Hiding in Plain Sight: The Subtle Genius of Lurking.
Photo Credit: Kitty cat lurking in the bush by digihelion
How To Make Its Superpowers Work for You.
As I looked around, I felt a creeping sense of impending doom. About 30 chairs were arranged in a circle in the center of the room. No tables I could slink under if things got uncomfortable. No rows of chairs I could hide behind. I had been in rooms like this before. This circle configuration could only mean one thing.
Without realizing that I was using my outside voice, I mumbled, “Oh shit, we’re going to share.”
A woman with a kind face and the obvious air of leadership put her arm around me and said, “Oh yes, girlfriend, we’re going to share.” At which point she led me to a chair a little too close to where the leaders would be sitting.
You see, I am a life-long, elite-level lurker. I try to avoid anything that requires any level of personal risk. There are no waters I will enter without a significant amount of toe-dipping first.
I suspect she shared my remark with her co-leader because within 30 seconds of beginning the class, he stood up, walked over to my chair, and asked me to stand. (I willed myself not to bolt for the door.)
He asked, in a kind of in-your-face manner, “What’s your name?”
“Welcome Cathy.” Unnecessarily long and dramatic pause for effect.
“Cathy, tell us. What’s your dream?”
I failed to suppress a groan. My shoulders slumped. I said something akin to, “Right now, my dream is for this moment to be over.” There was nervous laughter around the circle, but he was not amused. He had picked a dud and the vibe I had created was not what he wanted.
“You can sit down,” he said, dismissing me. He moved on to someone who looked more ready to share an inspiring dream. One that could be succinctly and passionately articulated from inside an elevator.
The message that morning was simple and direct. There would be no lurking tolerated here. This was not a lurk-friendly environment. The comfort zone in this room was and would remain for the duration of the program, the size of a pinhead.
What is a lurker?
Here’s what Wikipedia says about lurkers.
“In Internet culture, a lurker is typically a member of an online community who observes, but does not participate… Lurking allows users to learn the conventions of an online community before they participate, improving their socialization when they eventually “de-lurk”.”
But here’s the thing Wikipedia doesn’t tell you.
The practice of lurking is much older than Internet culture and it is not confined to engaging online. In fact, if you’ve participated in almost any face-to-face business meeting or social gathering, you’ve witnessed lurking.
So, to get us on the same page, here’s my definition.
Lurking is the subtle art of pretending to engage in a group, community, or social activity while what you are really doing is standing at the edge of the pool, gently wriggling your toes in the water while watching everybody else get wet.
You are waiting. You are standing by. You are picking your moment to wade in should you decide that wading in is safe enough.
Lurkers prize two things above all else – comfort and safety.
Lurking is a key strategy in one’s arsenal for maintaining personal safety in groups, in particular, those loathsome groups that want to explore your feelings or expect you to be vulnerable.
Note: At this point, I feel I need to own up to what some might feel is a tiny bit of hypocrisy. It is true that I do, in fact, earn a living from facilitating such loathsome groups. My day job is coaching and developing leaders and teams, so I frequently facilitate vulnerable and sometimes high-risk group dynamics.
When facilitated skilfully, these meetings have enormous value in creating group trust and in developing your leadership skill and effectiveness. Sometimes they can be cathartic and lead to breakthroughs.
But that doesn’t make them any less loathsome to the unsuspecting lurker who suddenly finds herself thrust into one.
Fun fact: A large number of professional facilitators are closet lurkers.
The lurker’s code of conduct.
Lurking is practiced largely in silence, but silence should not be confused with emptiness. The expression “still waters run deep” came from the ancient practice of lurking. And while I don’t have data to back this up, I suspect it’s practiced primarily by introverts. While not all introverts are lurkers, I think it’s a safe bet that most lurkers are introverted.
And make no mistake, some of us have developed lurking as an art form. Lurkers are the people who sit in a meeting and “listen” intently, sometimes taking notes, sometimes frowning knowingly, sometimes nodding. They can appear bored, sometimes skeptical, or fully engaged. But what they are engaged in, is checking things out.
If lurkers were to create a society and have a code of conduct, it would look something like this.
- Beware of group dynamics. Whether in person or on-line, groups are inherently risky. Groups professing “to be safe” and inviting you to “be vulnerable” should be considered armed and dangerous.
- Stealth is wealth. Maintain a clinical distance and don’t let them see you sweat.
- Avoid speaking first. Risk-taking is for dummies.
- NEVER make eye contact with the meeting leader, chair, or facilitator.
- Only express opinions that have already been expressed by others and that you know to be popular and uncontroversial.
