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What we mean by "pattern"

For the purposes of this project, a pattern is a feature we believe shows up repeatedly in group processes that result in deepening, connection, and a fulfillment of purpose.

Scope: Our scope is the realm of deliberative/dialogic group processes aimed at goals such as decision-making, input, feedback, strategizing, visioning, and conflict resolution, that take place in the context of meetings, conferences, and other convenings that have these goals. Thus there are many times when people gather together that are beyond our zone of exploration (weddings, soccer matches, choir practice, etc.), although some of the patterns we come up with might also sometimes apply beyond our chosen domain.

While recognizing that there is a lot of overlap between patterns of face-to-face and online interaction, we are focused on face-to-face settings.

While we believe that many of these patterns show up cross-culturally, we do not make the claim that our pattern language is universal. This language is being written by a cross-section of North Americans from a variety of group backgrounds (political activism, communal living, and other alternative cultures; higher education; corporate experience in finance, software, and other fields; religious organizations; nonprofit management; indigenous tribes; public agency work; etc.). That diversity lends strength but falls far from addressing all places and groups. Any session takes place within a specific cultural context, and our assumption is that users of this language will take what inspires them and adapt appropriately.

Range: If you think about everything that goes into making a group conversation fulfilling, there is a vast range of things to pay attention to, from the most general to the most specific. In crafting this language, we ask people to focus on a particular middle section within this range, and hold your thinking at that level. We want to avoid being too general: For example, values such as democracy and cooperation, or principles such as Schwarz’s “valid information” and “free and informed choice,” are assumed or embedded rather than explicitly considered in the body of this work. We also want to avoid being too specific: There is a level of detail that is already well-represented in the existing literature and that we do not seek to replicate, namely:

  • listing and explanations of methods (e.g. The Change Handbook);
  • catalogues of tools and techniques.

Of course within our list of potential patterns, some of them are more general and some are more specific, just as Alexander's architectural pattern language includes patterns ranging from "Independent Regions" to "Different Chairs."

Rather than listing methods or techniques, we look for behaviors and qualities that repeat across methods and approaches. What is it that happens over and over again in group processes that work? And then we try to give some guidance for how to do that behavior or evoke that quality. Preferably in straightforward language, using as little jargon as possible. Essentially, we are aiming at the core wisdom of what makes group work successful. And we want it to sing.

HALLMARKS LIST (aka "The Pruning Tool")

The following list of questions are here to help guide the pattern writing and editing process. While it’s not required that every pattern necessarily be able to answer yes to every question on this list, these are hallmarks that have been noted across many of the patterns.

Does it further the goals of the project?

  • Support purpose-driven design
  • Deepen the skills of those who serve as group process guides
  • Serve as a resource for those who are teaching others
  • Increase process literacy among people who are users of process(es)

Does it point us toward “the quality that has no name”? Does it describe a feature that shows up repeatedly in group processes that result in “deepening, connection, and a fulfillment of purpose”?

Does it feel resonant? Is it evocative? Does my gut respond to this with a sense of recognition?

Does it happen across methods/approaches? Is it a common piece underlying multiple methodologies? This is like stacking functions in permaculture, where one element contributes to many yields.

Can it take a large variety of forms? "Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice."--A Pattern Language

Is it fractal? That is, does it show up at more than one scale (such as within one item of a meeting and again within the meeting as a whole)?

Is it a distinct creature? That is, once grasped, it stands out as its own thing, coherent, and not merely a result of other aspects of process. While it may take a while to first “see” a pattern, its essential “shape” should be easy to recall once understood. Is it unifying? It may bring together what previously seemed like separate aspects of group process.

Does it describe an action that can be consciously undertaken by convenors and/or participants? Rather than, for instance, a dynamic to be passively observed. Does knowledge of this pattern increase the skill of practitioners?