Stages in a Topic Discusion B


1 These notes identify four stages in a topic discussion and discuss some of the activities that occur in a Conference. They discuss various methods to assist in achieving useful objectives for each of the four stages.

Four Stages in a Topic Discussion

2 An understanding of the four main stages in a topic discussion will help to understand Conference processes. However, in any Conference, the four stages will not necessarily stand out: many variations can, and do, exist. Further, other activities hinder and confuse the discussion and help hide the main stages.

3 In any effective Conference, the following first three stages will exist. Stage 4 will probably exist.

(a) Stage 1: Contributions— Members make contributions.

(b) Stage 2: Relationships- Members attempt to discover relation ships between (i) contributions and (ii) other contributions and topics (e.g. the topic under consideration), and/or (iii) the Conference Objective and Sub Objectives.

(c) Stage 3: Consensus – Members attempt to achieve consensus* on each topic or sub-topic.

(d) Stage 4: Consensus Checking- Members check on the attempted consensus.

4 Once a Conference has achieved consensus on one topic, it can deal with contributions on a different topic and aim to establish relationships and achieve consensus on this other topic. In other words the four stages start all over again.

Examples of the Four Stages

5 If we take the Topic: Who will do the Job, Basic Contributions might include the following –

(a) I don’t care who does it. (b) Joe should do it. (c) Why Joe, Frank has more experience? (d) Yes, but Frank does not have the same skill in this type of work. (e) I think it does matter who does the job and Joe would suit me. (f) We cannot take any risks with this job and therefore we must choose a mature person. (g) That rules out Dick. (h) I would accept either Frank or Joe since I rate both of them as sound men.

6 All these contributions rate as (a) content contributions* and (b) on the topic. These notes call them – Basic Contributions.

7 At this stage, the Conference Leader might say “It seems likely that most of you agree that the job rates as an important job and you need to select a sound man to do the job”. These notes label this type of (content) contribution as a Relationship Contribution(as opposed to a Basic Contribution). This relationship contribution aims to draw people’s attention to (a) what the Leader guesses the group might agree to and/or (b) the common elements in most of the contributions.

* The notes on “A Basic Objective for any Conference – Consensus” explains consensus. Readers who use the word to mean agreement and/or agreement to disagree and/or understanding each other’s ideas will have a sufficient description of “consensus” to understand these notes

.8 If no one objects to the Leader’s contribution and/or some agreement exists, the Leader might say – “Would everyone agree that Frank or Joe should do the job?” These notes call this contribution – an Attempted Consensus Contribution

9 This approach goes a little further than establishing a relationship. If it proves successful (in that people agree with it) the following question might check the agreement “Can we then move on to deciding whether we should select Joe or Frank?”

10 This question not only checks the consensus but, if no-one opposes the idea, it introduces the next logical sub-topic – Should Joe or Frank do the job?

Activities which make it difficult to identify the four Stages and hinder effective Discussions

Contributors frequently hinder Discussions by Irrelevant and Untimely Contributions.

11 Off-the-topic Contributions All discussions do not proceed as smoothly as the example above. Off-the-topic contributions represent a common problem.

12 Examples.In the previous example irrelevant (off-the-topic) contributions might include “1 don’t think we should have to get one of these men to do this job’. “Why waste time discussing this matter when we should leave it to Arthur to decide?” “No- one needs to do the job in any case.”

13 If irrelevant contributions occur in among other contributions, Conference Members will usually find it harder to pick out relationships between the relevantcontributions

14 Contributions which belong to the “wrong” stage.When a discussion has moved to Stage Two (i.e. it attempts to establish relationships), some Participants still give Basic Contributions. Possibly, they have no interest in establishing relationships and/or do not agree with the relationships suggested. Frequently they have more interest in making their own basic contributions – often on a different topic.

15 In the same way, interference can occur with attempts to establish consensus; because, at the same time, Conference Members make (a) Basic Contributions (on, or off, the topic) and (b) contributions which attempt to establish relationships.

16 In other words, as a Conference reaches each stage some Participants make contributions which relate to a different stage. These contributions relate to either one or more previous stages or a future one, i.e. some Members try to move too quickly into the next stage or the next topic

17 The following diagram summarises the above discussion of the stages in the discussion process.

* Content Contributions deal with actual topics of a Conference. Procedure Contributions deal with how to conduct a discussion. For a discussion of these types of contributions, see the notes - “Types of Meetings, Conferences, Discussions and Contributions”.

18 Readers should note that the retracing of steps by the Conference Members to an earlier stage or even an earlier topic will not necessarily prove bad. The same thought applies to contributions on another topic. Both of these things MAY prove necessary before the Conference can progress on the topic under consideration – a detour may provide the best solution to overcoming a roadblock.

Consensus Contributions when Accepted become Second-Level Basic Contributions

19 These notes refer to acceptedconsensus contributions as Second-Level Contributions. This name indicates that these contributions will often form the Basic Contributions from which the Conference can gain further agreements.

20 A Conference which aims to reach a decision probably best illustrates this idea. Each level of accepted agreement becomes the basic contribution for the next level. Agreement between various levels of agreement occurs until the final decision equals the highest level of accepted agreement.

21 Example. The previous example talks about who will do the job. This topic could rate as a sub topic of the whole discussion: Should we try to do the job? The Conference may agree on the following matters (each one a topic or sub topic*): Who should do the job? What materials should we use? Do we have these materials available? Does the man we have selected to do the job have the time? Consensus on these basic level topics leads someone to put them all together and say something like: We have the man, the time and the materials; will we all agree that we should try to do the job?

