Coming to agreement

“A group who was deeply committed to their issue had shared a huge amount of experience and there was a real feeling of connection, energy and commitment in the room. And then it got stuck. Round and round we went. Action couldn’t emerge because something fundamental was missing – a signal from the leadership of unequivocal support.”

Growth - groan Zone

This kind of blockage, a feeling of wading in treacle at a crucial point in an event or process, is something we often face as facilitators. Sam Kaner has been writing and teaching about participatory decision-making processes for over 20 years [1]. Kaner invented the term groan zone, also called, ‘the zone of struggle in the service of integration’, which perhaps sums up the issue more accurately (if less elegantly!). If the emergence and sense-making phase described in our previous blog has gone well then ideas have emerged, new combinations of activities are possible, assumptions have been challenged and fresh groupings of people have formed around agreement and difference. So everyone in the group has to struggle in order to integrate new and different ways of thinking with their own.

Once power and hierarchy, not to mention gender and difference, are layered into the situation …. kaboom! If you don’t learn enough about the power dynamics in the group at the outset and clarify who has the authority to hold (or block) decisions, the process can become unstuck.

Detailed and clear preparation can help groups anticipate and get through the ‘groan zone’.   Breaking down the agenda into topics, questions and likely outcomes  are part of that preparation and inform the design of the process – and being able to let it go in the moment.

Equally important is the need to be clear about what agreement looks like. Consensus is often thought to mean ‘we all agree’. But as Sam Kaner points out, consensus isn’t so much the end point as how you get there –  ‘a participatory process in which a group thinks and feels together en route to their decision’. The agreement itself might be unanimity or majority. The process of getting there is all important – hearing objections, exploring resistance, drawing out proposals and possible ways forward, listening for the ‘sense of the room’, testing for agreement until you get there.

The good news

There are plenty of tools and methods to help the group doing its work of narrowing down ideas, prioritising,for narrowing down and sorting. As well as the many tools in Kaner’s work, the KS toolkit describes such staples as Dotmocracy, SWOT, Card Collection, and so on. The Liberating Structures resource also includes several creative and powerful tools like 25/10 Crowdsourcing, wicked questions, agreement/certainty matrix and, for long discussions on a larger scale, ecocycle planning and panarchy

r2i hackathon ideationIn many types of events there isn’t the same need for agreement, or an agreed outcome. Knowledge Sharing meetings are about people talking, learning from each other’s experience and taking away ideas to be processed individually or in teams. Good documentation and processes that help individuals or teams articulate what it is they’ve learnt and find common threads and patterns can help ensure that people come away with a sense of achievement. These often involve loads of paper on the walls – or windows, or large pieces of old wallpaper, or fabric sheets sprayed with glue – wherever they can be stuck.

Clarity and difference online

The majority of gatherings come as one event in a long series of activities and processes, involving chains of document versions and conversations before and after a workshop. Being crystal clear about the purpose of an online meeting, and preparing in detail, is even more important than for face to face meetings, as is stressed in a very accessible introductory guide to WebMeetings just published by the truly awesome Nancy White.

Some things can be easier. Online collaboration tools make it easier for people to keep track and maintain common documents and other content. We regularly use Google documents,  wikis, and MS OneDrive (yes, Microsoft have finally made a usable, publicly accessible web collaboration tool!)  These tools can serve a real-time documentation function and, paradoxically perhaps, if all participants remain online then keeping track can be easier. Conventions of version management are often more scrupulously followed online since people haven’t got the face to face contact to fall back on. There is only each other and the online connection.

Many of the tools for finding common ground and identifying difference can be used online. If people are using common tools like Google drive, which supports shared editing in real-time of presentations or other documentation, then coming to agreement can be a straightforward process. If more is at stake, there are plenty of examples from multi-stakeholder policy processes of ways to bring together and engage people who are present in meetings both remotely and physically. Many UN and other multilateral bodies are developing and using sophisticated platforms supported by formal process for responding and decision-making, especially those concerned with the Internet and telecommunications. The International Telecommunications Union, for example, has been webcasting since 1998 and integrating Remote Participation since 2009.

Dealing with difference and disagreement online is hard. Visual and other non-verbal cues are often absent or unclear unless there is high quality equipment and good communication channels.  The specific attributes of online meetings referred to in earlier blogs, such as extended response times, attention spans or comprehension difficulties, can cause acute problems where there are tensions or challenges. It requires more deliberation from a facilitator – ensuring consistent turn taking, regular check-ins, allowing time for rounds of conversations about key issues. Good facilitator skills in listening, echoing and summarising and synthesising are absolutely crucial.

Do you have any stories of how you sailed through the groan zone?


1. Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making should be on all shelves or e-readers!

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