One of the things I hear most from people who need to take leadership around difficult and complex issues is the question of how to get everyone on ‘the same page’, how to get to an agreement on points of view.
The leaders find it frustrating that in these situations there are myriad perspectives held by people depending upon their experience, and the group or part of the system in which they operate. For many, this diversity seems insurmountable. They can certainly be forgiven for wanting to limit the diversity and agree on one reality that they choose to call the reality.
In this situation, it is understandable to want to reach for a strategy of finding methods that help to eliminate that space of difference. A strategy that closes down the arguments and differences of perspective and in so doing then start to get the job done. It is as if the diversity itself limits the ability to find solutions. This strategy is understandable, yet ultimately misguided. Mutual understanding of a situation and agreement on how to move forward doesn’t come from shutting down differing views. It comes from transcending them to find the deeper meaning where there is shared understanding. This approach implies that the differences have a space to be, to transform, to blend, and to further differentiate as the new understanding needed is uncovered.
Another strategy that is ultimately counterproductive is the choice to debate different viewpoints. Trying to convince people with different views of the logic of one or other side of the argument. While this can be intellectually interesting and exciting, it is seldom successful in bringing to light the insight that leads to a more unifying understanding of something. Worse yet, this strategy often spirals out of hand. People get angry with one another as their passion gets connected to protecting their viewpoints and they end up associating the person with different thoughts as an enemy and take offense. Just think of that worst family gathering where two of your relatives started what looked like a friendly debate about politics and ended up in a screaming match and perhaps even someone storming out of the room.
Shutting down conversations by taking things off the table doesn’t work, it just subverts the issues and makes people frustrated. Debating the differences to logically fight your way out usually ends up in hurt feelings and entrenchment in already standing views. So, what do you do?
What I have found to be most powerful is to create a setting where the challenge is known and all views have their space, where all voices can be heard without the need to come to agreement. It means designing a gathering that gives people enough freedom to explore the topic in their own ways by following what is important to them. It means allowing people not to engage with parts of the problem that for whatever reason, don’t attract them at that moment. Allow people to engage as much as they want with each point of view by letting small subgroups form and ask them to make sure that their highlights are written down and exhibited where others can read them.
It means making sure that all of the highlights, I like to call them reports, are included in the documentation so that all viewpoints visible and that way when each participant looks at the documentation he/she also learns what happened on topics that they were not part of and this way as people continue to engage they benefit from all of the outcomes, regardless of if a certain topic attracted them or not. And then, let people manage themselves and speak and connect together and walk away. Let them debate if they so choose, and also let them decide to take a private walk with someone they haven’t agreed with. In short let the magic of connection and freedom to manage one’s own energy and happen.
When people come together knowing they are free to share their opinions, when they come together not looking to convince, shut down, or prove their points but instead to find solutions or insights that they may not have ever thought of before, something new and transcendent can arise that is able to point the way to agreement of ways forward.
It is for this reason that I work with Open Space Technology. It is the beauty created through freedom of expression and engagement and freedom of disengagement by each person, that something new arises. When that happens, that is magic. This is a magic we need to cultivate in a world of increasing complexity and increasing diversity.
For many of my clients those first courageous steps into Open Space feel frightening and deeply unnerving. Yet, in my experience, there is nothing more powerful than spending a day with people who seem to have such divergent attitudes, needs, perspectives and ideas, dealing with problems and challenges and then trusting and watching how all that diversity finds its way to transforming itself into a new knowledge, new solutions, deeper understanding of one another. It comes as a powerful and liberating insight. Along with the solutions and understanding comes another insight — that thinking the same is not a pre-requisite for being able to find alignment on approaching challenges and tackling difficult issues.
I regularly offer training in how to work with Open Space Technology as a vehicle for sustainable change. The next training takes place in the Netherlands 12 -14 September 2018, Go to www.dorisgottlieb.com/ost-2018 to learn more and register.