Consensus Building: Changing Minds to Reach Agreement

For a diverse group to reach consensus, at least some of the participants – perhaps all of them – have to change their minds. They come into the room with differing, often fundamentally conflicting ideas about the challenges they face. They likely disagree on how to define problems, technical methods that should be used to explore potential solutions and the options that might meet their needs for an acceptable solution.

Most also arrive fearful that change will mean loss for them – of property, influence or benefits they now possess. That fear often comes through as deep suspicion of the motives of those who propose changes while also promising to protect the interests of other stakeholders. That suspicion may have been supported by the experience of past conflict and has thus become well entrenched.

Fear and suspicion typify one dimension of resistance as a powerful non-rational factor. But there are many other types of resistance. Experts may resist because an apparently sound rational analysis isn’t supported by scientific evidence that meets their standards. Others may miss a way to relate technical conclusions to their everyday experience and won’t accept a new concept until it “clicks” in terms of their own work or community life.

There is often a tension between rational problem-solving methods and the many non-rational factors that can be just as powerful in influencing decisions. Mediators need to address both levels in order to facilitate agreement, but it is not enough to work one-on-one with resistant participants.

The group members have to face this challenge jointly and find ways to examine and present ideas that encourage a willingness to change. It’s not a matter of one side “selling” a proposal to the others. That’s the hallmark of a more adversarial negotiation in which competing proposals or offers of settlement are debated.

In a collaborative setting, all the stakeholders must respond not only to one another’s interests but also to the particular cognitive demands of each participant. To do that, the group needs some understanding of the varied ways in which people become convinced that it is safe to change their minds and adopt an approach they had never before been willing to consider.

In Changing Minds, the psychologist Howard Gardner has provided a useful outline of the different types of evidence and presentation people need before they come to a moment when thinking can change.

He identifies seven factors that influence people to adopt new ideas and beliefs. Since change comes with great difficulty, he includes resistance as one of these factors. The ability to overcome resistance usually depends on the effect of the other six, all of which should reinforce each other and make it possible for a diverse group to achieve consensus. Here is a a quick overview of Gardner’s seven factors.

  • Reason: The interest-based model of joint gains negotiation exemplifies the role of reasoning and rational analysis. A careful evaluation of options by use of objective criteria establishes a problem solution that is optimal. Those responsive to carefully constructed argument of this sort are likely to be persuaded to choose the highest scoring option, even if that contradicts earlier positions.

  • Research: Change can also occur on the basis of evidence that a group finds convincing. It might be formally gathered scientific data or informally reported experience. Research is a primary method of supporting rational analysis, and together these are the most common methods of persuasion used in collaborative policy processes.

  • Resonance: There are many times when rational analysis and supporting research don’t result in a change of thinking. The proposal “just doesn’t feel right.” In Gardener’s terms, it lacks resonance because it doesn’t touch a level of emotion that is usually necessary to win a commitment to change. Sometimes that feeling level is satisfied by reason and research, but it usually requires other elements too. Trust in an ally who accepts the idea could do it – or the change may occur in a way that is less conscious. The new idea seems to fit the situation or just “click” even if it goes against argument and data.

  • Redescriptions: This is Gardener’s term for the representation of an idea in many different formats – verbal description, numerical calculation in a spreadsheet, or picturing through a chart, diagram or visual imagery. The point is that all the different forms of representing the idea need to reinforce each other to be convincing.

  • Resources and Rewards: The availability of resources to carry out one alternative instead of another could tip the balance. Ideas that seem impractical because funding or staffing can’t be found may quickly lose their appeal, that is, be less convincing, less likely to change anyone’s mind.

  • Real World Events: An election that shifts the balance of political power, a natural disaster, a surge or crash in financial markets, or the arrival of a revolutionary technology – are all examples of events that can be decisive in changing minds. They can disrupt expectations about the future and shift thinking about plans and actions. That happens because events like these can register with people on multiple levels at once, rational and emotional, conscious and unconscious and open possibilities that had never before been considered.

  • Resistance: The refusal to consider a change is another critical factor. As people get older, they get attached to certain ideas and ways of doing things because they’ve been effective, or perhaps because no other alternative has ever come along. Personality or training may have instilled a certain mindset and method of approaching problems, and any idea that doesn’t agree with that way of thinking can be rejected out of hand.

    Resistances can come from all sorts of life experiences and habits, but, as Gardener points out, their influence isn’t always negative. They can force a more rigorous testing and presentation of ideas until they make sense ito someone who’s been unresponsive.

These approaches usually have to work together to effect change and convince all members of a collaborative group that a particular solution is the right one.

Using all of them to organize and present new ideas helps ensure that no one will be regarded as the problem or isolated as the source of resistance simply because they are unconvinced by the methods that work well for others.


3 Responses to “ Consensus Building: Changing Minds to Reach Agreement ”

  1. Wish we could do more with these principles in the health care reform debate.

  2. Hi –

    I agree – there are few efforts to persuade that embrace Gardner’s approach. Almost every public policy issue these days collapses into an all-or-nothing battle between extremes, and negotiators in the middle are vilified by both sides.

    Thanks for your comment.


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