Adventures in the Liminal Zone – why do newbies not come back?

Went to a really really good meeting tonight (not perfect, but really good!), and in t’pub afterwards started quizzing people why they think ‘newbies’, who come to one or maybe two meetings, are then never seen again (almost all of them – a very small number stay involved, and replace old hands who drop out/go travelling, leaving groups with static or slowly declining numbers).

I have asked various of those people to contribute to a blog discussion, but obviously anyone else is welcome to.
Below is a rough first list of why (I think) people don’t stay with groups. I can’t emphasise enough that there are so many different reasons that stop people sticking around. And the same person might have – at different stages in their ‘career’ of potential activism – different reasons for not getting involved.

It isn’t what they were expecting it would be

Not welcomed to the meeting
Everyone stand-offish,
Active/perceived hostility from members of the meeting (for whatever reason – they think you’re a cop, or too liberal, or they’re jealous of your looks, youth, intelligence, energy, naivete or whatever)

Meeting is confusing
Jargon thrown around with no explanation
Group doesn’t have a clear objective
Not clear how decisions get made. There seems to be a clique. Decisions are probably going to be made in the pub afterwards

Meeting is kind of scary
Rhetoric of “smash the state” “all politicians are war-mongers”
Conflict between established people there
Cynicism from the ‘old hands’
Don’t think have the time to be involved at the level the group seems to expect/need (see “legitimated peripheral participation”)
The gender dynamics are “normal” (i.e. Men doing most of the talking and all of the interrupting)

Group is not credible
Group has a clear objective but it seems unrealistic
There seems to be a lot of stuff that was supposed to be done that hasn’t been done, and no reports from people who aren’t in the room about the work they were supposed to do (leeches credibility and morale away)

Nothing to connect you to group
No potential friendships/contacts made
Not given a job
Given too big a job/not given support (buddy system)
You don’t have the time to get heavily involved in the group, but would have been willing to do a set piece of work. No-one suggested, so you’re gonna take your energy elsewhere

And if you come to the next meeting, having done your bit of the larger project to find that your time has been wasted because other people have not done THEIR bit, then that (IMHO) would piss you right off, especially if the problem wasn’t acknowledged/dealt

OR the work you have done is not acknowledged, or is unfairly critiqued, or is critiqued in the wrong forum (e.g. on a shared email discussion)

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16 Responses to Adventures in the Liminal Zone – why do newbies not come back?

  1. leavergirl says:

    Well, from my experience:
    1) treated unfriendly (they seemed to look down their noses at me)
    2) horribly boring
    3) frozen in process (this was a Quaker group that wasted a glorious Indian summer afternoon sitting in a darkish hall by dealing with mostly trivia or matters that could have been resolved by a group phone call; the process was impeccable, the content mostly missing, and worst of all… their priorities seemed misplaced)
    4) I was twice witness of the flight of newbies that showed up eager and bushytailed only to find the group embroiled in some bizarre dispute or dealing with dirty laundry
    5) people come looking for solutions, hands on stuff, and are given handouts to study and discuss next time… too much abstraction, I think

    • Dwight Towers says:

      Thanks for this.
      1) Yep. That’s the smugosphere for you.
      2) Yep. You learn to fall asleep with your eyes open in these meetings. So top down. One person yaks. Then another. Then another after that. Maybe after half an hour you are asked for your input/ideas, but by that time your brain is on vacation.
      3) Process over product. Yup.
      4) Dirty laundry is the only reason a lot of these groups seem to continue to exist. If you take that away from them… “narcisissm of small differences.
      5) “The kinds of people who arrange meetings are the theoreticians more interested in denouncing Evil Capitalists/Politicians than in rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it.” Discuss

      Many thanks…

  2. Mel Rimmer says:

    As a sociologist, I would approach this by wondering why the newbs came to the meeting in the first place. What were they expecting it to be like? What were they expecting to happen? What were they hoping to get out of it? So instead of asking “Why didn’t you come back?” try asking “Why did you come?”
    For example, a lot of people are worried about environmental issues; really deeply viscerally worried. They feel they ought to do something. Some of them switch all the lightbulbs in their house to low-energy ones, or buy a bicycle, or go to a meeting. Now they feel they have “done something” some of the fear and guilt goes away so they don’t feel they need to do anything else. Not very helpful, but very human. From an activist’s point of view you might ask how you could persuade such people to stay involved (tip, making them even more guilty and frightened is probably not the right answer).
    There are many other reasons why somebody might come to a meeting just once. If you ask them why they didn’t come back, they might say something face-saving rather than the truth. But if you ask them why they came at all you might get some interesting data.
    Not a bad idea for a research project, actually. I might mull on it.

    • Dwight Towers says:

      Will do a post on ‘getting people to meetings’. It’s not a problem for the big ‘brand names’ – Friends of the Earth and Green Party. They seem to have a regular and inexhaustible supply of potential recruits. But they don’t keep ’em, (in my unscientific opinion).

      But please, if you do do the research, let us know – would like to read it. I think you’ll get face-saving stuff whatever question you ask- that’s the nature of surveys…

      Best wishes!

