It Only Takes 15 Minutes to Change a Social Environment
In at least 90% of the meetings I participate in – be they community gatherings, task forces or staff teams – the dominate feeling in the room is fear. The fear ranges in levels of intensity and types for sure and includes fear of rejection, fear of losing, fear of domination, fear of looking stupid, fear of boredom, fear of losing control, fear of not understanding someone different than me. The list goes on and on.
But one result is common to all rooms filled with fear. They do not produce an abundance of creative ideas or spur on collaborative problem solving or joint action towards a shared goal. For most of my 30 year career in community development, I have been on a search for small, practical ways – ways that do not require a paid consultant or expert – to reduce the fear in rooms in order to support the development of a shared vision and action plan, one that sticks when the going gets rough.
While there is never a silver bullet strategy that works in every context, I do believe I have found a practical, simple way for sparking a shift in a fear-based social dynamic.
The story of this discovery begins about five years ago when my friend Judith Rosenberg introduced me to her way of leading small groups in providing mutual support to one another. I was most impressed with the fact that her device allowed the group to negotiate a wide range of exchanges in as little as ten or fifteen minutes. Time is always a constraint when asking folks to take risks in sharing with each other.
After trying our her method in some small teams, I and some teammates faced a difficult moment while trying to engage residents in an extremely diverse neighborhood comprised of large apartment buildings, a place where no one knows their neighbor or can speak their neighbor’s language. To make a long story short, we decided to commit to a weekly gathering of residents built around dinner and the use of this simple tool designed to help people exchange tangible requests for support among one another.
The power of this tool provided the social glue needed to keep complete strangers from so many different cultures coming back time and time again (for nearly two and a half years), leading to the formation of a new network of trusting relationships across lines of difference, which in turn provided the platform for many collaborative actions to improve their community.
Over the last year, Trusted Space Partners has introduced this tool in our work in several communities and my former colleagues in Silver Spring have also been spreading its use to other neighborhoods. I believe we have enough evidence of its power in a wide range of settings to begin sharing it more widely with others. Here’s an initial description, but I welcome the chance to hold a longer conversation about how it might work in your context or situation.
What is it called and what is it’s primary purpose?
- Initially, we referred to the device as “the mutual support tool”.
- At Trusted Space Partners, we refer to it as the Mini-Marketplace.
- The primary purpose is to facilitate people in expressing specific requests for and offers of support of each other.
- It produces at least three immediate outcomes for many of the participants: they learn more about each other, they feel valued as a peer and not stuck in an organizational position and they walk away from the session with a specific need met or acknowledged.
- A fourth outcome is a built-in incentive for participants to come to the next gathering, especially when relationships are not fully formed or when trust is not high.
How does it work?
- Invite a full group to sit in a circle and participate in a mini-marketplace.
- Explain that it will take no more than 15 minutes and that this time is a chance for people to do one of three things: make a request for support, provide a specific offer of support or make an announcement of an upcoming event.
- Provide some examples of a typical requests or offer and also explain that not everyone has to participate.
- Go around the circle once quickly, asking everyone to bid for 1, 2 or 3 minutes of time. Write these up on a large sheet of paper for folks to see.
- Then, begin going down the list, asking each person to use their time to make their request or offer and to receive some quick feedback – all within the allotted time.
- If someone goes over their allotted time, another person can give up their time to them. Also, provide index cards and pens to facilitate people exchanging emails or phone numbers.
- Make sure to have fun in the process of making the time allocations work and celebrate when a match is made.
- Provide time at the end of the session for informal connections, one on one.
- Record all of the requests, offers and matches – both to check in on at the next gathering and as an amazingly rich data source over a period of time.
What are some illustrations of places we have used the mini-marketplace?
- Gatherings of neighbors for the first time.
- Meetings of parents and teachers from many different backgrounds.
- Staff meetings in a foundation with a wide range of organizational positions.
- Meetings of tenants and property management staff in a single apartment complex.
- Monthly technical assistance sessions for small vendors who sell in a weekly outdoor market.
What are some examples of matches made between participants?
- Weekly ride to a neighborhood grocery store.
- Assistance preparing a business card to market a cleaning service.
- Lessons on how to juggle.
- Advice on what to plant in a garden and when.
- Giving away an old but functioning washer and dryer
- Support with how to access and use the internet.
- Ideas for inexpensive birthday parties
- Contacts for seeking a specific job in carpentry