Masala Facilitation Manual

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Consensus is a decision-making process that identifies solutions that are acceptable to all participants. It is not necessarily unanimity, but it is a non-hierarchical and fair decision-making process. Consensus aims to be:

  • Inclusive and participatory: The process should actively solicit the input and participation of all stakeholders and decision-makers.
  • Cooperative: Participants should strive to reach the best possible decision, for the group and all of its members.
  • Egalitarian: Everyone should be afforded, as much as possible, equal input into the process. All members have the opportunity to table, amend, or block proposals.
  • Solution-oriented: The process emphasizes common agreement over differences & uses compromise & other techniques to avoid or resolve mutually exclusive positions.

Consensus allows people to collectively explore solutions until the best one for the group emerges. In a simple voting method, dialogue tends to end when participants realize or expect that there is a majority (more than half of the people in a group) in favor of a proposal.

Consensus assures that everyone has a voice in the decision-making process, synthesizing all ideas into one plan that all participants agree to implement, & they can get behind & fully support. Since all participants agree to the decision, people are more invested in carrying out what has been decided.

Consensus is important in allowing minority opinions and concerns to be heard and considered, and encourages cooperation among people with divergent views. It attempts to minimize domination and empowers the community in the process of making a decision.

Consensus decision-making assumes that each issue or decision has a “best answer” and that each member of the group holds a piece of that answer. A good consensus process is one where members feel safe and encouraged to contribute their ideas, to share ideas freely without attachment or ownership, to openly and fairly evaluate all ideas, and to mix and match ideas to innovate a workable solution.

Consensus works by hearing all participants’ voices and by all participants coming to an agreement collectively about what is best for the group. The decisions made must be those that everyone in the group can live with – as nice as it would be, it’s impossible for all individuals in communities to be perfectly happy with all decisions at all times.

Some Definitions

A list or program of things to be done or considered.
Discord; lack of agreement.
An opinion or position reached by the group as a whole.
Direct Response
An immediate response to a question asked by someone on stack, by someone outside the stack ordering.
Categorization of a group of people according to ability or status.
The ability or capacity to exercise control or authority.
The method the group uses to make decisions; in our case, consensus.
Process Point
Non-verbal indication (made by forming a triangle with your hands) that a group member needs to make a point about the group's process or other technical aspects of the meeting. The facilitator may choose to recognize the member outside the stack ordering.
A list of the names of people who have volunteered to speak, to be called on in the order they raised their hands and were recognized by the facilitator.
Point of Clarification
Non-verbal indication (made by forming a "C" with one hand) used by a member requesting clarification of a speaker's statement or a proposal.
Non-verbal indication (made by raising and wiggling all of your fingers) of agreement with the current speaker's statement.

Steps for successful consensus decision making

  1. Define the problem: Start by defining the problem to be solved or objective to be achieved. If you can’t agree on what the problem is, you can’t find a solution. It might be helpful to write the problem down or draw a diagram so that everyone understands what’s going on.
  2. Gather information: List the known information and unknown information you need to get. Assign reliable members to gather what information you need. Differentiate between facts and opinions. If you are not clear about the facts, then your proposed solutions will be equally unclear.
  3. List possible solutions: Many groups start here and sometimes make poor decisions because they solved the wrong problem or didn’t have the right information. Use brainstorming to get a wide list of possible solutions. Don’t get trapped into either/or solutions – find the third way, the fourth way, and so on.
  4. Evaluate alternatives: What are the costs, benefits, and downsides to each option? More research might be required. Be sure to consider all options equally.
  5. Select a course of action: Use consensus to choose a plan to put into action. Maybe two or three alternatives get blended into the best solution.
  6. Implement the decision: Assign the implementation to specific people with instructions on what to do, what the group wants, and what type of feedback or reporting should be done after implementation of the decision.
  7. Evaluate the outcome: (Later) Evaluate the process used to reach the decision, the work done to implement it, and its success at solving the problem or achieving the desired objective.

Keeping a stack

A stack is just a running list maintained by the facilitator of members who have indicated their desire to speak. Having a well defined order of participation helps to minimize distraction at a meeting. It also lets participants know that they will have their chance to speak, freeing them up to listen more attentively while others are speaking. Members who wish to speak raise their hand are are non-verbally acknowledged by the facilitator, who should make an effort to periodically scan the room for members indicating a desire to speak. The facilitator can also indicate the next few people on stack in between speakers, to let everyone else in the meeting know who will be speaking, and re-affirm the ordering.

Vibes Watcher

Especially during meeting items in which some level of conflict is anticipated, it can be useful to designate one member as a vibes watcher, tasked with defusing potential emotional conflicts, and maintaining a climate free of intimidation and potentially destructive power dynamics.

Direct Responses

When a speaker asks a question -- either directed toward the group as a whole or an individual member -- the person who wishes to answer the question requests permission from the speaker "May I direct respond?" It is up to the speaker to grant that permission. Allowing direct responses in a structured way can help avoid ongoing individual dialogue between two members, detracting from overall meeting progress. It is often also much more efficient, if particular information is being sought and there is someone who has it to offer.

Using hand signals

Hand signals allow non-verbal interjection into the flow of a facilitated meeting in a relatively non-disruptive way, can help save time, and help avoid meetings being chaotic or dominated by the loudest speakers.

