Sometimes our work involves facilitating conversations among people who know that they disagree with each other. They may be professional campaigners, politicians or lobbyists. They may be householders or developers. They may be in the room because a sudden row has blown up triggered by news of a forthcoming decision about funding, planning permission or a change in the law.
Whatever has led to it, the people I'm thinking of have already established a 'position' about the topic, and assume that their job in the meeting is to advocate and defend that position.
Defending a position
Defending a position leads to people asserting certainty about causes, consequences and facts, often more certainty than is justified by the current state of knowledge and analysis. It encourages people to dispute the facts put forward by others, and to question their motives. People defending a position often build such an edifice of certainty around themselves that it is very hard for them to move away from their initial position, even if they want to.
The things said about those who don't agree with the position can be damaging to working relationships and lead to a decrease in trust, making subsequent conversations harder.
Win/win or win/lose?
Positional conversations assume a win/lose paradigm. But what if it were possible to find a win/win? You can only discover the potential for a win/win if you move beneath the positions and discover the interests and needs. (I could tell you about boogli fruit, but I'd have to kill you.) What has led people to develop their positions? What interests are served by those positions? What are the needs which are met through those interests?
Below the inversion
I was first introduced to this concept by Pippa Hyam and Andrew Acland in their training for Environmental Resolve, an initiative to find consensus to thorny situations run under the umbrella of The Environment Council. Up until that point, I don't think I'd really understood the difference between a really great compromise, and a true win-win. It was a fairly life-changing experience.
Using questions to walk down the mountain
How do you help people move away from positions and towards their interests and needs?
One approach is to help people avoid getting positional, at least too early on in the conversation. This may be hard to avoid: positions may already have been taken. But it you aren't in that situation yet, the facilitator can help the group enormously by holding them in the uncertainty and exploration phase: the not-knowing. Invite people to tell their stories and share their perspectives about the problem, issue or desired future in an open way. If options have been generated, get people to explore their pros and cons without asking them to express a preference.
If positions have already been expressed, then the facilitator's greatest asset is their ability to ask straight questions and then listen in a genuine spirit of curiosity. Using questions like "what would that give you?" or asking a participant to "tell us more about why that's something you'd like to see" invites people to say more about the things that underlie their positions.
Listening really well, reflecting back on what's been said to check understanding and show that the person has been heard, and asking further questions which clarify or invite expansion - these interpersonal skills are invaluable.