working with conflict taster/freebie

Hello to the multitudes that read our blog. I am running a taster session for Talk Action on the afternoon of 7th May, in central London, near Old Street tube. The taster will cover elements of a working with conflict programme I’m developing for them. In the taster, specifically, we will explore states of mind, active listening and how to avoid escalating conflict and getting the most, rather than the least, out of a conversation.

I’ve been told I can have a few friends along for free – let me know. Soon.




How to – get on a training about working with conflict


We’re offering, with Co-ops UK, a course called Communication and working with conflict. A bit of a gob full, but nonetheless it’s been tested and evaluated by worker co-ops in the last year or so; and elements of the programme have been used with community and campaign groups for the last 15 years.

We will work with you to (re)discover your own skills at working with contention, differences and arguments in a way which’ll help to solve them, not grow them. It doesn’t always work in solving matters, but everyone gets a lot clearer about what’s going on.

Unlike other programmes in this area we do not follow a dogmatic or branded approach. Our years of talking to and with people, has been stuffed into some easy to use and learn approaches to working with both what’s going on in your head when dealing with conflicts, and some steps to working with other people in conflict.

We like training it, we think you’ll like working with us. Sign up here.

Carl and others

essentials of conflict resolution


Matthew and I have been doing some work with a food coop; helping voluntary team leaders review and add to their conflict management tools. We’ll shortly be running our third workshop. Here’s what we work with people on –


  • To develop the understanding and application of appropriate states of mind (consensual, non-judgemental, solution focussed)
  • To develop the understanding and application of active listening and dialogue skills
  • To enable participants to know when to apply these skills; and to what degree
  • To enable participants to identify their further learning needs (if necessary)


Approach used in training

  • Using small and large group discussions, activities, role plays and debriefs.
  • Supporting material to back up learning. All participants to get material on State of Mind and Active Listening and the principles of cooperative conflict resolution.
  • No slides – learning by doing.
  • Two trainers – for support, to facilitate skills demonstrations, to maximise feedback to participants, for some variety


Outline session plan

  • Introduction – housekeeping, people, negotiating how we’ll work together
  • What is conflict resolution? Different approaches to this – focus on the models more appropriate to cooperatives – facilitative styles; person and group focussed.
  • States of mind – exercises to build internal understanding of being non-judgemental, consensually focussed, solution focussed, unbiased, people/work orientated.
  • Active Listening – listen, reflect, clarify, summarise, explore, produce ways forward, agree on them, action them. Go through these phases and make explicit why different to everyday conversations.
  • Practise sessions – rounds of work on threes or fours with peer to peer work and peer observers giving feedback, along with the trainers (if needed), on realistic role plays.
  • Review sessions – check ins on understanding of material and its application.
  • Co-designing a process to deal with small scale conflicts and knowing when to refer them to personnel.
  • Evaluation session.

All of the handouts we used, are available on our resources pages. Use and share.


complex, conceptual and contentious

Adam and I co-facilitated a two day workshop with an international NGO about it’s future shape and governance. Two proposals were on the table. As we talked about them a tsunami of thoughts, reflections, ideas and contentions emerged. We scribbled furiously and summarised often and the group began to understand a shape to the discussions. This helped us to form ideas around themes. We’d already abandoned our client-agreed process plan and were now in emergent territory. But remembering the mantra of listen, reflect and clarify, the group nudged it’s way to a clear picture of what needed to be done to resolve the matter. We got to a resolution on some key matters and a wealth of emerging possibilities on how things might be implemented and what needs to happen next.

