Thursday, August 25, 2011

Advice for Helping Difficult Groups with Consensus

My colleague Lander Stoddard will be leading a session on consensus at the upcoming Southeast Regional Facilitation Conference. In preparation, he circulated the following question:
What are your top three things for helping difficult groups with consensus?
Here is the response I sent him.

1. Don't presume that you can't reach consensus.

Years ago I facilitated a group of about 35 people who were convened to talk about the future of the Adirondack Mountain region in New York. About half of them were oriented toward economic development, the other half toward environmental quality. Most of them already knew each other, and knew of their established positions and disagreements.

Part way through the meeting I sensed that they presumed – at a fundamental level – that they would not be able to agree on anything. I was desperate to open up the possibility that they might be able to agree on something. I said something like this:

“It seems to me that you think you know each other well enough to know that you won't be able to agree on anything. Maybe you're right. But we've had this sort of problem before. We had this sort of a problem in Philadelphia when we wrote the Declaration of Independence, but then we worked it out and on July 4th 1776 it was agreed on by an assembly of people in a room, just like we are. And we had this sort of a problem when we wrote the Constitution, but then finally, on September 17th 1787, it was agreed on by a bunch of people in a room just like us. Who knows? Who can say? Maybe this is the day and this is the place when we can agree on something about the Adirondacks. Is anyone willing to give it a try?”

They did, and over the next day produced a long list of consensus recommendations. Fundamental to it was the suspension of belief that they couldn't.

2. Don't presume that you already understand.

At another meeting I facilitated – involving about two dozen senior and mid-level policy makers from different departments in a regulatory organization – I heard the phrase “order of precedence” during a discussion of an important issue. I said to the group, “It's not clear to me what you mean by ‘order of precendece,’ but so long as it's clear to you all, there's no need to explain it to me.” They assured me that they all understood what it meant, and eager to get on with their discussion, they continued.

A while later, “order of precedence” seemed to take on an important role in the conversation. I interrupted again to ask, “OK, ‘order of precedence’ seems to be a significant factor. I don't understand it myself, but so long as you all understand it there's no need to take time out to explain it just for my benefit.” Again, they assured me that they all understood it.

As the conversation became prolonged, there seemed to be some kind of disconnect. I interrupted again and said, “I'm having difficulty making sense out of how things some of you are saying relate to things others of you are saying, and ‘order of precedence’ seems to be an important element. Now I know that you all know what ‘order of precedence’ means, but for my benefit it would be helpful if you could explain it to me.”

One of the participants, who had broad responsibility in the organization, generously offered, “When a company is bankrupt or liquidated, their assets are distributed to pay off the various creditors. We have to decide which creditors should receive payments first, and how much they should receive. That's the ‘Order of precedence.’”

From across the room came a somber voice. “That's not quite how it works. The ‘order of precedence’ is established in law and ultimately decided by the court. We have little to say about it.”

There was a long silence as half the room reckoned with this difference in meaning. When the conversation resumed, the issue was quickly resolved.

A common barrier to understanding is the assumption that “I already understand.” As a facilitator, my understanding may have no purpose except that it might be a vehicle for the group's understanding.

3. Exact wording matters

At a recent meeting with 16 people, each representing a different organization, there seemed to be easy (and unexpected) agreement on some important issues. We wrote a series of statements to capture the agreement. As you might expect, it took several iterations, late into that evening and again the following morning, before everyone could fully agree.

There were many difficult wording decisions, and there was one that the group kept revisiting. Several seemingly innocuous options were offerred: people/ citizens/ residents/ agencies/ not-for-profits/ entities. It wasn't until each of these alternatives was discussed, and the reasons for and against understood by all, that the group was able to agree on “individuals and organizations.”

In other situations I have marveled to see opposition changed to support as a result of a subtle word change. In one such case, a single person refused to lend their support to a proposal. The other members of the group asked questions and gradually came to understand the person's concerns. After about 20 minutes of talk and a lengthy silence someone proposed changing the word “happen” to “happened.” This recognized that something happened in the past, but didn't necessarily continue. That small change – and the understanding behind it – won the person's support.

To paraphrase John Dewey (My Pedagogic Creed), “Through the responses which others make to [our own words we] come to know what these mean in social terms.”

On further reflection I might choose a different “top three,” but this seems a reasonable start.

How would you respond?


  1. Thanks, Sandy! I like your stories. I wonder if there are times when you would insist on getting common definition of a word or term, rather waiting than waiting thru 3 asks. Roger Schwarz has as one of his ground rules to get common understanding/definitions of important words.

  2. I would agree with Roger's ground rule, and add that it is the group's shared understanding that matters, not necessarily the facilitator's.

    So I think the challenge for an "outside" facilitator (that is, one who is not also a member of the group) is to avoid asking for clarification of terms for which the group members already share a common meaning, and to recognize when they don't.

    As you point out, it would be useful to have a reliable method that wouldn't require "three asks." Although the above story is true, I sometimes have a sufficiently strong feeling that people have different meanings for the same word or phrase that I just ask them for a definition (without ever asking if they all know what that means).

    Exactly how I go about detecting that a term might be understood differently by some people I think relies on my tracking their syntax and usage, but that would have to be another story.


Any comments?