The Challenge of Peer Organisation

or the art of being in charge of ourselves
and still working productively together

JanPieter Hoogma

Jump to Chapter 1. Preface

Jump to Chapter 1. In 1996 friends repeatedly asked me to write down my vision of how Co-Counsellors can organise themselves. How can peership be combined with effective organisation? The reason they gave me was that Co-Counsellors in the Scottish network did not really know and understand what my vision was. Eventually I accepted this challenge and wrote two articles for the Scottish Good&Newsletter, published in 1996 and 1997. This publication contains the almost unchanged version of these two articles.

Chapter 1 "Some facts about Co-Counsellors" describes facts that I think need to be taken into account when Co-Counsellors try to organise themselves. These facts actually pose challenges that are easily overlooked. When not dealt with, efforts invested into Co-Counselling often are wasted and lead to disappointment.

In Chapter 2 "Choices made in Scotland" you will find the decisions we made in the Scottish experiment, e.g How did we meet the above-mentioned challenges in Scotland in the period from 1992-1997?

Consensual peership not only promises everybody to have a voice in decision-making but also the opportunity to block everything what one doesn't like. Therefore each peership organisation is confronted with the challenge to avoid the trap of messy, ineffective democracy and to develop a decision making process that involves as many Co-Counsellors as possible and produces wise decisions and good results as well. In Chapter 3 "Decision Making" I take a closer look at critical issues in the decision-making of peer and voluntary organisations. I also describe the proposals I made for the 1997 AGM to improve decision making and involvement in the Scottish Co-Counselling network. Many of my proposals are now implemented, though in amended forms.

At the time it was my aim to write a chapter about how the development of a strong Co-Counselling volunteers base can be stimulated. In 1998 however, my priorities shifted and I didn't finalise and publish the draft. A slightly changed version you can read in the Scottish Section of the five Case Studies "How can we support new Co-Counsellors to settle into Co-Counselling."

Finally, the things I have written are not pure theory or speculative fantasy. I am pleased to see that those ideas translated themselves very much into a vibrant Co-Counselling community in Scotland, now already existing for several years.

Thanks for your attention,

JanPieter Hoogma, February 2001.

Jump to previous Chapter Chapter 1: Some facts about Co-Counsellors. Jump to next Chapter

When thinking about organisation generally, I find it important to look at what is ‘given’; what is characteristic about the people who are involved in the organising process. Supporting a group of children to organise themselves is different from organising a group of engineers to build a bridge. So what ‘facts’ do I think are relevant when thinking about a Co-Counsellors peership organisation?

Jump to 'Fact 2' 1. People do not enter Co-Counselling to do voluntary jobs; they join for sessions, access to workshops and mutual support Jump to Top of chapter.

Jump to 'Challenge 1' I think that especially after the Fundamentals Co-Counsellors prefer to attend workshops and Co-Counselling events organised by other people rather than to organise them themselves. One cannot assume that after Fundamentals everybody is immediately an autonomous, ‘in charge’, responsible Co-Counsellor. It takes time to build confidence as client and counsellor and even more time to appreciate Co-Counselling to the full. It is this appreciation that seems to motivate Co-Counsellors to do voluntary jobs for Co-Counselling.

Jump to 'Challenge 2' Challenge 1: Supplying Co-Counselling events.

Several aspects are important here:

  • Initially most Co-Counsellors behave as consumers: they pick what they like and leave what they don’t and look for what they still need elsewhere, if necessary outside Co-Counselling. They vote with their feet. So what Co-Counselling events do they need or want?
  • General Co-Counselling workshops provide a good start for new Co-Counsellors: opportunities for sessions and meeting other Co-Counsellors. I believe, however, that the huge variety and needs of Co-Counsellors can only be met by topical workshops related to their different needs, awarenesses and backgrounds. This explains the great success of the International CCI workshops where an enormous variety of workshops is on offer.

    So, how can workshops be supplied in Scotland to meet the needs and interests of Co-Counsellors?
  • Being supplying with workshops may be nice, but it still leaves us with the question: How can Co-Counsellors be encouraged to develop the skills, the confidence and motivation to organise and facilitate workshops themselves?

Jump a  small step Challenge 2: Where do you find volunteers?

Apart from running workshops people are needed for other jobs, essential for keeping the network going and growing, for example the production of the newsletter, financial management, membership administration, facilitation of the network decision making process, etc.