Aside from having to improvise, we also faced –

the challenge of a multi-lingual group (we worked in English, but contributions were made, and interpreted, in Spanish);

a range of involvement in the development of the proposals, from those who’d been involved for nearly two years to those coming with fresh eyes (as one participant’s research showed – …allowing for open discussion of differences, regardless of how time consuming… – is a sign of a healthy NGO);

a mixture of understandings and response modes, from detailed observations to those focussing on the big picture and keen to get on (I think we noticed and adapted to this variety of inputs);

the use of a block which wasn’t really a block (the participant resolved his block in his contribution);

a super-heated airless room far too small for the number of people;

the need to acknowledge privileged positions, be it on gender (the room was male dominated), geography (the global North was over-represented); language (it’s much, much harder to work in your second or third language);

the need to air what is happening now and what has happened with regard to people’s understanding of relations amongst the network, before any chance was had of shaping the future (late-ish manifestations of trust issues, which thankfully had some time to be aired);

and being brought in at a very late stage in the game when patterns and dynamics are pretty embedded, and some outcomes fairly inevitable.

I think they have more work to do, but am glad to have worked on something that made me really think on my feet and appreciate having a co-facilitator with me.

mediating and meaning

Mediated a dispute between members of a core group in a direct action group. The agreement was to keep the content and fact of the mediation confidential, so I can only talk about the process without any reference to the members of the group or the group.

One member of the group, that had agreed a plan of action and how it would be communicated, broke this agreement. A sub-group was set up to finalise the wording before the call out was publicised. A member decided to publish what they thought best. This annoyed the rest of the sub-group and the larger group that had come to consensus about the nature of the call out.

I spoke to some members of the group by phone and face to face before we met, and ironed out some of the conditions for the mediation. This included finding out who else needed to be involved, and how those involved represented the views of the wider group.

We only had an hour and a half, but spent it clarifying how the issue had arisen and what the underlying needs and motivations were. This helped to clarify where people where coming from, their intentions, how these intentions had been received and how they could be resolved. Those present thought that progress had been made and some initial steps were agreed to take forward this positive momentum.

For those interested in process issues. I began by negotiating the boundaries of confidentiality (I’d keep all confidential, they agreed to share the outputs with the rest of the group), the spirit with which we’d converse (using inquiry, rather than adversarialism) and started the conversation by asking why they thought I was present.

I then used a series of clarifying questions, summarised what I thought I’d heard every now and again and helped them to recognise any momentum that had been gained. I used notes and diagrams to keep track of what was said and destroyed them at the end of the meeting.

On team building, timelines and Gillian McKeith

On November 17th I went to Halifax to spend a day with the co-ordinating team of Suma Wholefoods. In terms of workers’ co-operatives where everyone is paid the same, Suma is the largest in Europe.

The team meet regularly, and already work well together, but wanted to spend a few hours together to look at how they work as a team, and think about whether there is anything they can improve.

The theme for the day was provided by the quotation which says that we connect through our similarities but we learn from our differences. We spent the morning on the former: the afternoon on the latter. In the morning the team especially valued putting together a timeline of Suma’s history. It reminded them of some of their successes and gave them a shared sense of their past. It challenged one of my stereotypes as well – I’d never seen Gillian McKeith rated as a good thing before. In the afternoon we practised two of the skills for working with difference: good listening; and looking for win-win in difficult situations.

We managed to play five different games in the course of our four hours together. What struck all of us was how different people were key in different games and activities. It was a reminder to everyone of what a variety of strengths there are in the team, and the value of thinking, whenever problems arise, about whose strengths to draw on.

In terms of feedback from the participants…. here’s what they said:

“The session went really well. … and everyone said that it was valuable and time well spent… they all felt that the pace of the training was spot on.”

Are you listening?

Thanks to the folk at the Interaction Institute for their post The Art of Listening. They quote extensively from an essay on the power of listening by Brenda Ueland.

In facilitation and group work circles listening is more than a core skill, it’s a core state of mind, but one that’s often undervalued and under-practiced. Ueland’s essay focuses on listening in a family and social context, but what if we shifted it to a meeting context and particularly a consensus decision-making meeting?

“when I went to a party, I would think anxiously: “Now try hard. Be lively. Say bright things. Talk. Don’t let down.” And when tired, I would have to drink a lot of coffee to keep this up.
Now before going to a party, I just tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk; to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs, or arguing, or changing the subject.
Sometimes, of course, I cannot listen as well as others. But when I have this listening power, people crowd around and their heads keep turning to me as though irresistibly pulled. By listening I have started up their creative fountain. I do them good.

