Taking the Pain Out of Consensus-Building in Virtual Meetings

“I assume that everyone is good with this proposal, since I don’t hear anyone opposed, right? Okay, next topic!” 

Ah, but if this project manager could only see the body language of the people sitting around that virtual table, she would know that many people are most definitely not good with that proposal! In fact, with some artful probing, she would find that most people are lukewarm at best. But since she has no visual cues to go by, and is determined to finish this meeting on time, she construes silence to mean consensus.

Helping teams reach real consensus can be tough enough when we’re all in the same room, conversing eye-to-eye. But when people can’t see each other’s expressions and feel awkward about having tough discussions and candid debates with people they can’t see, reaching consensus is infinitely more difficult. Add cultural differences into the mix, and discerning what meeting participants really think about an idea becomes even more difficult.

Joining me in writing this month’s Communiqué is Beatrice Briggs, director of the International Institute for Facilitation and Change (IIFAC), who lives in Mexico and works all over Latin America. She is also the author of the book, Introduction to Consensus. Here we explore some of the most common mistakes virtual team leaders make when it comes to reaching real consensus. We also provide helpful tips based on our own experiences along the way. Note: For the purposes of this article, we define consensus as “agreement” and distinguish reaching agreement from making a decision.

1.     Failure to clarify what is meant by “consensus” is one of the most common errors made by meeting leaders.  Is it some sort of general agreement? Unanimous agreement? Buy-in? Does it mean we have decided something or just agreed in principle?

Tip: Clearly label the agenda item as “For Discussion” or “For Decision.” If it’s a discussion item, at the end   of the allotted time, summarize the key points and next steps, if any. If participants express agreement with the summary, move onto the next item. If the group needs to make a decision, ask participants if they are ready to decide. Get a show of (virtual) hands or verbal affirmation to confirm readiness. Assuming they are ready, proceed with the group´s standard decision-making process (majority vote, formal consensus or whatever applies). Make sure the results of the discussion or decision are entered in the minutes of the meetings. (See Tip #9 for more ideas)

2.     Failure to establish the degree of agreement that has been reached “by consensus.” Has a group really reached consensus when some mumble: “I guess I can live with this” or “I’m pretty good with that?” In a virtual world, you really have no way of knowing what people mean when they state that they can “go along with” an idea. Will people commit to action if they simply go along or do they intend to impede progress?

Tip: Create a numerical scale that has specific meaning to this group. For example, 1 = I do not support this idea in any way; 5 = I think the concept has merit, but I need more information before I can agree or disagree, 7 = I really like the idea, and I have a few questions, 10 = I love this idea and want to be part of making it happen. This way, when you ask people to rank their agreement on a scale of 1-10, people will know very quickly where everyone really stands, and you will know where to focus the conversations. A productive follow-up question then becomes: “What would it take to get you from a 5 to a 9 or 10?” (See Sam Kaner’s excellent Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making for more information about how to create a consensus scale, and other great tips for helping teams come to consensus.)

3.     Assume that silence means agreement. This mistake is related to #2 above. Silence may mean many things in a virtual meeting, including that no one is listening, that people don’t care enough to comment, or some participants are so bewildered by the proposal that they are speechless. Or it could mean that they didn’t understand what was being asked and were afraid to say so.

Tip: Design the conversation to make sure that you hear from each person, whether verbally, in writing, or both. Make it easy for people to give their true opinion in way that feels safe. See also Tip #4.

4.     Make it uncomfortable for people to state dissenting views. If you start by asking for the opinion of those most likely to support the proposal, you may make it difficult for those who follow to voice their opposition. While it may be tempting to hear a few affirmations and then go for a quick close by asking if anyone has a contrary point of view, this is a risky approach. Chances are, no one will want to be responsible for prolonging the discussion, so those with doubts and disagreements will remain silent.

Tip: Ask questions that invite an honest response. For example, instead of asking: “Are you for or against this proposal?” ask “For this proposal to succeed, what has to be done perfectly?” Or try: “What do you see as the benefits of this proposal?” and then ask about potential risks and possible modifications. This approach, based on the work of Edward de Bono´s book, Six Thinking Hats, creates a clear space for expressing doubts, voicing opposition, and making constructive suggestions. In some cases, especially where there are significant cultural or language differences, you need to also allow participants to state views in writing, anonymously or attributed. Make sure you hear from everyone before declaring consensus.