22 For each level, the process rates as similar to that shown in the diagram. It happens for each and every topic. Some topics rate as one of the many sub topics which make up a “larger” topic.

An Introduction to a More-Detailed Explanation of Conference Processes

23 A Conference consists of a number of topic discussions. During the discussions, each Conference Member carries out three activities: Speaking, Listening, and Thinking. Speaking, or making a contribution, proves the most obvious and easily observable of these activities. A contribution rates as an important and basic element of a Conference – a Conference consists of a series of contributions.

24 These contributions (if on the topic) help obtain consensus on various topics which, in turn, will lead to overall consensus on the Conference topic i.e. the attainment or abandonment of the Conference Objective.

25 For each topic the four stages in reaching agreement involve (a) contribute (b) discover relationships between the contributions (c) attempt to obtain a consensus on a topic, and (d) check that the Members accept the consensus. After collecting consensus on a number of topics the Conference discussion can use them to reach higher-level agreements (i.e. agreement on a broader topic, which covers a number of the other sub— topics).

26 The following sections look at the four stages in more detail and discuss methods for establishing relationships and consensus, and checking consensus.

Stage 1 – Obtain Contributions


27 Conferences need to obtain contributions since a discussion cannot exist without them.

28 However Conferences will not succeed unless they get appropriate contributions. Ultimately the contentof the contributions will determine if a Conference achieves it objectives.

29 This section of the notes considers the activities which each Member carries out in relation to any one contribution and discusses desirable activities.

Desirable Activities in relation to each Contribution

30 For each contribution, in isolation, the following four desirable aims exist for both the Leader and the Conference Participants to adopt:-

(a) Activity 1: Contribute- preferably – on the topic.

(b) Activity 2: L isten to the contribution.

(c) Activity 3: U nderstandthe contribution.

(d) Activity 4: E valuate whether the contribution rates as on the topicof the discussion.

31 The above aims provide the C-L-U-E to effective Conference participation.

32 Without doubt, Leaders should aim to achieve these four objectives, but so should every other Conference Member.

Activity 1 –  Contribute

33 Without contributions no discussion can occur. Without genuine contributions by Participants it will prove impossible to obtain real consensus or, at least, it will prove impossible to check if real consensus exists.

34 Encouraging contributions rates as an obvious, but nevertheless, important objective. However the atmosphere of some Conferences sometimes discourages contributions.

35 Methods of Encouraging Contributions. Many ways exist to encourage contributions. The overall atmosphere of the Conference probably provides one of the most important factors. For those who need encouragement, the attitude of each Member (particularly the Leader) will do much to encourage or discourage a quiet, retiring, or timid Participant.

* A topic can (nearly) always rate as a sub topic of some larger topic. Any sub topic can usually rate as a topic from the viewpoint of a sub subtopic. Hence the terms “topic” and “sub-topic” become interchangeable.

36 One method which will encourage contributions involves stopping people attacking the contributions of others. Sometimes some Participants orally attack other members. It can start because of the sharp tongue of one person. Sometimes the “Attacker” means it as a joke and does not mean to hurt. But whatever its aim, it can cause ill-feeling and often discourages people from contributing or encourages them to contribute in a similar hurtful way.

37 If a Leader or any other Member can stop any trends in this direction they will certainly encourage contributions.

38 Softening a contribution offers one useful technique. This approach involves re-stating a contribution in a different and less-hurtful way so that other people interpret the statement in a less-strong way. It aims to reduce any bad feeling caused by unwise statements.

39 The softening can involve making a statement less personal or putting it into a less challenging form or supporting the statement but leaving out any personal comment.

40 Example.(a) The person re—stating the contribution might use such words as “Dick really means “. (b) Mary’s comment means she wonders whether the idea will work when you consider

41 Often a Conference Leader will (or should) use this approach. It needs to occur quickly after the hurtful statement.

42 By softening the blow or reducing it completely, a Conference can continue in a problem-solving atmosphere rather than an emotional and frustrated state in which people attack each other instead of a problem.

43 However the softening approach will not always work. The people attacked may not let the matter pass. They may not accept the softening. In their annoyance, they may not even “hear” the softening attempt.

Activity 2: Listen to Contributions

44 The need to listen sounds an obvious point. However all too often Members do not listen – they merely listen for a pause or the end of a contribution so they can contribute their ideas.

45 Why all Members should listen carefully to Contributions.If Conference Members do not listen to what other people say and/or try to understand contributions they will reduce considerably the chance of obtaining consensus.

46 Sometimes a discussion needs to backtrack – to go over what a person said and/or unreal disagreements occur – simply because people did not listen to what other people said.

47 Listening hard will not necessarily lead to understanding. Sometimes people try to listen and understand but they find the message too complex for them to understand. This possibility exists in any communication and Conference Members should try to send information which other Members can understand.

48 However people will never understand something if they do not listen.

Activity 3: Understand the Contribution

49 If Conference Members aim to find relationships between contributions they should try to understand each contribution, otherwise the discussion will build relationships on very poor foundations.

50 Thus the following provides a common sub-topic for any Conference: obtain understanding of a previous contribution. This previous contribution may rate as a Basic Contribution or one which attempts to establish (a) a relationship or (b) consensus

51 Many ways exist for seeking, and checking on, understanding of a contribution.They include:

(a) A statement that a Listener does not understand- “I can’t understand what you said.”