Now read ‘meeting’ for ‘party’. When was the last time you went to a meeting and left thinking you’d listened with affection, genuinely walked in another participant’s shoes and started up their creative fountain, and done them good? When was the last time it happened to you?

For just as the tragedy of parents and children is not listening, so it is of husbands and wives. If they disagree they begin to shout louder and louder – if not actually, at least inwardly – hanging fiercely and deafly onto their own ideas, instead of listening and becoming quieter and more comprehending.

But the most serious result of not listening is that worst thing in the world, boredom; for it is really the death of love. It seals people off from each other more than any other thing…

Sound familiar? And not just to the parents and partners out there. It sounds like many meetings I’ve been to. Can we really afford to seal ourselves off from one another? What impact does that have on our ability to come together and consent on important decisions?

…When we listen to people there is an alternating current that recharges us so we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created.
Now, there are brilliant people who cannot listen much. They have no ingoing wires on their apparatus. They are entertaining, but exhausting, too.
I think it is because these lecturers, these brilliant performers, by not giving us a chance to talk, do not let this little creative fountain inside us begin to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom.

Activist meetings are full of charismatic and brilliant people who seemingly cannot listen. I think their ability to perform well – to come with a constant supply of good ideas, incisive analysis and the ability to convey both clearly – becomes an self-reinforcing excuse not to listen. Their dominance means that when they do pause for breath the short silence is rarely filled with (in their judgment) equally creative and incisive thought. Or it’s simply filled by another brilliant person lacking ingoing wires. They roll their eyes and think “I better say some more or this campaign will never happen”. The end result is the same though – they stifle the creativity in others and create a downward spiral in the majority of the group who are consigned to the role of increasingly passive spectator.

How to listen

Now, how to listen. It is harder than you think. Creative listeners are those who want you to be recklessly yourself, even at your very worst, even vituperative, bad-tempered. They are laughing and just delighted with any manifestation of yourself, bad or good. For true listeners know that if you are bad-tempered it does not mean that you are always so. They don’t love you just when you are nice; they love all of you.

In order to listen, here are some suggestions: Try to learn tranquility, to live in the present a part of the time every day. Sometimes say to yourself: “Now. What is happening now? This friend is talking. I am quiet. There is endless time. I hear it, every word.” Then suddenly you begin to hear not only what people are saying, but also what they are trying to say, and you sense the whole truth about them. And you sense existence, not piecemeal, not this object and that, but as a translucent whole.

Then watch your self-assertiveness. And give it up. Remember, it is not enough just to will to listen to people. One must really listen. Only then does the magic begin.

Think about it…. treating each and every contributor to a meeting as if there were endless time to hear, digest and understand every word. Being curious. Looking for the whole truth in what they are saying, in who they are. Really listening.

I’m lucky enough to have had moments  that seemed genuinely magical in consensus-based groups, some of which happened because we finally heard each other despite our best efforts otherwise. Those moments keep me going through the mundane meetings and the horrendous meetings. What if we could work to make ‘magic’ a regular part of our meetings?

The challenge in the essay is obvious – listen deeply and genuinely and start doing it now. The reality feels more difficult. “No-one else at the meeting seems to be listening, why should I?”. “If I listen will my own perspective get heard?”. But what choice do we have? If we want groups that can actually make powerful change we need to make powerful changes in the way we interact. If we want those groups to be the cornerstone of entire movements we have to grasp the nettle and build foundations that will stand the weight. Too many other groups have tried and failed for lack of attention to things as simple as listening (and the valuing of difference and diversity that it enshrines). Time is short and we can’t afford to fail too many more times.

