The first step in achieving group consensus is to establish a shared understanding of facts. If a group doesn’t have the same starting point, it is unlikely that they will come to the same ending point. An antidote to “alternative facts” and “fake news” is grounding opinions and interpretations in observed data.
This step in the ORID process is one that many people consider simplistic – “If I see it as factual, everyone else must see the same facts. Asking questions about what we observe is a stupid question.”
If we have ever been a witness to an accident, it becomes clear that no two people see the event from the same perspective. It is not necessarily that we don’t see what actually happened, but we each see different parts of the picture. Even surveillance cameras only see an event from a particular angle and can mislead us on what happened.
If we are viewing a presentation, our minds wander in different places, and we each see slightly different parts of the presentation.
Another challenge is that we often leap immediately from what we actually observe to what we think about something – associations or opinions are triggered, and we lose track of what we saw that triggered them. We are not very experienced in “paying attention to what is”.
One of my colleagues asked recently about a video on facilitation that the group had just seen, “What did you hear in the video?” Several people answered with broad generalizations such as “I heard that we need to think about how we design a session”, or “I heard that facilitators have to guide a group through difficulties”. The details that the video brought out were lost until she rephrased the question to “What words or phrases that you actually heard in the video caught your attention?”
When we ask people in a group to recall what they observed, we can not only clarify what happened, but also broaden our perspectives about the event. We don’t always have to agree on what we saw, but there are many more angles illuminated.
When we skip this step, there is a real danger that we make the assumption that everyone sees what we do, and the conversation is based on unshared assumptions of reality, rather than shared facts. Consensus on a decision is almost impossible if we are basing our decisions on different starting points.
The following paragraphs from the upcoming book Getting to the Bottom of ToP, to be published later this year, indicate the focus of the objective level.
“The thing itself”, the specific concern, is the ground and focus of an inquiry. Our attention and consciousness are brought to bear on a very real something we are concerned about, something that exists within a socio-historical context. If an inquiry is to reveal something of significance, it begins with a concrete, real aspect of our experience. We seek to gather what information we can about it as it is and our experience of it.
For example, if we are concerned about the quality of our meetings, a group may reflect on the experience of a difficult meeting, a so-so meeting, a great meeting and, most helpfully, all varieties of our experience. We describe those real experiences and ground our conversations in lived reality. Those specific experiences become our reference points for further examination of what could improve meetings and for choices about how we will conduct future meetings.
So how do we establish shared facts in a group?
The first step is to start with a concrete beginning point. This is something tangible that has observable facts that can start the conversation with a grounded shared reality. It can be a shared experience, or a presentation, or a printed paper, or even an experiential exercise that we do with the group before we start the discussion.
Then we ask appropriate questions that the group needs to answer to understand what is actually going on. The following describes levels of objective questions from Getting to the Bottom of ToP.

From Getting to the Bottom of Top, Chapter 5, Focused Conversation Method

Level 1, the OBJECTIVE level, focuses on sensory information, facts and basic information. This stage is about being aware of the phenomena, or what is going on. The intentional focus is directing our consciousness toward what is going on around us. Radical openness at this level is not making assumptions about connections or meaning of the phenomena we are observing. The method of inquiry at this stage is observation.
At the objective level the focused conversation method uses a number of ways to focus awareness on what is going on.
Observing sensory experience
At the most basic stage the objective level is about observing, bringing to consciousness all of what is going on, or identifying the aspects of a phenomenon. In a conversation, this involves asking questions that allow each participant to share their observations, so they become a part of the experience of the whole group. Depending on what is being observed, the facilitator might ask for visual observations – colours, shapes, textures, sizes, or objects (which may include words or phrases on a page). Or the questions might ask for auditory impressions from an object or experience, such as sounds, words or phrases that were heard. For some situations, questions might ask for physical sensations such as smell, taste, or tactile impressions.
Recalling things that actually happened is another element of observation –- describing –observed events, actions taken, past experience. Participants might recall the parts of a story – the characters, scenes and obvious plot lines, as in “what happened first, then, and then….” Or they might remember the actions actually taken in a project or what happened in an event.
Highlighting Facts and Thoughts
At this level of the objective phase, a bit of selection begins to surface. People are asked for facts, statistics or basic information, words or phrases that stood out for them, what caught their attention in a paper or presentation, or a list of the elements within a whole.
Grounding a Phenomena
Sometimes it helps to name examples of a concept, grounding the abstraction in real phenomena. Describing the aspects of an idea can also be objective information, although explaining the significance of the idea would be at the interpretive level.
Generating Ideas
An interesting manifestation of the objective level is getting participants to articulate ideas or thoughts that are already present in their minds. The facilitator might ask for responses to a brainstorm question, or ask people to share existing thoughts or an idea they have been pondering.

When the group has a shared understanding of the facts about a situation, then they can become aware of their associations and reactions, and use those as wisdom to take them to deeper shared understanding and consensus.

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