Tuesday, February 07, 2006

How does harmonization work?

In our societies today, conflicts are resolved by means of power: the most powerful faction gets its way. It's a win-lose system. People join parties or special-interest groups in order to have some hope of exerting influence in society. Harmonization is about resolving conflicts through respectful dialog. It is about taking into account everyone's concerns, and coming up with plans and solutions that deal fairly with all those concerns. Harmonization is not about choosing among alternatives, rather it is a creative, problem-solving process.

The most surprising thing about harmonization is that it is possible.
Harmonization is an ancient tradition. When problems came up in aboriginal societies, the people of a tribe would typically meet in council and talk together until they all agreed on how the problem would be dealt with. Usually a respected elder of the tribe would act as facilitator in such a council, making sure that everyone got to express their point of view. Native American tribes operated this way, and we can still find examples today, in those few remote societies that continue to preserve their traditional ways. From our modern perspective, we can describe these societies as direct democracies, using harmonization as their process of governance.

When agriculture and civilization came along, this democratic from of governance was supplanted by hierarchical rule under an all-powerful chief or king. Harmonization was no longer part of the culture, and today most of us would probably doubt that such a process is even possible: How could a liberal and a conservative, for example, hope to agree on a common solution to a controversial societal problem? Aren't their differences too deep for that to happen?

Fortunately, however, harmonization is a practice that is still possible for us, despite our apparent conflicts and differences. The problem is that our culture does not encourage the practice, nor does it afford us opportunities to exercise it. When the conditions are right, people are not only capable of harmonizing their concerns, but they find the experience liberating and empowering. In Chapter 5 of Escaping the Matrix, I describe several recent examples in which amazing results have been achieved in harmonization sessions.

The basic conditions that make harmonization possible are:
(1) a group of people who share common problems
(2) a competent facilitator
(3) a face-to-face session with adequate time allocated

If these conditions are satisfied, then almost any group of people - despite strong differences in values and beliefs - can harmonize their concerns and find solutions that they can all support. The process can vary, but frequently it follows a predictable pattern...

At the beginning of such a session, we typically see the same kind of frustrating debate that characterizes the discussions we are all familiar with: various people propose solutions to the shared problems, the solutions appear to be irreconcilable, people choose sides in the debate, and no one seems willing to shift their position. During this phase, the role of the faciliator is to make sure that each speaker is really heard by the others, and to shift energy away from debate among the participants. The facilitator writes down each person's contribution on a flip chart - so that all can see and remember - and treats each contribution as a positive statement, rather than as a disagreement with some previous contribution.

In this way everyone feels heard, and that shifts the energy of the group in subtle but important ways. When people feel heard themselves, they become open to hearing what others have to say. And when people feel that their position has been heard by the group, they aren't compelled to keep repeating it, as usually happens in discussions. Gradually the discussion shifts to the genuine concerns that underly "postitions," and participants begin to see each other as fellow human beings, with valid concerns - rather than as opponents, with contrary positions.

When the participants can see each other as genuine human beings, with valid concerns, then they naturally begin looking for solutions that take everyone's concerns into account. The energy of the group shifts, almost magically, from debate to collaborative problem solving. As people look over the comments on the flip charts, they begin to see new possibilities - ways to combine different ideas that formerly seemed opposed to one another. The process becomes creative, energizing, and empowering. By the time the session is over, the group is typically able to find breakthrough solutions that everyone likes better than their own initial proposals!

Results like this can be achieved in a corporate setting, leading to more effective work teams - and they can also be achieved in a community setting, overcoming divisiveness and leading to solutions which are likely to find widespread community support. Such results are indeed remarkable, but they are not really that difficult to achieve. As long as the people genuinely want to see the problems solved, they have the benefit of a skilled facilitator, and adequate time is devoted, then these kinds of results can be achieved with a high degree of reliability.

The number of particpants in such a session can vary considerably, depending on the skill of the faciliator, and twelve is probably close to an ideal number, in terms of giving everyone a chance to participate fully, and in terms of bringing in a wide diversity of viewpoints. Surprisingly, a harmonization session actually works better if there is a lot of initial divisiveness in the group! Once the participants begin collaborating in their thinking, the greater diversity of views brings in a broader canvas of possibilities, and the eventual breakthroughs are that much more dramatic and effective.

The amount of time required can also vary, but it is typically measured in days rather than hours. If there are substantial problems to be faced, and a considerable degree of divisiveness present, then four all-day sessions would be close to an ideal time allocation. This may seem like a large investment of time, but it is worth it if good solutions are found that all particpants are happy with. In terms of cost-effectiveness, one long but successful session is much better than shorter meetings which either fail to reach agreement, or which settle for compromise solutions that fail to take into account everyone's concerns.

Our jury system, where a unanimous verdict is required, can be seen as a remnant of our ancient heritage of harmonization. The number of jurors, twelve, makes sense for a jury for the same reasons I mentioned above. The film, Twelve Angry Men, dramatizes very well the kind of dynamics I have been describing, and the results that can be achieved when people finally listen to one another and begin cooperating in their thinking. Unfortunately, not every jury has a foreman with such good facilitating skills as those displayed by the foreman in the film.