(b) A request for the Contributor to repeat the contribution.(This request will relate to not hearing as well as not understanding.)

(c) A request for the Contributor to repeat the ideas – not necessarily in the same words as previously used.

(d) An appeal to the rest of the groupto see if they understood the contribution.

(e) The previous approach, plus a request that somebody try to communicate the Contributor’s ideas.

(f) A request for a specific person to summarise and/or explainwhat the Contributor said.

(g) A summary of what the Contributor said together with a question to check whether the summary accurately reflects the ideas of the contributors.

52 Readers should note that all Members should use these techniques, as appropriate – especially if they individually do not understand a contribution. Members should not wait for Leaders to use such techniques; however Leaders should certainly set the example.

53 These approaches really form a separate sub-topic which a Conference can use to help achieve better understanding. Usually a discussion will benefit from spending time making sure of understanding; otherwise the discussion can travel quite a way only to find it has to return to a point where it did not achieve understanding.

54 An understanding check can aim to understand (a) a particular person’s contribution or (b) the ideas of a section of the Conference Participants or (c) the ideas of the whole group.

55 The following phrases might introduce the checking approach: “Would the following sum up your ideas ….? Let me see if I can summarise the group’s opinions. It seems that one group of you mean and the other group means

56 The same approaches will work for checking the contributions of both individuals and groups. However it will prove easier and quicker to check the understanding of one individual’s contribution. Even in checking an individual’s contribution complications can arise: one person might say “I don’t believe that’s what Mary said, I thought she said

57 Checking the understanding of one person will often lead to others achieving greater understanding. Often people think they understand a contribution but in discussing its meaning they find they have a superficial or quite wrong “understanding”.*

Activity 4: Evaluate the relevance of a Contribution — to a Discussion Topic.

58 All Conference Members should concern themselves with the relevance of their contribution to the discussion topic. Usually off-the-topic contributions will decrease the efficiency of the Conference. In some cases they can seriously interfere with its effectiveness. In the former case (inefficiency) they may rate as unnecessary detours – the discussion travels over unnecessary paths.

59 Example. The telling of a story in the middle of a Conference or the discussion of some unrelated (but interesting) problem.

60 Sometimes irrelevant contributions occur quite frequently and members become confused on the official topic of the discussion. In extreme cases some Conferences never succeed in finding the correct path. They have not taken a detour; they have lost themselves: they travel in circles or become bogged in the one spot.

61 Sometimes the introduction of a different topic helps a Conference.Sometimes people suggest that the topic under discussion will not really help to achieve the Conference Objective. At this stage the discussion can: (a) continue with the topic or (b) discuss the new topic of — whether the topic under discussion rates as relevant. If sufficient people feel confused (or sometimes even if only one Member feels confused) it becomes desirable to make a detour, i.e. to discuss the correctness of the topic. If this discussion encourages Members to believe in the topic’s correctness, this attitude will make it more likely that the topic will gain worthwhile consideration than if doubt still existed in the minds of a number of people.

62 Leaders should recognise when off-the-topic contributions occur. They do not have to take action every time an off-the-topic contribution occurs but they should train themselves to identify such a happening – almost automatically. If they do not recognise the situation they cannot decide whether to take action. If off-the-topic contributions occur frequently then an unwelcome trend (away from the topic) exists and some Conference Member should try to stop the trend

63 It will sometimes prove difficult to discover if a contribution rates as relevant to the topic. Sometimes the contribution uses some key words that have occurred in a previous relevant contribution. Thus the contribution often sounds relevant to a casual listener. This type of contribution often happens when contributions occur on such related topics as: “Does the topic rate as worth discussing?” or ‘Do we rate the topic as important or related to the objective.Y

64 A discussion can get off the topic if the new topic rates as (a) interesting, (b) a new idea which sounds promising, or (c) particularly interesting to the Leader.When Readers find themselves particularly interested in a new idea they should take particular care to check whether it rates as relevant to the topic.

* Another set of notes (Classification of Contributions) discusses the topic of checking contributions in more detail.

65 The practice of “butterflying”. Any observer of a conference will easily see that many Conferences follow a pattern where the Members discuss a number of different topics over the same period.

66 Example of Butterflyng: Person “A” makes a contribution on Topic 1. Person “B” contributes something on Topic 2. “C” comments on Topic 1 then adds his ideas on Topic 3. “A” re— enters the discussion on Topic 1 but at the same time disagrees with the point C” made on Topic 3. “D” then agrees with “A’s” point regarding Topic 3 but disagrees with his point on Topic 1. “B’ returns to Topic 2 (which no-one has taken up) and makes the point again. “E’ disagrees with her point and adds Topic 4 (which might cover – What should we discuss or what should we try to achieve?).

67 And so the discussion continues with people “Butterflying” from topic to topic without any system and with little chance of achieving consensus on any topic whatsoever.

68 At the beginning of a topic or a Conference “butterflying” will show a lack of familiarity with (a) the topic (b) the surroundings or (c) Conference Members. Sometimes Conference Participants talk their way out of such a phase. However unless some particular topic takes hold of the imagination of most of the Members, butterflying will usually continue, until someone attempts to keep Members on one topic at a time . Conference Leaders should usually make such attempts. However Participants can also try

69 It will usually prove necessary to (a) obtain agreement on which topic to discuss first and (b) try to make sure that each person understands the meaning of the topic. Often Members will need to understand the topic’s broad idea before they will agree to discuss it. Once Members decide on an official topic, all Members will have a standard by which they can judge the relevance of their own contribution and those of others. The standard makes it easier to point out an irrelevant contribution to a Contributor. An acceptance of the topic by (most) of the group gives authority and force to the comment: “I think your point rates as off the topic.”

