A DIACONAL APPROACH: using the tools of consensus

The World Deacons Executive changes to consensus

This guest post on change to consensus is from Rev (Deacon) Sandy Boyce of the Uniting Church in Australia. Sandy is President of the DIAKONIA World Federation – http://www.diakonia-world.org

The change to consensus by the Executive of the DIAKONIA World Federation has been a huge positive. Change from a traditional meeting format to using the tools of consensus processes has increased inclusion, strengthened the group and empowered the leadership of all the members. There is no going back after the change to consensus!

Why change?

‘Slow down – please!’

‘Please stop using English colloquial expressions!’

‘Please – give us some time to catch up’.

Such were the pleas from people for whom English is a second or third language. When working together on a world committee comprised of people from many countries, cultures and language groups the way we communicate together is very important.

The World Executive (2013-17) was comprised of people from North America, Australia, England, Tanzania, Switzerland, Germany, Norway and the Philippines. In 2018 we begin with a new committee that will again draw people together from many countries and languages. All share a common desire to work towards a common purpose through the DIAKONIA World Federation.

We only meet face to face once a year, so relationship building is especially key to a successful meeting. When we spend so much time in a business meeting the quality of our fellowship at that time is significant to the quality of our relationships as a group.

How the change was introduced

When elected as President, DIAKONIA World Federation, one of my responsibilities was to organise and chair the annual meeting.  In the meeting are elected representatives from diaconal associations around the world. English is the medium for our meetings.

I had been keen to introduce the consensus decision making process into our meetings. Interestingly, some members had seen the cards in use and were not keen to use them. I was shocked to discover that the way they had seen the cards being used simply replicated a traditional ‘voting’ system. There people held their cards aloft and the cards were counted to see who was ‘for’ (orange) and who was ‘against’ (blue). So, the introduction of the consensus decision making process had to address the previous experience of the misuse of the cards and process. In addition it needed to capture the essence and energy of shared discernment and the consensus decision making process.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that the consensus decision making process would be embraced so quickly. In a multi-lingual context it provided an opportunity for people to express in non-verbal ways their response to matters being discussed. They could also visually see how others were responding. The change to using consensus building processes in our meeting enabled discussion and discernment to continue in an informed way. People better understood what was happening compared to the way they had to quickly come to a decision in a typical ‘business’ meeting. It transcended language in a way that enabled more fulsome participation in decision making.

Additional tools used to help the change

I introduced the yellow ‘question’ card. This proved invaluable, especially for those for whom English was not their first language. For some on our World Executive, English was only one of a cluster of languages they spoke. Having to listen and speak in English while internally processing their thinking in another language presents special challenges.

The yellow card ‘democratised’ the process, in that all members of the committee could feel free to ask questions. Having shown the yellow card, a member could take all the time they needed to frame their question and speak to it.

Others would be especially attentive to understand the gist of the question, and any further comments, and to discern the implications for the discussion at hand. The card gave people confidence to participate more fully. Our meetings have been enriched as a consequence. The privilege accorded to native English in meetings was (in part) addressed by this opportunity . This change strengthened the strategies for intentionally making space to listen well to questions and comments that is inherent in a consensus approach.

Then, I sensed the need for a further card.  The orange and blue cards remained the colours related to the consensus decision making process itself. But this purple card served another purpose. It is used by people who experienced (and expressed) a constant frustration at the speed that native speakers of English spoke during meetings.

Those listening could not keep up with the internal process that was required to convert English to their own language. People need to think and process, and then consider a response, before converting back to English. Everyone wants to, and should be able to offer, a response to the committee. However when they were ready the discussion may have moved on and they missed an opportunity to contribute. All of this internal processing activity happened silently. Such silence from non-English speakers could easily be construed as agreement. In fact it often signaled active internal processing of language.

Native speakers of English from different countries speak with such a wide diversity of accents. This requires a different way of listening. Unwittingly using colloquial expressions that did not translate easily even for speakers of English happens a lot. Hence the pleas of those who were not native speakers of English for people to ‘slow down’, ‘stop using colloquial expressions’, and to create some space for processing what they have heard.

The purple card had the specific purpose of providing a visual clue to the person speaking – slow down. They needed to be more attentive to the process of speaking and listening. The exasperation and frustration gave way to a greater sense of inclusion and participation.

Was the change worth it?

Our DIAKONIA World Executive meetings have been enriched by the consensus decision making process, and the use of the blue and orange cards. The use of the two additional cards that have been integrated into the process have enabled more fulsome participation and understanding across the breadth of the membership of the DIAKONIA World Executive.

The experience has been a very positive one for the Executive members. I strongly commend that groups take seriously how to involve people from different language groups and cultures. Consensus processes and tool are the key to making an effective change.


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