Facilitating to Agreement

It has been a while since I contributed to my blog and I wanted to get back to it. So when I got an idea for content from a webinar participant, I thought this would make a good post.

I recently conducted a webinar on creating role profiles. A participant asked, “When partnering with our leaders and top performers, what is the best way to help them hash through what is really “most important”? Particularly when there is a conflict in their experiences/understanding of the role?”

This is a very common challenge for training, HR, and OD professionals. Often times, we facilitate conversations designed to create a list that everyone agrees on. The list can be the most important competencies to drive success in a role, the key values of our organization, the top goals for the next year, or any number of items. In these conversations, people don’t always agree. That, in and of itself, isn’t bad. However, it’s not to say that it is easy to handle.

I tend to facilitate these discussion by following a few steps. First, we want to set a goal of having a certain number of items. This helps people understand that we can’t include everything and helps in later steps. If possible, you can be a little flexible in terms of the number of items but the point is that people focus on a specific outcome. For example, you may focus on the top six competencies that drive success in the sales role.

Next, we will brainstorm possibilities. Here, the hardest part is staying away from analysis of an idea and focusing on getting as many ideas as possible.

Then, we want to narrow the list to meet our goal. This happens by doing a number of things. I first combine duplicates and eliminate things that don’t make sense. I then use multi-voting where everyone gets three votes for every seven to nine items. For example, if there are 20 items, each person gets seven or eight votes (your call). They can use their votes for different items or apply multiple votes to one item. Multi-voting is only a way to gauge interest. You can then move quickly by asking to eliminate items that received no votes and accept items that have a lot of votes.

That will only leave the items with a few votes. This is where the most discussion and possible conflict arises. Remember that as long as conflict focuses on deciding whether to include an item, it is healthy and is a sign that the team is effective.

To start narrowing this “short list”, you will go through each one-by-one and ask if someone wants to advocate for inclusion of that item in the final list. If no one wants to advocate for an item, you can ask to eliminate it. If someone advocates for including an item in the final list, you will want to ask if anyone wants to advocate for it’s removal. If no one wants to remove it, you can ask to include the item. If there is not immediate agreement, you can leave the item to later.

Look at the list of items that participants have agreed to include and see if it falls within the goal you set in the beginning. If it does, you may ask to eliminate the few remaining items that are left since you most likely have the most important items. If it is short, you may need to review the remaining items where there was no agreement. One thing you can to do is ask to revisit the list in a few days and have people bring data with them to support their position. However, getting to agreement on these items is difficult and often involves a lot of probing to get at the real source of disagreement.

If an agreement on the remaining items cannot be made, there has to be a fallback method for deciding (such as, the leader decides based on the group’s input). This should be clear from the beginning.

Keep in mind that the above process assumes you are going for consensus (everyone agrees to support the decision regardless of whether they personally agree with it). The key to success is constantly reminding them that we are only talking about your topic and not solving world hunger.

If there is a lot of disagreement, you may want to create a model with all the accepted items as well as those in question. Then, this oversize model can be tested to see which items are most valid.

Handling disagreements and conflict is not easy. The most important thing is to keep disagreements focused on facts and trying to arrive at a specific desired outcome rather than making it personal. In addition to what I include here, there is more to do to prepare people for the discussion and intervene during the discussion. As the facilitator, following this process also tends to reduce conflict and keep everyone focused on the goal.

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