Monday, April 29, 2013

Being Agreement Prejudiced

This past weekend I facilitated a series of meetings in Boston (at Jamaica Plain Cohousing), and I started my work —as I always do—by asking for permission to operate under a set of Ground Rules that I've developed over the years. Among them is the group accepting my being "agreement prejudiced."

As that may sound like an odd request—a) why is that noteworthy; and b) is it OK to be "prejudiced" about anything?—it occurred to me that it would make a worthy blog focus to explain why I go there.

Almost without exception, people who have been raised in the dominant culture have been conditioned to think first in terms of how they are distinct from others, rather than how they are the same. To a large extent, our identities are associated with differences more than with similarities, and you know yourself most surely by the ways in which you stand apart from those around you. Certainly that was true for me. (Note that from an anthropolocigal perspective that all cultures aren't like this. In Inuit society, for example, individuals develop a much stronger sense of "we" than "I.")

Mind you, I am not saying that we have been raised to be cantankerous, or iconoclastic (although some, of course, turn out that way). Rather, I'm saying that when someone says something with which we are in partial agreement (which happens "only" all the time) our overwhelming tendency is to focus our initial response on the ways in which we disagree, rather than on celebrating the ways in which we align—even though they are equally valid responses, and one isn't more true than the other.

This is, I believe, a direct consequence of a culture that hero worships the rugged individual (think of it as the intersection between John Wayne and Ayn Rand). We are a competitive society that is founded on the notion that the best thinking is that which survives a fair fight; that rigorous and dispassionate debate exposes weak thinking, casuistry, and unsubstantiated rhetoric. After four decades of cooperative living, I've come to deeply question whether that strategy is superior. Though it's unquestionably what we know how to do, I no longer believe it leads to the best results.

First, a lot of people are uncomfortable speaking in public at all, and will avoid doing so even if there were a guarantee that people would respond favorably.

Second, there are many who would rather keep quiet than risk having their ideas attacked (or even questioned) in public. It can be downright humiliating. 

Third, if you think that there is already too much momentum moving in a different direction than the one you favor, in a competitive dynamic you may strategically decide to fold rather than raise, keeping hidden your preference so as to not squander social capital on a lost cause. Better to save your chips for an issue you might "win."

To the extent that these dynamics sound familiar, you can begin to appreciate how much a competitive environment does not particularly bring out all the ideas. In fact, it often suppresses them. Further, brisk competition tends to promote counterattacks and defensive responses rather than thoughtful reflections and an atmosphere where people can gracefully change their position.

More excited by the potential of cooperative culture—which is the essence of community living—I've trained myself to respond differently to disagreement, and differently to the presence of tension.

Now, when I encounter alternate views, my first thought is to wonder how the other person got to a different conclusion. What factors are they looking at; are they weighing things differently than I am? If you have two different ideas about what to do and you keep the focus on what action to take, the proposals will be in dynamic tension. Typically this will lead to a competition, a virtual tug-of-war.

In order to shift this dynamic, as a facilitator I try make sure I understand the root concerns or interests that undergird the conclusions and then legitimatize (if possible) the reasonableness and appropriateness of those concerns being in play. Then I invite ideas about how to bridge these different interests (which are almost never directly in opposition), rather than how to find a middle ground between proposals.

In my experience, it is much easier for people to stretch to accommodate the concerns of others if they feel that theirs have been fully recognized. Then it feels like a collaboration—rather than a competition, a compromise, a conquering, or a capitulation.

Unfortunately, the field is frequently more complicated than that. If, for example, there are significant tensions or heightened emotions present as well, then you need to pause the consideration to recognize those and explore what they mean before proceeding with the identification of interests and underlying values. 

Essentially, strong feelings correlate highly with distortion, and you cannot do solid work unless you're able to deescalate reactions to the point where people can hear accurately. Attempting to plow ahead anyway—perhaps because you don't know how to deal with feelings, or are afraid that their examination will open Pandora's Box and lead to chaotic, uncontrolled accusations and name calling—will result in exhaustion, damaged relationships, and brittle conclusions with weak buy-in. Yuck!

(Note that the poor outcome I've projected above for failing to work with strong emotions is independent of whether you're attempting a cooperative or a competitive approach. While I don't think it's a simple matter to learn how to do this well, any group not doing this at all is already incurring a stiff price.)

• • •
To the community's credit, the members of JP Cohousing "got it" why being agreement prejudiced is valuable. What's more, they had humbleness about how hard it is to access that mind set in the heat of the moment. That's why they hired me, to help them navigate a large issue where the group needed to bridge between: a) a core concern about affordability and the need to be prudent about living within one's means; and b) a core desire to be bold and inspirational when presented with a unique opportunity to use one-time money to enhance the quality of community life.

When I'm brought in as an outside facilitator, I tell groups that I'm ruthless about agreement, by which I mean that I'll offer it up for consideration as soon as I smell it, which is typically before anyone else in the room. The reason my skill in this stands out is not so much that I'm a superior problem solver, as that people tend to find what they're looking for, and by virtue of having trained myself to look for common ground I'm often better at finding it. 

The bad news is that not that many have done the work needed to be proficient in thinking this way in the dynamic moment—even in community. The good news is that anyone can learn this skill—you just have to want it bad enough and be willing to put in the work.

No comments: