The UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum is an object lesson in how not to engage citizens in participatory and sustainable decision-making. It breaks every rule in the book and the consequences of a process that has divided the country and stoked intolerance are still unfolding.
Debate and voting is the norm for decision-making in Western democracies. Majority voting is used even with highly controversial issues. After all, it’s relatively quick: you have a debate and the different sides argue and defend their position with a view to making the best case (demolishing the other side if possible). People vote, the majority wins and the decision is implemented. Simple. But creating winners and losers doesn’t make for wise or sustainable decisions.
Yet there is no shortage of experience, wisdom and guidance on how to conduct inclusive, respectful debate and dialogue with people who have different views and perspectives. This is fundamental to healthy democratic process across society – whether in public fora, business, the voluntary sector, community groups.
What would it be like if our public conversations and decision-making were conducted through deliberation and consensus? At the heart of consensus is a respectful dialogue between equals. It’s about everyone working together to meet both the individual’s and the group’s needs – working with each other rather than for or against each other, something that requires openness and trust. Have a look at the excellent short guide to consensus by Seeds for Change.
Bringing people together to talk about contentious issues and where there are strongly held views requires care and sensitivity, and rigorous attention to process, including how you’ll make decisions.
Here are a few thoughts – we’ll be exploring these and more in the Facilitation Anywhere course in November:
- Take some time to reflect on your approach, your values as a hosting group and how you’d like these to show up. Who’s in your group? How do you expect to work together? Are you committed to investing the energy/ time that’s needed? How you work together will be felt in the wider group. The mutual learning approach developed by Roger Schwarz connects mindsets and behaviours to results with groups.
- Do your homework, talk and listen to everyone who’s involved, to understand and clarify the issue. As Brexit showed, the presenting issue (the EU) may not be the one that people feel is important (eg pressure on public services).
- Describe the issue and frame the purpose for the meeting/ conversation and the core question(s), and share it with everyone who’s coming to the meeting/ gathering. They’ll already start to feel heard, and helps get them engaged before coming into the room.
- Think about how to create a safe environment where people are able to participate at their best. The welcome at the start, opportunity to connect and get to know each other, share expectations and agree on ways of working provide the ground for trust and openness.
- Facilitation skills for dialogue (the Dialogue Kit from the Aurora Now Foundation provides detailed guidance) and consensus include: active listening and enquiry, suspending judgement, summarising, synthesis and forming proposals.
Don’t forget to choose a place to meet that will feel welcoming, is away from distractions (email etc) and is a pleasant environment.
Even better if there’s an outdoor space where people can get some fresh air, walk, stretch. We have that at Hawkwell House in Oxford, so please do join us in November for the next FacilitationAnywhere course we’re offering with INTRAC.