I have a deep and abiding interest in inclusion. I know my own desire to be included, to know that I matter, that what’s important to me counts, that I can have a say and affect an outcome. I also know how important it is to me to include others when I am part of a group and even more so when I lead a group.
At the same time I know how exponentially unwieldy discussions can become when the numbers grow. One person speaks, others want to speak, then others want to respond. Meanwhile others sit in amazement as the same points are made over and over again. As Sharif Abdullah said, “Just blurting out whatever you want, whenever you want to, is NOT democracy.” Is there a way out of this nightmare that doesn’t sacrifice the value of inclusion?
I have found that one distinction makes all the difference in the world: the difference between including everyone’s voice and including everyone’s needs. If, as people speak, we are able to capture the true needs for which they speak to their satisfaction of being heard, and if we are indeed committed to including all the needs, there is no reason to hear anyone else articulate a position or opinion that stems from the same need. Once the need has been named, only additional needs can be invited to speak.
I see this confusion between hearing needs, issues, and concerns, and hearing everyone’s voice as a big impairment to group functioning. Reaching decisions, especially in large groups and under stressful conditions, benefits from focus, clarity, and conciseness. That is not a substitute for each person being fully heard as an individual human being, which I see as an irreducible aspect of becoming more empowered, whole human beings. What’s vitally important in my view is to separate those two, so we can have a context for making decisions, and a separate context for hearing people’s stories, pain, concerns, needs, dreams, and everything else about them.
In practical terms, if I stand in line to speak at a decision-making meeting, and what’s truly important to me has been named already, even if in different words and through a different opinion, then I can sit down knowing that my need is already included, especially if I trust that some other context exists for me to be fully heard as a human being. A facilitator can invite people to only speak for issues that hadn’t yet been named. This, to me, is a key to efficient inclusion: we never need to hear the same thing twice, because it’s not about how many people have the same need. If we commit to shared ownership of all the needs, and working on a proposal that addresses all of them, we can let go of more and more voices.
The Role of Facilitation and Leadership
When I facilitate a process of decision making, I focus on a few key areas:
• I put a tremendous amount of emphasis on creating shared holding of all the needs that are named – before, during, and after creating a proposal.
• I engage people in stretching to be open to including others’ needs. Towards that end I hear everyone’s objections and identify needs in them; and I invite them to the commitment to create an outcome that works for everyone.
• I work diligently to identify for everyone what the underlying needs might be. I write them on one sheet of paper, regardless of positions, so that everyone can see and join the commitment. I always name needs in terms of what someone wants to create, what’s important to them, or what is their dream, rather than in terms of positions, what “should” happen, or what is not working.
• I support people in evaluating proposals relative to needs that have been named, with the aim of reaching a proposal that can address all the needs.
• I guide the process of reaching an actual decision through a series of questions that check people’s willingness at different levels, until a decision is reached that everyone is willing to embrace, even if it’s not their preferred outcome.
I never see it as my job to tell a group what decision to make, though I have often participated in crafting proposals based on needs that had been identified.
Veto, Blocking, and Minorities
I have heard people raise two key issues in regard to the dilemmas of holding minorities within a consensus process. One is the frustration about there being a small group, sometimes even one person, who can block a decision from happening, a frustration that arises from the desire for efficiency, movement, or trust, among others. Conversely, I have heard grave concerns expressed about people being pressured to go along with a decision even when they are in disagreement because of the fear of judgment of them if they chose to block the decision. In this context I have heard people express the hope that majority voting changes these dynamics, even a sense that minorities are respected when they have the opportunity to vote their dissent without thereby blocking the process.
From the vantage point of the process I have created, and especially with the transformative power of dialogue that aims to bring people together, expressing a dissenting view gets depolarized through the finding of shared human needs that everyone subsequently owns. I have both found people willing to express their concerns, as well as others willing to hear them, when a facilitator can maintain a relaxed attitude of trust in the process. In fact, the process of surfacing the concerns, issues, and underlying needs is one of the key building blocks towards a decision that is attentive to more and more needs and is therefore more likely to lead to robust agreements that are kept by everyone, because they know they matter and are part of the whole.
This coming weekend, Nov 5-6, I am offering a 2-day training in group facilitation, including an entire day focused on the decision-making process I mention here. I would be honored and moved to have people from any occupation movement attend this training and engage with me about whether and how these insights can be applied in the complex and ever-changing context of these movements. The training is called “No One Left Behind: Facilitating Efficient and Productive Meetings.” I am not thinking this is the only way to go. I am thinking of it as a way to go. May this movement find all the necessary support to move forward towards the vibrant dream of a world that works for all of us.