  3. marc says:

    The most successful meetings I’ve been to (in a very (different field) have involved an understanding that the newbie needs welcoming. The welcoming skills set is encouraged and newbies are instantly buddied on arrival and baby-say through their initial meeting by someone who explains the dynamics, procedures etc and puts their own concerns relatively on hold for the duration, unless someone else takes over. It is understood that the newcomer is the most important person in the room.

    • leavergirl says:

      Exactly. This is how the most successful Christian churches function. They fuss over you, help you get acquainted, look after your needs and keep in touch.

  4. Alice says:

    Bad facilitation puts me off, plus meetings not starting on time or going on too late.

    If I’m not asked for my email and put on the email group promptly then it’s easy to fall out of touch.

    Plus the most basic, really simple one – if everyone else in the room knows at least a few other people already, then I need people to make an effort not to leave me standing around on my own before and after a meeting. Talk to me!

    • Dwight Towers says:

      Hey Alice and Marc,

      yep – if folks aren’t welcomed – if there is not an affective (emotional) link, then it’s unlikely that the best meeting techniques in the world will be effective…


      Miffy cartoon needs to be posted, I guess…

  5. Dwight Towers says:

    This from someone on facebook-

    “Because life in the west is turning us into a full fledged ADD-civilization. People shift focus faster than they can say “climate change”. (Or Millennium Development Goals or Support Human Righes NOW or whatever.)”

  6. Fantastic discussion and great points here. In particular I love the suggestion the new people become the ‘most important in the room’, fussed over like they are in churches. This to me sounds spot on, it’s about a culture change where people holding meetings are utterly focused on making them work *properly*.

    Agree that Seeds for Change are the go-to place for best practice on this.

    While I agree utterly with what’s being said on how you make agenda meetings better, I’d say the really desirable solution is simply not to use them for newbies. Sadly this is a point I can’t do justice to here, so I’ve posted it here instead;

  7. Sarah says:

    Loads of useful points here. Keeping internal ‘dirty linen’ and tedious procedural wrangles (which often do need to be discussed) for core-group meetings rather than public ones is very important. Mel, I think your idea of re-framing the question as ‘what would new people have been wanting/expecting which would have made them stick around’ could be useful – it demands concrete proposals of better ways of doing things, rather than yet more depressing lists of how lousy meetings can be.
    To the many great suggestions here – especially ‘buddying’ for newcomers so they don’t feel like they’ve walked in on someone else’s party and have to stand around feeling isolated while everyone else catches up on gossip, I’d add: don’t assume new people have nothing to offer except raw enthusiasm. There’s an assumption sometimes that they must by definition know nothing, just because WE don’t know them. But even if they’re a fresh-faced teenager they’ll probably have better social media skills than most ‘adult’ members of most groups, and if they’re an adult they’ll probably have a whole range of skills and assets – from childcare to marketing, event organising to a car that can be used to take stall kit around – so I think one of the most important things (without making them feel like they’re going to have every spare job going dumped on them) is to make them feel like they’ll be really valued and trusted and can really contribute.
    Yes, there are the tedious people who go to meetings for the sake of meetings, but most people go to meetings because they want to find out how to be useful, which means finding out what it is they can do, and finding out the best way of getting them doing it – get them on the email list, as Alice mentions, or link them up with the person in charge of stalls/the website/fundraising or whatever so they can start talking about what can be done.
    And stop calling them ‘newbies.’ Being patronised is also deeply offputting.

  8. jim jepps says:

    Interesting discussion.

    I would say that I think the big thing that’s missing from the comment though is the question ‘what is the meeting for?’ For me the biggest thing that puts me off a meeting is if its a social club rather than doing the work – it has to be meaningful.

    Groups should organise BBQ’s and trips and things to help bring the team together, and you often get people who don’t want to do meetings but are up for supporting the cause and having fun.

    The meetings though need to fulfil their function – that doesn’t mean being unfriendly – I agree with a lot of what has been said – but putting the new members at the centre of meeting to the exclusion of why you’re there I think would be intimidating for them and weaken the focus of the job of work that needs to be done.

  9. Thanks Jim Jepps,

    you are absolutely right – it IS the missing item – “What are we meeting FOR?”. It’s tricky for groups, isn’t it. Either they do regular meetings (second tuesday of the month at x) and become quite institutionalised, or else they only meet when there is a very specific thing to discuss/decide/plan, which means it’s very easy to fall out of the loop, hard for potential new folks to get involved. And alongside that there is the ‘is this meeting for internal purposes or is it one we definitely want complete new folks at’. Different groups in my city tackle this problem (which few if any name) in different ways, none of them satisfactorily.
    That distinction is something I kind of tackle in some of the youtube videos on the dwighttowering channel.
    “Meetings from Above” is mostly about the big set piece public “informational” meetings,

    and the ‘newbie’s experience of meeting/newbie in a parallel universe’ are more about the regular monthly things.

    Thanks muchly for stopping by, look forward to your comments on other posts!

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