Can we talk about race and racial inequality in our forum?

I used to think that sex and money were the final frontiers in forum. If we are willing to share deeply about these topics, perhaps our forums have reached a level of trust and vulnerability that leads to transformational value.

In the America we now inhabit, I wonder if race and racial attitudes might be even more sensitive and taboo.  Some questions you might consider at your next forum meeting:

  • How has your upbringing influenced the ways you think about people from other racial backgrounds?
  • How would you describe the current extent and nature of your relations with people of other racial backgrounds? How do you feel about that?
  • What recent or long past personal experiences are you reminded of as you read about protests across America? Why?
  • As a business leader, how have you supported (or undermined) efforts towards racial equality and racial justice?

You may wish to read this excellent guide to Daring Discussions before you begin the conversation.

Two recent articles that forum members might read in advance:

“Who Gets to Be Afraid in America?” in The Atlantic by Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist

“Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge,” in the Los Angeles Times by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the N.B.A.’s all-time leading scorer

Moving to a “wartime” forum footing

Earlier generations remember where they were during the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, and 9/11.  All of us will remember the COVID-19 Pandemic.  These extraordinary times call for new modes of engagement with our forums, including these possibilities:

  • Meet more frequently but for a shorter time. Some forums are meeting every week for an hour.  Others are meeting for two hours every other week.  Still others are calling emergency meetings as needed.
  • Continue to emphasize the importance of being there for each other, but agree to meet even if you can’t have 100% attendance. Evolving needs mean that commitments are less certain than in more stable times.
  • Focus updates on M.I.T. – the Most Important Things on members’ minds, on which they think the forum can offer some support, ideas or experience. Get to the essence quickly, identifying 3-5 word headlines such as “Messaging to employees,” “supporting elderly parents,” or “conserving cash.” Combine any similar MITs into a single topic.
  • At the moderator’s discretion, or with member input via the chat function, identify the most urgent and important topics
  • Instead of longer, traditional presentations/explorations, try to allow time to address multiple topics, asking members to make short and concise requests for:
    • Ideas
    • Experiences
    • Feedback on any ideas/actions they are considering
    • “I Notice…” feedback
    • Connections and leads
    • “If you were in my shoes…” feedback
    • Opportunity to vent or emote (no feedback)
  • Be efficient. Everyone in the forum can offer feedback once about the topic.  No repeating; instead say “plus one” to another person’s thoughts. Avoid tangents. The moderator can call “tangent alert” to refocus on the topic at hand.
  • Encourage one-on-one, out-of-meeting connections to address or expand on what can be covered in shorter, virtual meetings.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to YPO and HBS facilitator Michael Bloch from whose work this blog post is adapted.  For more details, see Michael’s full “wartime forum” agenda.

Forum in the age of coronavirus

Given the virus and offices closed down, should we cancel our monthly forum meeting or connect virtually?

How should we adapt our meeting to be most helpful to all of us?

How can forum help me stay calm and resilient in these challenging times?

These are the kind of questions forum members are asking in light of the escalating health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.  I suggest keeping in mind three simple messages.

We need forum now more than ever

Many of us have cancelled upcoming travel; others have had essential supply chains or product launches disrupted; and some are even questioning the financial viability of their businesses.  The months and years we have invested in building our forum’s bonds of trust and support can be a powerful source of strength while the world whirls around us.

At this fragile and uncertain time, we may question our competence, priorities, or decisions. We need a place where we can take off our masks, be vulnerable, and discuss what really matters.  Forum can be that safe port in this “viral storm.”   The worst decision right now could be to cancel your next forum meeting.

Virtual hugs can be (almost) as good as real hugs

Your forum can now meet only in a virtual mode. To do so, follow these best practices:

  • Meet in Zoom or on another platform which allows members to both see and hear each other.
  • Ask each member to be in a quiet, private space, sitting in front of their computer (preferred), or else using their tablet or phone.
  • To accommodate the virtual format, shorten your usual 3 or 4-hour meeting to 1.5 or 2 hours. This still allows time for updates and one full or two mini-presentations.
  • Start with an appropriate icebreaker: What strategy helps you be strong during tough times? What part of your life, family or business needs the most care right now? What leadership or relationship challenge has been exacerbated by the virus?

