The scales of justice- Old Bailey, Central Criminal Court, London

Appeals to “fairness” divide people because they don’t accept difference

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.

During the training, Miki demonstrated Convergent Facilitation (CF) with a scenario: we played the role of employees of an organisation which has offices on two coasts. We were split equally between the two offices, and we were meeting to decide the location of our next conference.

Miki started by asking for an opinion on the location of the conference. The first person to answer said that it would be fair to hold the conference to be on the West coast, because it was on the East coast last year. At this point Miki paused the role-play to drop some wisdom: beware fairness, justice, and equality. It’s almost impossible for fairness to be noncontroversial, so we need to find an “essence” that doesn’t mention fairness.

According to Miki, people tend to polarise around appeals for fairness, because they have different perspectives on what a fair solution looks like. In that case, why do people ask for fairness? It’s a stand-in for their needs mattering. I experienced a revelation at this point. The words we use to describe a desirable state—fair, just, equal—lead us to conflict instead of understanding.

Fairness is controversial because it doesn’t acknowledge difference. Although we share basic needs, our experiences are different. We have different backgrounds, opportunities, challenges, abilities, realities. Fairness denies that difference, by implying that treating everyone in exactly the same way will resolve problems. By denying our uniqueness, fairness denies the reality of our perception of the world.

Appealing to fairness comes across as an attempt to take power over others. If I say, “it’s fair to hold the conference on the West coast”, I’m implying that my perception of fairness is the objective, or valid, one. The East coasters might hear, “my concept of fairness is valid and yours isn’t,” which they’re likely to see as me trying to take power over them. This dynamic reminds me of gaslighting: the strategy of trying to take power over someone by questioning their grasp of reality, to make them doubt their own perceptions.

Here’s an everyday example of gaslighting in the workplace. Someone requests that people stop making jokes that they find offensive. In response, one of the people making the jokes says, “you’re getting emotional and overreacting: the jokes aren’t offensive, they’re just banter. We’re good guys, no-one else minds our jokes.” This is gaslighting because it denies the difference of the other person’s reality. The person saying this doesn’t feel uncomfortable when they hear the jokes, so they conclude that the offended person has lost touch with reality. Because I perceive objective reality, your reality doesn’t exist, and I will seek power over you to make you see things my way.

Gaslighting is endemic in our society. We try to win debates by presenting evidence that proves that our opponents are mistaken. We try to discipline our children by telling them that their behaviour is bad and that they must comply with our version of morality. Our political leaders tell us to let them make decisions for us because they understand our interests better than we do.

When we appeal to fairness, we’re gaslighting because we’ve chosen to view our reality as the only one that exists. This closes us to understanding other people’s needs. For example: “I pay my taxes, why should I worry myself about poor people? Everyone has the same shot in life, it’s a fair system. You work, you get rewarded. If you’re poor, it must be your fault.”

Asserting “fairness” or “equality” denies each person’s uniqueness. If everybody is the same, and my perception of reality is objective, then I don’t need other people. I’m the “rational actor” of economics, maximising my self interest without concern for my connection to others. I’m suffering from the delusion that Charles Eisenstein calls the discrete and separate self. When we move away from objective and mechanistic views of the world, we start to see our connectedness through our difference.

Many of our needs can only be fully met in groups: for example, celebration, mourning, nourishment, cooperation, creativity, learning. To accept this, I also need to accept that my reality is subjective. I am unique, you are unique, and each person’s uniqueness means that we all have realities. Through trust and understanding we can create a shared reality, which is the only way to fully meet our needs.

Community requires us to accept and integrate each other’s reality, to create a shared reality in which the group makes decisions that work for everyone. When we achieve this, we can celebrate the diversity of our experiences, and see them as a gift that serves the group.

Back to the facilitation role play. Miki teaches that people bring up fairness because they want their needs to matter to the group. When someone appeals to fairness, we don’t talk about gaslighting or polarising strategies. We reflect back the “noncontroversial essence” behind what the person is asking for—which won’t mention fairness. As facilitator, we support the group to find solutions that work for everyone by reframing appeals to fairness in a way that’s noncontroversial to the group.

This is the second in a series of posts about my learnings and reflections from Miki’s training. If you’d like to read future posts, subscribe for email updates.

Photo: James Cridland. “Scales of Justice”, the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court) in London. Used by Creative Commons.

If you’d like to attend Miki’s Convergent Facilitation training, she’s offering it in Oakland, CA and New York, NY in October and in Paris in  December. Follow Miki’s work at The Fearless Heart.