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Leadership: What Does Consultation Really Look Like?

Focus groups. Consultations. Opinion surveys.

These are all options for getting one’s finger on the pulse of what is happening, what is needed and what is desired as we work on moving forward in our world. This is true in large companies, small non-profits, the political arena, and even in families (the traditional “family meeting” is really just a version of the focus group or consultation).

As great as these options can be, there is a particular challenge inherent in the implementation. If we’re not careful, we can easily fall victim to this pitfall, and derail the whole “moving forward” objective. The pitfall, in a nutshell, is closed-mindedness. You can also think of it as “attachment”.

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When you decide to conduct a survey, host a focus group, or be in consultation with those around you, you’ve got to do so without attachment to a preconceived notion, idea or answer. You cannot be attached to what you think SHOULD happen. You might believe that you know the path forward, the direction to take, or what is truly needed. If you’re going to ask for input, however, you’ve got to be prepared to change your existing perspective. Otherwise you’re not truly consulting; you’re just seeking agreement.

Let me give you an example: several years ago, I was co-chairing a team. Our mandate was to develop new governance protocols for an organization. My co-chair and I sat down to set out the framework for how best to move forward. We agreed that, at least in the initial meeting, our thoughts would not be shared. The process was to be organic, led by the grass-roots folks that we were supporting. So, while we had ideas, we acknowledged that this wasn’t about us – it was about them.

The meeting started, and almost immediately, it was clear that the direction desired by the group was not what we would have thought. In my mind, fair enough –this wasn’t about us. My co-chair, however, immediately jumped in and attempted to steer the direction back to what she would have envisioned. All of a sudden, this was no longer a consultation; this was a planning meeting with a very specific agenda.

Let me be clear; there is nothing particularly wrong with a planning meeting and specific agenda. But that’s not a consultation; it’s not a focus group; it’s not a survey of stakeholders. It’s not about getting your finger on the pulse of what’s going on. Instead it’s about acting from what  you believe is going on, and doesn’t actually take the needs and desires of other folks into consideration.

I often see groups conduct surveys and similar activities, with a view to making people feel like they have input. There’s a desire to feel “collaborative and transparent”. Rest assured, folks can see when you’re just going through the motions, however, and it doesn’t serve.

Conducting a true consultation, survey or focus group takes immense courage. You’ve got to be willing to let go of your agenda, at least in part, and make room for the opinions of others. If you are truly attached to something, then that has got to be made clear right at the outset; stating some version of “we’re here to consult about __________, and just to be clear _____________ is non-negotiable” is the way to ensure transparency and effectiveness.

Bottom-line: if you’re going to engage in an activity to find out what folks think, you need to be open to the possibility that your thoughts might not align with those of others. If you have non-negotiable items, be honest and open about that before beginning a consultation. And then, be willing to entertain different points of view. Consultations are not about bolstering your own perspective; they’re about finding out what others truly think.