Friday, November 25, 2011

Consensus as an Unnatural Act

As a process consultant, I get frequent opportunities to share what I consider the essence of consensus—the most popular choice for decision-making in cooperative groups.

While there's a lot to say, I've come to believe that there are three most important introductory points to get across:

a) Groups will not get good results unless they're prepared to create a different culture—one that's oriented toward curiosity rather than combat in the presence of non-trivial differences. Given the way most of us have been conditioned, being curious in the face of someone disagreeing with you is an unnatural act. We are taught to defend, not to break bread with the enemy. Yet combat discourages open disclosure and sharply limits the flow of information. Job #1 is keeping the ideas moving freely.

b) Consensus is the nuanced intersection between relationship and decision-making—if you're not attending to both, you'll not be happy with the results. In the wider culture we're mostly taught to set relationships aside in the pursuit of sound decisions; in cooperative culture however, we value how we reach decisions about as much as what decisions we reach. If you neglect relationships you risk birthing agreements with stillborn energy. If, on the other hand, you attend to relationship and lose focus on problem solving, you may drift into an emotion-laden quagmire with no clear exit. Both forms of imbalance tend to be unsatisfactory.

c) Meetings call for different behavior than informal settings, and participants need to learn both what's appropriate and the discipline to modify their behavior accordingly. I teach groups that the mantra of participants in a consensus meeting is:
What does the group need to hear from me on this topic at this time?

This guidance is so nutrient-dense that I want to parse it into five components:

1. The Group
The context is a group conversation. That means screening possible comments for those that are group-relevant, and having the internal fortitude to discard the rest for another context. The point is that everything that is of sufficient interest—or even potency—for the individual may not be pertinent in the group context. To succeed in this, the participant needs to be clear about the group's purpose and what things are appropriate for plenary consideration.

2. Need
This is an assessment of relative importance. Rather than looking for "What can I think of saying about this topic," participants should be looking for "What is sufficiently germane and potent that the group needs to take it into account." If someone else has already offered the thing you were poised to contribute, you may not need to speak.

To be sure, there's considerable nuance around what the group needs to hear. If you're undecided, it's likely better to speak up and let others help you sort the essential from the elective.

3. From Me
If you say nothing, people may be left to guess how to interpret your silence. It could mean that you have nothing to add, or it could mean:
—You're confused about what the topic is.
—You're distracted by a personal challenge that has nothing to do with the topic.
—You're bored and have been spacing out.
—You're so upset that you're afraid to speak because you might vomit on someone and create a big mess that there's not time to clean up.
—You're still formulating a response and just aren't ready to speak.

Because silence can be so confusing, it's typically better to offer something like, "So-and-so speaks my mind," than to stay mum because you don't think you have anything new to add. Not only does this only take a few seconds, people will not be left to guess where you stand. Choosing to let everyone know that you're fine with what's been said is even more important if you're identified as a key stakeholder, as people will likely be tracking your silence even more closely.

this is all together different than making the same point as someone who spoke before, and then taking just as long or longer to do it, in an effort to find fresh phrases for the same concept. Remember, the point of the meeting is not how good you look; it's how good the group's thinking is.

4. On The Topic
It's not uncommon for a person's brilliancy to be triggered by the topic at hand, yet not be about the topic at hand. If that's the case, can you restrain yourself from insisting on sharing your inspiration? Whenever you indulge that impulse and stray off topic you're not being a good consensus participant.

To be fair, it isn't always easy to tell what the topic is, and therefore you may be unsure whether a proposed comment is in bounds or coloring outside the lines. That's where a good facilitator comes in.

5. At This Time
There's a predictable journey that topics take when traveling through plenary consideration, and different kinds of comments are appropriate at different stages. For example, during the discussion phase you're not looking for potential solutions (you're looking for the factors that a good proposal needs to balance); during the question phase you're not wanting any statements about blocking concerns (at this early stage you're only wanting to make sure that everyone understands the issue, not what positions they'll lay down in front of the bulldozer over).

In my experience it takes your average cooperative group years before these essential consensus elements become so ingrained that the responses surface naturally. The good news is that it's possible.

• • •
Post-Thanksgiving Postscript

For those who read my blog of Nov 16, Granddaughter Down, I'm happy to report that Taivyn is now home and completely free of the C Diff infection that knocked her down. While she still has a ways to go on the road to normalcy (she needs a bland diet and plenty of rest for several weeks), she is expected to make a full recovery and her parents had ample reason for giving thanks yesterday. I also want to express appreciation to all my readers for the outpouring of loving support that my posting generated. I was touched, and I like to think that all that healing energy helped her turn the corner just that much faster.

1 comment:

josefcarel said...

Wonderful, very interesting article about a very important issue in every kind of social group.