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Chris Dixon. Tir Penrhos Isaf

(first published in Permaculture Magazine. pub Permanent Publications)

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Designing for our meetings

In the last edition of the magazine, Bryn (Thomas) mentioned zoning, a method of ordering elements within site design. Details of the 5 zones can be found in the books. PC Britain introduced a further zone, zone 00, to refer more specifically to the people, (body and mind), who occupy their zone 0 dwellings. Its a useful addition, as I hope will become clear.

So why design for meetings? Basically, cultural patterns are contained within the structures of meetings. Traditional meetings in this country, for example, are generally characterised by patterns which elevate certain individuals, (chairperson, experts etc) allowing them more opportunity to speak, which in turn oppresses others, (usually the "general public") by denying or restricting their chance to contribute. This monopolisation of attention by a limited group or individual tends to generate an opposition and thus confrontation. Individuals whose education or experience favours, (and is favoured by), these patterns can take control and manipulate the meeting. No space is presented for people to learn how to meet; you're just expected to accept the situation and get on with it.

All this is implicit in the structure or patterning of the meeting and never clearly stated. It should be said that people who dominate meetings may believe that this is the best way to "get things done" and that its their role because no one else can do it. For those who do not get the opportunity to speak or feel unhappy about speaking in a confrontational situation, there are feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration or despair.

Some points to note are the way the patterning of the meeting both effects and is effected by the patterning, (zone 00), of the participants. In the instance outlined above, the experience of the meeting is intimately linked to wider cultural experiences of division and powerlessness.

It would seem sensible then to make permaculture implicit in our meetings through good design. We can apply a similar design process as we would with site design. So where with a site we would consider and provide for the flows of energies such as water, wind, heat and light, in meeting design we would use strategies that concentrate or maximise the flow of attention, thought or consciousness. Similarly, we can use concepts such as flexibility, stacking and edge etc. These will be outlined below.

A further reason to design patterns for meetings is to generate stability within groups; while individuals may come and go, the patterns remain recognisably the same. This will be very useful in terms of building a global culture. So while every meeting and every group is different, where ever we go, we will be able to recognise our culture; that is, permaculture.

What is presented here is not so much THE model for meetings but rather the IDEA that we should design our meetings. Having said that I want to present a basic model so we've at least got something to play with and discuss. This is a collation of various experiences including PC courses and the exploration of meeting patterns over about a year with the Mawddach group.

The pattern is presented in the form of a flow chart, with the emphasis on flow, and I have confined myself to providing limited notes to enlarge on some of the ideas contained within it. The rest is up to you. I would appreciate feedback from anyone who plays with this or similar patterns.



Where ever the circling arrow appears, attention is passed around the meeting; that is to say, everyone gets to speak in turn, without interruption. This simple technique represents a fundamental challenge to the traditional meeting (and therefore to destructo-culture). The feeling that you haven't had the opportunity to voice your opinion has been designed out of the meeting. In permaculture, everyone's expression is valuable.

If new members are present at the meeting it should be made clear that it is ok to pass or get someone else to speak for you or read a prepared piece, in order to avoid feelings of pressure. This is important. Due to traditional meeting structures, (among other things), many people lack confidence about speaking in front of others. We should be prepared to offer support. This learning to speak in front of others can be eased by a background of lightness, injecting humour and making spaces for people to talk about their own interests, (that is, encouraging them to demonstrate their own expertise).

With large groups it is often more practical to divide into smaller groups and then report back at some point to the full meeting. Similarly, limitations on time are sometimes necessary and a certain flexibility is required on the part of the leader.



As implied above, a leader's main concern is with the process, rather than the content, of the meeting; the role is more to do with keeping attention focused on the points to be discussed, ensuring opportunities to speak and directing the group's attention, rather than making dramatic, enlightened contributions. It is essential therefore that leadership is shared in order to allow previous leaders the opportunity to contribute to the content of the meetings.

In the Mawddach group, once people were accustomed to the basic pattern, most members enjoyed taking a turn at leading meetings. We followed a loose pattern whereby an individual acted as an apprentice to a leader for one meeting, led the next one with the ex-leader as support and then a third meeting with the next apprentice. This means that the leader always has someone they can call on for help. If you get stuck, ask the group where to go next through a suggestion circle.