70 If-Conference Members could control themselves to the extent that they only made on-the-topic contributions an important task of Leaders would become unnecessary.  However a new idea or thought, not quite on the topic, often tempts people and leads to an irrelevant contribution either then or later. Even a contribution which belongs to the very next topic can confuse some Members and lead others to move to the next topic because they want to contribute to the idea put forward. It may save time in the next topic discussion but this time adds time to the present discussion. In addition it will sometimes cause confusion during the current discussion.

71 Conference Leaders have the task of recognising the irrelevant contributions and deciding what, if anything, they will do about it.Leaders can:

(a) Ignore it (them)

(b) Try to take action themselves to get the discussion back on to the topic; or

(c) Suggest to the group that the discussion has got off the topic, check their agreement of this point, and discuss whether they should return to the original topic.

72 Leaders will need to balance the advantages of keeping the discussion on the track with the disadvantages of interfering with the Participants’ discussion Probably they will allow the single irrelevant contribution in the hope that it will just prove the exception. However usually Leaders cannot overlook a succession of off-the-topic contributions, unless they rate them as on a topic which Members should explore before the group can make progress with the current “right” topic.

73 The Participants’ reactions and the Leader’s assessment of the problems which the new topic may bring will determine how much they will try to get the group back to the original topic. Once Leaders have identified to the group that they have switched topics or have mixed topics, sometimes they should encourage the Participants to decide what they should do next.

74 Readers and Conference Members should remember that discussing whether the discussion has got off the topic itself rates as a topic.

Stage 2 — Find and Establish Relationships


77 As discussed above, a topic discussion has four major parts –

(a) Obtain Contributions

(b) Establish Relationships

(c) Establish Consensus

(d) Check Consensus Reached

78 The previous section dealt with contributions. It concentrated on how to get relevant contributions and keep on getting them. However just getting on-the-topic-contributions will not achieve the aim of consensus.

79 Effective Conferences must include the process of establishing relationships. The following section considers methods of doing so.

The Need to reduce the Number of Ideas raised during a Discussion

80 Each contribution contains one or more* ideas (points). After only a few contributions many ideas can exist. As the number of ideas increases Conference Members begin to have difficulty in understanding and remembering these ideas and working out where they will lead. The confusion increases if contributions contain ideas irrelevant to the topic.

81 A major aim in any discussion involves reducing the number of ideas which Members need to consider in any one short period of time. Achieving this aim usually rates as essential for a Conference to achieve consensus.

82 Reducing the number of ideas would not apply where the topic just aims to collect ideas.** However, even here, eventually each idea requires evaluation.

* Contributions which contain more than one idea (point) do not destroy the points made above: they only make the problems involved more complicated - since more ideas exist

** This approach uses the technique of brainstorming. As one of its major parts this technique aims to collect ideas - but with the condition that no-one should criticise any idea. Group Members just use the ideas put forward to help think of more ideas.

83 A number of methods exist which aim to reduce the number of ideas in any one discussion topic. Broadly they use the following objectives –

(a) Exclude irrelevant ideas;

(b) Combine ideas because they —

(i) rate as very similar or identical, or

(ii) have some common elements, i.e. part similarity;

(c) Analyse the topic into smaller sub-topics and discuss one subject at a time.

Decrease Ideas by – Exclusion

84 The previous stage discussed the division of contributions (or ideas) into relevant and irrelevant, if the group discard irrelevant ideas this move will reduce the number of things to consider. However this exclusion still leaves plenty of ideas in most discussions so groups still need other methods of reducing the ideas to consider.

Decrease Ideas by – Seeking Similarities

85 Establishing Similarities between two Ideas: Find the Larger Concept. Sometimes it proves easy to identify that two (or more) contributions contain the same idea. The difference may only lie in the phrasing of the sentences or the emphasis placed on various aspects of the idea. However sometimes it does not prove quite so easy to see similarities.

86 Example.Two contributions (A) “I think we should wait’and (B) “I think we should do something about this problem next year basically say the same thing – defer action. If these two ideas do not occur close together in time it often becomes difficult for people to see the similarity. The difficulty increases if some people discuss contribution (B) and start to contribute ideas that argue for “the year after” or “after another six months”. However all these ideas have the similarity: “defer action” (but they disagree on the length of the deferment).

87 Different words or phrases and/or bad communication mask the similarities.Sometimes people say the same thing but in different words. Sometimes it proves fairly easy to show each Contributor that this situation has occurred. The mere suggestion – “It seems likely that both of you mean the same thing” – may prove sufficient for the people involved to accept that viewpoint. Even if it does not, it often helps Contributors to concentrate on clarifying what each person means and the discussion attempts to find common ground. If the people do mean the same thing, the appropriate attitude makes it easier to establish similarity.

88 Other cases will not prove so simple and will require longer discussion before each Contributor realises that they mean the same thing.

89 These situations arise when the ideas do not appear similar but discussion shows that only apparent disagreement exists – each person has the same specific idea but they use different words to express it and the words mean different things to each Contributor.

90 Sometimes people disagree and they refer to two ideas which appear different until they discover that the two “different” ideas equal two different parts of the one whole topic

91 Apparently Dissimilar Views reflect a Difference in Attitude.This heading covers a special case of reducing ideas. In fact there exists only one idea, repeated a number of times by the same Contributor. An apparent lack of agreement exists because no one supports the repeated idea. In this case someone needs to establish a relationship between one idea and the attitude of all other Members to the idea (as opposed to actual spoken contributions).