5.     Assume that all cultures approach consensus-building and decision-making the same way. If you don’t bother to discover that Hans may typically require more supporting evidence, or that Pierette may need to  start with the big picture, or that Waki-san will be reticent to voice his true opinion when his manager is on the call, you are setting the stage for failure.

Tip: It takes far less time to design a conversation that takes into account cultural differences than it does to live with the consequences of false consensus. Take the time to research how the predominant cultures process information and make decisions. You can also ask friends and colleagues familiar with those cultures. Or try asking participants themselves, 1:1. You’ll gain more credibility and respect, and will develop a bit more cross-cultural literacy along the way.

6.     Invite so many people to your meeting that there’s simply no opportunity for a real discussion. While being open and inclusive are important values in participatory processes, virtual meetings are not the place for the multitudes. If you send meeting invitations to every stakeholder who wants to have a say in the matter and encourage them to invite others, you will be forced to keep everyone on mute. This will in turn inhibit conversation. Furthermore, a large group may take more time to process ideas and/or come to agreement.

Tip: For an in-depth conversation that allows for real give and take among all participants, limit the virtual meeting to no more than 5-7 people. Plan the agenda so there is sufficient time for discussion. If those in the virtual meeting are to serve as spokespersons for their organizations or other stakeholders, make sure they have time to carry out these “off-line” consultations before making a decision. In this way, many perspectives can be represented, despite the relatively small meeting size.

7.     Force people to reach consensus without giving them the time or information they need to articulate a well-informed position. It is easy to become cynical about the willingness of meeting participants to read background information or draft proposals before a meeting. Nevertheless, we need to strive for “informed consent.” Withholding key documents and then pressuring the group to take a stand on issues they have not had the opportunity to study can easily be perceived as manipulation. Even if your intention in calling for a quick vote or preference poll is based on a desire to avoid long-winded discussions and move on to the next agenda item, this is an ineffective strategy.

Tip: Provide people with information they need at least a few days in advance of the meeting. Highlight the content that is most relevant to the upcoming discussion so people give it their priority attention. Better yet, ask participants to post their questions, concerns and opinions in a shared discussion area before the meeting. This way, everyone has a sense of where others stand. Then, while on the call, you can zero in where differences are most pronounced and probe to discover the reasons for these disagreements.

8.     Schedule an important discussion or decision at the end of the meeting when everyone is in a hurry to adjourn. Waiting until the end of the meeting to hold a crucial discussion or make a decision in the hopes that participants will be too tired or pressed for time to put up any resistance to the proposal is another misguided strategy.

Tip: Allot ample time at the beginning of the agenda for the important topics. There is no substitute for information-rich, real-time discussions for finding out where people stand on an issue. Status reports, action planning and content reviews can all be addressed in other ways.

9.     Don’t bother to recap what was agreed to or decided in the meeting. Remain vague as to the implications and the resulting actions, if any. If you do not take time to validate assumptions, agree on next steps, or test for agreement, the meeting will end without any clear understanding of what, if anything, was accomplished. Investing time in this type of summary establishes not only what happened in the meeting, but it also clearly maps out what happens next. Uncovering mistaken assumptions and clarifying misunderstandings before the meeting ends can prevent the need to have another meeting (or two) to get back in synch.

Tip: Always allow at least a few minutes at the end of your virtual meeting to summarize what was (or was not) agreed upon, and state the possible implications. Example: “Most people agreed with the concept of Jan’s proposed compensation structure, but a few of you are concerned about how this might affect retention of our top sales reps. Juan and Sarah agreed to come back with some key data next week to help us validate this assumption. Then, if you’re all comfortable that our retention is not likely to be adversely affected by the new comp structure, then you have agreed to have us take the next steps. Did I miss anything?” If participants speak different native languages, try paraphrasing your summary succinctly to make sure all have the same understanding.

When you’re working as part of a virtual team where reaching agreement is critical, you need to plan agendas that allow participants the time and opportunity to express their views and discuss differences easily, logically and safely. While it’s tempting to imagine that silence implies agreement, in reality, silence more often means that people have simply tuned out. Keep people engaged by designing thoughtful, productive conversations that encourage mutual understanding and lead to greater commitment and action.

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