Introducing consensus to non-consensus groups

It’s common for people who value consensus to want to make the meetings they have as part of their everyday lives more consensual. So the question of how to use consensus in more  traditional, often hierarchical, settings comes up regularly. Saturday’s Transition Leicester group was no exception and it’s spurred me to share a few thoughts:

Saturdays group's initial thinking (click for a clearer view)

Down, down, deeper and down: Consensus requires some level of sharing – shared values, shared goals, or both. The deeper the sharing the deeper the consensus that can be reached. Many ‘alternative’ groups – action affinity groups, co-operatives have very deeply held shared values and consensus is a powerful tool for them. It becomes a method of not only making decisions, but of building a group that strives for deep understanding of equality, and deeply challenges oppression in all it’s forms. But in the workplace, for example, that level of sharing might be far more shallow. So realistic expectations are important.

Consensus in this setting is probably going to be far more functional than the transformative consensus happening elsewhere. However it should still be able to transform poor meetings to useful ones and challenge some of the assumptions of power and leadership that go unremarked in most organisations.

What’s in it for me? My biggest single tip to anyone wanting to introduce all or some of the ideas of consensus where it might not naturally seem to fit is to offer a clear, practical rationale. Consensus as a transformative-decision-making-process-that-radically-challenges-societies-norms probably won’t go down well with the boss. But consensus as a tool-to-increase-ownership-of-decisions-and the-quality-of-outputs might pique a bit of interest.

So, make sure you let people know what’s in it for them. Can you improve the quality of the ideas generated? Can you ensure that decisions are implemented more proactively? Can you cut down on the amount of time spent remaking decisions that were poorly made the first time around? Can you leave staff and volunteers feeling increasingly valued, with inevitable consequences for job satisfaction? The answer to all of these should be ‘yes’.

When it’s working well, consensus decision-making involves:

  • clarity on the decision being taken and the process being used
  • good listening and a feeling of being heard
  • broad discussion that actively explores possible concerns and looks to include diverse opinion
  • co-operating to find a solution that works for everyone
  • reflection – revisiting proposals to ensure they’re as strong as they can be
  • the final safety check of the ‘test for consensus’ which allows for shades of agreement and has the ultimate safety valve of the veto (aka the block, the major objection)
  • clear actioning of tasks
  • an on a process note it slowly but surely builds the group into a better functioning, cohesive unit

This makes it a highly pragmatic way of making high quality decisions.

But does it take more time? At first, probably. However you’re trading time for quality and possibly saving time in the long run. If you make a poor decision it’s poorly implemented, or not implemented at all. So you waste time chasing up the people who took on (or were given) action points. You waste more time having a repeat discussion at your next meeting because people have expressed dissatisfaction with the decision. And the result is at best half-hearted.

I’m not advocating consensus for all decisions. Don’t waste time using consensus to make unimportant decisions (as long as they are genuinely unimportant to everyone!), or choose between a range of bad options. Toss a coin, roll a  dice.

I’m also not advocating it for all groups in all settings. If it’s used to create the illusion of ownership, beware. People will soon see through that and lose, not gain, trust in the organisation. There has to be a genuine commitment to power-with rather than power-over, to participation and transparency. And of course, it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Consensus gives people a taste of being respected, listened to, and valued. ‘Ordinary’ meetings won’t ever seem the same again.

More posts on consensus decision-making

Transitioning to consensus: in Leicester

On Saturday I had the rare experience of having to walk just a few hundred yards from home to deliver a 1 day workshop on consensus decision making to the good folk of Transition Leicester. We met in the Friends Meeting House (well-priced, good access, well equipped kitchen, lovely garden).

The group was wide-ranging in it’s experience of doing consensus (from 25 years of working in housing co-ops to never having come across consensus before) but had a sophisticated understanding of what consensus could and should be. Some of them were from the Transition Leicester steering group. Others, like me, are on the periphery of the movement and had an interest in using consensus in other areas of their life – for example at work and in other voluntary groups.

My plan was to cover the ‘how does it work’ side of consensus and still dedicate a considerable amount of time to the underlying ethos – the values, the states of mind without which consensus can’t flourish.

To that end I picked up on some of the activities I used at Consensus: in at the deep end workshop in October – activities that encourage the exploration of different positions, empathy, deep listening and deep understanding.

