Souls by Hernán Piñera

Fairness is a strategy posing as a need

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.

Our society holds compromise to be both a virtue and an essential aspect of living together in harmony. But it’s a false harmony, the silence that comes from acknowledging that we’ve lost hope of meeting our needs. It’s the false peace of separation, full of tension and frustration, ready to boil over into violence—physical or otherwise—at any moment.

As children we are forced to compromise because people in authority believe it’s the only way to achieve fairness:

You must share your toys! You’ve been on the swing for 5 minutes, now it’s their turn. We can’t all have what we want, and it would be unfair to treat some people differently to others, so everyone needs to give something up. We need to find a compromise that’s precisely between all of our preferences, and nobody can object because it was fair. Everyone was treated exactly the same.

In the argument for compromise, fairness is an underlying value, a basic truth, a core human need. But I see the world differently. Fairness is a strategy posing as a need. When we compromise, we stop ourselves from discovering the unmet needs that lie behind this strategy.

The strategy of fairness allows us to make a decision that appears to be rational while conforming to pleasant-sounding principles like “equality” and “justice”. It allows us to avoid the vulnerability and discomfort that we’d experience if we allowed ourselves to discover the unmet needs that lie behind our positions. It allows us to deny our difference and to hang onto the illusion that we are separate from each other. “As long as everybody understands each others’ positions, we can make them all agree to give something up. See? By the logic of fairness, nobody wins and nobody loses.”

Why isn’t fairness a need? Each person’s reality is different. Nobody has a need to be treated exactly the same as another person. Their needs relate to their current reality, not some “objective” version of reality that everyone perceives in the same way.

For example, a need might be, “I want to be included in decisions that affect my life.” Under fairness, we might create a system in which each person gets an equal vote on proposals. That doesn’t meet my need for inclusion, because it denies the reality of my unique situation. Maybe I’m 90 and I would like particular consideration of my mobility needs. Maybe I’m a member of a group which has been disadvantaged by a financial system that divides people. Maybe I’m recovering from trauma. The strategy of fairness would treat each of these subjective realities in the same way, instead of acknowledging their difference and finding a specific strategy to meet each need.

The difficulty with fairness is that we’ve been brought up with it from birth. “Everyone gets a present for their birthday. You had 2 plums and your sibling deserves 2 plums also.” Or exam grades—“everyone is marked on the same criteria, you had the same amount of time to revise for the test—it’s a fair system, right?” And university, jobs, money, relationships….

The social system of separation and oppression is held together by the concept of justice—everyone faces the same rules. “Why are people complaining about poverty? Can’t you see? They had the same opportunities as everyone else. They’ve only themselves to blame.”

It sounds caring and thoughtful to talk about fairness. “I want to make sure that everyone has their fair share. The company believes in equality of opportunity. Everyone is equal before the law.”

When people appeal to fairness, or “climate justice”, or equality for all people, they are often seeking social change. This framing denies the reality of people’s experiences, by asserting that there is an objective reality that should change. It doesn’t work, because when we appeal for fairness, we seek power over people to make change. Even if we perceive these people to be oppressors—the decision-makers, judges, teachers, bosses—our attempt to force fairness shores up the domination that we wish to remove.

To get away from compromise and fairness, we need a way to help people see the difference in other people’s reality. To do this, Miki teaches us to demonstrate to people that their needs matter to the group. People have an easier time listening to others once they have confidence that their needs will be considered by the group. So we ask people for their perspective and reflect back the noncontroversial essence. If someone asks for fairness, eg:

our traffic rules must make sure that car owners are treated fairly and not treated as second class citizens because of environmental concerns

then the noncontroversial essence might be something like:

we will integrate the transport, health, and accessibility needs of everyone in the community, whatever transport choices they currently make

The car users’ appeal to fairness comes from a fear of losing out, a fear that others will prevent them from meeting their needs. This is the either/or, scarcity mindset. As facilitators, instead of raising the problem with fairness, we reframe it as a concern about their own need, which we then generalise out to the group. We’re aiming to write a principle on the flipchart that everyone in the group is willing to accept.


This is the third 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: Souls by Hernán Piñera. 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.