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Why I Never Say "Compromise" When Facilitating

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January 11, 2024
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Originally published at Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus

As a consensus facilitator, I am constantly trying to make it easier for everyone to contribute what they have that's relevant to the conversation. Then I do what I can to establish how those contributions are rooted in a reasonable interpretation of group values (and therefore worthy of taking into account), as distinct from personal preferences. 

About this time, I generally point out that the right to offer one's views and have them be taken seriously is tied at the hip to the responsibility to treat respectfully the views that differ from theirs and have been similarly vetted.

Absent this framing, it's relatively common for groups to get bogged down with people who are inspired to defend their viewpoints because they are tied to common values—accusing those with disparate views of being selfish and not thinking of what's best for the group. In short, such folks believe they are holding the high moral ground and defending the group against self-centered marauders. 

But let's break this down. suppose one segment of the group favors installing solar panels on the roof of the common house. While there is an initial capital outlay, it will repay itself over time in lower utility bills and is in line with the group's commitment to being environmentally responsible (which we'll refer to as common value E, for ecological impact). What's not to like? 

Now let's imagine there is another segment of the group that objects to this action, because HOA dues will go up (at least temporarily) to fund this project and they are hanging on by their fingernails to meet current HOA dues. They are afraid of being priced out. Their concern is grounded in the group's commitment to being affordable (which we'll cleverly label value A). They feel solid in raising their concerns about the solar panels.

The key to keeping the conversation away from tug-of-war energy (which is rarely productive and feels yucky) is laying out that being concerned with common value A is not tantamount with being anti-environmental. Just as being promotional of value E does not mean you're oblivious to concerns about affordability.

While I'm not saying people are never selfish, mostly they're reasonable and the thing I need to do in a situation like the above is to establish that no one is holding the high morale ground (so please check your righteousness at the door). The challenge is figuring out how to balance these two values in this situation. Who has ideas about how to fund the solar panels without pricing residents out of the community?

What I don't suggest is a compromise, which might look something like "Lets' buy half the solar panels now so the strain on budgets is more tolerable, and look at buying the other half later." I do not favor cutting the baby in half. Instead I work hard to get the group to see that no one is in the wrong place or saying anything inappropriate. You are on the same team. Who has ideas about how to move forward in such a way that both sides' concerns are addressed?

Examples of what this might look: a) borrowing money from the capital fund to finance the solar panels (with the understanding that the fund will be replenished with the money saved on utility bills; b) perhaps one or more members with deep pockets would be willing to front the purchase price of the solar panels, to be repaid by savings from utility bills; or c) maybe the group could do a series of fundraising event to generate the money needed for the panels, so that they can be a model for the neighborhood.

Do you see how all of these potential solutions respect both core values in play, and do not call for anyone to compromise their principles?

While I believe that the good intention behind asking people to compromise (or to accept that a proposed solution is "good enough for now") is to get everyone to recognize that we won't get out of a stalemate if no one moves, this framing has more than a whiff of least common denominator, and lukewarm energy. It's invites the group to settle for a "solution" that's equally painful to all parties, and generally lacks dynamism. 

The key to finding creative solutions—perhaps ones that no one had in mind at the start of the meeting—is holding the group in a space where they believe that synergy and magic are possible, and the group has learned to appreciate the breadth of differing viewpoints for its ability to broaden the foundation, rather than dreading their expression as a complication.

Yes, this is radical stuff. But way better than pressuring one another to compromise, or to try to carry the day through the dubious strategy of stating one's preference repeatedly in the vain hope that you'll wear down the opposition through persistence, perhaps accompanied by steadily increasing shrillness. Have you ever been in that meeting? They're exhausting, and strain the fabric of the community.


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