I don’t like to put things off. I’m for getting everything done as quickly as possible. And even though I’m trained as a planner, I’ve always been more focused on the present than the future. So, when we started the Consensus Building Institute (CBI) in 1983, I was committed to moving quickly to launch a not-for-profit organization that would offer mediation and other neutral services in as many locations as possible, as quickly as possible. We didn’t have a business plan. What I told prospective clients was that we could help them address almost any kind of conflict by (1) talking with all the disputants privately and confidentially, (2) organizing training or other capacity-building activities that would prepare them to engage in joint problem-solving, (3) undertaking background research that might shed light on relevant lessons learned elsewhere, and (4) facilitating face-to-face conversations or problem-solving efforts that could lead to mutually advantageous outcomes. It took some years for me to realize that people and organizations dealing with difficult conflicts are not inclined to move quickly in new and different ways, even though I was convinced we could be of immediate assistance. Most had no idea about the ways in which professional neutrals can add value.
Twenty years later, CBI operates in a different way. We now tell potential clients that they must “go slow to go fast” (an argument, by the way, that I eventually introduced in my book Breaking the Impasse in 1987). Why? Why can’t people, groups and organizations move quickly to deploy consensus-building services or switch from a zero-sum approach to a mutual gains approach to decision-making? There are three important answers to this question that our first twenty years have taught us. First, doing things in a new way is likely to seem risky (even if the old way of doing things isn’t working). Second, no one in a position of power wants to give up control, and many think that the addition of a professional neutral means that someone will be taking over from them. Third, even if we have identified a champion in an organization, fully committed to consensus building, that individual needs time to bring their organization along.
Doing Things in a New Way Seems Risky
Even though the advantages of consensus building may be clear to us, we need to help clients understand exactly how this new way of working will unfold. They need to feel confident enough about what we are proposing to explain it to others (who may be skeptical). Whatever dangers or threats they see, must be addressed, carefully and slowly. We need to get people to understand that consensus building is not just a good idea in theory but that there are ways in practice of minimizing any risks attached to moving in a new direction or doing things in a new way.
People in Power See Mediation As a Threat
People still confuse mediation or consensus building with arbitration. That is, they think neutrals will impose judgments rather than helping the parties reach informed agreements. People in the middle of disputes or conflicts tend to think in win-lose terms. So, they are unlikely to believe, at the outset, that all-gain solutions are possible.
Consensus building Requires Organizational Not Just
Even in the short run, someone who wants to advocate consensus building needs to sell others in their organization on the idea.
We want to leave problem-solving capabilities in place that do not hinge on our involvement going forward. In a sense, we want to put ourselves out of a job by building our clients’ problem-solving capabilities. (I know some people think that’s not a good business strategy, but I disagree. Satisfied clients we have empowered to handle things on their own are much more likely to recommend us than those dependent on us, and often they want us to partner with them on complicated projects.)
I’m excited to be part of this wonderful effort to help CBI look ahead twenty years. Now that we know that we have to go slow to go fast, I’m confident we can use build our knowledge base and enable a wide array of new clients to apply consensus building to water, food, energy and other disputes in our increasingly constrained world.