Rebecca Ejo Colwell

A remedy for overwhelm

03 April 2017

By Rebecca Ejo Colwell, CEO of Ten Directions

Recently I facilitated a group of 22 leaders that was about to begin a major transformative process. A newly configured team, they were coming together via a recent integration of three different organisations to collaborate on an organisational renewal strategy to move into the next era.

When we first met, what immediately struck me was the complexity of the group. The breadth and level of detail in their discourse simply boggled my mind. Many individuals in this group had strong and diverging opinions about what this new team should focus on, and were more than happy to present the facts to back up their case. Many others held reservations about proceeding and were clearly not yet fully “in” - and they all felt they were responsible for an almost endless set of plans, commitments and priorities. 

In short, it was a recipe for mind-numbing incoherence and immobility. Which is more or less what started to happen in one of our first meetings. 

Symptoms of overwhelm

Right away, I began to notice warning signals of “information overload”. The level of multiplicity didn’t feel good in my body. I sensed my energy was pulled in different directions: part of me was agitated and compelled to take action—to fix a problem, any problem.The other part of me was surrendering to a blanket of mental fatigue.

I wondered to myself, “What do they need right now? What is the right response from me, if anything, in this moment?” Before I relate what happened next…I’d like you to consider what you would have done. I know the suspense is killing you, but if you can, don’t read any further until you pause and reflect on how you would respond. What would you do when faced with a group dynamic like this one?

Got your answer? Ok, now read on.

Slowing down and internalising

If one of our Integral Facilitators asked me that question, I would typically make the case for the facilitator to brighten his or her presence and return to their intention for working with this group. As a practicing Integral Facilitator, that was my first instinct. (Okay, second. The first was to leave the building.) I turned my attention to my own presence and my awareness of my intention.

Connecting with my intention (to be of service, to be a responsive vehicle for the group’s intention) I allowed the words and ideas and actions to gently dissolve. Doing so enabled me to feel how ‘their stuff’ registered in my being, which I allowed to inform my response. I intuited that by slowing down and turning my attention inward. What I was doing for myself was exactly what the group needed as well.

While slowing down seems counter-intuitive in moments when it seems that so much needs to be done, doing so creates a state shift that allows for a deeper inquiry; one that was sourced from their inner felt experiences, both individually and collectively.

I invited the group to more consciously relate to this moment, not the plans for the future or the commitments from the past. From presence, I invited them to practice receptivity, and engage a deeper level of listening to each other.

Using prompts to encourage deeper listening

To do this, I created a “Structured Go-Round”, where I invited each person to complete a given sentence stem in a round, followed by a new sentence stem in the next round. The sentence stems were designed to eliminate back-and-forth discussions (cut down on the complexity) and elicit people’s first person perspective - in other words, ‘I’ language.

Here are some examples of sentence stems:

  • What I’d most like to cover in this two-day meeting is…
  • Something I’d like to contribute to this group is…
  • What I’m most worried about this meeting is…
  • Something I need to learn is…
  • Something I care about most in my work is…

Sentence stems provide an anchor for participation and help people to access what’s most alive for them in the moment. It also gets them to the meat of their concerns more quickly. After each round was completed, a new sentence stem was offered, although some sentence stems went around more than once as needed (to allow the group to warm up or go deeper).

The content or subject of sentence stems depends on the intention. Do we want to build rapport? Do we want to clarify the issues? In this case, it was about dropping into the core of what really mattered to people, and invoking an experience of a deeper level of presence and coherence in the room.

How slowing down can result in unity

By slowing down the process in this way, the multiplicity of the ideas and options dropped away, the advocacy for pet projects ceased, and a deeper pattern in the group’s expression emerged. It became obvious that the group’s intention to create a more responsive and adaptable organisation, grounded in the here and now, and this was a shared desire that brought coherence into the room.

This heightened receptivity allowed the group to see how its intention was not only clear but shared. As a result, there was a palpable sense of relaxation and appreciation in the group as the subtle unity in this shared intention and desire were experienced. What a relief!

What I learned from this experience

The question that this experience underscores is one that many groups and organisations share today: "How can we be adaptable and responsive when we perceive that we have a million and one commitments to fulfill?" Though my group didn’t realise it, this question was actually in the room with us from the very beginning. And behind the question was an assumption and a practical truth: we can’t.

When groups are faced with incoherence, complexity and a lack of a shared direction, adaptability and responsiveness can feel out of reach. But what my experience revealed to me was how the ‘deeper’ move — the choice to slow down and turn inside - was the remedy.

Practicing receptivity helped the group to discover its collective identity (hopes, fears, and desires), and a shared intention. With this shared intention established, the group started to mobilise to re-engage with the complexity of their context over the next meetings. And as the quality of their experience continued to shift from overwhelm to a responsive and adaptable collaboration, lightness and enjoyment emerged.

What about you? How do you tend to face group dynamics like this one? After reading this article, is there anything you might have done differently? We’d love to continue the conversation.

Ten Directions faculty Diane Musho Hamilton and Rebecca Ejo Colwell are co-founders of the Integral Facilitator® credential and program pathway.

Rebecca and Diane will be hosting a pre-conference workshop "New Ways to Create Impact From the Inside Out" at the upcoming IAF NAC conference in West Palm Beach on Monday 8 May 2017 from 8:30am - 5pm. Find out more about their programmes and offerings.

IAF Editor