Creating A Shared Reality
When Every Point of View Counts
Some years ago, I belonged to two different groups that awarded scholarships, one to women from challenging backgrounds seeking to attend college after age 35, one to small, underfunded nonprofits seeking leadership training and support.
Each held a yearly meeting where we all came together to sort through a pre-selected group of about 50 applicants so we could choose 8 or 10.
At the first group’s meeting, we went around the table and everyone read their top 8 nominees, describing why we thought each should win. The chairperson noted how many votes each candidate received, we tallied them and whoever had the most votes received a scholarship. The meeting was efficient, lasted about an hour, and we left feeling we had made good choices.
The second meeting, the one for nonprofits, was completely different. There too we all came with a list of around 15 candidates we thought would be good. We put their names together and eliminated redundancies, which usually resulted in about 20 names, about double the number of potential awards.
But we did not vote on these candidates. Instead, the chairperson led us in a discussion of each of the twenty. We talked about why we thought each one was a good candidate or not–– in very specific terms–– how we believed they could benefit. The goal was not to determine who had the most votes or support, but to come to a consensus that every one of us could live with.
This meeting took about 4 hours, and could be a struggle for the impatient (please note: I am very impatient). But in the end, it always felt like a triumph. We learned a lot more about the people we were discussing, and a lot more about one another. Our choices were highly deliberate, well-balanced and often counter-intuitive. By contrast, the choices the other group made were fairly predictable.
Why were the consensus-driven groups so powerful? Because in the process of making a decision, we became a group, not as an assortment of individuals fulfilling a task. My colleague Molly Tschang, who hosts one of my favorite podcasts, Say It Skillfully, would say that we built a shared reality.
A shared reality develops when we intentionally give space and full consideration to ideas and people who differ from us and from one another. “Shared reality results from getting everyone on the same page concerning both the objective facts they are dealing with and the human experience…how you feel and how they feel,” says Tschang.
Molly points out that it is by listening to all relevant voices-- especially dissenting or unpopular ones-- that teams establish the common ground that builds trust and commitment. Because the process is itself creative and unpredictable, it has the potential to produce outstanding results. Not just once but systematically.
This sounds ideal, if not outright idealistic. But the nuts and bolts are for real and thoroughly pragmatic.
Here are 3 of Molly’s rules for creating a shared reality:
1) Be vulnerable, because vulnerability is a must for trust. Here are a few phrases that help signal that it’s safe for others to speak up:
"I don't know."
"I'm struggling with ___.
"I made a mistake."
2) Invite the "quiet voices" to speak up, so that all voices are heard, especially the less obvious contributors or those with dissenting views. And if you find the "quiets" are reluctant to speak up, you can say something like "Your input is vital for the team to make the best decision."
3) Without making others wrong, share your experience of a situation to help create more of a "360 degree" view. For example: "I appreciate your perspective. My experience of the customer meeting was a bit different. Here’s what I saw..."
The trick of course is to solicit input in a way that allows each participant to feel comfortable expressing and clarifying their own ideas, especially if they are in opposition to the majority’s.
We all know that the best ideas do not come only from those confident enough to advocate powerfully for themselves. As is so often the case in life, we have to look a little farther, dig a little deeper.
Creating a shared reality helps us get there. That’s what the chair of the second meeting did so well. Or as Molly might say, so skillfully.