This text is a synthesis of documents of methodology we analysed but it is also inspired by our experience built along the assemblies we collaborated from Barcelona to Brussels, passing by Lisbon or Athens.
We made the observation that most of the time the assemblies are very long and not really productive, with a lake of participation and sometime becoming really anti-democratic, at the end the people see them heavy, bit attractive and pain to come back.
Some problems are more recurrent:
• Debating too much time of the same point
• Creation of bands and personal rivalries with a lake of trust
• Vote under pressure with a lake of understanding
• Entrance in polemics who require more assemblies
• Problem of access and circulation of the information
In this page we will detail the basic knowledges to acquire to prevent the problems, resolve the conflicts and develop constructive assemblies.
1 Preparation of the meeting
It is important to reach the meeting with preconceived ideas on the issues to be addressed. But preparing the issues not only consist to ensure that attendees aware of issues to be treated, but that this knowledge is contrasted as possible to encourage that decisions taken will be successful.
1.1 Prior Work
• Prepare background documents and send them to participants thinking to translate complicated informations to a language understood by everyone
• Organize consultations and interviews with experts in the topics
• Make working groups prior to the meeting to discuss the problems and alternatives with more time
The call will be made well in advance, including the agenda, and everyone should be clear when will be the meeting, which points will be treated, in what order and what tasks are necessary to do before the meeting.
• Ideally, at each point on the agenda for each issue specifying its objective and the procedure to be used, along with the estimated time of duration. Sometime it’s useful to divide in groups if in a same topic different solutions are needed for each aspect.
• It must be open to including other proposed topics: one option is always an end point to spend “several”, another is to open a small window of time at first to be proposed topics for inclusion in the agenda and then decide whether you can tackle that day or be passed to the next meeting.
• Start with something easy to fix, continue with the more difficult issues, extensive or important, and end up with something simple and short.
• In the call itself has to record the start time and the scheduled completion, not to be exceeded over assumable error margins, approximately 2 hours.
2 Types of meetings
There are various types of meetings according to the objectives, though usually in a same meeting there may be several of these objectives, what it would be divided into different phases, each with a different type with a specific technique. Here we will focus only the most important.
2.1 Brainstorming meetings
The goal is to find ideas or new solutions to a problem, so the purpose of the meeting must be clearly defined and will be real and open (there is no single solution). If the problem is complex, you have to break it down into simple elements.
Prohibits censorship and self-censorship, the critical assessment of ideas will be made later, under the formula of discussion meeting, possibly after a break, to emphasize that we are in a different phase.
• A person can act as moderator, with a list of suggestions and stimulating questions to intervene if others do not, another possibility is that the debate arising from the comments of a document, book, films, etc… related to the topic and that everyone knows.
• Another person writes down the ideas that emerge trying to be as faithful as possible to the original statement. It accepts everything, do not reject anything, however absurd it may seem.
• Each person writes down the ideas that occur to him, both those that occur to him directly, such as those arising by association, after hearing the ideas of others, raises his hand and presents only one at a time in his turn. State ideas quickly and clearly, without explanation or reasoning.
2.2 Discussion meetings
The goal is to deepen in the analysis of the different positions, their benefits and disadvantages and to highlight the arguments that support them.
a) If what we want is not to reach agreements, but to promote the production and contrasting arguments, we use the dynamics of confrontation:
1. Formation of groups: opinion poll (5-10 min.)
2. Production of arguments within each group (20 min.)
3. Talk in mixed groups, with representatives from each group of opinion trying to know the arguments of the other (20 min.)
4. Back to the original group to produce the sophisticated and final arguments (20 min.)
5. Discussion among the spokesmen of the groups (20 min.)
b) If we want to encourage the exchange of views, we use a orderly discussion dynamics:
• Emphasize common ground.
• Very important figure of the moderator, who must provide a climate of cordial discussion and not a space of coercion, arguments of authority and all dialectical strategies that put people to the defence (see item “Personal Attitudes during the assembly”)
• Active listening attitude of other attendees, listening and understanding the positions of others, making the exercise of put themselves in place of the other.
• Do not confuse our perception of reality with reality itself, taking our own view as subjective and keeping open the possibility that we are wrong.
2.3 Decision-making meetings
The goal is to reach a consensual decision taken collectively, trying to integrate the views of all the members in an agreement that is satisfactory and effective. Reaching consensus will bring us several advantages: it avoids conflict, better decisions, integration of the group to avoid a game of winners (mostly) and losers (the minority), and encourages the involvement of all the collective in the tasks derived from the decision.
Only in case of failing to reach a consensual agreement can be valid to submit the decision to a vote.
• The first step is to define well what is the question on which has to make a decision. It is assumed that there is already information on the situation and the different alternatives and arguments for and against each. We presume that there is agreement on the structure of the process.
• It is advisable to make a decision that involves the work of the people, make a preliminary survey on the individual availability to undertake this work. It is also important to share how the issue affects the feelings of each.
• The creative participation of everyone is essential. This is the time that leaders and experts can be more harmful to provoke the passivity of others if they don’t act in the collective process. Efforts should be made to incorporate the views of all and it’s advisable to work in small groups and have someone writing the synthesis in which we all go.
