Sunday, August 19, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Coping with Blocking Energy

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 Coping with Blocking Energy.

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 [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
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 biggest misunderstandings in consensus is the proper use of blocks. As a technical term, it's when a member stands in the way of a proposal at the point where the group is testing for agreement. That is, a block occurs only after the issue has been thoroughly explored, the group has identified what factors need to be taken into account in responding, and the group has made its best effort at balancing them in generating the proposal. In short, blocks occur at the end of the process.

In groups new to consensus—or ones that don't understand it well—it's not rare for a member to have a negative reaction to someone's viewpoint before you get to the proposal testing phase, and announces their position with the declaration, "I'll block that." 

Such an apparently definitive statement can be viewed as a line drawn in the sand and can send a chill wind through the room. In a number of groups I've worked with, any time they encounter an "I'll block that" statement, it effectively kills any further discussion of the statement that triggered it—regardless of the point in the consideration of the topic that this occurs. This is not a good response, and it is this phenomenon—premature blocking—that I want to explore in today's essay.

From the Perspective of the Blocker
If a person is having bad reaction to something another member has contributed, it's useful for the group to know that, and I do not want to place any obstacles in the way of that being shared.

That said, I have three suggestions for the blocker. First, is negative expression appropriate in the current context? For example, if the group is in brainstorm mode, trying to flush out the factors that need to be taken into consideration in addressing the issue, it's not the time to rain on someone else's parade. Evaluation comes later and brainstorms entail no commitments. There's plenty of time for the blocker's reservations to come out.

Second, the blocker can express themselves just as clearly in a less threatening way, and I urge them to get interested in that possibility. There's a big difference between "I'm having a strong reaction to that suggestion," and "I'll block that." While both make clear the negative response, the first allows an opening to explore what's going on, while the second slams the door.

There can be several things going on when there's a strong reaction, and it behooves the group to figure which ones apply in a given situation:
o  The blocker may have misunderstood what was said.
o  The blocker may be overstating their position in order to express the strtength of their feelings.
o  There may be unresolved tension between the blocker and the speaker that distorts how the blocker hears the speaker's contribution.
o  The contribution may trigger a strong fear in the blocker that the group needs to know about (you can be sincerely curious about the fear without necessarily buying the solution—killing the suggestion).
o  The blocker may be reacting more to the perceived power imbalance between the speaker and themselves than to the substance of the comment.

Third, I encourage blockers to do what they can to unlink the expression of their feelings from their conclusions (or demands) about what should happen. When people are unable to do this, they can mistakenly hear resistance to a conclusion as not caring about them as a person. (Prove that you love me and accede to my demand: stop talking about this thing I don't like, and never bring it up again.)

Mind you, I'm not saying that the speaker's idea is a good one, or that the blocker isn't right about the triggering suggestion being a poor idea; I'm only saying you shouldn't assume that, nor be afraid to explore it further.

From the Perspective of the Group
I believe there are three possible things at work here, which could be present in any combination.

Tiptoeing around the upset that may be fueling such a strong position
If the group is not confident of its ability to work constructively with distress, backing away from the speaker's suggestion may be more about conflict avoidance than issue avoidance.

Lack of confidence in being able to work through strong differences
Alternately, instead of being afraid of distress, the group may have no confidence in its ability to work strained issues, where there are deep divisions about how to move forward. If the group is afraid of heavy lifting, it will tend to drop topics that appear heavy.

Discouragement to look further at something that is only going to be blocked in the endWhile the blocker may be open to working on the issue further, the group may lack the will to attempt it. Even if there's an analysis that the blocker is being a bully, the group may not be willing to confront the bullying behavior (which is one way to experience premature blocking). One of the ironies of this dynamic is that a bully can threaten to block as a regular technique for controlling the conversation, and if the group allows them to get their way, the bully can legitimately claim they seldom if ever actually block (because everyone is afraid to push back against their "I'll block that" stop sign.

It's my view that the best way to work with blocking energy is to create an environment where the group is open to hearing from people when they have strong reactions (so long as they're on topic), yet you want to separate hearing from buying any automatic conclusions that you can't go there. Instead, you can be curious about what underlays the reaction, and then invite the whole group—including the blocker—to consider how best to proceed, which may or may not include working further with the speaker's triggering idea.

The key to this is not being reactive to someone being reactive. The more the group can develop the capacity to work with distress in stride, the more open people will be in expressing themselves and the quicker you can get to problem solving that has a solid foundation. The beauty of learning to cope well with premature blocks is that when you do it well, it will also reduce the incidence of legitimate blocks, because all the things that would be the basis for a legitimate block will have already been brought out in the discussion and the group won't be foolish enough to bring forward a proposal that it already knows won't work.  

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