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Building Consensus In Public Meetings

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by Tim Hartnett

Building Consensus in Public Meetings
Tips for Generating Widespread Agreement & Raising Civic Discourse

You’ve been to those dreadful meetings, the ones where the debate polarizes and neighbors start acting like enemies. The microphone becomes a weapon. Names are flung across the room. Ground-rules are discarded. Good people storm out of the room, turning their backs on each other. And the facilitators are left to sweep up the pieces of a shattered attempt to bring people together.

As civic leaders, we strive to organize our constituents to better our communities. How heart-breaking it can be to bear witness instead, to power struggles that stall progress toward common goals. If only there were a way to help people stay focused on working together. If only the consciousness of our citizenry could be raised above the lowest common denominator. Perhaps then, positions of leadership would feel more like a privilege, and less like a burden.

Fortunately, there is hope. The field of meeting facilitation has made great advances, aided by an increasingly sophisticated understanding of human nature and interpersonal conflict. Civic leaders are in a prime position to learn and utilize emerging concepts in facilitation to avoid those “dreadful” meetings, and tap the true collaborative potential of their communities.

How can it happen?
The key is in the facilitation. Most books on facilitation offer valuable tools for setting a container for dialogue. But success in fostering truly collaborative discussion and avoiding antagonistic debate depends on three simple process tools that are rarely employed, even by professional facilitators. These three tips can make a world of difference.

One.  Start by identifying all stakeholders’ concerns
Mediators know that the best way to help parties break through an impasse is to get them to stop arguing about their favorite solutions and start identifying the underlying concerns they want their solutions to address. People tend to get attached to the positions they have publically advocated. Once you go on record in support of a specific proposal, it can be hard to stay open minded. Some people fear “losing face” if they abandon their original position. Their pride leads them to defend their positions and win the debate rather than work together on developing alternatives.

Thus, a collaborative discussion should never start with people declaring their proposed solutions. This only leads to win-lose debates of whose solution is better. Instead, collaborative dialogue begins with identifying the concerns of all stakeholders affected by a particular issue. Only when all these needs and concerns are expressed and understood can meaningful solution building begin.

The facilitator can structure the discussion by defining the first agenda item as “identifying all stakeholder concerns” prior to any airing of proposals. If the participants stray from this task, the facilitator can firmly redirect comments away from solutions and back toward articulating and understanding of all underlying needs and concerns.

Two. Inspire the participants to a “collaborative consciousness”
Once all the stakeholder concerns are identified the facilitator can either let the debate turn adversarial or he can steer it toward a spirit of collaboration. Without guidance, participants will likely interpret their job to be to advocate as strongly as possible for the positions they personally favor. Unfortunately, left unchecked, this may often turn into something dreadful.

Alternatively, the facilitator can frame the discussion as follows, “Now can we all start building solutions together that meet all of the identified needs as much as possible.” This framing defines the group task as collaboration, not debate. And it defines each participant’s task as contributing to a solution that meets all the identified concerns, not just those held by particular factions or individuals.

In public settings, people often seek to impress each other with their creativity or intelligence. If the task is adversarial debate, then all the intelligence of the participants goes into strategically defeating the opposition. If the task is building solutions that meet all the identified concerns, then each person’s desire to impress and contribute is channeled toward collaboration. It is the people who best answer the question of how all concerns can be addressed that will be most impressively contributing to the success of the group.

This challenge to participate collaboratively is a real show of community leadership. A facilitator who presents this challenge is not only fostering a cooperative discussion process. On a deeper level, this challenge is a call for community members to raise their consciousness from concern about individual needs to concern about the community as a whole. The broader repercussions of such a consciousness shift can be extensive. It not only helps discussions resolve well, it can improve the spiritual cohesiveness of the whole community.>

Three. Take turns considering competing ideas
The third key to fostering collaboration is the lesson we were supposed to learn kindergarten. It’s about taking turns. I am not talking about individuals taking turns speaking to the group. The value of that is common sense. Less well understood, however, is the value of having the group take turns considering each alternative proposal.

Facilitators can structure discussions to focus on one solution idea at a time. The group can be challenged to collaboratively develop each idea into the best solution it can become. All participants are asked to contribute to improving, rather than criticizing the proposal under consideration. The criteria for improving any proposal is defined as increasing the degree to which it addresses all of the previously articulated concerns as much as possible.

The process is much like the way pioneers built barns on the American frontier. Single families could not build themselves a barn big enough to survive the winter. But if several families joined forces and took turns, they could build a barn for each family. Likewise, a group can take turns developing multiple solution ideas into the best proposals they can become. Everyone is asked to help improve all the options, not just the ones they prefer.

Structuring the discussion this way allows the whole group to cooperate on the same task at all stages of the discussion. This is in contrast to meetings where competing ideas are discussed simultaneously. When multiple solutions are on the table speakers will alternately support one idea and criticize another. This mix can be confusing and easily becomes adversarial. It inhibits cooperative development of any of the ideas.

The outcome of a truly collaborative discussion is that participants often realize there are multiple possible solutions to most problems. Solution ideas frequently merge or borrow from each other. The collaborative effort results in each option becoming a product of the whole group, not just a faction or individual. Each participant will have the satisfaction of having contributed. And at the end of the discussion, the decision makers will have a set of well-developed options to choose from.

This degree of collaboration is well within the reach of any community. But success requires careful facilitation. These three keys can play a vital role. Using them can help you turn potentially dreadful meetings into successful community building discussions.

Published in Municipal World: Canada's Municipal Magazine, October 2011.


Consensus Facilitation is local to Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Santa Cruz County. .
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Other websites of Tim Hartnett: ConsensusBook, ConsensusBlog, ConsensusDecisions, Santa Cruz Therapist / Mandala Artwork by M. Susan Hartnett Webb