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Congress Changing Chairs for Greater Civility?


The several comments to my earlier post on Saving Congress from Breathing Its Own Exhaust noted both hope and frustration with Congressional dialog and decision-making.  Hope came in comments from both Clarissa and George who offered possible approaches to wiser deliberation and governance. Frustration is also present in the comments given, as Bill expressed it, the low likelihood that those with power would opt for any forms of deliberation that threaten the status quo.  I acknowledge Bill’s very real concern, but I am drawn to the hope for the possibility of wiser deliberation.  I have seen supposedly intractable differences among stakeholders be resolved through different ways of meeting and discussing issues; ways that changed the whole nature of the conversation between people with very different views.  I have seen this happen in meetings I have led for both businesses and community groups (see for example, the story of a meeting to resolve contrator issues in my recent post, Bring Lawyers, Guns and Money, the Oil Has Hit the Sand: Avoiding Deep Water Oil Well Disasters.)  More to the point, perhaps, I have colleagues who have worked with groups whose meetings have led to fundamental political change.  As one example, the meeting design known as Future Search has been used on several occasions to bring political representatives from warring parties to agreement to create a peaceful future together (for example, see Demobilizing Child Soldiers in Southern Sudan.)

Today, Congress is feeling the pressure from voters to talk and work together to resolve current concerns. We are hearing about the need for a more “civil” debate in Congress.  We even hear about plans to physically bring the two sides together by mixing the seating of Democrats and Republicans for the President’s State of the Union Address.  Unfortunately, these steps are too weak by themselves.  (Is it going too far to suggest that this seating change reminds me of the famous comment about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?) The real difficulty is that Congress appears to lack the tools for effectively engaging each other in meaningful dialog and decision-making.  What may require revision are the written and unwritten “rules” by which Congress supposedly conducts its deliberations and decisions.   Some fundamental improvements could come from throwing out Robert’s Rules of Order (circa 1876 with updates) and replacing it with a 21st century approach to building wiser deliberations.

If we are to revisit the use of General Robert’s Rules and similar approaches to improving meetings, I believe it helps to recognize that today there are two basic approaches from which to choose.  One approach to better deliberations involves changing behavior. Most prescriptions for better meetings emphasize changing the behavior of participants in some way.  As Clarissa points out in her comment to my earlier post, the work of Argyris and Schon is a very powerful way to look at what happens as we talk with one another and how we can adopt a different model of such behavior.   Unfortunately, expecting participants to behave in ways that produce better conversations and decisions, can run counter to more natural behaviors given the structure and assumptions of the meeting.  For example, asking people to listen carefully and avoid premature judgment runs counter to a meeting operating under assumptions in which voting or hierarchy will ultimately determine the decision.  In such a situation, advocating your own view is natural if you don’t want to “lose.”

A second approach to more effective meetings involves changing the structures for conducting the meeting itself. By structures I mean the physical and procedural characteristics of a meeting that affect the way we talk with one another. For example, a podium for the meeting leader provides a structure for the interaction between leader and participants. So too do seating arrangements, the means of managing time for speaking, and who keeps the notes. The nature of these structures in any given meeting reflect various, often unexamined assumptions about how to have an “effective” discussion that in turn reinforce particular behaviors. However, a change in structures can suspend those old assumptions and create the opportunity for different behavior, different conversations and more efficient decision-making.

In earlier posts I have mentioned some structural tools for changing meeting effectiveness (see Avoiding “Risky” Meetings). I have also written more about the effectiveness of structural changes and how different prescriptions for effective meetings rely more on behavioral or structural prescriptions for change.  See Effective Conversations for Decision Making: Improving Behavior or Changing Structure?

For years I have used a simple statement from author and consultant Clay Carr as one way to think about how best to conduct meetings: “We all do what makes sense to us in the situation.  To change what I do, change what makes sense to me to do.”  In planning and conducting meetings, keep in mind what is natural for people to do, and then choose structures that bring out the best of our natural behaviors for wiser conversations and decisions.

When you think about successful meetings that you’ve been in, what made them so?  In particular, what was it about how they were structured that seemed to influence the civility and insight of the discourse?


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