Quite a lot of Co-Counsellors are prepared to take on small, short term jobs with a clear beginning and end. Only a few are willing and able to offer a long-term commitment that involves a lot of effort and not giving in when things become difficult.

Jump to Fact 3 2. Co-Counsellors vote mostly with their feet Jump back to Fact 1.

Most Co-Counsellors attend workshops, have sessions and organise the support they need. Many Co-Counsellors don’t like business meetings. They leave Co-Counselling if they don’t find what they want or need, rather than making their feet bring them to business meetings to state what they need. Even, if all goes well, only a 20% attendance can be expected at an AGM.

Jump a  small step Co-Counselling lacks a good feedback culture

If there is something that Co-Counsellors don’t like, they process that in sessions (or not) and very often they don’t feed this back to the organisers. Also the ‘Positivity’ culture inhibits feedback: Co-Counsellors are encouraged to express the ‘good and news’ of a Co-Counselling event, but NOT what they have found lacking.

So there is hardly any direct feedback for the organisers, facilitators and teachers, unless they actively encourage and promote forms of feedback. If there is feedback, the challenge for organisers is to stay distress free and ‘hear’ the feedback without saying ‘This is your problem. Work on it by yourself’.’.

Jump a  small step Challenges

So there you have the challenges: Given an unavoidable lack of participation and feedback:

  • how to create decisions so wise and realistic that they effectively promote Co-Counselling
  • how to organise a decision making process that checks in with as many Co-Counsellors as possible and that doesn’t rely solely on business meetings.

Jump to Fact 4. 3. Co-Counselling is not only about one-to-one sessions, but also about socialising Jump back to Fact 2.

Jump a  small step CCI Co-Counselling is mostly perceived as Co-Counsellors having Co-Counselling sessions. In most Co-Counselling literature 90% of the text is about sessions or session related issues. Co-Counsellors, however, spend a lot of time with each other outside sessions and they seem to like it. In the Co-Counselling literature peer relating, fundamental for CCI Co-Counselling, socialising and organisational issues seem to be almost an afterthought.

In this socialising contentious issues can surface: breach of safety, control & manipulation, abuse of power, sexual attractions, conflicts between people, split up of relationships, gossip, to name but a few. It is wonderful that so many Co-Counsellors with difficult relationships in their background (perhaps one of the reasons why they joined Co-Counselling) are able to relate to each other. Having listened to many safety issues at the ‘Conflict & Safety in the Network’ workshop, I think, however, that many of these remain buried by the rule of ‘Confidentiality’.

Jump a  small step Challenges

  1. How can an awareness of pitfalls, and of healthy / unhealthy socialisation be promoted?
  2. How can people be provided with empowering support to deal positively with safety, conflicts & complaints issues?

Jump to Fact 5. 4. People bring into the organisation not only their Person, but also their Patterns Jump back to Fact 3.

Jump a  small step This sounds obvious: why else should people enter Co-Counselling? Particularly relevant here is that Co-Counsellors bring in patterns around ‘organisation’, ‘conflicts’, ‘peership, leadership and authority’. Look at it the other way around: if they were comfortable with their skills in dealing with these situations, do you think they would have needed to join Co-Counselling?

Jump a  small step Some damaging patterns for any organisation

The ‘Image Builder’ pattern
The aim of this pattern is to persuade an audience to confirm a chosen identity of the Co-Counsellor, like ‘Bridge builder’, ‘Defender of the Co-Counselling spirit’, ‘Defender of the peership or any other Co-Counselling Principle’, or simply ‘See how good (intelligent, skilled, courageous etc.) I am’. The key here is the audience: only those jobs will be carried out that will make a good impression on the audience.

The ‘Fundamentalist’ pattern
Although this pattern can take the form of ‘Defender of the Co-Counselling Spirit’, or ‘Defender of the Peership or any other Co-Counselling principle’, as in the ‘Image Builder’ pattern, it is exclusively about principles. And the audience is totally unimportant, as the pattern is based on self-righteousness. The damage lies in the fact that this pattern is basically not interested in making things work. Even when the principles are upheld, there will be a search for another principle in danger of violation. There is a notorious example from Vietnam: ‘We celebrate the liberation of this village from communism on behalf of democracy. We regret that in the process there are no people left anymore.....’

