Groupwork Centre Blog

Why we all need principles

Definition: A principle is a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of beliefs or behaviour or a chain of reasoning    

We all have principles. Principles lie deep within us ready to be leant upon, to guide us and to help us find our way forward when we are being pulled in multiple directions depending on the prevailing conditions.

They’re like an inner compass and seem to arise from some kind of collective human conscience. In the old days, all we had to do was “give a little whistle” and like Jiminy Cricket, we’d be in touch with our principles.

These days we’ve had more practice at rationalising away our principles when the going gets tough.  How many times have we heard principles berated as “impractical” by governments frustrated by smaller elected parties who can still “afford” to make decisions based on principles. In government circles, acting on your principles has become synonymous with naivety.

But it’s not principles that let us down, it’s our stepping away from them that’s the problem. Dodgy behaviours arise when we stop putting principles first. When outcomes are more important than the principles that shape them, we end up with outcomes that no longer serve the greater good.

A conscious society looks for behaviours that are shaped by principles which themselves sit on values that  form the bedrock of that society.  No one disputes values like fairness, respect, transparency, equity, honesty and love, so why would we dispute the principles that come from them?

In Groupwork parlance, principles are “values with legs”. They are what values look like when you do them. So a principle of Equity might be “we believe that all voices in a room need to have the opportunity to be heard regardless of status, knowledge or enthusiasm to speak up”.  Our actions then need to create opportunity for that to happen. Our actions are guided by the principle.

A principle around the value of Collaboration for example, might be “we will always help people to hear each other even if there is strong disagreement”.  We are being guided here to stay with any conflict, not avoid or work around it, because there is something important that needs to be worked through within the group.

Without such a principle, our unconscious need to “keep the peace” can actually undermine our service to the group.

This is the crux of the issue: as facilitators, just like anyone else, our unconscious can be driven from places of fear and uncertainty when tricky dynamics emerge in a group. If we follow our unconscious mind, we will desert our principles. On the other hand, if we stick with our principles, time and again we will act clearly, with compassion and on behalf of the group.

As facilitators, there is nothing more important to have in our kit bag than principles. Principles make us act consistently, because they are not driven by how we might look, or how someone might react, whether we are running out of time or whether someone senior is giving us dirty looks.

No, facilitation principles ensure we are guided by what is good for the group, pure and simple. This sometimes means making hard decisions, but if it does, we know these are the right choices to make because principles are underneath our motivations.

One of the most asked questions in our facilitation training is something like: “How do you shut down someone who is taking over the group?”. This is a great question to explore through the principle lens.  Someone taking over a group is a fear we might all share at times and the idea that we need to shut a person down makes sense in the context of ensuring that we protect the group members.

One principle motivating that action might be: “Everyone deserves to be heard in the room”.  But another principle at play that’s needed if we are heading in this direction could be: “Even if someone has said or done the wrong thing, they must never be shamed.”

Our role as facilitators is to protect both the group and each group member. We need to stand by both. This is tricky, which is why the question is so often asked, because we know that “shutting down” anyone has the potential to go badly.

The question reveals the bias of motivation in the language of “shut down”.  We are wanting to stop someone doing something we think is wrong.

Another potential principle comes into focus here: “We will always assume good intent”. This principle changes our bias straight away. Instead of assuming that someone is doing something wrong, we can entertain other more well-intentioned possibilities and act accordingly.

Perhaps someone “taking over” is simply enthusiastic and blind to the impacts they are having on the group. Perhaps they are regularly shut down in other forums and so are desperate to keep talking while they still can!

In this example, these three principles help us to craft a response to this situation that is kind, generous and boundaried. It’s responsive to the complexity of the dynamic, not looking to achieve just one outcome (ie shutting down someone) but recognising a number of things need to happen if we are to be truly of service to the whole group.

When we act from our principles, we create safety which in turn helps any group we are facilitating work well together. As facilitators, we have power and the risk of abusing that power when we don’t know what our principles are is always possible.

In this post-truth “you do you” world where so much is changing, and where so much is rationalised away as being “just another way of seeing the world”, the re-discovery or re-confirmation of our principles could help us to provide some much-needed guidance in the ways we facilitate and carry ourselves in groups.

When we are questioned as to why we do certain things, being able to point to our own principles, and how we have arrived there, can be incredibly helpful and a powerful place from which conversations can happen.


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