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Chapter 4: How do I Work with Disagreement?

Dressler, Larry Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub


The most exciting and creative part of the consensus process is when a group is cycling between Steps 3 and 4. Proposals are made, concerns are raised, and the group attempts to refine or replace the proposal to address those concerns. During this part of the consensus process, groups can experience fruitful innovation or intense frustration. Often, they experience both. I call this the cycle of disagreement and discovery.

I created a tool called Consensus Cards* to maximize focus, creativity, and respect. The method is simple to use. Provide each group member with three cards: one green card, one yellow card, and one red card. The cards are large enough to be seen across the room or conference table.



After a proposal is presented to the group and all clarifying questions have been addressed, the facilitator asks participants to indicate their level of comfort and support for the proposal by holding up one of the three cards.

Each card color signifies a different level of support for the proposal:

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4 Stand in the Here and Now

Dressler, Larry Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

It’s almost like I’m in an altered state of being. I am so in tune with the group that my personal thoughts and opinions—my internal dialogue—become very quiet.

—Sera Thompson
Process Facilitator

THE WORK OF LEADING GROUPS through difficult terrain can be overwhelming. Events move quickly. Voices are raised. It’s easy to feel inundated. Our thoughts can begin to wander to, What happened just now? or, What’s going to happen? The next thing we know, we’re not really in the meeting.

How do we stay in the present moment and avoid being distracted by thoughts of the past or future? Being present connects us to ourselves and to what’s happening around us. It sets the stage for us to see a difficult situation with fresh eyes, to make choices that are unclouded by emotion, and to feel an authentic sense of calm in the midst of a group storm. When we are able to draw on our present self, we can make the ongoing adjustments required to place our full attention in the here and now. Learning to be present in the fire begins with accepting the idea that the only place from which we can influence the future is in the present moment.

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1 Fire for Better or Worse

Dressler, Larry Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

It was a familiar feeling—tightness in my chest and the back of my neck. This told me it was time to breathe, trust, let go of attachment to outcome, listen deeply to what was going on, and test things that might or might not go well.

—Gibran Rivera
Senior Associate,
Interaction Institute for Social Change

GROUP FIRE IS THE STATE IN WHICH a situation feels uncomfortable, emotionally heated, intense, and perhaps quite personal. Fire is as pervasive in human interactions as it is in nature—and just as necessary. In this chapter we will learn to recognize different forms of group fire, appreciating both the productive or destructive qualities of high-heat meetings. We’ll also examine the ways in which our habits of thinking, emotional hot buttons, and egos make us vulnerable to unwise thoughts and actions when we are standing in the heat of human interaction.

We see fire in the halls of government and in the hallways of our elementary schools. It shows up when the leaders of our churches, synagogues, and mosques gather. We feel the fire at town council meetings and industry conferences. When historic adversaries, diverse ethnic groups, and world leaders come together, we expect and usually get fire. When industry leaders, elected officials, scholars, social activists, and citizens come together to deliberate pressing issues like hunger, climate change, and national security, we witness the fire.

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7 Dance with Surprises

Dressler, Larry Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

If I can’t find a way to let go, it carries over into the gathering and I become very controlling— and I tend not to let things unfold.

—Chris Corrigan
Facilitator and Process Consultant,
Harvest Moon Consultants

A MEETING WITHOUT SURPRISES is a meeting in which nothing particularly important occurs. Without surprises we learn very little, because everything that occurs is exactly what we expected. Surprises are that disruptive spark that often lights the fire for innovation. But our human nature is such that when shocking or even merely unexpected events occur, we resent them.

When we can dance with surprises, we are able to welcome and work in concert with whatever is occurring. In the face of surprises, we embody an effortless grace and adaptability. We don’t hold on to preconceived outcomes, resist unforeseen events, or resent an unanticipated change in the agenda we worked so hard to craft. When we move fluidly in the fire, we are inviting the unexpected to be our dance partner. We view every person, every event, every piece of new information, and every expressed emotion as our partner in the creation of something new.

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8 Stand with Compassion

Dressler, Larry Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Sometimes we guard our impartiality and professional distance at the expense of allowing compassion into our work.

—Sidney Wasserman
Professor of Social Work

BY THE END OF THIS CHAPTER I want you to be familiar with a way of standing with your heart wide open to yourself and to others. As change agents working in emotionally volatile situations, our goal is not to extinguish or become impervious to unpleasant feelings. Our goal is to learn to feel human fear and heartbreak without defaulting into a fight-or-flight mode. In this chapter we will explore how the capacities of emotional openness, self-acceptance, awareness of the whole person, and unconditional positive regard enable us to tend the fire in ways that invite human dignity into spaces where fear, intolerance, and aggression might otherwise take over.

Despite some older notions of the facilitator as someone “standing outside of it all,” we are in fact, a very real and connected part of the system.

Where there is group fire, there is often pain and suffering. And where there is suffering, there is nearly always the tendency for people to move into fight-or-flight reactions. Despite some older notions of the facilitator as someone “standing outside of it all,” we are in fact, a very real and connected part of the system. When things heat up, we have no heat-resistant suit to slip into, nor would it serve our purpose if we did.

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