Typically groups don’t need any help getting into conflict, but they may need help getting out of it. We think a big part of good group management and group leadership is knowing how to be a great facilitator when the group is in the weeds, or the rather the muck, of conflict and tension around decision making.
Consensus building: an ongoing conversation
Over the next few posts we’ll go in-depth on consensus building in groups. Left to their own devices, groups may try to have open-ended discussions, or they may try to avoid discussion altogether and have a few stakeholders make a backroom executive decision. Both tactics tend to fail. One denies the group the ability to weigh in, and the other may get conflict out in the open but but then leave it there undigested. What we DON’T want is group members to walk away feel unheard or like group trust is eroding due to a lack of appropriate facilitation and process. That’s why it’s important to have a container and a framework for how to engage BEFORE things go sideways. Enter: consensus building.
Today let’s talk about what we’re talking about when we say consensus building (hint: it doesn’t necessarily mean unanimous agreement).
What is consensus building in groups and why do we care?
Simply put, consensus building in groups is a good faith attempt to come to agreement on a decision or a plan by incorporating the diverse perspectives of the group stakeholders. The disagreement can be as simple as a “should we do x or should we do y?” or it can be more nuanced than that. The goal is for everyone to feel that their major concerns have been addressed and that their ideas have been adequately heard and taken into account. Groups that rely on consensus building in the negotiation process tend to come to agreements that are more stable because they incorporate the wisdom of people across the spectrum of thought within the group. Better decisions, better relationships, and a better chance at smooth implementation once a decision has been reached. What’s not to like?
In order to engage with this process, there needs to be an existing bond among group members. Group members need to believe that they are among a group of people who are genuinely doing their best to act with high integrity and the groups best interest at heart. Group members will need to commit to be gentle in their candor, to show up and actively participate (no taking the toys and going home and no pouting), and to demonstrate openness and flexibility (no intractability or grandstanding).
The guiding principles: these won’t change
We’ve adapted these from this list from the American Heart Association:
Everyone who is willing and able should be included in the process. The point of this is for everyone to get an opportunity to weigh in, which first means inviting the right people to be there. Leaders should go to the effort of including as many stakeholders as possible from the get-go.
Good facilitation is a skill worth honing for all group leaders. Leaders should be neutral, or at the very least find a trusted third party who can be to guide the process. Neutral facilitators are absolutely fundamental because they hold the boundaries and keep accountability at the forefront if things get tough.
Really this goes hand in hand with inclusivity. The point of this process is that everyone’s perspective is valued and taken into account, and that nobody’s ideas matter more than anyone else’s.
4. Solution-mindedness and flexibility:
Everyone will not get their way. The goal is to find a creative approach that mitigates the most of group members concerns. If everyone’s concerns are addressed to the point that they can give their support with MINOR reservations and caveats, that is good enough!
5. Accountability to the ground rules:
Group members and facilitators co-create ground rules that everyone will follow. These could be things like no interrupting or no shooting down an idea without suggesting an alternative.
Once the group has reached a decision, it’s important that everyone involved remains committed to ongoing progress toward putting the plan in place. Otherwise, why all the hard work?
There’s still a lot to cover, but this is the spirit of consensus building. It’s as much a set of social contracts as it is a step-oriented process. Next, though, we will dive more heavily into the steps. And we’re working on some practical (and printable) tips and ideas for how to implement the process. So, stick with us in the coming weeks for leadership solutions to store away in your group management toolbox!
The Team at Groupeasy