League Pre-Conference Session Preview: The Theatrics of Achieving Agreement
By Matt Lehrman, Social Prosperity Partners
Matt Lehrman, the Principal of Social Prosperity Partners, is an expert in public engagement, group problem solving and consensus building. In August he will be facilitating the pre-conference session at the League Conference: From Conflict to Conversation: Practical Skills for Better Public Dialogue.For more information on that session, go to http://leagueaz.org/e/17ac/agenda.html.
Doing something “for show” implies the priority of appearance over functionality. In matters of governance, however, appearance and functionality are inextricably linked. Every facet of public policy deserves actual integrity coupled with the conscious appearance of integrity.
Here are 10 practical ways to be mindful and purposeful in the theatrics of ethical, sincere and transparent decision-making:
- Set the Stage – Seat your parties on opposite sides of a long table and recognize that you’ve positioned them for head-on conflict. King Arthur’s famous roundtable assured equal status and mutual respect of everyone around it. Be intentional with your choice of meeting space and room arrangement – it sends a precise message about the nature of the conversation to ensue.
- Know Your Lines – When someone says, “the facts speak for themselves” or “this is too important for negotiation” or “there’s no time for that,” recognize that they are actually saying that they don’t understand or don’t trust the process of consideration before them. This is very common but you can nip it in the bud with an opening statement that says,
- “We are here to figure this out together. My foremost responsibility is to make sure that all sides all heard and understood. I understand that there will be points of disagreement, but the purpose of our discussion is to deepen mutual understanding and seek areas of potential compromise or compatibility. It is my expectation that we will talk about all these matters in a way that isn’t disagreeable. Are you willing to engage in this conversation?”
- Demonstrate Listening and Understanding – Taking notes throughout the meeting is an obvious demonstration of respect for what others are saying. (Think of it conversely: when you don’t take notes, others may conclude that you have already made up your mind and don’t feel the need to listen.) Then, upon receiving a key point, it’s valuable to ask, “Here’s what I understand about the point you just made … is that right?” This confirms for the speaker that they’ve been heard, demonstrates your sincerity in appreciating their perspective, and helps the audience (i.e. the other people in the room) to keep track of the progress being made.
- Waiting in the Wings – Position a flipchart or white board to the side of your meeting space and use it as a “holding area” for topics that aren’t quite ready for the main stage. This technique prevents minor characters from upstaging more critical issues – yet allows them to be recognized and addressed when appropriate.
- Sustain Eye Contact – Sincerity, integrity, comfort, and respect – those are just a few of the attributes we communicate through our eyes. Nobody expects you to compete for an Academy Award, but if you’re mindful of what emotion you intend to communicate, your expression tends to follow. (Actors train for this by staring at themselves in the mirror. You’re welcome to try that, too!)
- Sustain Focus on What’s Important – Every glance at your phone, your watch, your computer screen, a distant TV set, the clock on the wall or even out the window sends a signal as strong as if you held up a sign over your face saying, “Closed for Business.” There’s no stage trick for this. If you find your attention wandering, it’s likely that your group isn’t talking about what’s really important – and that wastes everybody’s time. Get the conversation back on track.
- Intermission – You will always lose the battle of mind over bladder. Additionally, a brief break can relieve tension, enable casual conversation, allow for outside consultation or simply invite the restorative powers of fresh air, caffeine and sunshine.
- Demonstrate Caring – A pack of gum, a box of tissues, a bag of cough drops, a candy bar, an extra pen… Come prepared to treat others (even those with whom you profoundly disagree) with respect and grace and they’ll return the favor – often in ways that will make discussions more productive and satisfying.
- Respond, Don’t Push – The satirical stereotype of a “Master Thespian” is of an over-the-top, scenery-chewing actor who dominates the stage. In reality, the art of acting is largely about how actors learn to respond to their partners. Their “in the moment” reactions resonate for an audience as emotional truth. The lack of such sincerity makes you come across as flat or phony. Keep yourself “tuned-in” by asking questions that invite participants to reveal the emotional context of their positions: “Am I hearing correctly that this is an especially important point to you?” “Is there something more about this that you want to make sure we understand?” or “Who would be affected by this decision and how?”
- Encore! – All performing artists conclude their concerts with an up-beat crowd favorite. That should be your goal, too. No doubt, your meeting worked hard to achieve the “lowest common denominator” agreement among various sides. Now think of the “encore” as the precious opportunity to reach for the “highest possible satisfaction” agreement. You do that by inviting them to suggest ways that they could be even happier with the final agreement without reducing the satisfaction of the other parties. Finding such added value is what yields “standing ovations,” or, at least, highly-satisfied participants.
One final direction…
In any production, the director’s job is to arrange how the disparate elements of cast, script, set, lights, sound effects, costume, and acting merge into a cohesive experience. That’s your job, too. Interestingly, despite tight timelines and budgets many of the best directors offer a looseness with their teams that allows for spontaneity and creativity.
Here’s a “traffic light” technique that you can embrace, too, recognizing that achieving 100% agreement is usually impossible or impractical. Consider directing participants toward three levels agreement:
- Green Light – satisfaction of 90% or greater; willingness to proceed even if the agreement is not absolutely perfect;
- Yellow Light – satisfaction of 80% to 89% - willingness to proceed with caution, but needing to point out specific areas of concern or discomfort.
- Red Light - satisfaction under 80% - objectionable; not willing to proceed, but responsible to keep suggesting specific options to address concerns or discomforts toward Yellow or Green light status.
Matt Lehrman, the Principal of Social Prosperity Partners, is an expert in public engagement, group problem solving and consensus building. He can be reached at Matt@socialprosperity.us; 602-622-7694.