Arriving, starting and finishing on time shows basic respect. The same applies to keeping to an agenda, especially when people may well have given up time or travelled some distance to attend.



is always useful for introductions and marking the move into the meeting proper. Saying your name and something good or interesting that has happened has become a regular feature of various groups' meetings. It is possible to choose the meeting leader at this point.



allows each individual a time slot to contribute something. This can be based on work or study undertaken since the last meeting or new thinking. It challenges the pre-meeting clique and allows everyone to hear new ideas. Sometimes agenda items get cleared up here without needing to devote time from the main meeting. Its also a useful space to provide any support work that may be required. The comment circle allows for feedback on each other's ideas.



will depend on the purpose and length of your meeting. With the Mawddach group we tended to choose one main area of attention for each (2 hour) meeting, usually at the end of the previous meeting. For groups with specific projects a basic agenda needs to be circulated prior to the meeting and this space can be used to edit or enlarge that framework.


PRESENTATION of an agenda point can be usefully made by the individual who raised it followed by the comment circle.


OPEN FORUM, for want of a better label, provides the space for the exploration of each point. This can take various forms such as a free for all with multiple conversations, raising a hand to speak, small group work, brainstorming, continued circling etc according to the feelings of the group or leader. The movement back through a comment circle provides an escape from the polarity of argument. Remember that confrontation\argument is just a potential tool, not a strategy in itself. Group attention is cycled through open forum, comment and decision circles until the main points are cleared or time calls a close.


NEXT STEPS is the opportunity to make a provisional agenda for the next meeting or choose a main point for discussion, sort out the next leader and choose time and place.


ASSESSMENT OF MEETING is a useful circle and provides important feedback for leaders. It seems sane to offer expressions in the form of, what you liked about the meeting and what you would do differently next time. Its also a good space to offer appreciation of the leader.





FLEXIBILITY is a keyword. The pattern will need to be tweaked depending on how many people turn up, how long the meeting lasts and the aims of the group. As a rough guide the Mawddach group hold two hour sessions with about 5 minutes each reporting back and about an hour on the main point. The third section only needs 5 to 10 minutes.


PEOPLECARE is one of the declared principles of permaculture and opportunities to practice this are present whenever we gather. By good design we can make this implicit in our meetings. However, we are often dealing with charged topics, personal stuff as well as ecological heavies, so we must be ready to provide support for each other. Various simple techniques can be called on to relieve stresses that may arise. Humour is really useful and most groups contain at least one resident comedian, (the pc council is no exception), but make sure this role doesn't get monopolised.

Another simple technique is swapping time, where members pair up and take turns speaking then listening, (say 2-5 minutes each way). Among other things, this can burn off tensions raised by a discussion, is good practice for developing listening skills and allows the speaker to consider their own ideas on something.

Remember that if you feel any of the meetings you attend, (not just pc meetings) are inadequate in terms of peoplecare, you could try including a practical peoplecare bit on the agenda as you would for any other point. Then when it comes up, rather than discussing it, do it.


APPLICATION to a wider event day is given briefly. Shared meals are reasonably simple if everyone contributes one dish. Entertainments we've used include slides, video, music etc. Practical work can include site visits, seed collection walks, nursery bed construction, plant identification etc. etc.

I'll end with some thoughts on edges. The start and end of the meeting, before and after breaks, between 1), 2) and 3), between agenda points and between individuals reporting back spaces, can be seen as edges in time. As such we can usefully locate events here. Events can function to relieve stresses between meeting, (form) and non-meeting, (no form) or between different parts\experiences of meeting. As with site design, increasing edge provides increased opportunity for events and this meeting pattern has been designed with plenty of edge.

Swapping time can be seen as an event and others can take the form of songs, poems, games, picture, dance etc. etc. and reflect work, play, serious, fun, physical\practical, mental, emotional, shared, art, learning\teaching etc. etc. The result is a form of stacking. In such a way, rather than just boring necessities to sort out stuff, meetings can become enjoyable cultural events\experiences and begin to illuminate the fuller implications of the label perma- culture.


I've had to limit myself here in terms of space, so some explanations are a bit brief. I've been inspired in this thinking by too many people to thank everyone individually but I would like to recognise in particular the contribution of the Mawddach local group and Andy Langford and Jane Hera. Nice one all.


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