Embrace the spirit of the Buddist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and consider ending your meeting with a virtual “hug.” Close your eyes as the moderator invites each member to breathe three times consciously, thinking with those breaths: “I’m glad I’m here; I’m glad you’re here; I’m glad we’re here together.”

Stay flexible and be open to new possibilities

As the old saying goes, “people plan, and God laughs.”

We are blessed if we have a forum where we can be truly safe and known.  Now is the time to seek out that place where you can be “respected and cherished, protected, acknowledged, nurtured, encouraged and heard.”

Bob Halperin

An invitation to “brave space”

The People’s Supper is a non-profit organization that uses shared meals to build trust and connection among people of different identities and perspectives.  Their work, born of a belief that “change moves at the speed of trust,” might also inspire our forums.  They often begin their suppers with this invitation to “brave space” by Micky ScottBey Jones:

Together we will create brave space

Because there is no such thing as a “safe space” —

We exist in the real world

We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.

In this space

We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,

We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,

We call each other to more truth and love

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect. It will not always be what we wish it to be

But

It will be our brave space together,

and

We will work on it side by side.

May our forums be such brave spaces, that we create and nourish together.

Holding each other accountable in forum

In forum we withhold judgment, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold each other accountable.  In fact, one of the most powerful uses of forum is for me to hold myself accountable to a certain goal, commitment or deadline; with the other members of the forum serving as my witnesses.

If your forum wants to focus more on personal accountability, consider these possibilities:

  • Any member can voluntarily ask to be held accountable to report back to the forum at a specific future date on their progress/action related to a specific goal.
  • The forum can designate one member to serve as the accountability/commitment “secretary” who will ask about any pending items, either at the beginning of the meeting or during updates.
  • This SMART goals template can be used by any member to ensure that any goals they set are S.M.A.R.T. – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-framed.

Can we ever be fully free of judgment?

We know that forum works best when it is a judgment-free zone.  We speak from experience; we don’t tell others what to do.

But some situations are much harder than others.  Consider the case of two forum mates, “John” and “Mary”:

John, in full candor, shares something that he has done or some decision or choice he has made.

Mary feels strongly that what John did is wrong, bad, immoral, or unethical.

Even if Mary does not share her feelings out loud, is she still judging John negatively, and does Mary need to clear the air with John?

Or is Mary clean with John as long as she doesn’t verbalize her negative judgment of John?

I believe the answer to this case can be found in Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, the foundational text on judgment-free living and clearing the air.  Rosenberg makes the compelling case that, “when you’re busy judging people, you have no time to love them.”  In that spirit, Mary needs to clear the air with herself, not with John.  In that process, perhaps she can come to feel not “I judge John negatively because of what he did,” but instead, “I wouldn’t have done what John did, but I will not judge him.”  This can be our guiding mantra in forum (and in life), even if, as flawed human beings, it will be an ongoing struggle to be judgment-free.

Mary (and all of us) might further reflect:

  • Have I truly tried to understand what John did? Under what conditions would I do what he did? What would have to happen in my life to do exactly what he did?
  • If I see something in John that I don’t like, is this in any way an aspect of something I don’t like in myself?

A further complicating dimension: What if, in Mary’s view, what John did was not only wrong, but illegal?

While it’s simpler to paint the world in black and white, illegal acts can range across a spectrum from running a traffic light to petty shoplifting to embezzlement to first degree murder.  In general, our role in forum is to be an active listener, to ask thought provoking questions, and to share our experiences.  We are not to act as prosecutor, judge and jury.

However, I make one exception to this philosophy: If John has physically harmed another, or announces his intention to physically harm another (or himself), Mary (and others in the forum) are obligated to do something.  That means, depending on the situation, helping John get the professional mental health support he needs, and/or bringing the issue to the attention of appropriate public safety authorities.

Has your forum ever confronted situations like this?  How have you dealt with them? And how can we enhance our forum experiences by sharing best practices in these most complicated cases?  Please share your thoughts.