- No good can come from discomfort. Avoid it at all costs.
- Controversy and conflict are forms of discomfort.
- The best time and place to challenge the status quo is when you are alone in your bathroom talking to the mirror.
Why every healthy group dynamic needs at least one lurker.
A good friend recently sent me a link to information on a course she was considering. Included with the course material was something called “Dynamic Group Guidelines.”
I began to read, my back already stiffening with resistance, as I readied myself for a document telling me how to conduct myself in that group. (In our work with leaders and teams, we invite the group to create their own norms rather than imposing them.) This felt a little heavy-handed and I hate being told “how to be.”
Then I read the first “guideline.” Immediately, I felt a sense indignation. It was as if the authors of what I now viewed as an authoritarian manifesto were pointing directly at me.
The agreement was, “Be All In.” Here’s the line that set me off: “Those who are shy, or “lurking” call themselves forward to participate with the group in a more interconnected way.”
This was a direct assault on lurking. Clear anti-lurking bias. This was lurk-hate!
People tend to make lurking wrong. They mistake lurking for cowardice and have been known to compare lurkers to small rodents or cockroaches who go skittering off as soon as the light shines anywhere near them.
In fact, lurkers are more like cats than rodents.
If you’ve ever watched a cat get ready to settle its furry butt on a cushion, you’ve seen the dynamics of lurking. It circles and kneads to self-soothe, gather courage, create perfect conditions. In this case, the lurker is engaging in a condition-perfecting process of getting outside their comfort zone by trying to expand the zone.
Meeting facilitators tend to be particularly biased and sometimes openly hostile to lurkers. This is fear. There is nothing more lethal to a “transformative” group dialogue than a room full of lurkers.
But, contrary to popular belief, every group space or community can benefit from lurkers.
Here are just some of the benefits of including lurkers in your group.
- Lurkers fill space. They represent “bums in seats.” So, when you need to pad your attendance stats or your income, put out the lurker welcome mat.
- In online communities, they can be a valuable source of likes or even hearts.
- Lurkers create space for extraverts to dominate the conversation. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Extraverts blurt out everything that’s in their head and, once they are comfortable, lurkers turn it into insight and wisdom.
- Lurkers are good listeners. They are expert at sussing out danger, so they are skilled at listening not just to the content of the conversation but to the dynamic itself. (This is what sometimes makes lurkers good facilitators.)
- Lurkers can tip you off if your meeting is going south. They are the proverbial canary in your meeting coal mine. If they suddenly need to leave the room to take a phone call or go to the bathroom, this may be a clue that things are about to go sideways.
- Lurkers are skilled distillers. Lurkers take in and ferment the best ideas until they pop out of them like a cork blowing off a champagne bottle.
- Lurkers make your meeting smarter. The reason they so often sound like the smartest people in the room is because they have honed three skills – absorbing, distilling, and reframing.
- Lurkers can help you bring a meeting to a close. Because of their skill at distillation, you can invite them to share their top take away from the meeting as a way of “landing the plane.”
Pro tips for making your spaces “lurk-friendly.”
If you want to add value to your team or group environment, here’s how to make your spaces lurk-friendly.
- Do not make rules that are unfriendly to lurkers – like “no lurking.”
- Understand the lurker’s primary needs – safety and comfort. Tell them you can help with number one, but that discomfort may be unavoidable.
- Make sharing voluntary, avoid saying things like “we want to hear from everybody.”
- Befriend your lurkers on breaks. They tend to prefer one-on-one conversations.
- If possible, warn them in advance if you are going to call on them. (However, be prepared that they may be called away suddenly due to family emergency.)
- Don’t coddle your lurkers. There’s such a thing as too comfortable. If there’s a risk that you will call on them, they are more likely to stay quietly engaged.
- Lurkers like to be invited to contribute. But timing is everything. A lurker will unconsciously or sometimes overtly signal when they are ready to speak. They may lean in or become more attentive. They may even (should you be so lucky) make eye contact with you. This is when you invite them into the conversation with something like, “Angela, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.” If you’ve read it right, fasten your seatbelt for the perfect, insightful distillation of all the verbal diarrhea that has been flowing around your meeting.
- After this, praise and acknowledge your lurker. Lurkers like to hear words like “insightful” or “brilliant.” Or “WOW!”
Stop judging lurkers, or making rules that make them feel excluded. Embrace their superpowers instead and let them add insight and clarity to your meetings. It’s fair to expect them to contribute, just invite them to do it on their terms.
Let the cat circle and knead the pillow for a few minutes before you pounce.