92 Example. Tom, one Contributor, keeps on bringing up a point several times and no real discussion on the point occurs. No-one comments on Tom’s point because he has contributed too often and/or says something which most people consider obvious and/or most people do not like Tom and do not want to appear to support him*.

93 The following approach will often solve this type of problem: Someone needs to say “I feel sure everyone agrees with what you say” – preferably followed by a questioning look at all other Members plus a silence to allow the opportunity for anyone to disagree, To prove this point, a Leader can ask Members to raise their hand if they agree with the point.

94 This approach usually establishes to such Contributors that everyone agrees with their point. It achieves consensus and completes the topic because everyone knows everyone agrees. However, even so, such Contributors sometimes bring up the point again. Someone, preferably the Leader, needs to remind the Contributor that everyone has agreed to that point. Sometimes recording it on a board which all members can see will help stop further contributions.

95 Establish similarities between a number of ideas. So far this section has discussed similarity between two ideas but in practice many situations do not prove that simple. Sometimes the contributions provide a variety (i.e. more than two) of ideas on the one topic or sub-topic

96 In these cases the first step to take in establishing relationships involves finding linkages or agreements which will reduce the number of ideas to a manageable number.This approach really equals the reduction of two ideas to one by establishing similarities, except that the result will often leave more than one idea.

97 One useful approach: List ideas or contributions on a board or piece of paper and link by lines any similar ideas. This approach has the additional advantage of reducing the number of things to which people must give attention; only the ideas recorded on the board. If lines link together contribution numbers 5, 8, 9, and 12 as similar, someone can cross them off the list and insert the idea which summarises their similarity. This deletion allows the group to give attention to a smaller group of possibilities.

98 This approach usually identifies the most obvious linkages first and removes them (temporarily) from consideration. Thus the difficult problem of finding similarities (and relationships) between two or more contributions out of (say) fifty becomes easier

99 The topic of seeking similarities can occur at any stage of a Conference. It involves Basic Contributions or other types of contributions such as Second-Level Basic Contributions and Suggested Relationship Contributions. In all cases, it aims to reduce the number of ideas with which each member needs to deal in any short period of time (say up to fifteen minutes).

* This example shows the illogicality and emotionality of how people behave. In effect people say I will not separate the idea from the person who presented it - even though I agree with the idea.

Decrease Ideas by — Seeking Part Similarities

100 An exception to decreasing ideassometimes occurs in a Conference. Looking for parts of a whole can become the topic. In this case the Conference aims to find more ideas.

101 Example. A Conference may deliberately look for the detailed activities which someone must carry out in order to achieve some end objective. In planning to achieve something this topic often occurs.

102 However sometimes finding more ideas helps to find similarities – as the next section explains.

103 Establish that some ideas rate as sub parts of other ideas. One approach to finding some similarity between contributions involved analysing various ideas into smaller parts. Sometimes this approach shows that one or some of the parts relate to other ideas. A discussion might include Idea “A” and Idea “B”. Idea “A” might contain sub parts Al, A2, A3 and A4: and A2 might equal idea “B”.

104 Example.A discussion on how to reduce the number of car accidents produced two ideas: (a) improve road conditions and (b) use bigger road signs. Someone identified the parts involved in improving road conditions and listed road signs as one factor. hence idea (a) has idea (b) as one of its parts.

105 No conflict exists between Ideas A & B if people see that B rates as one sub objective which will help achieve objective A.

106 This type of relationship seems simple but it does not stand out in a lively discussion and if both ideas occur among a number of other ideas.

107 Find similar elements, if not complete similarities.The approach of finding ideas which all have something in common (e.g. dogs, cats, and sheep all rate as animals) also helps to reduce ideas. A Group Member can ask “Do any of these ideas have something in common?”  If they do, the group can use this common factor or idea to represent the larger group of ideas – now or at a later stage of the conference. This approach helps reduce ideas where the common factor rates as more important than the individual parts and their differences.

108 Example.  A group selects someone to manage a particular project. They list the main tasks. If 90% of the tasks all require a knowledge of mechanical engineering, the group can use this common factor to select from the applications for the position of project manager. The discussion will not have to discuss each Applicant in relation to each task hut just in relation to the common factor in the tasks

109 A group considers suggestions for solving a problem. It finds that some suggestions refer to using people and some to using machines. This classification will probably help to discuss – who should take action. As one topic, the discussion need only consider whether the people concerned can work the machines involved.

110 Use Time Factor to Classify Items. Another approach involves classifying ideas into: (a) actions which require immediate attention, (NOW) (b) those deferrable for a short time (LATER), and (c) those deferrable for a long time (NEVER).

111 People should remember that often a number of different ways exist for classifying the same number of contributions. When looking at some project one approach involves breaking it up into stages of the activity; another involves breaking it up into the important parts, or elements,and ignoring the time sequence of activities.

112 Example.The activity of planning involves various stages which follow one after another. A different approach breaks up planning into various parts such as: who has to plan, the equipment required, where to plan, when to plan, etc.

Decrease Ideas by - Dealing with One Part of the Tthe Topic or Idea

113 The following procedures all reduce the number of ideas (at least temporarily). They help Participants discuss one part or section of the contributed idea or ideas.

