Skip to main content

scribble in the center of a black background

By: Jessica Beckendorf

Since the OneOp Virtual Conference: Learning Through Change, I have spent time thinking and reading about a concept that stuck with me after that conference: the messy middle.

It’s kind of funny, really, because when I was a kid I was often called “Messy Jessie” because of the state of catastrophe that I left behind in every room I entered. While those days are (mostly) behind me as far as my housekeeping skills go, the more I read about the internal and relational “messy middle,” the more I realize that I will always be a bit of a Messy Jessie.

Now that I am aware of this concept, I feel as though each day presents an opportunity to work through one messy middle or another – certainly the way Brené Brown describes in her book “Rising Strong” – in an internal struggle to own my story, and when I fall into old patterns of thinking and acting and fail to do the work necessary to step into my “badassery” (Brené’s word). But this concept applies to much more than an internal struggle. It seems like much of life is lived in one messy middle or another, with moments of courage and closure.

The messy middle in our professional lives

Even in our professional lives, many of us operate in a series of “messy middles” – dealing with competing interests, uncertainty, changes, stepping into leadership roles in our organizations while assuming helper roles with our clients and community partners.

With so many opportunities for us to make up stories about ourselves and others, we can become stuck if we never become aware of the stories we tell ourselves or if we never engage in the work necessary to move beyond those stories. This can keep us from being effective collaborators and making the kind of impact we hope for in our role.

The messy middle in our communitygraffitti

Entire communities are also susceptible to becoming stuck in their stories. One community I worked with was filled with people that fiercely guarded their story. Unfortunately their story was that they were not worth much, and they wanted to stay that way, thank you very much. These  residents were proud to have been born and raised in this city. Yet when development projects threatened this identity, they would immediately resort to their story and insert the word “trash” into the middle of this city’s name. As an outsider, I couldn’t believe that these proud residents would refer to their city as a trash city.

These development projects were the trigger events that sent them into a messy middle and they fell back into the story of their city being trash. This pattern repeated itself time and again, and it kept this community from communicating and innovating about how to move forward together.

The messy middle in our networks, groups, and associations

The messy middle is also present in our networks, community groups, and associations. In the book “The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making,” the authors call this the Groan Zone – the messy part located smack dab in the middle of the Diamond of Participatory Decision-Making model.

The Groan Zone is the messy middle of group dynamics – and it is where things can fall apart quickly and can result in complete abandonment of the work. The authors created this model “to validate and legitimize the hidden aspects of everyday life in groups. Expressing difference is natural and beneficial; getting confused is to be expected; feeling frustrated is par for the course. Building shared understanding is a struggle, not a platitude” (P.20, author’s’ emphasis).

In other words, everyday life in groups can be characterized as a big, whopping, better-get-out-your-cleaning-supplies-because-this-is-going-to-be-messy middle.

Becoming stuck in our stories is what keeps us from making it through to the other side of a messy middle. It keeps us from growth, connection, and meaningful collaborations and relationships. So what can we do to step off the hamster wheel and begin to move through the messy middle?

Here are a few of many possible things we can begin to work on right now:

  1. Find a way to muster the collective courage to communicate more with each other. While we’re on this topic, it would be a good idea to also think about how we prefer to communicate versus the preferences of those we are trying to communicate with and use that reflection to adjust our style to become better communicators overall.
  2. Learn to be in relationship with yourself, your team members, your neighbors, and your communities. Get to know yourself better. Get to know the people you work with or collaborate with. Get to know your neighbors. Don’t stop once you’ve had one or two conversations, or once you’ve made one or two personal breakthroughs. Get to know your community on more than just the superficial level – decide what that means to you and go do it. This is a lifelong process.
  3. When a mistake has been made, start by acknowledging that something went wrong, then have a conversation about it, allow yourself and all those involved to learn from it, and “move forward arm in arm.”.  
  4. Commit completely and let everyone collectively figure out where they are at. Commit to yourself, commit to your team/collaborators, commit to the process.
  5. Learn to be OK with differences – social learning happens when we discuss our differences, not our similarities.
  6. Be patient with yourself, others, and the process.

Photo credit:
All photos downloaded from under CC0 Creative Commons