RE: Re: Consensus
From: Rob Sandelin (
Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2004 20:16:49 -0700 (MST)
One of the pieces of making a large group (more than 10) consensus process
function is having a dynamic facilitation approach. For example, a proposal
is made to require all members to wear blue underpants. To the surprise of
many, during the discussion phase of the meeting, it appears there are
several people who are quite passionate about blue underpants. Most people
in the group are neutral, some prefer pink. During the discussion phase,
Lisa says, I hate blue underpants and will never wear them! the facilitator
might feedback to Lisa (when she is finished) wow, you seem to have a lot of
energy about this issue, can you tell us more about why you feel as you do?
It turns out, that Lisa's problem is actually not the color at all, its that
blue never fit right and they run in the wash (which all colored underpants
could do). Having helped the group understand Lisa's point blank statement,
by asking a clarifying question, the group has more likelihood of processing

Too often, I have seen passive facilitators let people make declarative
opinion statements then leave the group to muddle without understanding the
issues behind the statement. Clarifying questioning is simple, effective,
and non-threatening if you do with an honest sense of exploration. As a
facilitator clarifying and helping people understand each other is a key

Another place where an involved facilitator can add a huge value is to help
the group clarify which ideas, if any, should actually be added to the
proposal. One way to do this is to do a fingers poll like this: If you can
live with the proposal as it stands show me one finger, if you have
questions, issues, or feel something needs to be added, show two fingers.
Then you call, 1,2 ,3 fingers and people show either one or two. Then you
drill down on the two fingered folks to see what they need. This seems to
work best after discussion has occurred. This can also give you a sense of
support for the proposal in general. If half the room has two fingers up,
you might want to think about an alternative approach. If a proposal has
been well discussed and thought out, my observation is usually only a couple
of people might have clarifications, issues, or additions that they need.

Often people will bring up any number of ideas, but after listening to
others, will give up attachment and not insist their idea has to be added to
the proposal. Give the group the chance to add or let go helps sort through
which ideas are the ones that should be further explored. In a collaboration
its not about getting your ideas on line 6 of the proposal, its about being
heard and respected. If ideas are fairly considered, but not chosen, that is
OK.  (Trust and humility are the foundations of consensus process)

Another place an active facilitator can add value is to capture feelings in
the moment. One simple way to do this is to call a timeout. You then relay
back to the group, what you sense, maybe asking it in a question like, I
sense some discomfort in the men since the conversation turned to lace
underpants, does anybody else feel this or am I off base? Then if the answer
is an obvious YES, asking the group for a brief, 5 minute detour to explore
this can really help pull the group together. Or not. Depends on the issue,
the group, the trust in the facilitator and some other things. Some times
these detours are clean and effective, sometimes they go down dark and
dangerous alleys which are best avoided. Setting a time limit lets you bail
if its unproductive. Oh, look, times up! (Whew!)

In large groups it is my observation that an active facilitator can add a
lot to the success of a groups collaborative efforts. It is also my
observation that sometimes passive facilitation allows problems to get out
of hand. If you are facilitating a group bigger than 10, or have a scary
agenda, you probably would benefit from making a plan, with intervention
points ready, and plan B in place in case your best efforts go down in

My favorite plan B is to grovel, tell the group I am over my head here, can
we take a break while I try to get some ideas and direction together?  I
have saved myself many a time with a strategically called break.

Rob Sandelin
South Snohomish County at the headwaters of Ricci Creek
Sky Valley Environments  <>
Field skills training for student naturalists
Floriferous [at]

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