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Participatory Decision-Making

By Martha Lasley
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Decision-making is a rigorous, liberating, spiritual practice. At the heart of participatory decision-making process is full empowerment for everybody.

As a group searches for a solution that meets the most needs, one way to facilitate the process that honors both individual autonomy and group collaboration is for all participants to determine their preferences privately, silently, and then share them aloud in turn.

As facilitators, we keep it light, easy, and playful, but we don’t avoid the first crucial step of determining personal preference. In this way, we continuously discover where each person stands.

This process keeps our relationships clean, creative and respectful, by avoiding collusion, control, or going along with the majority. Autonomous decision-making ensures that cooperation is authentic and not imagined.

Each person can check in with the deep inner motivation in the belly, to get a sense of where they truly stand, as a basis for creative agreement. Then people think about the whole, valuing diversity as they begin to explore proposals that will honor everyone.

In this way, immanent, embodied spirit is a spacious co-creative partner to the contract. Honoring each other as autonomous beings grounds us in sacred energy. As we disclose our preferences and bring them into the light, we proceed to a negotiated, shared decision.

John Heron describes participatory decision-making in his book Participatory Spirituality:

Participatory decision-making integrates autonomy, co-operation and hierarchy. In this inquiry, each person moves between and integrates these three positions, and moves between three phases. There is an autonomous phase: each person states clearly their individual, idiosyncratic preference, in relation to the matter being discussed. Next a hierarchical phase: people start to think integrally on behalf of the whole group, and one or more participants state integral proposals that seek to honour diversity-in-unity, and that resonate strongly with the group. Then there is a co-operative phase of negotiating an agreed decision, after debating, selecting and refining the most resonant integral proposal.[1]

As people share their preferences, everyone listens open-heartedly for the best interest of the group, allowing themselves to be influenced by each other. Working together to solve difficult problems, people often go through a difficult period where resolution seems impossible. Some people in the group experience profound discomfort unless they recognize the difficulty as a blessing.

The same way that judgment masks important needs, the chaos of the decision making process is a gift. Given the space to touch the collective despair and hopelessness, someone in the group invariably offers an idea that elicits hope. The idea itself may sound ridiculous, amusing, or half-baked, but the glimmer of hope sparks an energy shift, and new possibilities come forward.

Facilitators who don’t have deep comfort with the depth of despair and hopelessness, or want to rush through the process, don’t get to experience this magic. Many facilitators rob the group of their transformative experience because we don’t have the courage to stay with the intensity or the heart to explore the depth of the challenge.

Likewise, if we don’t recognize the aha moment, and we allow the group to pounce on and demolish the idea before it fully emerges, the fresh insights don’t surface. When facilitators regularly encounter the mysterious shifts that take place, we come to expect transformation, which impacts the outcome. But if we try to force the transformation or the miracle, it won’t happen. No one can be forced into transformation – it arrives spontaneously in unlikely moments. We can co-create solutions by setting intentions, while holding them loosely, and maintaining a sense of how wonder might manifest itself.

We hold the intention of embracing chaos, allowing the old order to collapse so that a new kind of order can emerge. Often silence ensues. And then the space opens up and a new proposal emerges. Instead of tidying it up prematurely, we hang in there with the confusion to see where it goes.

If people complain or blame others for their own discomfort, we can interrupt, asking them to sit with their values to support self-connection. Ordinarily, cynicism, skepticism, judgments, and labels prevent people from living in a state of wonder. But if we get curious about those judgments and beliefs, if we encourage everyone to explore with the same sense of wonder, we have fresh opportunities for embracing the whole, including the shadow.

When it looks like we’re close to unity, we check in by asking people to rank themselves on a scale of 1 – 5 or take a straw poll to see where people stand, using thumbs up, thumbs down, or in-between. We ask to hear from the folks with thumbs down first, so that we can hear their creative input for tweaking the solution. As they speak, we celebrate diversity by honoring idiosyncratic creativity and heterogeneous perspectives. We can ask, “What would it take to move you to thumbs up?” and adjust the solution accordingly.

This practice of participatory decision-making requires a deep level of trust in ourselves as facilitators, in the decision making process, and in the wisdom of the group. Surprisingly, “letting go” is an advanced facilitation skill that comes only with experience. To deepen your trust of yourself and the collaborative decision-making process before you bring it to a group, I recommend trying it with your partner or your family. Start with a simple decision, such as what to eat for lunch and then tackle bigger decisions.

[1] John Heron. 2006. Participatory Spirituality: A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion. Lulu Press.


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