The ‘Victim’ pattern
This pattern is recognisable by blaming ‘You are powerful (disempowering, hierarchical), and your power (actions, approach) stops me from being powerful myself.’ The key here is: the blamer is basically not prepared to become powerful him/herself and to negotiate a good power sharing. Often the aim is t damage and this manifests itself sometimes in the fact that the person concerned may be the last one to hear of the complaints. By which time the gossip patterns can be rife.

The ‘Stirrer, Rebel or Creating Chaos’ pattern
This pattern enjoys stirring other people and playing games with them, in order to see confusion and chaos simply for the sake of it. This needs to be distinguished from honestly issue raising that might happen in a provocative way, but with a commitment to bring these issues to a good end. Here the challenge is to recognise properly what the underlying motives are.

Jump a  small step What does this mean for organisation?

The challenge for individual Co-Counsellors:
When confronted with these and other patterns, there is a big invitation to get hooked into them. The challenge is to avoid this. By the way, this is easier said than done.... People can really believe their own patterns that they are doing absolutely the right thing and acting in good faith. Not all Co-Counsellors can see through this and link in with their own patterns. This can lead to a snowball effect and utter confusion and demoralisation.

The challenge for peer organisations:
Just as the door is open for everybody to be involved in the decision-making processes, the door is also very much open for everybody’s patterns, which may be destructive to Co-Counsellors who work for Co-Counselling and so to the organisation itself.

  • If the organisation doesn’t want to lose its active people - who are scarce in Co-Counselling anyway- it needs to provide protection against these harmful patterns.
  • On the other hand the active volunteers need to be kept accountable to the other members of the network. So methods of challenging them in an open, safe and responsible way need to be devised.

Jump a  small step Patterns around making commitments

Apart from these four unproductive patterns Co-Counsellors can have other difficulties around making commitments. People like to show their willingness and make a good impression by taking on jobs. The line that ‘Everybody is in charge of their own lives’ seems to encourage Co-Counsellors to break their commitments almost as easily as they take them on. Sometimes they don’t even respect the need of others to be informed of their change of mind!

The challenges:

  • to operate with commitments which are not fulfilled
  • to create a culture that values & encourages realistic commitments that can be honoured.

Jump to Fact 6. 5. Most Co-Counsellors have a limited and fragmented awareness of Co-Counselling Jump back to Fact 4.

Jump a  small step New people come into Co-Counselling continuously. During Fundamentals, understandably they explore the basic skills for sessions and gain some insight into the Co-Counselling culture. There is little time to highlight the vast richness and historical variety of Co-Counselling or to acquire insights into how the peership organisation has been developing. There is almost no literature about the CCiS, its history and its organisation. So it is not amazing that most (new) Scottish Co-Counsellors don’t know why we decided in 1992 on "Scottish" instead of "Small & Local", on the objective of "the highest possible Quality", and on "Network instead of Community".

Jump a  small step Some of the challenges

  • Clarifying to Co-Counsellors how many opportunities Co-Counselling has to offer.
  • Making the previous experiences and insights available, so that people can make their own informed choices and decisions, and that re-inventing the organising wheel again and again is minimised as much as possible.

Jump to end chapter 6. Physical restrictions of peership Jump to Fact 5.

Experience shows that only groups of 6 (8 under the most optimum conditions) are able to run themselves purely as a peer group i.e. without any appointed facilitator. The condition for success is that each group member is equally distress free, knowledgeable and able to manage a group process. The reason for this is that the bigger the group, the more information needs to be processed and negotiated by each member.

Thus in Co-Counselling even small peer groups often work with an appointed facilitator and because of the peership principle rotate the facilitation.

Although peership logically dispenses with the cult of the personal leader, it can’t dispense certain activities and functions of leadership, for example focusing meetings, creating directions, co-ordinating activities and encouraging the available volunteering manpower. These are all vital and necessary processes in any organisation.

The bigger and more heterogeneous the groups are, the more complicated these processes become. That means that somebody who is able to facilitate a support-group evening may not necessarily be able to facilitate workshops, or to see a business meeting through from start to finish, including the preparation, the meeting itself and its aftermath.

Jump a  small step Challenges

  • As the quality of the facilitation is crucial for the results, how can Co-Counsellors be encouraged to become good facilitators?
  • How can facilitation in the network be organised in such a way that everybody can feel in control of the decision making process?