When groups try to reach decisions, consensus is sometimes very desirable, if not required. But even if consensus isn't actually required, disagreements can cast doubt on any proposition that is eventually adopted. In these circumstances, impasses can block all forward progress. Because failure to reach agreement — or even serious difficulty in reaching agreement — can be problematic, it's useful to know how to deal with impasses.
We can deal effectively with substantive impasses by examining the issues fairly and openly. See "Impasses in Group Decision-Making: I," Point Lookout for October 10, 2012, for a set of useful guidelines.
Nonsubstantive impasses arise not from the substance of the immediate issue, but from the dynamics of the group, its members, and its context. Because nonsubstantive impasses can arise in so many different ways, approaches to dealing with them are more varied than are the techniques for dealing with substantive impasses. Here are some examples of nonsubstantive impasses. In what follows, we'll use the term C-issues to denote the issues with respect to which the group is trying to reach consensus.
- Bargaining, extortion, and hostage taking
- Occasionally, dissenters exploit the group's need for consensus by demanding concessions on unrelated matters in exchange for their acquiescence. In effect, they hold consensus hostage.
- Progress is unlikely if the C-issues are the focus of negotiations between advocates and dissenters, because the dissenters usually are seeking unrelated concessions. Focus the discussion instead on that which motivates the dissent.
- External coercion
- Some dissenters are externally constrained to oppose the C-issues, independent of their personal views on the matter. For example, their superiors might oppose the issues, or the dissenters might believe that their superiors oppose the issues.
- In these cases, even though the dissenters engage in debate of the C-issues, such debate is pointless. The principals aren't the dissenters; the principals are those who are coercing or directing the dissenters. Carry the debate to the true principals.
- Confidential commitments
- Some members of the Nonsubstantive impasses arise not
from the substance of the issue,
but from the dynamics of the group,
its members, and its contextgroup might have made confidential commitments to each other or to other people who aren't present. Abiding by those commitments might be more or less difficult, depending on the proposal adopted by the group relative to the C-issues. Those who have made commitments therefore try to convince the group to adopt proposals that are in alignment with their confidential commitments.
- It is the confidentiality that makes this mechanism so problematic. If the commitments could be revealed, resolving the conflict might be very easy. But those who are bound by the confidential commitments typically try to conceal the existence of the commitments by fabricating arguments in favor of positions consistent with their commitments, or arguments countering positions inconsistent with their commitments. The key to resolution is a private discussion, person-to-person, in which creating a sense of safety might facilitate disclosure of the commitment.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.
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