As a group facilitator, I focus on helping the members of the group communicate successfully among themselves in order to have a chance to resolve at least some of the issues that have brought them together in the first place. I have almost always been successful at achieving that baseline level. Sometimes, that baseline may be elusive because the various factions in the group are so far apart that real communication is impossible. Then, a group will meet perhaps only once, and the members will realize that their goals must be met using another forum (e.g., appeals to higher authority, the courts, etc.). It is hard for me to not feel a sense of failure in that situation, but, as conflict resolution professionals, we all must accept the fact that the process belongs to the parties – we are only guides along the way.
Most of the groups I have facilitated have met a number of times (either a number planned at the outset of the process or a number dictated by when the group decides its work is done). Almost every group has enough variety to ensure that one or more people do not want the group to reach a resolution. This is often true of environmental issues groups where there is a perception of no middle ground. An example is mineral extraction. Environmental activists may feel that no mineral is worth disturbance to the natural environment. Those in the mineral extraction business (and others in the business community) may feel that the economic benefits of mining, drilling, etc. outweigh concerns about potential environmental degradation. In any such group, it is important to help the moderates find their voices: “Yes we want to have the benefit of minerals (or oil and gas), but we want to extract them in a way that minimizes the impacts on the natural environment.” This is the essence of consensus, and not everyone can see its value.
In my experience, I almost always struggle to keep people from drawing rhetorical lines in the sand over which they will not cross or over which they dare others to cross. There are various tools a facilitator can use to attempt to manage the participation those who like to draw those lines or issue ultimatums, keeping the group on a generally positive and non-confrontational course. Ground rules (agreed upon by the group at the beginning), group composition (balancing the various opinions and faction when the group is selected) and, of course, the skill of the group facilitator are all elements to keep a group moving forward constructively. When I have been involved with the process from the very beginning, including consulting with the conveners on group composition, and when most group members have been willing to participate to the very end, some satisfactory consensus has typically been the result.
However, the ideal is not often met (or even closely approached) – in life or in group facilitation. Group compositions are often presented to a facilitator and he/she is told: “Here – make this work”. Alternatively, a group may start out with a good balance of factions and ideologies and then change (often to a more polarized state) as member attrition sets in. As a group facilitator, I have always had to rely both on good planning and on an ability to improvise as conditions dictate.
In recent years, I facilitated a citizen advisory group involved with a polarizing public policy issue. Although the group was selected by the convening local government officials, it started off as a group with the expected number of one-issue polarizing figures, but the factions were in a rough balance. The group agreed upon ground rules and generally adhered to them (with some reminders from me). They even identified some areas in which they might reach agreement. Then, the balancing factor of group composition was lost. The group had laid out areas of potential consensus at the first of its two final “decision-making” meetings (which were to complete the work of the group). Those areas were documented and put up in front of the group at the beginning of its last meeting. All was ready for some constructive group work. However, only one faction (the “one-issue” folks) came to the meeting. Now they had their chance to get everything they wanted – no compromise. The fact that one-sided recommendations would almost certainly be ignored by the convening officials did not deter them. The group ended with recommendations with which about half of the group would have disagreed, had they been present (and they did disagree via e-mail – but the group meetings were already officially over).
Did I do my job? I leave that for you who read this to answer that question. I think that I did everything I could to help the group reach a viable consensus. This particular group process succumbed to the randomness inherent in all human interactions. An important faction of the group either did not or could not attend the crucial meeting. All the facilitation experience and skills in the world can’t account for that kind of randomness. It should also be noted that group members make their own decisions – that is the essence of the group facilitation process. Deciding to participate (or not) is also a decision and, in this case, it was the crucial one.