tell their stories to another peer who is more likely to be able to listen without either getting offended or changing the subject.
Action Groups are an answer to an age-old problem in human behavior—how do you bring people together to get work done?
We have already answered part of that question in the last tool called “Topic Groups.” We believe the first step is to let every individual have a chance to think for themselves, to identify the piece of this outreach effort or common problem facing us that appeals to them and to share their thinking with others who are interested in the same piece of the puzzle.
However, beyond sharing ideas, there is the question of deciding on what actions to take.
There are several classical methods for small groups to follow.
Follow the leader. In most situations, one person is put in charge of the group with the responsibility for deciding what all of the members of the group will do. That is what happens in corporations, in school, in most religions and in the military. There is a chain of command, a hierarchy. Hierarchy is efficient; but it has been identified by a century of scholarship as the principal reason we have failed to accomplish significant social change, especially in the United States in the last fifty years.
Perhaps more importantly, we have to explore new approaches to social change. If what we are doing were working, we would not be in this fix. From German sociologist Robert Michels, writing a century ago, to Harvard’s Theda Skocpol in this new century, a long and distinguished academic critique blames the professionally-staffed, hierarchical, centralized model of social change organizations, typically based in Washington, DC, emphasized by most social change movements, as the single, greatest reason for the lack of significant social change in the United States in the last fifty years..
Majority Vote. As an alternative, many volunteer organizations elect leaders and make all their decisions by a majority vote. The leaders are only in charge of carrying out the group’s decisions. Robert’s Rules of Order is a widely used set of rules for such majority rule. The problem with this majority rule approach is that a lot of people tend to feel left out. A few people become experts on the Rules and then they and the elected leaders—and they are often the same people—effectively make all the decisions. The elected leader functions very much like the boss or the officer in charge once the group has met. In any event, these long discussions can wear out lots of us who are just looking for a place to hang out with others like ourselves. Michels criticized the German Social Democratic Party, the largest liberal political party in the world when he wrote early in the twentieth century with all of the problems listed for hierarchy.
Consensus. Other volunteer groups have given up on elected leaders and majority decisions and moved to what is called consensus decision making. In these groups, individuals are not required to go along with a particular decision just because a majority voted for it. These groups hold even longer discussions until everyone has been heard and a decision is agreed upon which everybody at least accepts, even if they do not completely agree. One person who has a principled opposition to the decision can prevent the whole group from taking action by “vetoing” or “blocking” consensus. This approach has the advantage that most people really do agree with the decision once it is reached and are committed to putting it into action. The downside is very, very, very long meetings.
A New Approach—Action Groups. While many other peer support communities use one or the other of these approaches, a few have developed a new approach which seems particularly suited to peer-support groups—and especially to groups like us who have had our fill of taking orders.
In this new approach, groups meet to let each other know what they have been doing as individuals on a particular issue, to update each other on what others outside their group have been doing and, near the end of the meeting, to announce to each other what they have each decided to do individually after having heard all this information from their peers. They do not meet to decide what the group is going to do as a whole. No one tells anyone else what to do—not even the whole group can tell an individual what to do. These are groups who meet to take action in the individual empowerment tradition of NIPS. Their purpose is to empower individual action. We call them Action Groups.
The purpose of a NIPS Action Group is not to agree on common action, it is primarily a mechanism for encouraging individual initiative by all the participants which is informed by knowing what others are doing on an issue. It insures that each potential activist working on a common issue forms personal relationships with others working on the same issue and keeps each other informed of their actions. In concludes with each person taking a turn being listened to on the subject of potential barriers to the steps each individual (leader) hopes to accomplish. This allows each person to get the advantage of identifying any personal emotional barriers to taking action, as well as letting other leaders know what real, logistical help each leader would like. There is no push for consensus or agreement.
After going around to announce these individual decisions, the last step incorporates the specific insight of NIPS, namely, that people will think more clearly and behave more effectively AFTER they have been given a chance to talk and be listened to by peers without interruption about a given subject—in this case their decisions–and express any feelings which might get in their way of thinking and acting on this topic.
Experience in the many peer support communities and in our NIPS workshops has shown that more work in total will get done on an issue if people have the opportunity to decide for themselves and are not forced to do something that somebody else, some individual, group or larger organization, decides. There is some loss in reduced coordination, but that is offset by the increase in overall greater activity and its quality.
