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Defining Problems To Build Consensus

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate

Choice Groups 300x187 Defining Problems to Build Consensus

Leaders and managers who convene consensus building groups are often frustrated by the difficulty of one of the first steps: defining the problem the group is trying to resolve.

Despite a stated desire to collaborate, many participants don’t really understand what the term means and may arrive at the table in anything but a collaborative mood. Their experience of dealing with public agencies is to advocate for their own solutions. They assume that others will use the opportunity for the same purpose: to sway decision-makers to their way of thinking. So they try to pull discussion toward their way of defining the issues in order to gain advantage in that competition.

Here are some typical examples of clashing problem definitions.

  1. A city manager asks a diverse group of stakeholders to make recommendations on land use policy for a rapidly growing levee-protected area along a major river.

    • The business community and the city government define the problem as removing barriers to further expansion of the area.
    • Local conservation groups give highest priority to enforcement of a habitat protection agreement that establishes wildlife buffer areas on open land adjacent to the new developments.
    • The Army Corps of Engineers asserts that the problem is increasing the level of flood protection in this basin and halting further construction until the project is finished.

  2. A group is convened by the president of a university to improve the management of the law school.

    • A faculty group says the problem is that the university has no experience in managing a law school and should leave key policies in the hands of the law dean and faculty.
    • Another faculty group says the problem is domination by a conservative clique of professors who are out of touch with contemporary needs, including the need for greater minority hiring and curriculum changes to expose students to conditions faced by low-income communities.
    • University administrators say the problem is the need to raise the law school’s low national ranking.

At the outset, participants are full of suspicion about the process and are listening to others only to figure out their hidden agendas and “real” motives. Getting control of the terms of discussion is a goal many are fighting for. Defining the problem is a crucial step in gaining that control because they’re convinced that this way of structuring the issues will lead directly to their own proposed solution.

They are not concerned about talking to each other – except to refute opposing positions. Rather they are talking to whoever will make a final decision. It might be the convening agency, or it could be a regulatory body that must approve the recommendations produced by the group. The collaborative forum is in danger of becoming just another venue for conventional advocacy.

There are several methods collaborative leaders and practitioners can use to break this dynamic of advocacy – and move participants back from rigid adherence to their solutions. These three are frequently used.

  1. They can reframe the issues to reorient discussion away from established positions toward a more comprehensive or long-range problem. This strategy is most effective when the presenting issue, the one the parties are focused on, turns out to arise from a more fundamental need. Dealing with that broader question also needs to encompass resolution of the ongoing dispute.

    For example, a city was under threat of enforcement litigation by a federal agency because of a violation of permit terms about protecting water quality. The problem was that rural resident were illegally diverting untreated water from the city’s pipeline. A mediator worked with the the parties to focus on the more basic issue of finding adequate regional water supplies. That was the first step in a successful resolution of both the permit problem and the rural residents’ need for water.

  2. A familiar practice is assisting group members to talk to each other about the problems they face in sustaining their economic viability, their communities or their cultural values. Those are the basic concerns and interests that underlie the proposals on definitions and implied solutions. Because of the level of suspicion, that is not an easy discussion to bring about in a meaningful way, but if successful it can make a big difference.

    The hope is that at a later point in the process, the group members may go beyond their public positions and consider other options for resolution. Those options and proposals would address the needs of all members rather than the claims and demands of single interests. Proposals of that type can only result from sustained collaborative effort, and if the participants never listen to each other that will be impossible.

  3. A third strategy is to change the focus to the future. What are the forces for change that will shape that future? What does each interest group need in order to adapt successfully to those challenges? Are there any shared elements of those visions for the upcoming decades? By answering such questions, participants can hopefully define specific action steps and strategies that would begin to address all the interests represented in the process.

The purpose of these and other methods is to shift the focus and energy of people around the table from the immediate battles they’ve been fighting to a context that poses less immediate risk to their interests. Reducing the threat also reduces stress and tension in the room. That, in turn, can make it easier for participants to consider new possibilities and to listen to one another. That’s an essential first step toward building consensus.

There are, however, several problems that can arise with each of these strategies. These are a few of them:

  1. Some participants are impatient with any approach that delays getting into the heart of the dispute. They see it as “touchy-feely” or a diversion into a kind of relationship therapy. In the end, everyone may feel good about each other, but they won’t have accomplished anything about the real problems.

  2. There is a danger that by broadening the focus on the group to more comprehensive regional or long-term issues, the resulting agenda for the rest of the process may avoid the deepest levels of conflict. That happens when the emphasis shifts to finding the easy issues that the group can agree on but simply agreeing to disagree about the rest. In that case, the process hasn’t been building consensus at all.

    Rather it has been discovering areas of agreement that may have been there all along. That can be helpful for creating a policy frame – a set of core principles – that the group accepts as the basis for future action. But it’s a frame containing only a sketch. It may come at the cost of avoiding the real conflict or at least postponing more difficult negotiations to a later process.

  3. Group members are rarely willing to be completely open about what they want at the beginning of a process, yet these three strategies all depend on disclosure of real interests to the group as a whole. They may well have been fighting each other in different venues for many years. Their suspicion doesn’t go away very readily, and they’re rarely willing to disclose their deepest concerns for fear at putting themselves at a disadvantage. They’re also reluctant because they don’t trust anyone else to be truthful. Attempted manipulation of such forums may well be what they expect from each other. Facilitating genuine exchanges of needs and ideas has to be approached very carefully to slowly build a level of trust that permits more honest dialogue.

    For any group whose members have been in sustained conflict, these strategies are only the first steps in laying the groundwork for later progress. Facing and negotiating the hard problems while also building cooperative relationships is obviously complicated and difficult. Following successful use of such strategies, the rest of the consensus process requires increasing levels of skill and experience to reach both agreement on issues and sustained collaborative action in the future.


    John Folk-Williams

    I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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