I added a new exercise to help explore the different shades of agreement that exist within consensus: what does it feel like to have a strong personal opinion or concern and to put it aside for the benefit of the group as a whole? It was a reflective pair exercise with one partner supporting the other through a series of reflections (or for some, imaginings). Judging from my observations on the day, and from the feedback, there’s room for improvement. Not everyone was able to engage with the style of exercise, and it’s a little too complex. It would benefit greatly from a demonstration. But for me it’s an exciting development, and one I’ll keep playing with.

We also used an activity I’ve been using for a number of years – a consensus-orientated variation on active listening that I call listening for synthesis. In other words using active listening skills to draw together the energy, excitement and concerns that the group has expressed into a way forward that works for everyone – part summary, part ‘where next’. I asked the group to come back together and share their top tips, some of which were:

  • do it!
  • flag up that you’ll be summarising and moving forwards at regular intervals
  • be succinct
  • check with the group that your summary was accurate

We left some time at the end to discuss where to apply consensus. About half the group talked in terms of consensus in Transition Leicester. The rest talked about using something ‘close-to-consensus’ in contexts where consensus wasn’t the norm – hierarchical work environments, for instance. I’ll come back to that latter one in my next post…

About half of the group expressed an interest in more work on consensus – particularly with a focus on facilitating it. I’ll be contacting them in the next few days to see when and what format of workshop would work for them.

The evaluations were useful and positive. On the downside I failed to some extent to successfully combat my natural desire to talk too much (an ongoing piece of learning for me, especially in workshops on topics that invoke considerable passion). And the pace was a little fast for some. On the plus side, the atmosphere and environment we created as a group was safe, supportive, and enjoyable, and people appreciated the clarity of presentation and discussion

a snapshot of the participants' feedback

Building the capacity builders

On 11th February, we facilitated a couple of sessions at a facilitators’ skill-share. 35 capacity builders from 10 or so of the UK’s campaigning organisations came together to build their skills. The Rhizome contribution was to facilitate a session on ‘facilitating learning’ and co-facilitate one on dealing with ‘difficult’ behaviour in meetings and workshops.

This was the first event of its kind for a little known group called the NGO Forum. It’s a meeting of capacity building staff from a wide range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from Friends of the Earth through to Campaign Against the Arms Trade taking in CPRE and WDM along the way. The Forum’s been around for 4 or 5 years now and in one guise or another we’ve been involved. We sneak into meetings once in a while to see if we can be of use.

The ‘facilitating learning’ session went down well. It was a very short taster of a longer ‘training for trainers’ workshop. For us the key message is that people need to be involved in their own learning. As facilitators we need to bite the bullet and accept that it takes more time, but participation gets better results. Yes, it adds unpredictability to a training session – once you open up the learning to the group you can never quite tell what direction it will take, except to say that it will go in the direction of whatever the group want to learn at that moment. We don’t see this as a bad thing.

Dealing with difficult behaviour is also about participation. Commonly it is barriers to participation that spark off difficult behaviour. We facilitators can be as guilty as anyone of stereotyping people as ‘difficult’. We write them off and try to either ignore them or marginalise them so they cause as little disruption as possible. This doesn’t work for at least two reasons. Firstly these problems rarely go away because we sweep them under the carpet. It might seem to work at first, but they’ll come back sooner or later, probably magnified. Secondly, if we take the time to think about what’s going on then we’ll often see that the problem lies with us, or with the group as a whole.

This session focused on analysing group dynamics in order to understand what the barriers to participation might be and only then trying to find a solution. When you step back and understand that the group, or our facilitation of it, has limited someone’s participation in the group in some way, the ‘difficult’ person can be seen in a new light.  A common example is that our ‘difficult’ person simply hasn’t been listened to, and is feeling undervalued and alienated. No wonder they kick off in some way. Once we understand that we’re failing to meet the needs of the person in question, leading them to behave in a way we see as difficult, we can take action.  Take a breath. Look around. Understand the situation and then use an appropriate facilitation technique. It’s often as simple as a bit of active listening