Taking decisions – making the topic part of the discussion

This is the first blog post in a series about decision‑making. In this and the next one, we’ll be talking about important things to get right in decision‑making, before we explore the relationship between consensus decision‑making and voting, and when to use different methods. Do please let us know what you think. 

There are resources available to help you in your decision-making, on facilitation, on consensus decision-making, and a plethora of our older resources here for even more tips and tricks. 

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We’re used to debates where the question is set in advance. The aim of this blog is to remind ourselves that what the question is to be should often be part of the discussion.

There are two reasons for this. First, the understanding of the issue is likely to deepen and widen in the course of the discussion. In the early 1980s there was great concern about arsenic pollution in Tacoma, Washington State, USA. The discussion on this subject evolved from: “How do we control hazardous pollutants?” to “How do we diversify the local economy and attract industry with fewer hazards?”

Jim Rough is an American who devised and practices a method called Dynamic facilitation. With one group, he offered to run a 30 minute session on any contentious issue of the group’s choosing. They chose abortion. First, the usual pro-life and pro-choice positions were asserted. Then there was silence, broken by someone asking, “How frequent are abortions anyway?” The group started to wonder if abortions could be eliminated. At the end of the half hour, they had all agreed on a question: “How can we achieve a society where all children are conceived and born into families that want and love them?” Another group with which he worked started with a question about the loss of traditional family values. But by the end of an hour they had shifted to a different question that I find much more interesting: “How can we create a society where everyone feels included, as though belonging to one family?”

Also, the question that interests participants may differ from the organisers starting point. When the county commission of Sedgwick County, Kansas, USA, launched a programme on solid waste disposal in 1996, they expected that the main focus would be the question of whether to build a new landfill facility. While the 1,300 participants did give their opinion on that topic, they were even more interested in ways to increase recycling, and other ways to reduce the amount of rubbish that reached landfill. Being too strict on the topic would have frustrated the participants and stopped their ideas on reducing landfill from seeing the light of day.

Changing the way that a problem is expressed can open up new potential solutions. In the city of Newcastle, in the north of England, one topic was originally expressed as the improvement of ‘hospital discharge’, a horrid phrase meaning the discharge of patients from hospital after an operation. That frames the problem as one for the hospital to solve. The topic was reframed, though, to improving the experience of patients in going home. The emphasis shifted to the ways in which all the people and organisations involved – medical staff in the hospital, ambulance staff, GPs, interpreters, friends, neighbours and so on – could work better together.