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How do I handle different belief systems present among meeting participants?
Part of the Facilitate Better "How To" series
Approximate reading time: five minutes.
Choices about organizational strategy, culture, policy, and products or services are born out of beliefs and assumptions about what is the right thing to do. The life experiences of meeting participants inform and coalesce into the belief systems that shape their thinking and assumptions.
This is one reason that teams with diverse perspectives often make better decisions: they have a greater range of belief systems influencing their deliberations and decisions about what is possible, doable, or desirable. Without that diversity people can fall prey to limiting thinking or stereotypes, a topic eloquently explored in author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk.
The reality of differences
When people join with others—at home, in neighborhoods, in volunteer groups, or at work—their respective belief systems come into contact with those that others' hold. Individual stories meet in conversation with each other.
The potential differences among these belief systems and stories can provoke misunderstanding or stall conversations if not thoughtfully explored. As diversity and inclusion speaker and advisor Joe Gerstandt notes, "Our individual and collective stances toward difference are incredibly important because they inform how we interact with difference when it actually shows up."
In my facilitation skills workshops, participants increasingly ask for tips on handling discussions where multiple belief systems are present, particularly if they seem incompatible. Here are questions I often use with groups to help individuals dig a bit deeper into their belief systems and make them more transparent to others.
What are a few of the core beliefs you have about _______? Fill in the blank with the reason people have come together, either the issue of interest (i.e., strategic planning, innovation, neighborhood development, budgeting, teamwork, etc.) or the role they share (i.e., being a good board member, leader, community advocate, leadership educator, parent, et al).
How have you come to these beliefs? What experiences and/or individuals have most influenced them? How and why? Note: this question often proves quite powerful, as many individuals have not explicitly sourced some of their core beliefs.
Describe an experience that illustrates any of these beliefs in action and how the belief(s) influenced you.
When/how have these beliefs most served you well?
When/how have these beliefs caused you difficulty?
How are your beliefs likely to show up in the interactions we will have together?
How do you tend to react when others hold beliefs very different from yours or raise questions about the validity or relevance of yours?
Ways to use these questions include:
having individuals pair off, interview each other, and then introduce each other to the group.
inviting individuals to first note their responses in writing and then having each person share highlights with the group
collecting individual responses in advance via an online survey, and then sharing all participant profiles in a PDF for people to review prior to an open discussion at the start of the meeting.
When time doesn’t allow for this type of more involved discussion activity, my primary goal is to efficiently surface the information about individual beliefs most critical to refreshing the conversation. I allot each person a couple of minutes to speak without any interruption or reactions from others, responding to the following prompts:
In regards to our discussion, I most believe _____________. As a result of this belief, I think the best course of action is ____________________.
Once all of this information is aired, I often find the mood, energy, and/or tone of the conversation shifts into something more productive.
A practical suggestion
When facilitating conversations about beliefs, avoid unnecessary use of the word conflict. People holding different beliefs is normal and routine. Discussions about them don’t always involve divisiveness or deep disagreement, so don’t frame them as if they do.
However, if during discussions individuals “dig in” to their pre-existing belief systems or engage in other behaviors that negatively impact the conversations, do respond accordingly. Our facilitation can invite participants to temporarily set their beliefs aside and to “try on” any of the perspectives they currently are resisting or struggling to understand or appreciate.
When doing so, I often preface my invitation with this quote from one of my favorite authors, Margaret Wheatley, in her wonderful book, Turning to One Another: “We don’t have to let go of what we believe, but we do need to be curious about what someone else believes.”
If participants lack this curiosity and willingness to temporarily pause defending their beliefs, genuine dialogue may be difficult to achieve. Instead we find ourselves facilitating a series of disconnected monologues that often do little to advance the best decision-making.
In Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs notes that “You have a dialogue when you explore the uncertainties and questions that no one has answers to. In this way you begin to think together—not simply report out old thoughts (emphasis added). In dialogue people learn to use the energy of their differences to enhance their collective wisdom.”
Participants’ true voices are tied to the belief systems they hold yet they often are not made explicit when gathering with others for discussions or decision-making. Effective facilitation helps surface these beliefs and make them transparent. As a result, participants might better understand the context of others’ contributions, and in turn, where and how group members might go forward together.
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