The solutions to complex problems rarely come down to one obvious decision. Rather, these problems are solved through a series of smaller decisions, many of which have a mix of positive and negative consequences depending on the perspectives of the people involved. Despite the potentially negative consequences of decision-making, decisions need to be made, and in the absence of an obviously “right” decision, groups need to figure out and agree upon an option that is good enough to be worth trying.
Different processes have been used over the years to get to decisions, ranging from negotiated or mediated processes to collaborative, consensus-focused dialogues.
As a whole, these processes have had mixed success in helping parties reach an agreement and when an agreement isn’t reached, there is little success in ensuring parties follow through on their agreement. The tools provided here are designed to give you more ways of tackling decision-making processes while helping you find the right one in order to obtain a shared agreement in your setting, beginning with an exploration of different types of processes.
Traditionally, negotiated dialogues involve the parties to the dispute and negotiators for each party. Although there is a wide range of approaches to negotiation, at its most basic level the practice of negotiation is based on two approaches:
- Positional negotiation is often referred to as “hard” bargaining; it is distributive, contentious and competitive, focused on winning, lacks compromises, and includes hidden agendas and one-sided agreements. Although positional negotiation may be appropriate in certain situations, it is an approach that is often problematic because the outcomes are focused on win/lose, with each party bringing in predetermined definitions of a ‘win’ and the lack of compromise can result in lose/lose outcomes. Similarly, the approach focuses on predetermined positions rather than more flexible and varied interests.
- Integrative negotiation is often referred to as “soft” bargaining; it is adaptable, focused on finding win/win solutions, encouraging of compromise, cooperative, oriented toward problem solving, and sometimes innovative in the solutions created. The focus is on collective decision-making with compromises to reach the optimal solution for all involved. However, it is only possible when multiple issues are being considered to allow for the ‘win/win’ outcome. The interests it considers are more varied than needs and wants, and include such things as fears, concerns, and the underlying reasons participants have for their involvement in the conflict.
It is important to remember that these two approaches are tactics negotiators can use depending on the context and tone of the negotiation. For example, when an opponent begins with a meaningful concession, the negotiation begins with an integrative tactic and can receive one in response. However, if the concession was small or begrudgingly offered later in the process, the negotiation strategy may be more of a competitive and thus positional approach. At the same time, positional negotiation may enter into the best planned negotiation process, particularly if distributional issues cannot be resolved.
Mediation, similar to negotiation, is a form of alternative dispute resolution. It is a non-adversarial process that uses some variation of consensus decision-making, does not exclude any important interests, is facilitated by a neutral third-party, and is intended to address moderate to high levels of conflict. The role of the third party is to work jointly with all participants to create successful communication, compromise, and decision-making. The third party uses empathy and impartiality to guide the group through agreement on facts, generation of ideas, and development of agreements.
The three primary styles of mediation are facilitative (problem-solving focused), transformative (relationship-building focused), and evaluative (which is highly legalistic, usually the result of a court order and not covered in depth here). Mediators often specialize in one approach, suggesting the selection of a mediator is highly important to the design of the multi-party process.
|Features||Facilitative (Problem Solving)||Transformative (Relationship Building)|
|Mediator’s Focus||The process itself||The relationships and understandings among parties to the dispute|
|Mediator’s Role||The mediator is a facilitator of the process with no legal or substantive knowledge needed||The mediator’s skills and focus are on the empowerment of parties to the dispute and the relationships between them|
|Other Features||This is the traditional style of mediation||This is a more recent development in mediation, respected for its relationship building capacity|
|Criticisms||Time consuming, particulalry with a large number of partipants||Lacks focus on the dispute and tends to be too idealistic|
Facilitation is a dialogue supported by a neutral third party who helps participants effectively communicate and reach their desired outcomes. It is different from negotiation and mediation strategies due to the wide breadth of activities that can occur within a facilitated dialogue. Facilitations may address conflict, but when a conflict has escalated in a setting where legal processes can be leveraged, the dialogue often transitions to a mediated or negotiated process.
Facilitated dialogues are used across many types of decision-making settings, including where parties hold very different and even conflicting views and interests, as well as when like-minded participants are seeking to find the best decision possible (e.g. strategic planning processes). Consequently, the facilitator fills a variety of roles including:
- Managing meetings;
- Convening and preparing participants;
- Serving as an ombudsman or educator;
- Mediating low to medium levels of conflict;
- Ripening the issue;
- Helping participants to identify areas of possible agreement;
- Helping participants build an understanding of the need for compromise;
- Helping to clarify the costs of being involved and not being involved in the process; and
- Helping document the decisions.
Not all facilitators are equally skilled in the full range of roles. When selecting a facilitator, it is important to match skills to the roles that will be played during the process.
Not all decision-making settings require a third-party facilitator to be successful. Sometimes groups have a history of working well together, including surfacing options, vetting them, and collaboratively selecting them. It is not uncommon for a non-profit board, a long standing coalition, or other ongoing groups to move forward very effectively without a third party involved.
However, when the participants are trying to find solutions to complex, multi-layered problems that cross different levels of government, issue areas and even sectors, the decision-making is rarely as straightforward and grounded in established, effective relationships as in a more stable setting like a non-profit board. Moreover, sometimes even the more stable decision-making settings face a decision that creates waves within their existing processes. In those settings, the inclusion of a third party can be invaluable.
A consensus process is how the group thinks, discusses, and works together to reach the decision-making point. Consensus decision-making is a process that strongly resembles integrative negotiation. It can be undertaken using many different techniques and approaches, and has a clear set of overriding features. While it can be its own process, it may also be an approach brought to a mediation or facilitation process. It is based on concepts of broad participation with representatives of the stakeholder groups and ownership of the decision by all involved.
- A Short Guide to Consensus Building is proposed as an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order for groups and organizations that want to operate by consensus. It provides an overview of terms, and a proposed plan for the consensus building process.