The Chinese government runs a massive online censorship program. Why mention this on an event design blog? Well, the most effective aspect of China’s online censorship regime illustrates what happens when you don’t incorporate covenants into your meetings.
Tech In Asia explains:
“Imagine being near a steep cliff. During the day, when you can see clearly, you might walk right up to the edge to take in the view. But at night or during a thick fog, you’re probably going to steer well clear of the cliff’s edge to ensure that you don’t accidentally misjudge where you are and tumble to your death.
China’s vaguely-defined web content rules and inconsistent censorship enforcement work the same way as the fog near a cliff: since people can’t see exactly where the edge is, they’re more likely to stay far away from it, just in case. There’s no toeing the line, because nobody knows exactly where the line is. So instead of pushing the envelope, many people choose to censor themselves.”
—The cleverest thing about China’s internet censorship, Tech In Asia
As I’ve explained elsewhere, good covenants publicly clarify the freedoms that attendees have at an event, like the freedoms to speak one’s mind, ask questions, and share feelings. When such freedoms are agreed to individually and as a group at the start of a meeting, ambiguity about meeting behavior dissipates. The cliff edge dividing acceptable from unacceptable behavior becomes much clearer, liberating participants from uncertainty about what is O.K. to say and do.
When attendees feel safe to share and empowered to ask questions and express what they think and how they feel, what happens at a conference can be amazing. I’ve been using explicit covenants for fifteen years, and in my experience, effective learning, meaningful connection, engagement, and resulting community all noticeably increase.
If you omit group covenants at your meetings, you default to an environment where most participants will self-censor their behavior to some degree. Given that it takes about five minutes to explain and obtain covenant commitment, it’s crazy to miss out on one of the simplest and most effective things you can do to improve your meeting.
Don’t just read this, nod your head, and forget about it. The next time you run a meeting, introduce covenants at the start (Chapter 18 of The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action has full details) and discover the power of covenants for yourself and your attendees!
Bonus insight on another relationship between censorship and meeting design: How you may be treating your meeting evaluations like a Chinese censor.
Photo attribution: Flickr user zedzap