The background and function of NIPS Action Groups will vary. To date, most have formed in NIPS weekend workshops after the Topic Group discussions. The Workshop Leader asks the whole workshop if there are specific issues on which people would like to gather and consider taking action. As noted, we now limit these groups to issues having to do with the functioning and growth of the NIPS community, either locally, in some specific group or purpose or nationally. As described in the last chapter, if there is a general interest in moving from the topic group discussions into actually taking action, then the Workshop Leader asks the whole group what the topics are where people are willing to consider taking action. Just as at the start of the Topic Group Discussion, a couple of members of the workshop serve as Scribes and write down possible topics for Action Groups as members of the workshop suggest them. Typically, there has been a large overlap between the topics discussed in the Empowerment Session and the topics suggested for Action Groups. When there are no more suggestions, the Workshop leader asks whether everyone in the Workshop has an Action Group they are interested in joining. The Workshop Leader then selects a Leader to convene each Action Group and pick a location to meet. The Workshop Leader checks to make sure everyone has a group, and then sets a time for the groups to report back to the larger group. The results of these Action Groups have been very impressive where they have been tried in NIPS. A few local NIPS groups have used the Action Group format to plan and coordinate their local work. Eventually, we hope that every local group will use the Action Group format to maximize the amount of local NIPS outreach and activity. As with the workshop Action Groups, the local Action Groups are led by the most experienced NIPS leader in the area, typically the leader of the local NIPS Project or someone from the national office.
The reason for this emphasis on experience with NIPS will be clear as we describe the specifics of the Action Group agenda. The more experience the Action Group leader has in NIPS, the more effective he or she will be in the fourth step of the agenda when each participant in given a NIPS listening turn by the Action Group Leader. If that leader has experience with the Four Questions, he or she can maximize the impact of that listening turn on the effectiveness of the individual’s subsequent attempts to reach out to other Iraq-ear vets.
To prevent patterns of domination from emerging in the group and to allow the advantages of uninterrupted listening and emotional expression, the leader insures (typically once again by asking someone to use a kitchen timer or the countdown alarm function on many wrist watches) that each leader gets an equal turn to speak to the group on the following four subjects. Please note, it is not enough simply to pass around a ‘talking stick” or other object, as is done in many organizations to keep people from interrupting each other. Interruption is only one of the ways in which rigid ways of behaving play themselves out in a group discussion. Some people, as noted above, will just “naturally” talk longer. Their upbringing has convinced them, usually to the point of unawareness, that what they have to say is important and that other people cannot wait to hear what they have to say. Other people with different life experiences form different assumptions and habits of talking—or not talking. They think that what they have to say is not important and that no one cares what they think. Of course, in a group where we are all equal as vets and all seeking to reach out to other vets, there are no veterans’ thoughts which are unimportant. Yet some vets will not talk or not talk much. They will pass the talking stick quickly—often without talking at all. That is why we give people timed turns. Better that some people sit silently for part of their turn and feel uncomfortable and that they have nothing to say. After a few turns they almost always learn that they do!
Here are the questions which the assigned leader asks of everyone in an Action Group:
- What have you been doing lately on this particular issue? For example, someone may already be in touch with the office of some the local or national veterans’ organizations working on this topic or has been giving speeches, etc.
- What other information do you have on this topic that we should know, either locally or at some broader level? Other ways of asking this question include: What is the current situation about this issue (e.g. reaching out to women Iraq veterans, all Iraq-Afghanistan era veterans in this town, etc.? What is favorable in the situation, what is difficult, what opportunities are waiting to be seized and what challenges need to me met?) This round of contributions is primarily an opportunity for each person to add items not covered in the first go round..
- What are you going to do personally on this issue in the next period of time? Now that people in the group know what has already been done by the other group members and information about what others outside the group are doing on this issue, in this round, individuals commit to specific action. This is not a discussion. You may not agree that the other person’s choice of action is most important or even a useful thing that person can do. However, long, painful experience has taught us that more gets done if people are doing what they think is important and what they think needs to be done than if they have reluctantly agreed to someone else’s suggestion or a “consensus.” These individual steps might be literally anything. For example, a woman could commit to organizing a one-time meeting just for the women in the local NIPS project. A student at the local community college might commit to setting up a table to recruit new members on an issue. You can, of course, offer to work with someone else who has already suggested something you like.
- “What might get in the way of your doing what you have just said you would do? Finally, the longest amount of time (about half of all the time available for this entire meeting) is given to each potential leader, one at a time, to address this question. This is the fundamental insight of NIPS which is neglected by almost all other organizations which assume that people will somehow magically overcome their usual bad habits, after 20 or 40 years, and stop being procrastinators, or nitpickers or know-it-alls, or whatever, on this current opportunity to take action. Short answer: They won’t. The key insight of the NIPS Action Group approach is that every time a person says they are going to do something, they should be given the chance to talk about the bad habits that usually get in the way. A little talk and expressing a few feelings can make a big difference on any decision or commitment. Repeated opportunities for this reflection and discharge over many instances can make enormous differences.