• Set out all ideas trying to adjust, integrate, combine … to achieve one or more proposals worked and achievable. If at the end there are several proposals to choose it is necessary to make a first proof of the degree of agreement they raise. There are four levels of Agree/Disagree:
1. “I agree with all or almost all”
2. “I don’t think it’s the best option, but it’s acceptable”
3. “I do not object, but I do not feel concerned by the decision”
4. “I object to you bear it out.” In this case there is a veto.
Only a veto can block the consensus and requires to start again or to quit. Rather than vote, take a hasty decision or abandon, it is always best to start over in the postponing which will leave a time for reflection.
If we can not reach a consensus or do not have the time required for this, we can opt for the vote.
This process can also be complicated and is susceptible to manipulation (intended or not) so it is necessary to follow a clear procedure:
• Consider what kind of majority is required (more than half, 2/3, etc …)
• Clarify very well what are the alternatives to be voted, taking care the wording of them. Avoid linking proposals with the people who defend them.
• As far as possible reduce the number of options which are voted. The criteria for cover or reduce statements must have the group agreement.
• Make it clear what is the procedure to be followed. Any doubt should be resolved before voting.
• Making votes count carefully and reflect it, if possible, in some support to the view of everybody.
• Normally votes can not be repeated, and the results take on the character of irrevocable decision from the time the votes are counted. But personally we think that it is always best to leave the door open to any revocation of a decision taken by vote with more time and reasoned requests.
3 The roles
3.1 The moderation
It will be the person who pay the most attention to the technical and organizational elements and remind it to the group who has to reach the goals set in a limited time.
He also have to take a proactive role by suggesting questions, methods, etc …
He must have a constant intervention on the form and not the content.
Moderate is not leading or directing, but being responsible for helping the group to meet its objectives. A person who has much interest in the issues raised will have difficulty to moderate.
• At the beginning of the meeting invite the people who advocate an approach to expose it, then those who advocate the opposite approach.
• Encourage each and everyone to express their views, asking to speak for themselves and where it refers someone to state it explicitly.
• Cleanly break the repeated discussions between two individuals, the monopolization of speech and the repetition of arguments.
• Find areas of agreement, list them and return them to the group. Synthesize.
• He can also divide tasks delegated to another person (i.e. speech turn) which is always subject to what the moderator says.
• Be aware of time left and let it know to others. If there is little, limit the interventions.
3.2 Taking minutes
The main reasons for taking minutes are: Honour commitments, know and remember the issues raised and assume old decisions to make new ones.
The secretary will be democratically elected for this role. It should not be doing simultaneously other functions such as moderate. You can also leave the door open to the rotation.
It may take only minutes of the decisions taken, while represent commitments to be assumed and legitimate actions to be carried out by the members. Care should be taken in writing to be faithful to the decision and not be misinterpreted. You can also indicate the degree of agreement recording the number of votes if there was no consensus. The minutes can collect more data: the order of the day, alternatives and arguments presented, the names of people defending these or other positions, incidents, etc…
The record books should be available to all members of the group to consult at all times. For safety it is also advisable to make copies and store them in a different place than the original.
4 Personal attitudes during the assembly
Assemblies are a collective act, not a gathering of friends. That is, we must strive to have a proper attitude, avoiding a passive attitude such as going to be the star of the meeting. And be aware that the assembly is to
solve a common issue, not to solve our issues or personal grudges.
In order to this it’s useful to know some of the attitudes occurring more frequently in the assemblies, both positive and negative and try to make an effort to have the first and avoid the second.
4.1 Positive attitudes
• Moving from our positions. Admit mistakes and change views bringing them closer to those of other people.
• Exhibiting at the right time what are the unwritten rules and procedures to be followed by the group.
• Ask to speak to the people less involved, giving the turn when estimating that is more interesting to listen to others and attending to the speaker.
• Mediating the conflicts using humour and relaxation, highlighting the points in which we agree.
• Encourage input from the others expressing our agreement or, in the opposite case, encouraging people to explain better or deepen on the idea.
• Proposing new procedures and ideas in times of blockage.
• Express the views talking in person. Do not use the plural to express what you think.
4.2 Negative attitudes
• Generalize (“all …. you are ….”)
• Embark on eternal theorizations and extra explanations .
• Overtones (tantrums, “Well then I leave everything and will never come back”, “or you are with me or against me “)
• Assign to another person own feelings or attitudes.
• Loss of contact with reality, identifying our opinions or desires (or those of other/s person/s) with reality itself.
• Symbolic violence: use the collective mode to impose particular ideas of a person, concealing relevant issues, teasing, interrupt, not letting talk, etc…
• Strengthen the authority of those who speaks through referring it to a higher authority but indisputable (science, law …)
• Use of contradictions and paradoxes to impose on the alternative people witch always lose (“you’re either in or you’re out”, “Accept it or go”, “be spontaneous”, “command you to not obey me “…)
• Use the secret, keeping information.
Documents about assemblies and consensus building
Metodología para hacer que las asambleas y reuniones sean eficaces, participativas y hasta agradables.
Del libro “Asambleas y Reuniones. Metodologías de Auto-organización”
Ana Rosa Lorenzo Vila – Miguel Martínez López