Reaching Difficult Agreements

As I’ve written many times, increasing your level of productivity and success entails working well with others. That’s not always easy, though, and it’s particularly difficult when working with a group of people who have different opinions, agendas, working styles, and so forth.

But there are some ways to forge a viable way forward in these difficult group situations, provided you follow some simple, basic rules, which include:

Focus on the Difficult Situation

Groups facing a difficult situation encounter many obstacles to reaching agreement on effective actions they can take. One of the biggest obstacles is the tendency to drift off-topic.

For example, individuals in the group can bring in old disagreements, minor but divisive issues, personality clashes, differences of opinion on unrelated matters, and other ideas or feelings that are likely to absorb energy and foment animosity.

That’s why it’s helpful to limit discussion within the group to the difficult situation and how best to move forward most effectively.

Hold Off on Action

There are a great many advantages to the simple concept of “pause.” In a difficult group situation, agreeing to hold off on taking any action instantly defuses a lot of the tension and urgency to “win” that adds to the inherent difficulties of reaching agreement.

That’s why it’s helpful to assure the group that no action will be taken until everyone in the group is OK with how to go forward.

There are, of course, many ways to “reach agreement” within a group, such as ranked choice voting or working toward consensus. But perhaps the best way is to develop a course of action through bargaining, compromise, and creativity. The goal is for everyone to accept the plan with a positive, optimistic attitude.

Civility Helps

Emotions tend to run high in most difficult group situations. People are prone to interrupt others, raise their voices, stop listening, and attack not only others’ ideas but other people’s personalities or even their looks.

That’s why it’s helpful to ask for civility in these group interactions, including:

  • A friendly and relaxed atmosphere,
  • No personal attacks,
  • No interruptions,
  • An assumption that others are well-intentioned and interested in reaching agreement,
  • A reluctance to take offense or feel injured,

… at least, as much as possible.

Thoroughly Search for Options

Reaching agreement is even harder in difficult group situations when some people in the group feel their ideas and information are not being accurately received.

That’s why it’s helpful to keep a written list of ideas and information offered by members of the group, and to set the intention to promote sharing until everyone agrees all their contributions have been accurately added to the record.

Keeping the list on a whiteboard, flip chart, or large computer monitor that everyone can access allows people to see their ideas in black and white, and also facilitates clarifications that avoid misunderstandings and unearth unspoken assumptions.

Respect the Leader

All this is more easily implemented when the difficult group is led by a person who is well respected by everyone involved – perhaps even someone who is not intrinsically a part of the group and has no vested interest in the outcome.

Such a leader can:

  • Set the tone for positive, cooperative discussion,
  • Calm tempers that flare,
  • Proscribe and smooth over unhelpful remarks and attitudes,
  • Outline a straightforward process for gathering everyone’s input,
  • Suggest or ask for suggestions regarding an acceptable decision-making process and a suitable course of action.

By putting these ideas into effect, you create opportunities for everyone in the group to offer their ideas, enthusiastically argue for their favorite positions, then accept a course of action everyone can live with and – in many cases – afterwards feel more cohesive.

Difficult group situations are inevitable, although with luck they happen only rarely. What’s most important when they crop up in your work or your life is handling them effectively to develop a widely-supported course of action that will yield satisfactory progress, productivity, and success.

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