Bob Wentworth - News - June 23, 2016

Support great decisions amid controversy

It seems like some situations are just too "hot," with disagreement just too extreme, to allow any possibility of productive discussion, let alone resolution. It can be hard to look at the current political landscape without feeling a bit hopeless about this. Yet, important issues call out urgently for thoughtful attention and constructive action. Likely this is the case, not only globally, but much closer to home, in groups you are involved with. Is there any hope for supporting groups that you care about to make good decisions when controversy seems to be getting in the way?

Fortunately, I think the answer is “yes,” there is justification for hope. There are highly learnable skills that have been demonstrated to support the emergence of agreement even in contexts where agreement might have seemed impossible. And, these skills aren’t applicable only in extreme cases: they can support groups facing everyday challenges to be amazingly effective and efficient in making decisions that work for all. 

People are often familiar with a number of approaches to decision-making: “autocratic,” where someone “in charge” makes the decisions; “democratic,” where a majority vote decides what happens; and “consensus,” where some level of agreement is sought from everyone. Autocratic decision making is superficially “efficient,” but often leads to critical information not being taken into account, and disaffection and low engagement or ongoing resistance among those that the decision doesn’t work for. Decision-making based on one group “winning” a decision through a majority vote can face similar problems. Consensus-based decisions can keep everyone on-board and engaged, if one can get to the point of actually making a decision. But, all too often, groups trying to make consensus-based decisions find that it takes “too long,” if a decision can be made at all.

A colleague and mentor, Miki Kashtan, has been working for years to develop and refine ways of supporting groups to efficiently converge on agreements that work for everybody. I remember, some years ago, being at an event where a minor controversy arose about how people wanted the event to proceed. This was in one of those groups where there was the potential to get stuck in a process debate that could go on and on and on, completely sidetracking the group from what they were there to accomplish. I remember Miki saying, “If you’ll allow me to lead a process for 5 minutes, I’m confident we can come up with a resolution that will work for everybody.” The group agreed. Miki asked some precisely calibrated questions, surfaced some important information, narrowed the focus to a few key people, and deftly supported the group in crafting a proposal that did, in fact work for everyone, all within the promised 5 minutes. I remember being impressed by how skillfully she brought attention precisely to those things that could move the decision forward. Later, when she explained how she did it, I was struck by how simple and powerful the principles she used were—even if they require some practice to become proficient in applying.

I wasn’t the only one impressed with what Miki knew how to do. Some time later, Miki was invited to see what she could do to help address a bitter political divide in the Minnesota legislature.  The legislators involved had strong feelings, radically different philosophies, and were gridlocked about how to move forward. Miki worked with a group involving people who could initially barely tolerate talking to one another. Yet, trust was believed in ways participants “wouldn’t have believed possible” and were eventually able to co-author ground-breaking legislation that passed the legislature almost unanimously, and which was widely hailed as a great improvement on prior law.

In a rare opportunity, Miki will be in Seattle July 2-3 sharing her powerful “Convergent Facilitation” practices. I think these are skills the world desperately needs. Please consider signing up today to learn how you can support groups in efficiently making great decisions!  

Please consider too, passing this invitation on to others who you think might resonate with this call to action.

I look forward to seeing you there.