Thursday, July 5, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Bridging Disparate Views

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Bridging Disparate Views.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views
VI. Harvesting partial product
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability
• • •
One of the principal challenges that groups face is resolving non-trivial differences that arise in how to respond to issues. Often, especially if the stakes are high, it can be hard distinguishing between one's knee-jerk reaction to being disagreed with and one's thoughtful reflection on the merit's of different viewpoints. Just because we don't want to be seen as reactive doesn't mean we don't do it. (And, because being reactive is not how we're supposed to be and not how we mean to be, we'll often go to some lengths to hide evidence of our reactivity, making it that much messier to sort out what's happening.)

Being disagreed with manifest in a variety of ways. First, there is the potential blow to our ego. For most of us, we desire is to be seen as brilliant when contributing to a group conversation—even if we don't say it out loud, that's what we secretly wish for. And I'm not talking about achieving victory through sleight of hand or silver-tongued oral manipulation, I mean actual, substantive brilliance. Where that desire is in play, it can be threatening that someone is not awed by the pearls dribbling from your lips and advises going in another direction. To the extent that you identify with your contribution, you can feel personally rejected, even cheated out of your chance to be a hero. 

Another variant on ego trap is when a person is feeling shaky about their position in the group (uncertain how much people are interested in or open to their views). There can be a tendency for that person to see disagreement with their contributions as evidence of a prejudicial pattern—to the point where it's hard for someone to figure out how to safely express simple disagreement.

Second, you may be attached to what your position represents, and feel that your core values are being undermined when others disagree with you. In this instance, it's not so much that you'll look bad (or at least not brilliant) as it is that something foundational for you feels threatened. When this something is also a group value (or something you fervently believe should be a group value), then the conversation can turn into defending the Alamo. Not pretty.

Regardless of which version we're talking about, reactivity has a significant emotional component, and experience has taught me that if that's in play then groups are well advised to get it out in the open at their earliest convenience. To be clear, I am not advocating that you try to pull someone's pants down on the occasion of their having an emotional reaction ("Is that your ego talking, Kyle?"). Rather, you can recognize what's happening in a neutral, yet caring and accurate way: "I have the sense, Kyle, that you care a lot about this issue because of how central fairness is to you on the issue of access to group resources. Do I have that right?"

If done well you can simultaneously recognize (validate) an emotional response and establish its legitimacy relative to the topic (it's not likely to be controversial that fairness is an explicit factor in how the group proceeds). Of course, this doesn't mean that others will agree that fairness should be given the same weight or the same interpretation that Kyle has given it; we've only established that Kyle is not coming from another planet.

The key here is creating a container of acceptance and curiosity when exploring differences, rather than allowing the consideration to become brittle and fractional. The fact that people have an emotional stake in their viewpoints can be seen as a strength (we're talking about stuff that matters) instead of as dangerous (uh oh, here's where sarcasm starts to poison the air, or the arrows come out).

Let's go back to Kyle and walk this through. Suppose that Kyle is a member of a 10-person multicultural group house that has a clear preference for minimal rules. In this year's budget, as an experiment, there is $1000 earmarked for house members to do fun things, up to $100 at a time. Recording money spent is done on the honor system, but members are not expected to record who spent the money; only how much

Suppose now that it's September and the recreational budget has all been spent. There won't be more until the new budget cycle in January. Some house members haven't used the fund at all and are bummed to learn that their hopes of using it to participate in a huge Halloween bash won't work.

Kyle is pissed about how unequally the money was used—seeing it as a race and class issue. Kyle suspects that the whites in the house, the people raised in privilege, have had no problem accessing the rec fund whenever they were inspired, while the people of color have been more cautious about doing so, for fear of coming across as irresponsible, or taking more than their share.

Now let's add Adrian to the mix, a white member who has used the fund more than once and has a defensive reaction to Kyle's outburst.

For simplicity sake, let's assume that no one has accused anyone of using the fund for inappropriate purposes, or of failing to report what they did with fund money. Even so, it's not hard to imagine how a conversation about how the money was used could veer off the rails and be anything but recreational.

Kyle was upset with the obliviousness of whites, claiming that the group had done poorly in living up to its values around fairness and non-discrimination. Adrian, in turn, felt blindsided after being careful to stay within bounds when using of the fund, and upset at being held to a standard of behavior that was never spelled out. What about the group's preference for minimal rules?

While not all differences of view have elements of strong emotional reactivity in play (whew!), it's nice to have a plan for when they do. I've already suggested what holding Kyle might look like; with Adrian it might be, "You're feeling hurt that you've been scrupulous about coloring inside the lines when using the rec fund and now you're being lambasted for not being sufficiently sensitive to a standard that was never articulated before. It's not fair! If we're going to have a group with minimal rules, don't turn around and jump down my chimney for violating an unarticulated expectation. Do I have that right?"

See how my proffered responses to Kyle & Adrian neither dodge the upset, nor take sides (note: being able to accurately reflect back the upset is not the same as siding with the upset)? The responses were geared to validate the feelings and establish how the concerns are linked to group values (fairness, non-discrimination, multiculturalism, low structure, and high trust among members). If strong feelings are not part of the equation, then that part can be skipped. 

Either way (with or without significant reactivity), it's important to establish the legitimacy of the range of viewpoints, both because it deflects the tendency to think that people are disagreeing for the purpose of launching a personal attack and because it brings into play a constructive framework for the heavy work that needs to come next: bridging the differences.

It works like this: suppose Kyle wants an agreement that next year no one will use more than 10% of the rec fund without running the idea by the rest of the group. On the face of it, Adrian could feel that such a proposal undercuts trust among members, and is discriminatory against those who take initiative. If Adrian counters with a proposal to access the fund the same way next year as last, Kyle could spin that as insensitivity to issues of race and class. Interestingly, both Kyle & Adrian could feel that what the other is proposing is not fair.

That's why it's important to make clear at the outset the legitimate group interests upon which individual positions rest, so that all parties understand why it's reasonable to engage in bridge building. In our example, Kyle needs to understand that Adrian wants the standards for acceptable behavior to be established beforehand, not revealed after the fact. Adrian needs to appreciate that Kyle cares deeply about race and class equality and wants group policies that take into account the nuances of unconscious privilege. These are not diametrically opposed views.

For this to go well—for problem solving to proceed constructively—it's imperative that all the players feel that their concerns about what needs to be taken into account have been acknowledged. Now, finally, you've set the stage for bridging, where people are encouraged to advance their ideas about how best to balance the various factors that bear on the issue.

The work of the facilitator in such moments is to remind participants to set advocacy aside, and concentrate instead on suggestions for how to best combine the factors—for drawing a circle large enough that all viewpoints can fit comfortably inside it. In my experience there is almost always sufficient wisdom in the group for members to solve the problems that come along—if only they can succeed in creating and maintaining the right container for the conversation.

No comments: