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?

Monday, August 1, 2011

My Name is Sandy Schuman and I Am a Group Facilitator

One of the challenges I’ve had is explaining to groups what I do as a group facilitator – how my role differs from theirs, and what they can expect. In the early part of my career, introducing myself as a facilitator had almost no value – people hadn’t heard the term and didn’t know what to make of it. These days, most people have not only heard the term, but they have been “facilitated” – and the experience has not always positive. So it’s still useful to explain my role as group facilitator, and not take a long time doing it. What follows is a generalized version of my introduction.
My name is Sandy Schuman and I am a group facilitator. My expertise is in how groups work and how to help groups work together more effectively. I'm not here because I have special knowledge regarding (the subject matter of this meeting) or because I know the workings of your organization(s), but even if I did, that's not my job today. My job is to focus on the process aspects of today's work, while yours is to apply your knowledge of the issue(s) and organization(s) to (the purpose or task at hand).
I would like to form a partnership with you for the course of this (meeting or project). I would like to rely on you for your knowledge about the (issues at hand) and about your organization(s) (and other organizations that might be involved). I would like you to rely on me for my expertise in collaborative problem solving and decision making and how we can work together effectively to address (the issues you face).
I would like permission to exercise some process leadership to help move things along, but I want to stay on my “side” of the room. (I draw an imaginary line across the room, between me from the group.) I would like to take some intiative regarding process issues, but I don't want to cross the line and directly address content issues; that's your side of the room. That's the “dark side of group facilitation,” and if you see me crossing that line I want you to call me on it, because I really don't want to be there.
On the other hand, you are welcome to come over on my side of the line any time you want. If you have a question about why we're doing something a certain way, or if you have an idea that might work better, please say so. I will be glad to explain the reasoning behind my process choices, and welcome the opportunity to learn of your ideas The choice of processes is yours, and indeed, so is your choice of facilitators, and whether or not you have a facilitator at all.
Shall we give this a try? Any questions about my role? Do you have any questions or comments before we take a look at a proposed agenda? ...
How’s that sound to you?