The Stuff of Trust

March 29, 2017 in Inside SWS

“Love is higher than opinion. If people love one another the most varied opinions can be reconciled–thus one of the most important tasks for humankind today and in the future is that we should learn to live together and understand one another. If this human fellowship is not achieved, all talk of human development is empty.” Rudolf Steiner

Earlier this month I was invited to join two dozen colleagues who hold leadership roles in Waldorf schools around the country for a four-day training on “consensus facilitation.” I accepted the opportunity with some trepidation. I can feel anxious in groups of people I don’t know, and this topic was new to me–so not only was I going to be living with a group of strangers, but I would be trying out new skills and taking risks. Just thinking about it made me break into a sweat. In a moment of courage I said yes.

We gathered at a rustic mountain retreat center outside Denver for what unfolded as a powerful learning experience, professionally and personally. My work involves a lot of meetings. A lot of meetings. And I thought I was pretty good at them–forming agendas, keeping conversation moving, making decisions–in short, getting stuff done. What I learned over those four days with a group of people who quickly became supportive friends, was working toward consensus is a process, not an outcome. The best decision possible emerges from a deep shared understanding, an openness to something in the future that we may not be able to see at the start of the conversation.

I remember a discussion with my former husband years ago where I was intent on convincing him of my position. He shared his idea, and thinking he was finished I launched into laying out my argument. He turned to me and said, “I wasn’t done. I was taking a breath.” While humorous, it was a wake up call to me to slow down and listen. I recalled our exchange during this retreat, as we learned how to facilitate a conversation where all voices are heard and all participants feel safe and respected. Everyone has a piece of the truth, and we must be able to step back and see what we might be missing in our own thinking and observations.

As a community, we encounter challenging conversations and difficult decisions daily, whether in parent evenings, teacher conferences, board meetings, or after school on the playground. While these encounters may not all require structured facilitation, they do ask us to bring many of the same intentions and mindsets outlined in my training:

  • The value of community is so great that we don’t want to leave anyone behind.
  • We should seek unity, not unanimity.
  • We cannot know if a decision is right until we live it.
  • Our goal is move from either/or to both/and.
  • Trust is not a precursor for effective conversation, but effective conversation can build trust.

A colleague recently recounted an exchange she had with a leader in an international aid agency regarding an upcoming policy summit. When asked about possible outcomes of the meeting, the woman replied, “The goal may not be to make decisions. Sometimes the most important thing is for people who think differently to just be in the same room, talking and listening to each other. Then when big things happen and they need to act, they know how to work together.”

Listening with open minds and hearts and seeing what Douglas Gerwin described as “the spark of the divine” in one another will allow us to reconcile even the most varied opinions, nurture a human fellowship rooted in love, AND get stuff done.


Published in the Chalkboard from 3.29.17