Creating a Positive Atmosphere by Sharing Working Assumptions
Many years ago, I was asked to facilitate a planning retreat with a group that had taken 3 years to build enough consensus to have a consensus-building retreat.
I knew this group might be challenging, so I took a long time to think through what I thought were ground rules for how the group would work together during the retreat. I came up with 5 points. I put them up on a flipchart at the beginning of the meeting, and explained them. When I came to the third one, “There are no wrong answers”, a woman at the back of the room pounded on the table and shouted “there are too wrong answers!”. I had to think really quickly, and answered that that, too, was not a wrong answer and explained that we were listening to the wisdom beneath the answers, even if we disagreed with the surface level. The group, including that woman, all laughed, and settled in to work together.
Later I realized that these are not ground rules – there are no “thou shalt” or thou shalt not” in them – but they are presuppositions for respect.
Over the last 20 or so years of facilitation, I have discovered that when I take the time to give these to the group at the beginning, that the atmosphere of respectful participation is strong, and the results are much better than when I leave them out.
They are also useful to refer back to when someone wants to throw out another person’s idea, or denigrates their participation.
So I offer these to you, as a way to create a positive and respectful environment. The phrase I put on the flipchart is in bold type, and the explanation of each one that I add verbally is in parentheses.

Working Assumptions

 1. Everyone has wisdom. (This doesn’t mean everything that everyone says is wise. It means that behind what they say is wisdom, and we will listen for it.)
2. We need everyone’s wisdom for the wisest result. (In the same way that a diamond is more valuable when it is cut with more facets, what we come up with will be more valuable when we have illuminated more facets of what we are working with.)
3. There are no wrong answers. (See number 1 — behind what may seem on the surface as a wrong answer — and I have heard some that were positively evil on the surface — there is wisdom, and that is what we will listen for. The corollary, of course, is that there are no right answers, only the best we can come up with given our limitations.)
4. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (Trite, yes, but points to consensus as creating a larger answer that is not identical to any one view, but includes the wisdom of many. Diamond image again. I think of compromise as smaller than the sum of its parts, consensus as larger. Like a puzzle picture, which is the sum of the puzzle pieces and their relationships. All puzzle pieces are included, or there is a hole.)
5. Everyone will hear others and be heard. (This doesn’t mean that everyone has to talk all the time — then nobody would be heard. It means listening to others as well as making sure your wisdom is on the table.)
I’ve recently concluded that Aretha Franklin would probably summarize the whole list with “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”

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