As the sanctuary discussions that generate IF Citizen Discussion Reports move along, they rely on two distinctive, if not unique, decision-making processes. The first is to preserve any possibility as long as even one discussion participant wants to report it for consideration in later public discussions. The other is convergence, which I describe here as both the current that moves developmental and exploratory sanctuary discussion along, and its result.
Discussion Processes and The Necessity of Choice. To produce useful results that can be passed along to others, all discussion processes need a way to make choices or decisions. Otherwise they risk degenerating into mere aimless talk—as deliberation, dialogue, and especially, debate, all too often do. To produce real results, discussion processes need a way to make choices about:
- where to begin—the concerns or questions that will serve as a starting point for discussion
- what to keep alive—the material that will be carried forward from one discussion session to another
- when to conclude—when to end discussion
- what (if anything) to disseminate—the material that will be made available to those not party to the discussions.
The way in which individuals engaged in group discussion make such choices typically interacts in multiple ways with the practical direction or content of their choices.
The Limitations of Conventional Alternatives to Convergence. The two primary alternatives to convergence are polling and consensus. Neither is “wrong.” But both are limited in important ways by the kind of decisions these alternative processes are intended to produce.
Polling is a procedure for sorting or aggregating the preferences of individuals in a group in response to an already-stated question or set of choices. Examples are surveys, ranking, and voting. Polling can be useful, especially when discussion needs to give way to making actual choices among alternative course of action. But polling has significant limitations because it tends to be:
- too formal—polling tends to allow the decision-making procedure to unduly influence the discussion by
- focussing attention on the decision-making procedure rather than on the substance of the discussion it is meant to serve
- encouraging compromise and lowest-common-denominator thinking rather than boldness, creativity, and innovation
- too decisive—polling tends to close off discussion in a way that does not encourage participants to revisit insights later in the discussion, even though such insights might prove useful
- too divisive—polling tends to foster advocacy and defensive position-taking of a sort that may be useful in democratic debate and action situations but often limits discussion to:
- yes-or-no certainties
- attempts to influence other participants rather than to encourage the openness that is most useful for exploratory and developmental discussion.
Many groups and thinkers, sensitive to the reality that polling substitutes statistically aggregated “preferences” for more interactive processes, have turned to consensus as an alternative decision-making procedure. Consensus is a process in which a decision is made only if all members of the group “freely” agree to it. Especially in small groups, consensus may prove more productive than polling. And, at its best, consensus can keep formality, decisiveness, and divisiveness within bounds.
However, consensus, too, has its limitations, which for the most part are mirror images of those that constrain polling. Many of these limitations have to do with the fact that consensus can only very rarely function “at its best.” Unless a group is both small and already highly unified, consensus is unlikely to work very well—if at all. In most circumstances, consensus tends to be:
- not formal enough—consensus, however understood or described at the outset of a discussion, tends to remain sufficiently nebulous a notion—at least in practice—that it can easily fade from view as a practical requirement. When this happens, the need to actually make decisions along the way also fades, with the result that the discussion wanders aimlessly.
- not decisive enough—consensus not only discourages attention to closure, but often makes closure impossible (in the process preventing the discussion from moving forward at all). This can result because consensus allows and may even encourage participants—even those with the best and most public of motives—to:
- insist on attempting to convince others that they have the “right” answer(s)
- insist on exploring the minutiæ of their differing perspectives
- “hijack” the discussion by insisting on having their positions attended to for what may be “altruistic” but purely personal motives
- focus on the gratification of “talk for its own sake” rather than on useful results.
- not divisive enough—consensus tends to blur useful distinctions and erase insights by:
- placing a higher value on the act of coming to group decisions than on their content (group unity can take precedence over a careful consideration of the usefulness of what is being agreed to)
- encouraging “groupthink”—even when it does not lead participants to confuse “efficiency” and “quality” as described in the previous point, consensus tends to heighten individuals’ natural desire to avoid standing out (even when there is no ostensible pressure to conform from particularly authoritative, forceful, or influential group members)
- constraining discussion to either particular actions or a wider range of subjects that have been mutually agreed upon in advance of discussion (in which cases it parallels the “pre-ordained” aspect of polling).
Convergence. Although convergence is a decision-making procedure, even more than consensus convergence resembles a process more than an event. Convergence describes the movement in a discussion toward a similar view of the desirability of possibilities. Convergence represents a quite minimal degree of agreement in order to move toward some sort of choice (or, in the case of governmental discussion, action). It can be thought of as an iterative—and interactive—distillation of the views of discussion participants, a distillation which, however, preserves the richness of the foregoing discussion. Like all interactive processes, it takes time. A suitable deliberative pace ensures that convergence will not prematurely exclude useful material or foreclose possibilities. Convergence tends to increase participants’ respect for each others’ views and heightens participants’ sense that decisions are both interactive and shared.
Convergence often requires that debate be replaced by interaction that is exploratory and developmental. Explicit decisions are generally deferred until mutual agreement emerges—not about details, but about the general nature of the possibilities under consideration.
Although as a process convergence may well be theoretically open-ended, in practice the process is bounded by participants’ desires to move the discussion forward according to the agreed-upon time constraints governing the discussion.
The primary differences between convergence and the two conventional approaches to decision-making in group discussion contexts are that convergence:
- requires no yielding of the “self” to the group. Truly consensual processes require that individuals be ready, at the end of the day, to yield the floor and their positions to the wisdom of the group. Polling requires that individuals be ready to acquiesce to the majority or some other calculated standard. The process of convergence, by contrast, arises out of interaction and it allows the preservation of difference while encouraging the minimal agreement necessary for discussion to move forward. (At the same time, convergence can evince varying levels or degrees of agreement.)
- is even less formal than consensus, which typically ends up being buttressed by procedural rules to deliver on its promise of fairness and unity.
- aims not at a single “solution” (consensus) nor a mathematically derived ordering (polling), but at the accumulation and selection of a limited number of plural possibilities—and the preservation of the central elements of the thinking from which they developed.
The interactivity that unfolds between the process of convergence and its outcomes are the key to understanding how convergence avoids the limitations of polling and consensus. Convergence can: (1) operate informally; (2) lead to decisions while avoiding either premature closure or total lack of closure; and (3) encourage decisions while avoiding the divisiveness of polling and the unity of consensus—all because the consequences of convergence are:
- Selected possibilities rather than final action choices
- conceptual possibilities that can be developed further rather than actual policies or specific recommendations to be applied or enforced
- multiple and contrasting conceptual possibilities that might be usefully applied to action rather than singular (and possibly premature) decisions.
The exploration, development, and testing of multiple and contrasting conceptual possibilities cannot be reduced to a set of formal rules, but result rather from the interactive “flow” of discussion—a flow that is better served by a reliance on convergence than by either the divisiveness of polling or the unity of consensus.
* For an earlier, expanded, version of this entry, see essay A-5 at: https://www.interactivityfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Public-Discussion-paper.pdf