The road to consensus: 5 tools from a UN facilitator 

Reaching a calm, mutually beneficial agreement between two parties is challenging enough. So can you imagine trying to come to a valuable outcome between 12,000 people, from 193 countries, speaking over 60 languages – all with a different agenda?

United Nations facilitator and master communicator Allan Parker has done just this. Combining his background in neuroscience and global negotiation, he mastered the art of finding consensus where no one else can.

A long-time mentor of mine, I managed to grab Allan for a fascinating hour to talk about how to approach high stakes conversations, how to use body language to diffuse conflict, and how to guide any business discussion – be it a meeting, negotiation or sales pitch – toward consensus. There were too many to choose from, but here are five of my favourite tools Allan uses to find the win in win/win.

Find a collective agreement

A good way to start any kind of conversation is to identify the things that everyone agrees on. You need to think ‘we before me’ – and honour the collective before the individual. What is it we need to do here? Why are we here? What do we want to create together?

When Allan first addresses a group of people he’ll ask them to put their hand in the air if they feel they haven’t reached their potential yet. Every time, everyone puts up their hand – creating an immediate consensus to build upon. That’s what he appeals to – the part in all of us that believes we can do better.

Listen obsessively

The average person is so busy that they’ve already decided on the outcome of a discussion before they’ve had it. They go in, present their piece and wonder why the other party doesn’t jump on board, why they’re not engaged. The average person hasn’t listened.

A technique Allan uses to encourage active listening is to pause a meeting every 10 minutes. He asks that each member turn to someone they don’t know and tell them the two most important things they just heard – and observe how what they thought was important wasn’t necessarily what the other person noticed. It doesn’t matter who has the microphone, the important thing is who heard what and what it means to them.

Position yourself for consensus

Most meetings and negotiations take place across a table, in a situation that, biologically speaking, dooms us to disagreement. As Allan explains, when any two creatures with a vertebra face each other, their nervous systems automatically trigger the flight or fight response – prompting cortisol, aggression and stress.

A better position – particularly for two people who feel that they’re in conflict – is either sitting or taking a walk, side by side. Literally getting out of each other’s face lessens the likelihood of conflict and invokes a completely different set of thoughts, language patterns, expressions and conversations – simply through changing the angle, proximity and height of an exchange.

Palm off a problem

In business settings, 90% of hand gestures made by males, and 75% by females, happen between the shoulder blades, directed toward the person being spoken to. But in order to influence a dialogue – and not trigger a conflict response – you need to gesture away from the listening party, outside of the width of your shoulders.

Allan uses the example of dealing with a specific issue. He takes the issue into his hand – as if he’s holding it – and then ‘places’ it outside the conversation at arm’s length. The parties are now looking and talking about something separate to their own relationship, rather than between them as on object of conflict.

Ask more, speak less

When we ask questions, we stimulate our own brain as well as the responders, so it literally shifts the dynamic of the conversation. Allan suggests mastering a style of questioning he calls the “what, how”. What are you after today? How would that benefit you? What would you do with that? How is that going to flow on? What would you like us to do with that? The focus has shifted from ‘you’ to ‘us’, with both parties exploring how to reach an outcome.

The next step is to acknowledge and confirm what has been said (‘Have I got that correct?’) before adding any further expansion or exploration (Is there an element that you and I haven’t thought about yet? What else might we do?). This pushes everyone’s thoughts into new territory, challenges their pre-conceptions and opens a world of possibility.

It’s an active choice to walk into a room, turn off your autopilot and honour another person or group of individuals. And while differences of opinion can be hard to shake – putting the discussion before the decision and consciously deciding to aim for mastery in your communication – will go the longest way towards changing the game.

Julie Masters is a globally recognised expert in influence, authority and thought leadership. She is the CEO and Founder of Influence Nation and Founder of ODE Management – responsible for launching and managing the careers of some of the worlds most respected thought leaders. Julie is also the host of the soon to be launched weekly podcast Inside Influence. An exploration of what it takes to find and own your voice – and then use it to drive a conversation, an idea, an industry or a Nation. To subscribe check out iTunes, Spotify or juliemasters.com.

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