Building Blocks

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
~Noam Chomsky

Every now and then I run into a word that sounds like a good thing. “Tolerance” is one such word, which I’ve blogged on before. Surprisingly, consensus can be another. Mind you, it’s not always, just sometimes. Groups of people try to reach consensus so they can agree upon a plan for accomplishing something without anyone being left out of important decision-making, or without missing good ideas to be gleaned from a variety of viewpoints.

But “consensus-building” exercises can sometimes have the terrible effect of watering everything down to the lowest common denominator, and eliminating novel ideas in favor of mediocrity. Other times they just result in the dread ‘paralysis by analysis’. In worst-case scenarios, they can “railroad” decisions through an unsuspecting group, leaving individuals feeling slightly queasy and dissatisfied at the results, but not understanding why that would be because they seemed to have reached that consensus from a lot of thoughtful group effort.

I’ve sat through a lot of meetings in my life. Usually they begin with lots of carbohydrates & caffeine, useful additions to the social grooming-behaviour necessary to boost bonhomie and settle the humans down to coöperative activity. After the pleasantries, we start off with a positive programme goal, the sort of thing that everybody can agree upon. That’s cool. We now begin with shared vision and collective purpose.

Then at one meeting I felt like everything went sideways and inside-out, a sort of seminar-vertigo. Worse, no one else seemed to be experiencing it. They were all still busily passing bagels and filling coffee cups, sorting out their notepads and handouts, and wrapping up reminders and chit-chat with each other, with nominal attention given to the unfolding of the broadly-stated agenda. Something made my brain itch, but looking around at others, I didn’t see any signs of confusion. Quite possibly I was missing some nonverbal cues, or maybe I was just having auditory processing blips, owing to all the background noises of the hubbub.

Then the facilitator introduced to the conversation the model solution they were pushing for our programme’s problem. Only instead of bringing up discussion about whether or not this could be an appropriate solution, or when it might be an appropriate solution, or how it might be tweaked or integrated with other appropriate solutions, it was simply introduced fait accompli as The Solution.

Just when I was trying to formulate some enquiry about whether or not I had missed something, everyone dived into exploring the topic, and I mentally lurched forwards as I tried to follow the rapid explanations of how the solution worked, and what things it addressed. Of course, there were differences of opinion, and the facilitator encouraged people to express potential difficulties, and explore ways that they could use the solution would deal with those. People’s brains were buzzing with wonderful blends of practicality and imagination, with compassion and a tinge of that gallows-humour that enables staff to deal with ongoing stresses. But even those discussions still defaulted to remaining within the parameters of the designated solution.

It wasn’t until later when I could dissect the events, that I realised where my mental speed-bumps lay. In order to give the attendees the impression that we’d had some thoughtful input and democratic say in the decision making, we were asked to come up with reasons for how and why the new method would be the right way of solving the problem. This was, I realised later, quite clever. By having the attendees come up with the rationales for why the solution should be adopted, the facilitator didn’t have to sell the idea — we had sold it to ourselves and to each other. (This consensus-building scenario is not the same thing as the Delphi Technique, which is yet another way of achieving predetermined results through manipulative crowd control.)

Another reason that I found the situation uncomfortable was how much of it relied upon people “feeling good” about the idea, rather than assessing it critically for goodness of fit. Part of how the idea had been introduced involved describing how we were trying to help our struggling students (clients). It was meant to introduce examples to illustrate the idea, but it also served to spread ego-boo across the crowd, as thick as the cream cheese that was getting spread across the bagels.

The problem with tying together the professional good will of the staff members with that ego-stroking was that it effectively squashed dissent about the idea itself. Differing opinions would be dismissed because they didn’t promote “consensus” and “unity”. Blatantly expressing doubts about the idea based upon one’s own knowledge and positive self-image would threaten to stir up the self-effacing cooing of the group. And of course, one can’t reason people out of a position that they did not arrive at from reasoning — we had not chosen the idea by weighing its uses objectively, but by being told that we were good-hearted people with the Right Stuff to help others.

Another issue we ran into with that particular meeting was that it was highly focused upon making decisions, and helping others make appropriate decisions*. But “making decisions” is not necessarily the same thing as “problem solving”. Problem solving requires analysis, and figuring out what’s going on, and what needs changing. Good problem solving has a lot of proactivity, whereas poor decision making has a lot of reactivity. Too often people focus on surface issues, rather than on the underlying problems; such as focusing on the deciding how they are going to react to behavioural effects, rather than figuring out how to identify and resolve the behavioural causes.

The meeting had also entirely skipped the whole analysis of what the real problem might be, which isn’t always the same thing as the effects of the problem that are immediately visible. Another big chunk that was missing was how to include our clients/students into the analysis and solution-creating process. One should always elicit people’s preferences and help them explore various options, so that everyone can have the highest practical level of independence within the support situations we use to work together.

I use the word “support” in several ways. Usually one associates support with what staff does for or with clients (or students). But support is also what staff does with each other, and what managers do for staff. (I also have this crazy idea that managers are there to help coördinate things between different departments so the staff can do their jobs. This has caused some underlying friction between me and managers who feel that the staff are there to serve the manager’s needs.)

Support is also (surprisingly) what clients do for staff, because without them, the staff would have no reason to even be there doing these things! Don’t get me wrong — clients are not there for the convenience of the staff; the staff are there to serve the clients. To support their staff, the clients need to be empowered to make decisions about how they can best be aided, so the staff can focus on actually doing useful work, rather than bureaucratic busy-work that nobody wants and nobody needs. (Everybody wants to feel that their work is useful! We get really grumpy and asocial when we feel like our jobs don’t mean anything.)

Support and independence are obverse and reverse of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other. It’s not an all-or-nothing affair, as some other people would describe, where either one is either “completely” independent, or else has all their decisions made for them. Every person needs various levels of support, and we all need respect for our preferences and individual needs. Empowerment is not doing things for people, but about giving or teaching people the things they need so they can choose for themselves and help themselves.

As I said, groups of people try to reach consensus so they can agree upon a plan for accomplishing something without anyone being left out of important decision-making, or without missing good ideas to be gleaned from a variety of viewpoints. Although we usually have some goals in mind before we start discussions, that doesn’t mean that we cannot refine or change those goals, and it certainly doesn’t mean that trying to reach a consensus is nothing more than having people rubber-stamp previously decided ideas.

* Unfortunately, many people labour earnestly under the mis-impression that one merely needs to point out the error of someone’s thinking, and that the sheer obviousness and merit of the “correct” information will persuade people to change their minds and also their approaches. As if!


  1. shiva said,

    1 September 2007 at 1:40

    Consensus decision making… that’s something i really need to blog on… it’s a huge thing within the linertarian-left/”new social movement” activist circles i move in, but can, especially if misinterpreted, have as much of an unintentionally hierarchical/authoritarian effect as the majoritarian “democracy” it was… not “created”, but kind of made into a Big Central Thing in response/opposition to…

    Incidentally (this is in no way relevant to the topic, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to email you, and you seem to read all your comments, hence me posting it here), i was wondering if, as someone with knowledge of things invertebrate, you might be able to identify these spiders?

  2. qw88nb88 said,

    31 August 2007 at 11:35

    Thanks for catching the typo, tinted. English orthography drives me nuts!

  3. tinted said,

    31 August 2007 at 6:22

    I never heard of “concensus” so I googled it. It is not the consensus spelling.

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