How to make a difficult decision easy (sort of)

At a meeting a month or so again I mentioned how my church had made a difficult decision without rancor or ill will despite the fact that not everyone was in agreement on what the outcome should be.  Several people asked “how did you do that?” as if it sounded quite miraculous.  Indeed, in some sense it did seem like a miracle, especially considering we have, at times in our history, sometimes made easy decisions seem difficult and difficult decisions seem almost impossible.  But this is not unique to our church either.  Any group of human beings, all of whom have unique opinions, passions, and perspectives, can struggle with group decision making.

This led me to think about how did we take a difficult decision and make a pleasant process out of it?  Here are some of my thoughts and some of the principles that we followed:

1.  Keep your priorities in mind

It is important to remind everyone what is really important and what the real goals of the decision are – and offer these reminders often.  For example, our particular decision involved the physical location of where our church would meet.  Therefore we frequently reminded ourselves that the church is not the building.  The people are the church and where we met wasn’t as important as everyone’s support of each other and our communal relationship with God.  This helped minimize the fear that change would harm the church.

2.  Be well informed

Distribute all of the information you have about the decision early, often, and in as many ways as possible.  Don’t let anyone be able to claim they didn’t have access to all of the information available.  Make sure dates and times of meetings and votes are well publicized.

3.  Let everyone have a voice

Don’t save all of the discussion for the time of the vote.  Have open opportunities for discussion so that everyone has the ability to hear everyone else as well as to voice their own opinions and fears.  Limit the time of these discussions as people will start to get antsy after 60-90 minutes.  Hold multiple discussion sessions if needed both to allow sufficient time and to allow for participation by those who may have a conflict with a particular meeting time.

4.  Agree on communication guidelines

Even before holding a meeting, or perhaps at the first meeting, decide on discussion guidelines as a group.  Some examples to consider (there are certainly others that don’t appear here):

* Everyone must use “I” statements.  Only talk about and for yourself.
* Everyone must speak only for themselves.  No statements like “everyone thinks…”
* Don’t run down others or their opinions.  Anything said in response to another’s statement should only be to ask for a clarification.
* Is a time limit desired for those speaking?

5.  Agree on the decision process

Before holding a vote, make sure everyone knows the process.  Agree on any special rules.  For example, if it is an important and/or difficult decision, is a super majority desirable?  Are you trying to reach a consensus and if so how will you do that?  In our situation, we were not comfortable with a possible decision being made on a one vote simple majority and so agreed that we would require a 2/3 majority.

Also, consider whether there are any additional discussion guidelines desired.  For example, in our case we decided that discussion at the time of the vote would be limited.  Each person would only be allowed to speak once per round of voting.  This decision was made because 1) extensive discussions had already been held over preceding weeks, 2) we were concerned about the need for multiple rounds of voting and the time that would take (the longer the meeting, the more people would grow tired and frustrated), and 3) we did not want the discussion to devolve into arguing and repetition of points that had already been made.

6.  Consider presenting a proposal to focus discussion

At times, our church’s Steering Committee has presented a concrete proposal at congregational meetings when it was felt we needed some focus in the discussion of a particular issue.  Otherwise, a large group can get bogged down in nitty gritty details (for example, by trying to come up with just the “right” language for the proposal), drawing meetings out and frustrating those who simply want to make a decision and move on.  However, with our building decision this was not done and I think it was, in this case, the right tact to take since the options were clear (i.e. we didn’t need to first decide what it was we needed to decide).

7.  Have a strong moderator

The person or persons moderating the meetings for both discussion and voting need to be willing to enforce the community agreed on rules gently, tactfully, and fairly.  You might encourage the group to help police itself as well.  If the discussion starts to wander off topic, the moderator needs to call the group to re-focus.  Also, be aware when tensions are rising.  If necessary, take a breather.  Don’t be afraid to interrupt the meeting by asking for a moment of silence for prayer and reflection before re-starting the discussion.  In an extreme circumstance, the group might consider adjourning to a different day when cooler heads can prevail.

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