Consider for a moment the possibility that meetings are rituals.
By rituals I do not mean religious rites, although they too are rituals. Nor am I referring to personal routines, such as brushing one’s teeth, especially those that are performed unconsciously, out of habit. For the purposes of this reflection, ritual is defined as a repeatable cultural performance, a specific act performed on a specific occasion. Rituals are culturally coded behaviors that give us a heightened sense of identity and meaning. Rituals help define us as a community; they remind us of who we are, how to behave and what is of ultimate value.
The human species has invented itself through ritual. Human cultures are a product of ritual — and ritual is our primary cultural product. Because rituals both shape and mirror cultural evolution, they are a rich source of information about the social order and a powerful tool for its transformation. I am suggesting that meetings are one of the dominant rituals of our times and therefore, properly used, could serve as an effective instrument for social and cultural change.
What if we saw meetings —understood as gatherings to discuss issues of shared importance and to make collective decisions— as a basic human need, like food, sleep or sex? What if meetings were treated not as a boring obligation, but as essential for survival? What if meetings connected us to our psychic depths, to our local community, and to the great mystery? What if meetings reminded us of what is sacred, of what must be treasured and protected? How would meetings be different if we saw them as an opportunity to educate, guide, nourish and heal ourselves? What if we entered into meetings with passion, reverence, and a sense that our participation was of vital importance?
The Link Between Myth and Ritual
Myths are the “big stories” we tell about our role in the evolutionary journey of the universe. They are the narratives that, when joined to ritual, create a web of meaning out of which our individual and collective identity emerges. We are the stories we tell and the rituals we perform. So how can we harness the dual power of myth and ritual to make our meetings more bearable?
Fear and Loathing of Ritual — and Meetings
As local cultures all over the planet have become marginalized and even eradicated by the interests of multinational corporations and the governments who serve them, many rituals have lost their connection to the sacred. Most of us no longer celebrate the new moon, the solstice, the harvest or the return of migrating birds. Instead we flock to the shopping mall, pack the sports stadium and go to ugly, boring, embarrassing, oppressive, alienating, and infuriating meetings.
The rituals practiced in most meetings produce a specific kind of suffering. Decision-makers who already know what they plan to do are required to pretend to listen to the opinions of others. Participants are obliged to sit through meetings in which it is obvious that their ideas, if expressed at all, will have no real impact on the final decision. People talk too much or not at all. Agendas are too full, poorly organized or non-existent. Discussions meander, priorities are unclear, and the decision-making process swings between despotism and anarchy. And so forth!
Applying the Criteria for Good Ritual to Meetings
Here are some of the lessons we can learn from ‘good’ rituals, meaning those that inspire and energize us, that might make our meetings more meaningful and effective.
- Be clear about the purpose. In general, those who attend a wedding are clear about the purpose of the ritual. They do not confuse it, for example, with a football game. Do we know the true purpose of the Monday morning sales meeting? If we did (and had a choice), would we bother to attend?
- Know your role. The godparents at a baptism understand that they are committing themselves to the on-going spiritual education of the child. What is the role of those who attend a condominium meeting? To complain about the neighbors? To listen to committee reports? To advise the board of directors? If their role were clearer, would they behave differently?
- Plan ahead. Good rituals require careful preparation. A meeting in which the room is clean and the chairs in place, an agenda has been drafted, the right people are present and the needed materials are at hand sets the stage for an effective session.
- Make it special. Rituals transform the ordinary into something special. When we take the trouble to put flowers on the table, bake cookies for the coffee break, or simply greet people with a smile as they arrive, we send a message that beauty, caring and human connection are some of the values that guide our work.
- Take time to get centered. The world is full of difficulties and distractions that need to be set aside in order to enter into ritual space. A moment of silence can help get everyone mentally ‘in the room’ and focused on their intention for being there.
- Vary the timing and texture. Rituals can be short or long, formal or impromptu, complex or simple. Meeting formats should vary according to their purpose.
The Meeting Facilitator as Ritual Leader
If meetings are a contemporary ritual, then the facilitator can be viewed as a kind of “process priest(ess)” who helps set the tone, maintains the focus and guides group through the various stages of its work. A novice facilitator, like a recently ordained priest, may be a little insecure at first. A more experienced facilitator can handle larger, more complex groups. A seasoned facilitator who has done his/her own inner work, can serve a more shamanic role, accompanying the group through confusion and confrontation until some resolution is reached. A long or complex meeting, like a ‘big’ ceremony, calls for an experienced team of facilitators, as well as other process roles, to hold the energy. If, as suggested at the beginning of this article, meetings are culturally coded performances, then they can be modified to meet the urgencies of the times. We need meetings that invite dialogue, promote understanding, encourage collaboration, stir creativity, and meet our fundamental need for meaning and belonging. We need meetings that engage our hearts and minds and give us an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world. If we settle for less, we are wasting our time.