114 Analyse the topic into sub topics and discuss one at a time.Another approach to reduce the number of ideas to discuss at any one time involves breaking the topic into different parts and then discussing one part at a time. Once someone establishes the sub—topic, Conference Members can consider whether each contributed idea fits into a particular sub-topic. This approach rates as the opposite to grouping ideas.

115 A discussion can discover sub-topics almost “automatically” by analysing ideas, i.e. looking for parts or elements of a topic. Once Conference Members identify sub-topics they can discuss each separately

116 Example. A Conference discusses how to implement a particular decision. The following contributions show that people have found ‘parts” of the problem. Jack says “I think the General Manager should do it. Dorothy suggests it will take two weeks. Tom states that the job will require a calculating machine. Betty disagrees with the General Manager and the implementer. Jack thinks the job will require three Clerks and they will need a computer instead of a calculating machine. With contributions on all these sub—topics little progress usually occurs. Someone must recognise the various sub topics which exist, i.e. who will implement the job, how long it will take, the availability of equipment, and what method to use. Once Participants recognise the sub topics they can classify each contribution. But, usually, little progress will occur unless the Conference group selects one sub—topic and reaches consensus on it before discussing another sub-topic

117 Classify ideas according to importance and deal with the most important.Another way to reduce the number of ideas involves assessing the importance of each idea – usually in relation to the discussion or conference objective. The classification of one or more ideas as relatively unimportant allows the Conference Members to defer discussion until a later time – or to avoid discussing them altogether

118 One formal methodof selecting the most important ideas involves putting them in order of priority in relation to some scale.

119 Examples Which ideas will: (a) help best solve the problem, (b) take the shortest time, or (c) need the least skill to perform?

120 If Conference Members want to discuss what to do next or what decision to make from a number of possibilities, one approach asks each person to vote for those considered most important.

121 A number of variations exist for this voting method.  Each Member can put down all the items in his/her order of preference. Then someone can collect each person’s vote and collate the results. It will probably prove easier, and (usually) just as effective, to get each person to vote for (say) the three or four items which they consider most important. (Thus Voters do not have to spend time working out a preference for each item; nor do they have to decide a preference between the three or four of their highest preferences.) Someone (the Leader) can take each one of the items in turn and ask people who had it as one of their top three and record the results on a board. Usually this approach shows quite clearly that Members consider some items more important than others. It also has the advantage of showing each Member that everyone has had an equal say in any decision about importance.

122 Even where a borderline problem exists (e.g. (a) the third and fourth items on either side of the cut-off line receive equal voting, (b) the top two have equal voting), Conference Members can vote again just on this matter. People can vote for (e.g.) one of the selected first two items or for the more important between items three and four.

123 Voting gives everyone the chance to take part in a decision.Groups often just use a majority vote to make a decision. Sometimes it proves more useful to allow the people voting for the minority items to try to convince people in the majority to change their voting. The desirability of allowing this discussion depends upon (a) how much discussion has occurred on the topic before the voting takes place and (b) the importance of the topic.

Establishing Relationships and the Use of a Scale

124 So far the methods discussed in this second stage have concentrated on relationships which establish (a) irrelevance (allowing the discarding of ideas) or (b) similarity between ideas or (c) some relationships which allow the discarding of some ideas temporarily or permanently. The next method shows the possibility of establishing a relationship or similarity between two or more items on other bases.

125 One possibility involves placing some ideas into some order on a scale.

126 A scale contains a progression of graded steps (units) arranged in some systematic way.

127 Examples. Time. Measurement. Degrees of difficulty of doing a job. The possibility of “take action”, “defer action”, and “no action”, provide points on a time scale – now, later, and never.

128 Once Conference Leaders understand the possibilities of using a scale, they can establish relationships which make it easier to understand a number of ideas. The approach does not reduce ideas. However establishing a relationship between ideas makes it easier to remember, and
discuss, the ideas

129 Conference Members can also take abstracted ideas (i.e. common elements in a number of topics) and relate these abstracted ideas to a scale. The abstracted ideas would come from other methods which aim to find similarities and reduce the number of ideas to consider.

Stage 3 – Establish Consensus

130 One reason for reducing or summarising the number of ideas under discussion for a topic includes making it easier to find relationships between them.Finding relationships, which includes relating them on some common scale, often makes it easier to obtain agreement among Conference Participants. If everyone understands each other and the reasons why they have their particular viewpoint, a greater chance usually exists of reaching agreement. At the very least, the approach helps to show the areas of, and reasons for, disagreement.

131 However no clear dividing line exists between establishing relationships and obtaining consensus. In a Conference the methods described for the two stages will overlap.

Meaning for Agreement and Consensus

132 Agreement can have a number of meanings. It could mean everybody in the group, two thirds, a majority, or some other number. The right proportion to use depends upon the Conference Objective and the capabilities of the members. If the discussion aims to understand a new topic, 100% understanding might prove desirable; a majority would prove suitable for some decisions; acceptanceof a decision might require 80% or 90%. (Note: Readers should distinguish between getting a decision and getting acceptance of a decision.)

133 However Stage 3 aims to “obtain consensus” – not necessarily agreement. Broadly, consensus means that members (a) understand each others viewpoints and/or the viewpoint of someone outside the Conference and/or (b) agree to disagree, and/or (c) make a decision

134 But even with consensus*, total consensus will prove difficult to obtain. Thus Readers should understand “obtain consensus” really means attempts to move towards consensus rather than any particular point on a consensus/non-consensus scale.

