“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Communicating Through the Layers

When the members of a group understand the goal and agree on the best way to move toward it you have consensus, and your chances of success have increased exponentially. A few opinionated people holding out until everyone concedes is NOT consensus, but it is often what we settle for. To reach real consensus, you have to communicate through the layers.

Our brains work at many levels, from intuitive understanding to detailed analysis. In our technological age we tend to value the analysis, calling it scientific while the rest is imprecise and less reliable. But we do this at our peril. How many times have you sat for hours in a meeting discussing details, only to find you are no nearer a resolution than when you started?

To move a group to an endpoint, whether a decision, an agreement or a plan, requires a communication process, and we have to agree at each step along the path. If we miss a step, the talking goes on but the communication stops. People seem to think the path starts in details, "If we can just get everyone to agree on the details we can move forward." But the path runs the other direction.

Think of this communication path in four levels …

To reach the endpoint together, people need to understand each other at every level, and they usually have to go through them in order. If people don't understand at the abstract level, the level of appreciation and values, they can't go to the conceptual level to discuss what might be done. If they don't share concepts, they can't refine their thinking into definitions and clear statements. Without the clarity of the concrete level, details are ambiguous at best, or at worst, divisive.

How often do we hold meetings where we try to get a decision made quickly, but end up talking in circles. Often the problem is that in our race to get a decision we jump directly to the detailed level, without first agreeing on the abstract, conceptual, and concrete. If you build a house, do you start by painting it? You can't paint a house until you lay the foundation, frame in the walls, and put on the siding. In the same way, you can't agree on details until you agree on concepts.

You may think that you don't have time for that 'touchy - feely stuff', but you will usually save time in the long run, and have people who better understand and more readily support the decisions, if you communicate through the levels.