Bringing everyone’s voice in to the room, but what are you inviting them to say?

David Kantor is renowned for his theory of Structural Dynamics but what many people don’t know is that he was also one of the originators of the ‘check-in’ back in the 1970’s when he would use it in the first session of a new year with each seminar group, training in family therapy. Practitioners would arrive for the seminars so filled with the impact of the work they were doing with clients that it would be very hard for them to engage in the training. It would take time for them to settle and fully arrive in the room. He quickly saw how ‘checking in’, in other words, creating an open space at the beginning of the session for each person to say what was front and present for them as they were arriving, completely altered and transformed the nature of the conversation that subsequently took place.

David Bohm, William Isaacs and many others have subsequently written about and evolved the use of check-in and as expected, it has been moderated through the years by many practitioners, who have gone on to apply it in their own contexts and for their own purposes.

The original core purpose of using a check in has remained however sometimes it seems to get buried in the mechanics of explaining it as a process to participants. The focus tends to largely be on explaining how a check in enables us to hear from everyone, giving space and time for each voice to come in to the room and be heard. I almost always talk about the mechanics of avoiding the perils of ‘creeping death’ where we see our turn to speak coming towards us around the circle and therefore, hear next to nothing from the three or four people ahead of us as we load up or rehearse what we might say, with, for some of us who are more challenged around bringing our voices into the room, our hearts pounding in our chests at 120 beats per minute as we begin to speak. We talk about a check-in offering space for ‘uninterrupted air time’, no-one is going to ask us questions or challenge what we are saying. We describe how it provides such a rare opportunity to speak into the middle of the space voicing whatever is arising in the moment.

All of this guidance is important and helpful in creating the space for checking in to a session or conversational field. So what might we have forgotten or be missing from our explanations that is at the core of the purpose of a check-in and that might be really useful to us particularly in settings where there is resistance to its use? It is this; when we communicate around important issues, we primarily draw on two sources, what we are willing to say publicly and what is going on within us that we keep hidden and gets in the way of effective conversation.  The check-in is supposed to put us in touch with the latter so that we can be more fully present, and so, “I had a fight with my wife this morning, I was brutal, feel guilty, can’t get it out of my mind, there is a risk I will be engaging inner dialogues with her when you think I am present,” or “The traffic was horrendous coming here and I thought I was going to be really late for this meeting. I found myself shouting at the cars in front of me. I hate to be the last one to arrive,” or “Having received news last week that our jobs are on the line and that I might be facing redundancy is so devastating for me that I am finding it hard to concentrate on what needs to be done today.”

Curiously and wonderfully, what happens, in the revealing and naming of what is going on internally that we most often work so very hard to keep hidden for fear of what might emerge, this enables us to be more fully grounded and present in the conversation. Through the act of naming, we are able to ease powerful feelings that may be impacting in detrimental ways. There can often be fear of ‘breaking down’, of showing vulnerability through tears or anger but as long as we work so hard to hide these expressions of humanity we risk wreaking havoc and doing harm to ourselves and to those we live and work with through working so hard to keep them behind closed doors.

There are always the inevitable and understandable concerns about how much time a check-in of this kind might take but how much time is wasted in dealing with what is sitting in the hidden invisible reality that each person brings into the room with them? The check-in helps to make the hidden, visible and the feelings, real and tangible, so that you can do something with them.

Saying, “feel good things,” introducing ourselves or highlighting what we hope to achieve from the meetings we are entering are all important and provide a great focus for check-ins but may have, for some users, replaced the above, more serious one. Remembering to bring this aspect of check-ins to the fore and create space for voicing of this kind to even the most practical of conversations truly can change the nature of the discourse within teams and groups of all kinds.