Consensus Is Hard

Groaned when asked to take part in a “group exercise” at a meeting for our co-op preschool tonight. Broke into teams of eight, each team given a 6-foot-long bar. We were asked to suspend the bar from below using three fingers of each hand, and lower it to the ground as quickly as we could. What could possibly be easier? Just one unbreakable rule: At no point must anyone’s fingers lose contact with the bottom of the bar.

Out of five teams, one never completed the task, while another finished it four times in the allotted period. It took my team seven minutes to lower the damn bar.

Being a person who gets frustrated quickly by people standing in the left lane on the escalator, taking too long to pick out a muffin at the coffee counter, entering a train before everyone’s gotten off, or riding their bikes too slowly on the bike path, I found the experiment extremely aggravating. I like things to flow smoothly, wordlessly, and I like simple things to be simple. “Who is holding up the bar, and why???”

But no one is “holding it up” on purpose. Everyone is just trying to maintain contact with the bar. The mutual goal is in direct contradiction to the mutual rule.

One of two things has to happen for the process to work smoothly: Either an individual has to emerge as a clear leader and somehow direct the flow, or the group has to have a near-psychic interpersonal connection. We had neither. We just struggled and got frustrated.

The exercise was supposed to be a community builder. Instead, for me, it became an object lesson on why preschool meetings drag on endlessly.

Music: Sufjan Stevens :: Demetrius

7 Replies to “Consensus Is Hard”

  1. Well, I think the idea is figuring out how to work together on problems that are harder than they seem, etc. Whether the exercise could apply to any real-world situations is questionable though.

  2. What you need in a situation like this is an authoritative, charismatic leader: “Everyone lower the bar … NOW!!”

    It could also be a physical thing. I know from studying taijiquan that it is very, very hard to remain in gently in contact with something moving while maintaining a consistent level of pressure. It takes a lot of practice and body awareness to do this.

  3. The person in the middle of the bar should start by kneeling. Then place his/her forehead on the bar, and gently push to the floor.


  4. Almost – the thing starts at chest height, so I think you mean the person in the middle would stand and press down with their forehead.

    But what I think you’re saying is that one way to solve it is to think outside the box. Would the technique be cheating? Well, no one said we couldn’t do it that way. Would it be in the “spirit” of the challenge? Or against it? Probably no right answers there. I’d expect that if we had done that, other teams would have said we “cheated,” while the group leader might have praised us for not being bound by unspoken rules. Who knows…

  5. > Groaned when asked to take part in a “group exercise” at a meeting for our co-op preschool tonight.

    What do you suppose the reaction would have been to someone who looked at what the participants in this “group exercise” were being asked to do, foresaw that it would be an unnecessary barrel of snakes, and then not-unreasonably replied, “Thank you, no; I’ll pass. Get back to me when you have a problem that’s actually worthwhile for a group to solve.”?

  6. It probably would not have been perceived well. The interloper would probably be seen as a killjoy, unwilling to even try something they hadn’t tried before.

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