Would you steal your forum mate’s computer or car?

Of course not. We all learn from an early age to respect the property of others so taking without permission is simply unacceptable.  But far too often and without thinking, we steal something even more precious from our forum mates – their time.  When you arrive 10 minutes late for a forum meeting and six other members must wait to begin, you have stolen collectively an hour of their time.

Tardiness is a chronic problem among busy executives, but time is money, and there is no better example of that than your forum mates wasting time around a table, their combined compensation ticking away at thousands of dollars per hour. And chronic tardiness, no matter how innocent, can gum up the gears of a forum’s ethic, build resentment and anger, and make forum members less willing to share and be vulnerable because of that tardiness-induced stress.

Here’s one simple way to be on time:

  • Block plenty of time on your personal calendar to arrive early, even assuming traffic delays or other unforeseen circumstances.
  • If you are early, simply wait outside in the lobby or in your car, checking email, making phone calls, or reading the article you’ve been saving but never get to.

Your fellow forum members will appreciate the courtesy and respect you are showing for them, and this will build everyone’s commitment to not steal our forum mates’ most valuable possession, their time.

Should our forum add new members?

The “sweet spot” for forum size is 8-10 – large enough to have critical mass and diversity of perspectives; small enough to be manageable when scheduling meetings and sharing air time.

So when should a forum consider adding members?

Tilt towards not adding if the following is generally true:

  • Attendance is solid, almost always 7 or 8.
  • Members are comfortable with the group dynamics, chemistry, balance between peer quality and diversity.

Tilt towards adding members if:

  • One or more members are likely to leave in the next year, for any reason: relocation, dissatisfaction, or lack of alignment with other members’ goals for forum.
  • Your numbers are on the low side (7 or 8), and new members could provide an infusion of new energy, different styles, and a wider range of experience to share.

It’s essential to plan ahead.  Remember that adding members can take several months between identifying candidates, vetting them, and integrating them into the forum.

On the virtues of joining a “younger” forum

A potential forum member recently expressed concern about being placed in a forum where most of the members were considerably younger than him. Being of a “certain age” myself, my response was as follows:

  • Most of my friends and many business associates are around the same age as me. Forum is one place where I can broaden my horizons and get out of my comfort zone.
  • Personally, I’m actively seeking to develop deeper relations with younger people. With all due respect to my peers, those who are 20+ years younger have an energy and entrepreneurial spirit that inspires and motivates me.
  • Just as I’ve reached the age where I prefer to select a dentist or accountant who is not going to leave the scene before me, I also seek friends and forum mates who are more likely to be with me into old age. (I suppose that may sound selfish, but I need to look out for myself, while also serving others.)
  • My contemporaries can tell me about their experience as parents of teen or adult children, or as children of aging parents. It’s a whole new perspective to hear instead from forum members one generation removed, who are themselves the same age as my kids or who are observing the aging of their own parents.

I’ve benefited from being in forum with younger members, and I encourage others also to be open to the possibilities.

The value of forum explained in two cartoons

Andrew Miller, a member of a Harvard Business School Alumni Forum in Toronto, shares two cartoons and his interpretation of how they explain the benefits of forum.

In the first Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, an artist’s vision is obstructed and distorted by a fly on his glasses.  The forum reading: My peer support group helps me identify underlying assumptions, beliefs, and biases that color my vision and distort my perception of reality.  The forum doesn’t help so much with the technical, fine details of how I do my work or live my life; it doesn’t tell me how to use paint or a brush to create my masterpiece, but at a deeper level, the forum helps open my eyes to new perspectives and possibilities and brings greater clarity to my thinking.

In Gary Larson’s second cartoon, an airline pilot is surprised to see a goat way up high in a cloud bank.  The forum view: Sometimes I get so wrapped up in an issue that I lose perspective – it becomes overwhelming with emotions and information and ideas whirling around.   It’s easy in a busy life to get spun around and lose sense of direction.  Forum helps me get my bearings – gets my head up and over the clouds to see things more clearly.   Forum helps me see my path and chart my course with greater clarity.   Forum discussions help me from crashing and burning.