So in the four go-rounds of an Action Group, the convener should insure that others do not interrupt and in the final go-round (What gets in the way?) he or she can use the “Four Questions” to encourage the expression of each vets’ feelings. These questions let the person know that past experiences which seem to be getting in the way are not currently happening. For example, in the past, a participant might not have done well in school. Now, however, people around that person and potentially the general public may be eager to hear from him or her. Just being encouraged to talk about the situation while other peers listen often helps clear up these past confusions.
Most organizations spend all their time, especially in the U.S., analyzing a problem and deciding what to do and spend very little giving people the time to explore the implications of their commitments. Often times, they have strong feelings which they have not discussed. Other times, there are logistical barriers which did not come up until the person actually makes a commitment to action. This fourth question is a time for each person to dig into the consequences of their commitments. Our experience has shown that shifting these balances, from identifying problems and group solutions towards spending time on the barriers to implementation by individuals results in more work being done and more of it being done effectively.
A leader for each Action Group should be selected by the other members with the approval of the leader of the NIPS Executive Director. In no case should the Action Group meetings be larger than about eight people to allow all the questions to be answered in an hour and a half or two at the most. Larger Action Groups can be broken into two or more Action Groups.
The downside to Action Groups is that some “key” task to be done on the issue may be neglected, at least for a while. As noted above, the assumption in NIPS s that we will get so many people involved building our local and national communities, doing so much more than in the usual “experts managing from above” approach, that such “key” tasks (and such “key” people) turn out not to be so “key” after all. If dozens of people are reaching out to find new peer recruits, it is less important that one of them might have forgotten a key point or have inadvertently showed up to table at the community college without the NIPS flyers. A motivated, face-to-face meeting with another peer—even without the flyer—will get more done than one individual leader’s frantic and round the clock effort.
Script for a NIPS Action Group
Welcome to this meeting of our NIPS Action Group on the topic of (whatever). My name is (name) and I am your leader for today.
The purpose of this group is to get as many of us to take action on this topic as possible as a way of helping to build NIPS (although this format can be used for people interested in any topic.) Therefore, we do not take votes or try to reach consensus. We have four reasons for meeting, to:
- Update each other on what we have been doing on this topic;
- Fill in any other information about this topic which we think other leaders should know, taking care to mention any challenges or opportunities facing this group;
- After hearing all this information, we tell each other what we are going to do; and finally,
- We take a listening turn like in our regular NIPS Support Groups in hopes that, as a consequence, we will be more apt do what we just decided.
Would one of you agree to be our timekeeper? We spend half our meeting on the first three questions and other half of the meeting on the last one because of its importance. Given the time we have tonight, we will spend ___ minutes apiece on each of the first three questions and ___ minutes each on the last question.
First, let’s go around and introduce each other with our name and experience on this issue and something that is new and good in our lives to help us get in a good mood for doing some work. As we introduce each other, please put your name and contact information on a sheet of paper as it goes around. This group meets as often as a majority of its members desire. If you want to meet, please call or email me and I will call the rest of you whenever a majority desires.
- What has each of us done on this topic lately? (Give each participant an equal, timed turn.) Please remember not to interrupt anyone while they are speaking. If you have information relevant to what the person has said, you can share it in the third round.
- What other information do you have on this topic that we should know, either locally or at some broader level? (Give each veteran a timed turn.) If no one talks about what other organizations for this issue are doing locally, then this should be reported on or investigated before the next meeting.
- What are you going to do in the next period about this topic? (Give each participant a timed turn.)
- For the remaining half of our meeting, we take a longer turn in the NIPS tradition. What might get in the way of your doing what you just said you would do? (The leader should use the “Four Questions” to help each person explore any feelings underlying these barriers to effective action.”)
Finally, would three of you please tell me something you liked about my leading this meeting? We are always trying to develop and encourage new leaders in NIPS and these appreciations will help me do a better job next time and show someone else what works.
If you want this group to meet again to update ourselves on what we are doing and decide on new actions, then please contact me. When a majority thinks it necessary, I will contact all of you and set up another meeting.
After the appreciations, thank you for the privilege of being your leader tonight. I will meet again when a majority of you contact me and make that request.
(End of Action Group Meeting script)
Please make sure that each Action Group is listed on the NIPS website under the appropriate topic. Please have notes taken during the meeting so that others working on this issue can learn what is being done by looking on the website. There is a page for Action Group Reports under each Campaign Issue.