The Tête-à-Tête pre-launch: Building terms of reference

-Matt Burgess-

Can you think of an example of a particularly productive, reasoned, consensus-seeking discussion of an important but controversial issue? If so, we’d like to hear about it. What made the issue controversial and what strategies were employed to reach consensus?

In order for The Tête-à-Tete to succeed in its mission, we recognize that how we discuss issues is at least as important as which issues we discuss. Thus, instead of diving into discussions of issues right away, we want to first work with you to develop a clear vision and terms of reference for the process of these discussions.

To this end, The Tête-à-Tete will begin its existence with an initial focus on Case Studies. We will launch our regular content with a Discussion beginning January 7, 2015. We welcome suggestions and submissions for these Case Studies, as well as suggestions for future discussion topics. Ultimately, we hope to get two things out of these case studies: (i) inspiration, cementing a shared belief that consensus and progress on important but thorny issues is achievable, and (ii) battle-tested terms of reference for making consensus and progress happen.

When it comes to ideal terms of reference, we (the Editorial Board) have some working hypotheses, which we touch on in our Founding Editorial. Briefly, we think it is important to:

1. Distinguish normative questions and statements (grounded in values) from positive ones (grounded in facts).

2. Confront normative questions subjectively with inclusiveness, empathy and respect; and confront positive questions objectively with evidence.

3. Distinguish objectives (often informed by normative questions) from strategies (often informed by positive questions). (i.e. ‘Where do we want to go?’ vs. ‘How do we get there?’)

4. Once we have identified a shared objective, keep our (collective) eye on the ball.

5. Focus on ideas, not people. If ideas themselves are more important than where they came from, it is much easier to reconcile inclusivity and respect among participants with a rigorous meritocracy among ideas.

6. Keep an open mind.

7. Know when to agree to disagree. If we simply cannot agree on some aspects of an issue (because of diverse values for example), can we agree and make progress on other aspects?

With your help, we hope to flesh out and test these hypotheses, and develop new ones.

Focusing on Case Studies will ground this process in reality, but we are also interested in the underlying core concepts. For this, there is a wealth of academic and business literature on consensus-building, which is worth digging into and drawing on. A couple of ongoing initiatives to gather and disseminate this knowledge worth highlighting are:

Beyond Intractability, run by the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium, has compiled a knowledge base on resolution of difficult conflicts, and offers free online courses in conflict resolution.

The Consensus Building Institute, a non-profit directed by affiliates of the Harvard Program on Negotiation and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, links to several important books and articles on consensus-building and conflict resolution, as well as articles describing case studies they participated in, on their website.

Do you know any other resources on consensus-building, conflict resolution, or mediation that might be helpful in building The Tête-à-Tête’s terms of reference? If so, please tell us about them in the comments.

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