135 To some extent the degree of consensus reached will depend on the amount of time given to discussing a topic. The correct time to give will depend on the amount of consensus required on any topic. The amount required on any topic will vary with the importance of the topic to the overall Conference Objective.

136 The following sections discuss two different approaches to obtaining consensus:

(a) put the topic aside temporarily or permanentlyin the hope that later discussions will show no need for greater agreement or will so alter Participants ideas that they will agree more easily.

(b) take a direct approach to obtaining consensus,i.e. continue to discuss the topic. These notes discuss these direct approaches first.

The Case where more Agreement exists than realised

137 Often the ideas contributed suggest that Conference Participants divide into two sections — one side favours one idea and the other side favours another. Sometimes the two viewpoints do not rate as so strongly opposed as they appear on the surface. Sometimes an examination will show that the difference rates as more a matter of emphasis. Once Participants realise this point they often find out that sufficient agreement exists to move on to the next topic.

* The notes – “A Basic Objective for any Discussion: Consensus”  defines consensus and discusses difficulties in measuring consensus.

138 Example.The following gives a generalised example. One section of the Conference (or one person) rates something as “black” while another section (or person) sees it as “white”. In looking for relationships between what each section (person) says, one way of obtaining consensus involves finding examples or cases where all Participants accept them as black and other examples which everyone accepts as white. The real basic disagreement rests on the things which the people involved rate as either black or white

139 The situation described involves different people (or groups) drawing the dividing line between two things (e.g. black/white) at different parts of the scale.This approach allows one group to call something black when another person calls it white, and vice versa

140 The following diagram illustrates this point

141 Sometimes a large area of agreement exists but Conference Participants usually ignore this agreement. They concentrate on defending their own viewpoint, rather than searching for areas of agreement.

142 In these cases, Conference Participants will reach greater agreement if they distinguish a third class called “grey” and classify some aspects of the topic as “grey”.

143 An alternate approach to gaining consensus involves identifying to all the Participants that their disagreement rests on a matter of degree.

144 The discussion can then focus on whereto draw the dividing line.*

145 This approach aims to show that many areas of agreement exist. It often succeeds in obtaining consensus because Participants find that a great deal of agreement exists among them. The discussion should identify the small area of disagreement and label it so. Then Participants know fairly clearly where they stand in relation to each other. Agreement would exist if everyone drew the line in the same place. A discussion will often obtain consensus if Participants do not need to decide the actual point at which to draw the line (= the boundary between two classes).

146 Often,many Participants will accept that the main point involves distinguishing some things as black and some as white. They also accept that it will not prove easy to get a clear definition of where black finishes and white begins. (The discussion usually proves this point.)

* This topic often gets mixed up with - (a) whether it rates as worthwhile trying to draw the line at all or (b) at this particular time, and (c) whether a group discussion method offers a practical approach to deciding where to draw the line.

Obtain an Expanded Perception of the Situation

147 Sometimes Participants do not agree because Participants have limited background knowledge of the topics. Without a broader understanding it may become impossible to obtain agreement. In these circumstances, a discussion which aims to broaden the group’s viewpoint on a particular topic will sometimes achieve consensus (and even agreement).

148 Such an Approach might involve giving further information to Group Members. Another method might involve asking a series of questions which direct the group’s attention to the broader implications and ideas concern in something.A Leader might well list possible answers to these questions – on a blackboard.

149 Example.In a management training conference Participants sometimes disagree because some believe that people’s titles indicate what they do. Confusion exists between (a) the name of an actual activity and (b) the name or title of a person – which makes it appear that the particular person carries out the activity.

150 For example, some participants might believe that a Sales Manager manages Sales Representatives. However the Conference Leader might ask whether they know of some people who only sell goods but have the title of Sales Manager. Further the leader might suggest that they consider the vague meanings of the title “Engineer”. (It could include the person who greases a car or a University-trained person).

151 These answers would help to broaden the perception of the vagueness of a title as an indication of what activity the person carries out. Once all Participants understand this idea the disagreement may vanish because it rests on the different understanding and/or background of participants – in relation to (say) job titles.

152 This Approach extends the situation discussed earlier where two Participants say the same thing but do not realise it because they use different words to indicate the same idea. In the situation just described the two different viewpoints appear to use the same words to cover the same ideas but one party has a broader understanding than the other without each realising it.

Accept a Less-Comprehensive Agreement

153 Another way of increasing the number of people who agree involves obtaining agreement on a less-comprehensive or all-embracing summarisation of the topic.

154 Examples.A group discusses whether something (e.g. using Joe to do the work) rates as suitable, just suitable, very suit able, or unsuitable. One way of getting some greater agreement might involve checking that at least everybody rates Joe as suitable: that nobody rates him as unsuitable.

155 If the important distinction lies between suitable and unsuitable and not the various degrees of suitability, the suggested agreement on suitability may prove sufficient and Participants will happily ignore the finer details of the degree of suitability.

156 Another illustration – it proves difficult to obtain agreement in classifying some contributions since not everyone will agree that all items (say) require careful handling by experienced Managers. However a broader, but less-comprehensive, approach will agree that all items involve people. Everyone might agree on this point

157 The next stage involves checking whether everybody agrees that the person involved, if he acts incorrectly, will probably make it impossible to achieve the objective. However, people can agree that peoples’ actions can spoil the success of the project. With this agreement, progress beyond this point may not prove necessary. Everyone will probably agree that they must consider the activities of people and plan for them. This agreement will sometimes prove sufficient to achieve progress toward the overall objective

158 In summary this approach uses the rule: seek the highest common factor of agreementand check such agreement will prove sufficient to achieve the objectives of the topic discussion and/or conference.

