Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Balancing Voices, Part I

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 Balancing Voices.

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 [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability
• • •
When you intend collaboration—whether using consensus or any other process—the assumption is that you want to hear from everyone. Actually accomplishing that however, ain't easy. There are two halves to this problem: a) making sure that everyone who cares to, has had a decent opportunity to speak; and b) making a solid effort to see that all those who have spoken have been accurately heard and their input considered.

Here are some of the potholes on the road to full collaboration, along with suggestions for hot tar mixes to fill them.

1. Unlevel Playing Field
While cooperative groups almost all aim for their meetings to be an equal opportunity for all members to contribute, they rarely are. Not because the people who set up the meeting are trying to tilt things in a certain direction, but because the format—independent of what the format is—will favor some communication styles over others. Typically, people who are quick to formulate their thoughts, who are comfortable speaking in front of groups, who don't mind interrupting others, who are not hesitant to wade into the conversation when passions run high, who are confident of their ability to articulate clearly and persuasively, who are more knowledgeable about and facile with the process agreements, or even those who are simply pleasant to look at, all have advantages that have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of their thinking or the purity of their heart.

So the first task is developing sensitivity to what gets in the way of people being willing to speak at all.

—Part of this is pace  In a normal group there will be a range among members' natural rhythms when it comes to digesting and processing information. If the pace is geared toward the average—which may work fine for most members—the outliers at one end will be consistently impatient with how slowly the group works. On the other end people will be often be overwhelmed by how fast the group wants to make decisions. It doesn't take many iterations of that experience to get discouraged and either stop coming to meetings or learn to just shut up and go along for the ride.

By varying the pace, and working with more clarity and advanced notice, those who need greater time to open and close their synapses will have a better chance to thoughtfully board the bus before it leaves the station.

—Part of this is grace  For those intimidated by strong feelings, it can be a matter of creating sufficient safety for them to feel that it's OK to put their toes in the water—that there's a lifeguard (read facilitator) who will protect them from alligators or chomping away at their tootsies.

—Part of this is space  For those less pushy and less secure about entering the on-ramp in a fast-paced discussion, Go Rounds and talking sticks may be needed to slow things down and guarantee air time. Caution: too much slowing down will drive the quick-witted bonkers.

—Part of this is trace  It can serve a group well to develop facilitator sensitivity such that they can tell from body language who's ready to speak before they've worked up the courage to raise their hand, or can detect enough hesitation to probe a bit deeper to see if "I don't have anything to say" is really accurate. The shy may need to be invited more than once before they'll accept. (I'm not saying this a great strategy; I'm saying it exists.)

—Part of this is embrace  If the facilitator is good at helping speakers feel heard (note that I didn't say agreed with), someone sitting on a comment they expect to be unpopular may find it easier to take the chance, because they'll be less likely to be misunderstood, or worse, get creamed.

2. Rank and Privilege
Even though cooperative groups intend for everyone to have reasonable access to air space, the nuances of rank and privilege are always at work to modify who feels comfortable and who doesn't. Those who have more power by virtue of experience (rank) generally are more at ease inserting their views, which is naturally reinforced by people tending to listen more to people with rank. Those more green (in experience, not politics) are often more hesitant. Analogously, those with more privilege (which generally means white, male, older, able-bodied, and more educated) often find the wheels greased for them and somewhat gritty for others.

Even when groups have an explicit commitment to be aware of privilege (which I wholeheartedly support) and work diligently to not have it influence considerations, it leaks in. Plus, privilege gives those who benefit from it an unfair advantage in earning rank and when the two are commingled—as they often are—it can be the very devil sorting out how much of someone's influence is due to what they've earned and is appropriate and how much is unexamined privilege that you'd rather object to. 

Take the example of an older white guy whose advice about financial planning carries more weight in the group than that of a young Latina woman. Suppose the man came out of a middle class upbringing and has a degree in Economics from Princeton. Before coming to the community he worked for three decades on Wall Street where he had a successful career as an investment banker. In contrast, let's suppose the woman grew up in poverty in a San Juan barrio where she managed to scrape together enough of a living to put herself through college. Now both live together in an intergenerational community in a mixed class and multiracial neighborhood in Boston. In this instance, how much of the man's ability to be persuasive is attributable to privilege and how much to rank? See how messy this can get?

Arnie Mindell says, “Rank is everyone’s issue. If there is clarity and understanding, rank can be medicine. If unexamined, it can be poison.” It's a serious commitment for a group to tackle the morass of rank and privilege. The good news is that that swamp can be drained.  

3. Social Capital
Related to the previous point, yet somewhat different, is the concept that the group is more willing to listen to some members than others by virtue of their relationships and their history with the group, independent of that person's experience or expertise with the topic. Thus, we'll tend to listen more carefully and weigh more seriously the opinions of people we're close to, and the reverse will obtain with folks we're irritated with. Ideas that come from people who have recently been doing things above and beyond for the group will be treated more kindly; the views of people who have lately been needy and demanding will be held more critically.

While you're never going to eliminate the influence of social capital (nor am I advocating that you should even if you could), you can become more aware of how it functions, and thus better able to read how some voices commonly sound more off-key while others are perceived to be more consistently melodious in the ever-constant effort to harmonize. 
• • •
Taken all together, you can begin to see how naive it is to expect that the voices in a cooperative group will be naturally balanced just because that's your intention. While much of the skewing I've described happens unconsciously, that's a mixed blessing. On the up side, it's not a question of anyone having a bad heart. On the down side, it's much more difficult to illuminate and work with invisible forces.

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