  • Twinkling non-verbal agreement helps the group avoid saying the same things over and over again. Some communities snap their fingers, others use hand knocking. Masala twinkles.
  • Clarification and Process/Technical Points are questions or statements that often need to jump the speaking stack before further discussion takes place. Indicating these points non-verbally allows them to take precedence in a facilitated way, without one person speaking over another.

Group Responsibilities

  • Self-facilitate.
    • Keep your own behavior in check.
    • Help to move the discussion along whenever possible.
    • Try to be solution focused.
  • Listen.
  • Actively participate in discussions; you opinion is valuable. Remember that no question is ever stupid -- unless it shows that you haven't been listening.
  • Abide by the group's ground rules.
  • Respect process; don't jump the stack; wait your turn!
    • If you need to make a comment, avoid tangents.
    • Don't repeat what someone else has just said or continue a discussion that has already reached a conclusion.
  • Don't feel compelled to speak just because you're on the stack. If your point has already been made the time it's your turn to speak, pass.
  • Never personally attack someone else in a meeting. Try to separate people from their arguments: a difference of opinion does not necessarily signify mental inferiority or a personal defect. You can disagree with someone's idea without putting that person down.
  • Come to meeting prepared. Don't take up time by asking other people to explain what you could have easily found out for yourself.
  • Work between meetings. Simply going to a meeting doesn't make you a responsible group meeting. Much of the work will be done between meetings, and you should do your fair share.

Facilitator Responsibilities

  • Prepare for a meeting in advance,especially if it's going to be a tougher meeting with contention.
  • Review agenda at the beginning of a meeting, or write it in a place for all to see.
  • Know the personalities of the group.
  • Maintain a positive atmosphere at the meeting. Keep people moving forward. Cheerlead when necessary!
  • Draw reticent people into the meeting/conversation.
  • Make sure the group follows its own process.
    • Ensure that each agenda item has a sponsor or specific person attached to it.
    • Clarify status and desired outcome for each agenda item.
    • Clarify proposals before they are voted/consensed upon. Have the note-taker read the recorded proposal language before the group takes action on it.
  • Keep the group conscious of time.
    • Stick to the time limit established for each agenda item. Re-negotiate out loud if an item goes over, so that the group knows that you know that time limits are important.
    • Periodically summarize the discussion, which keeps things moving forward.
    • Take responsibility for keeping a discussion relevant.
  • Assist the group in analysis; lend direction where possible.
    • Move discussion along when the group gets too focused on details.
  • Learn to recognize certain comments as proposals.
  • Empower the group as a whole; work to circumvent attempts to overpower the group.
    • Check in with the group often; be sensitive to power dynamics.
  • Show appreciation to individual and to the group for accomplishments.

Things a facilitator should do during the meeting

  1. Go over the agenda. Review whats going to be discussed, ask for any changes or additions, and assign a time limit to each item.
  2. Briefly summarize the rules if new people are present and are unfamiliar with meeting processes.
  3. Encourage Participation As much as possible, hang back and let other people do the talking. Balance participation by calling on people who are more quiet, making space for them to comment and contribute.
  4. Stick to the agenda. Flexibility is important, but the agenda is what keeps the meeting focused and ensures that necessary tasks get accomplished.
  5. Seek commitments and set deadlines. If everyone agrees that something needs to be done, ask for volunteers. Make a list of those who have agreed to help and ensure the note-taker records it. Deadlines encourage work to be accomplished in a timely manner.
  6. Bring closure. Summarize results and review anything that people need to do before the next meeting.
  7. Be open to growing and learning. Allow everyone to evaluate the meeting by sharing their thoughts and feelings in the "facilitator feedback" round that ends each meeting. You don't need to explain or defend yourself, just listen and learn.

Consensus Process Flow Chart


Dealing with Consensus Blocks

Sometimes people block consensus because they personally don’t like the proposed decision, because they don’t like the person who came up with the proposal, or as a way to exert power over the group. These are inappropriate uses of blocking and are a signal that the group is not mature or unified enough to use consensus, or that significant interpersonal issues exist that will impede the use of consensus. This could also mean that the blocking individual is not a good fit for this group. Mediation is recommended in these situations.

Ideally, blocking should only be used to communicate that a proposal may endanger the organization or its participants, or violate the organization’s mission or core values. In this case, it is important that the blocking person be emotionally supported and not be subjected to personal attacks, scorn, or other emotional abuse. It may be useful to suspend the issue. The facilitator should stop the process and announce that consensus on the issue is not possible at this time. The group should decide whether to postpone the issue until a later meeting or to try to resolve the problem in a small group outside the meeting.

Whether resolution is attempted in a meeting or in a small group, the key is to understand the feelings and issues of the blocking individual. This needs to be done in an open, non-threatening way.

Some questions to ask to help clarify blocks:

  • Can you tell me more about what you think/how you feel.
  • How does this issue affect you personally? Is there some personal loss involved?
  • Is this issue connected to something else in your life?
  • Explain what you think is best for the community.
  • Is there a trial solution we could implement, perhaps limiting the scope of the proposal in some way?
  • Is there an element that could be modified to make this work for you?
  • What would you like to see instead of this proposal?