Make Concessions

159 Another approach to achieving agreement involves getting people with different viewpoints to make concessions to each other. This technique more often suits (a) making decisions than (b) achieving understanding. Where a group accepts the aim of obtaining greater agreement a number of people find they no longer need to “fight” for their position.

Indirect Methods of Seeking Agreement.

160 Sometimes a useful approach involves deferring attempts to obtain agreement until later in the discussion. Conference Members agree temporarily, just to see where the discussion leads. The following phrase often helps: “Let’s accept Tom’s idea for the moment and see where it gets us. But we should then return to discussing the point afterwards.” This approach allows Participants to explore a “path” (idea) without necessarily committing themselves to it.

161 Sometimes such a discussion shows that agreement (or disagreement) on a particular point has no importance and Conference Members can eliminate the topic.

162 Summary – a discussion of the later stages or the further development of an idea sometimes leads Participants to change their minds.

163 Sometimes a Conference Group abandons the aim of agreement.Participants agree to disagree and move to the next topic, i.e. they have achieved consensus. This approach will help for a topic of minor importance and/or where the disagreement comes from a person (or group) who tend to disagree almost for the sake of disagreeing.

164 If Conference Members consider abandoning agreement they should establish the strength of the parties involved. If only a few people hold a different opinion from the other Participants often every one will agree to record their non-agreementand move to the next topic.

165 Conferences should not use this approach to ignore a minority viewpoint. Groups should usually discuss a minority viewpoint to find out what they can learn from it. However if the topic rates as a relatively minor one and most Participants agree on this point (particularly if this group includes the minority group) the Conference will usually not benefit from further discussion.

166 Summary – the Conference reaches a situation where agreement to disagree and move to the next topic will contribute more towards the overall conference objective than trying to achieve greater agreement on the topic.

Summary of Stage 3 – Methods

167 The above methods aimed at “establishing consensus” provide the following three broad approaches:

(a) aim to educate Members— help people to perceive the topic and its discussion in a broader way.

(b) seek consensus by decreasing the amount of agreement sought.

(c) achieve consensus by not trying to achieve agreement because it rates as unimportant – generally or at the particular time of the discussion.

Stage 4 - Check Consensus

168 As a discussion reduces ideas by the processes of grouping and/or discarding, it gradually approaches consensus – usually by obtaining various levels of agreement.

169 Conference Members may suspect that substantial agreement exists from listening to a discussion. However suspecting agreement will not prove enough: usually a conference must establish the actual amount. If apparent(rather than real) agreement exists, inexperienced Leaders (and Participants) may leave a topic and find it difficult to make progress on later topics

170 Various methods of checking agreement exist. If used correctly, they can speed up a conference and save the situation where agreement exists but no-one does anything to confirm it.

171 One checking method involves asking if anyone opposes the idea.If no-one speaks up this negative check suggestsagreement.

72 Sometimes this approach proves unsatisfactory to some people who have not made up their mind. At this stage someone asks “Why don’t you ask who favours it?” This usually indicates that –

(a) the person does not necessarily favour it

(b) the person may disagree but would not say so.

173 If this happens positive checkingshould occur – ask those who favour the idea to put up their hand.

174 This approach will show agreement, except for the person who agrees with the group just because most other people appear to favour something.

175 If some people do not agree, a Leader can suggest that –

(a) a majority rule or

(b) the discussion continue so that everyone can

(I) hear the minority viewpoints and/or

(ii) re-consider the viewpoint.

176 The method chosen should depend on (a) the importance of the topic to the overall objective, (b) the desirability of having more members agree before the Conference moves on, and (c) the number and type of people who seek to extend the discussion further.

177 If only people who “always” disagree oppose agreement it may prove undesirable to hear them. If co-operative groups Participants disagree, the group should probably listen to their ideas. If more than one person disagrees the rest of the Conference Members should probably listen to their ideas but any decision should probably depend on the amount of time previously spent on the discussion topic

178 A vote from each person allows everyone to take part. Further it shows everyone what amount of agreement exists. Everyone can see that their Leaders have not assumed agreement exists and/or forced “agreement” on Participants. This quantitative check helps both Leader and Participants to avoid drawing wrong conclusions.

179 In some cases, agreement checking refers to a number of ideasrather than just one or two. One checking approach for this situation involved giving a summaryof the agreed ideas and then checking whether the summary represents what they decided and/or understood.

180 In general a summary of the agreed ideas will prove better than the approach of “Does everyone agree?” The summary helps everyone recall the ideas discussed. People know more about the topic on which they have to vote. The voting should prove more accurate and this approach should lay a better foundation for moving on to the next topic.

181 Conference Leaders do not have to give a summary. However they will usually ask for a summary as a checking approach (in absence of a well-trained Conference Participant suggesting someone should summarise). Who to ask to summarise will depend on the Leader’s objective and the time available. Probably Leaders will assess the time as short and/or the attempted summary should not cause confusion or add to it. An incorrect and poor summary will often delay a conference moving forward.

The Next Stage                                              

182 Once the Group agree or, at least, obtain consensus on a topic (which includes agreement to disagree and understanding other viewpoints), the topic has experienced the four stages of Basic Contributions, Attempted Relationships, Attempted Consensus, and Checking Consensus. The next stage involves moving to the next topic and starting the four stages all over again – with Basic Contributions on the next topic.

Some Related Notes


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