Convergent Facilitation is a decision-making framework created by Miki Kashtan that allows groups to find break-through solutions to problems that previously seemed unsolvable. This post is part of a series documenting my learnings and reflections from attending Miki’s training on this framework.
In Convergent Facilitation (CF), the facilitator invites a group facing a problem to find a solution that everyone in the group is willing to live with. This is more ambitious than it sounds, because it draws on the mindset of abundance to transcend people’s polarised positions and find a solution that works for everyone.
It’s different to the group decision-making approaches I’m familiar with, all of which are rooted in a mindset of scarcity. This is easy to see in majority-rule systems like voting, where scarcity is explicit in the concept of winning and losing. In these approaches, the minority are literally overruled, on the basis that not everyone can have their way: someone has to lose. Scarcity is less visible, but still present, in consensus models which aim to involve everyone in decision-making. Here the underlying assumption is that each of our individual needs and the needs of the group are in tension. Scarcity shows up as the assumption that people need to give something up in order to find consensus.
For any controversial issue, consensus-based approaches either involve compromise or worse, coercion. They aim to find a solution that works for everyone, but in practice they put pressure on people with dissenting views to stay silent, compromise, or stand aside from the group, to prevent their dissent from holding up progress. This is the scarcity mindset. For example, here’s an extract from a guide to consensus-based decision making:
…there are several ways of expressing disagreement… [declaring reservations, standing aside, blocking]… The block is a powerful tool and should be used with caution. Ideally strong concerns will be heard early enough to feed into in the synthesised proposal and a block will be unnecessary… The block stops other people from doing something that they would like to do… A person considering blocking needs to think carefully about whether standing aside from the decision—letting others in the group go ahead—would be enough.
This framing sets up an either/or dynamic where the person expressing dissent is seen as holding back the rest of the group. It makes them an “other”. People will be reluctant to block, so they’re automatically under pressure to compromise, stand aside, or stay silent.
What’s wrong with compromise? Under compromise, there may be an equality of losing out—everyone has to give away something—but people’s needs aren’t met. Halfway between me getting what I want and you getting what you want is neither of our needs getting met.
In contrast, the CF approach shows that when a person knows that their needs matter to the group, they will be willing to stretch beyond their preference, in order to meet the needs of the group. This stretching isn’t compromise. The person chooses to stretch because they understand that it will help everyone in the group, of which they are a part. They integrate their needs with the needs of the group. This is the abundance mindset.
Miki teaches that preference is narrower than willingness under trust. That is, if I trust that my needs matter to the group, I will be willing to accept strategies that don’t fit within my preference, because I understand how those strategies meet the needs of the group as a whole.
I realised, listening to Miki, that our preferences are premised on the illusion of control. Ask my preference for dealing with air pollution in London, and I’d say, convert all the main roads into cycle paths, and only allow emergency traffic and people with disabilities to drive. At face value this is something that I’d like to see. But if you look closer, you can see that it’s conditional on my fantasy of control—similar to the statement, “If I was Prime Minister, I’d do [x]…” Underlying my preference is the premise that I can force an outcome onto the world, without considering other people’s needs, and my connection to them. What about members of my family who live in an area without public transport? What about my neighbour who takes their children to school in a car and isn’t comfortable using a bus? What about the shopkeeper who transports vegetables from the market?
Preferences are rooted in the mindset of scarcity, because they don’t take account of our interdependence. Solutions that work for everyone must take account of the group context for our needs, because the community around a decision determines whether it’s effective.
In CF, the facilitator demonstrates that people’s needs matter to the group, which builds trust and shared understanding. In practice this means finding what Miki calls the “noncontroversial essence” behind every opinion, preference, or decision. For my preference of zero-tolerance on cars, perhaps the noncontroversial essence would be, “consider the effect of emissions on respiratory health of residents,” and, “allow access and enjoyment of our shared environment”. For someone who currently drives, a noncontroversial essence might be, “consider the transport needs of all residents and businesses.”
Miki says that problems show up as either/or, and it’s our job as facilitators to help groups transcend that separation, so we can make decisions that work for everyone. This fascinates me. It’s a basic tool that I can use right away. For example, in a practice exercise during the training, my group came up with a topic: a proposed wind turbine in our village. Our first attempt to write down a purpose for our facilitation was polarising: “whether to support the proposal to build a wind turbine”—and it took us longer than I expected to figure out how to reframe it. We ended up with, “decide how to respond to the proposal to build a wind turbine”, which transformed the options available to us by enabling abundance-based solutions.
When the purpose is either/or, the only option is to polarise. So the facilitator’s job is to help the group figure out the underlying needs we’re trying to meet, and then to reframe the purpose as something deeper, the need or concern that underlies our positions in the first place. Everyone in the room cared about our response to the wind turbine proposal, even though at the beginning we were polarised between YES and NO. Once we find the underlying principles that drive our positions, we reach a level of understanding and trust that allows us to get creative, together, to find solutions that work for everyone. It can be done—Miki has a spectacular case study from the Minnesota child custody system to prove it. And we participated in a live demonstration during the day.
Photo: Miki Kashtan (front, third from right) with the Minnesota Child Custody Dialogue Group (credit)