A couple of weeks ago I had the unusual honor of facilitating a city council meeting. The main item on the agenda was a proposal to build affordable housing right at the center of town. As you can imagine, the topic brought a lot of charge for many of those present, and people were polarized on the issue. At the end of the meeting we had a list of criteria for the proposal to address, and sent it back to the committee to re-work. No one got angry. Many shared they experienced much more hope than at the beginning of the meeting that a solution could be found that would address all or most of the criteria. I was, needless to say, overjoyed.
The only problem, though, was that this was a simulated exercise, not the real meeting with the real players. It took place during an advanced training for trainers in Nonviolent Communication that I led a couple of weeks ago. During a session on group facilitation skills, I wanted to demonstrate group decision-making, and asked for an example from the group. The affordable housing proposal was a real issue for the town where one participant was living. She presented the context for us, and then I asked each person in the group to pick a position on the issue that they could identify with. From then on, although this was simulated, people expressed a lot of passion about their position and it felt real as life.
Here are some of the facilitation guidelines that I used during that “meeting,” and my reasons for using them:
- Reflect back everything that everyone says. This provides several benefits. First, it allows each person to have an experience of being heard (assuming that the facilitator has listening skills…), which contributes to a sense of inclusion, as well as to peace and calm, very useful resources when facilitating a group. In addition, this provides information for the facilitator about what’s important to different people, which is essential for creating a solution that works for everyone or close to that. Lastly, reflection also slows down the conversation and makes it more mindful.
- Identify and record the core essence underlying what people say. This begins the process of de-polarizing. For example, one of the participants who was opposed to the proposal raised the issue of loss of property value. What we identified as the essential core of this concern was a wish for security for homeowners. Everyone in the room could line up around wanting security for homeowners, even though some people didn’t resonate with preserving property values. Recording each item also deepens the sense of being heard.
- Create a shared ownership of the criteria for the proposal. Although this may seem small, I have found that having only one list of what’s important to people in terms of criteria/qualities/needs for the proposal makes a huge difference. If two lists are maintained, the polarity gets reinforced. With one list everyone is invited into a space of shared responsibility for the well-being of all.
- Consciously invite people to only say what hasn’t been said before. Everyone needs to be heard. Not everyone needs to speak. Once a particular position has been heard in full, there is no need for anyone else to say it again. One of the reasons for recording all the needs. As facilitator, I make a point of asking specifically for only new pieces to add to the puzzle. From a certain moment on, when I already have confidence that the shared ownership is taking place, it no longer matters who has which position, and there isn’t even a need to ask for position. People grasp the concept easily, and can add directly to the list of needs/criteria.
- Tracking and respectful transitions. To increase everyone’s trust that their voice and presence matter, it’s vitally important to track who has something they haven’t yet said, and also to explicitly acknowledge and get agreement from people before moving to speak with another person. This could look like: “I know you have more to say, and I would love to hear it. At this point I am worried about staying with you because so-and-so hasn’t spoken yet at all and wants to. Are you comfortable with me switching to so-and-so and coming back to you later?” Or, in a different context, “I see that your hand is up. Are you OK waiting another couple of minutes until I finish hearing from so-and-so?”
- Transcend either/or proposals. Although sometimes the group may not have a say in the matter, whenever possible leave room for taking things back to the drawing board for re-doing a proposal. The more criteria and needs we want to include, the more flexible and creative the solution. Such flexibility usually transcends a yes or no to a fixed proposal.
At the end of the meeting we had the following list of criteria that everyone agreed were important in order to achieve a solution that’s workable:
- Providing access to affordable housing
- Ease of traffic (the proposed site would likely affect traffic patterns)
- Security for homeowners
- Fiscal soundness
- Care for endangered species (the proposed site was habitat for some species)
- Culture of peace in town
- Creative use of resources
- Creative reuse of resources
- Consideration of town’s infrastructure
- Providing people directly affected by decisions a real choice in their future
The woman who brought the issue expressed astonishment and immense hope at what had happened, and was planning to meet with the mayor and propose some ideas to him. The overall feeling in the room at the end was one of elation and curiosity, with an opening to the possibility that this could be the way towns conduct business.