Last February we facilitated a four-day workshop at the Regional Office of a United Nations agency to design the basis for a regional strategy. 25 people from different Latin American and Caribbean offices participated.
The group was quite diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, educational background, mother tongue, experience or position in the organisation. There was a high level of motivation and interest in the topic, as well as contrasting views on different issues and priorities, strong personalities and confidence.
During the first days there were several clashes of views. Conversations started to become polarised and led by those who had, or had gained, more power in the room. At times this power came from their position in the organisation, at times from proficiency in the workshop language, or from public speaking skills.
At some point, everybody was aware of how main discussions were led by two or three people who attracted all the energy in the room. As a way of allowing more voices to be heard, we, the facilitators, started to reduce plenary sessions and break people out into small groups. That worked for a while, as new voices contributed with new perspectives not yet heard, but when we had to agree on the vision statement, the group got stuck again.
The discussion was coming to a dead end. Tiredness was evident in the bodies of participants: their eyes, faces, body positions… Someone proposed to do a vote to decide the final strategy vision statement
In our experience of facilitating difficult conversations we have seen how majority rule, though speeding up the decision-making process, is less effective in the long term, especially in ensuring the real commitment of those with minority opinions. In our view, consensus decision- making is much more sustainable and effective.
For this reason we invited everybody to stand up and proposed to continue the conversation using our whole bodies. We used the room to map out the different perspectives. We invited participants to make a statement, just one sentence. The rest of the group moved close to or far away from the speaker according their level of agreement with the statement. For example, those in agreement stood right next to the speaker, while those disagreeing stood on the other side of the room.
Those holding leading views made the first statements but, as other views were heard, the debate started to get less and less polarised. In fact, some of the strong “defenders” of their views started to move themselves closer to others. People felt that they were not “slaves” to their points of view anymore. There was movement and freedom to change, to explore, to listen and to be curious about others’ views.
The magic moment came when, suddenly, all participants were in almost one group at the centre of the room agreeing with new speakers and reaching a consensus on an (almost final) end-vision statement for the strategy. The most surprising realisation for everybody was that the whole conversation did not last more than 15 minutes, whereas the previous “sitting” debate had lasted more than one hour.
As this story shows, when we just use our rational knowledge we tend to get stuck in never-ending debates where the aim is to win. We are too focused on ourselves, on what we think, on what our ego needs. But as we allow our body knowledge to come into the picture, and listen to its wisdom, our empathy starts to emerge and we are more able to listen and consider others’ views. That ability to listen helps groups and teams to have more productive and generative conversations and reach greater consensus in less time.
Transformancy’s facilitation approach seeks to balance product and process. We consider that the quality of the process determines the quality of the final product. We use techniques such as this one to generate different forms of communication. We pay special attention to the use of the body to balance cognitive / rational knowledge with non-cognitive / emotional knowledge.