In the 1990’s, I had a client gig that I knew was going to be a challenging one. Their director had spent 3 years strategically building consensus that they should have a consensus-building workshop! So I decided that I needed to think through some ground rules to start with. Now I have always hated ground rules. They generally come to me as “thou shalt not”s, all negative energy about what you shouldn’t do.
So I created something that at first I called “Ground Rules”. And then I realized that they were presuppositions — assumptions that I was making and expected the group to make in order to work together productively. But who wants a 5-syllable word at the top of a flipchart to start the day? So I named them “Working Assumptions”. I have used them every since with most groups. I write a cryptic form of them on a flipchart (in bold below) and talk through a description of them with the group (in parentheses).
- Everyone has wisdom. (This doesn’t mean everything that everyone says is wise. It means that behind what they say is wisdom, and we will listen for it.)
- We need everyone’s wisdom for the wisest result. (In the same way that a diamond is more valuable when it is cut with more facets, what we come up with will be more valuable when we have illuminated more facets of what we are working with — we all come from different perspectives — some are near each other, some opposing sides, others in a totally different plane from the others, like the facets of a diamond.)
- There are no wrong answers. (This doesn’t mean we agree with everything — I have never been in a room where everyone agreed — even if I’m the only one in the room! Also,see number 1 — behind what may seem on the surface as a wrong answer — and I have heard some that were positively evil on the surface — there is wisdom, and that is what we will listen for. The corollary, of course, is that there are no right answers, only the best we can come up with given our limitations.)
- The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (A cliche, yes, but points to consensus as creating a larger answer that is not identical to any one view, but includes the wisdom of many. I think of compromise as smaller than the sum of its parts, consensus as larger. Like a puzzle picture, which is the sum of the puzzle pieces and their relationships. All puzzle pieces are included, or there is a hole. I learned recently that Aristotle came up with this phrase.)
- Everyone will hear others and be heard. (This doesn’t mean that everyone has to talk all the time — then nobody would be heard. It means listening to others as well as making sure your wisdom is on the table.)
I’ve recently concluded that Aretha Franklin would probably summarize the whole list with “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”
I have never had a group reject these working assumptions altogether. Someone in the first group, however, did differ with the 3rd one. As soon as I said “There are no wrong answers”, a lady at the back of the room pounded on the table and shouted “There are too wrong answers!” And I thought really, really fast and replied, “And that’s not a wrong answer either!” Everybody laughed. “There are sometimes wrong answers on the surface, but it is the wisdom under them that we are listening for.” The group had a great retreat and listened to each other for maybe the first time in their history.
For number 4, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” I have had various people try to make this more clear. Tim, one of my Cree trainees said, “You know, it’s like a band. Each instrument — the guitar, the bass, the drums — makes a good sound on its own. But when you put them together, the music they create is greater than any one of them could come up with on their own.” I’ve used his analogy ever since and get lots of nods of understanding.
I’ve attached a link to the PowerPoint poster of the Working Assumptions.