Jan. 19-25, 2001
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Book outlines tools for groups to reach higher ground with creative problem solving
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E. Franklin Dukes
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E. Franklin Dukes

Book outlines tools for groups to reach higher ground with creative problem solving

By Robert Brickhouse

More and more people today are expected to accomplish important work through group activities and group decisions. Not only in the globally connected workplace, but in today's busy homes and active families, churches, professional organizations and civic life, collaboration is a growing necessity.

But as most people also have experienced, groups can be places where much energy is expended and little is achieved. Diverse groups are routinely called on to sit at the same table and present complex, conflicting and sometimes divisive views. Even the rules of what is "civil" are seen as relative and changeable in different settings.

A recently published book by E. Franklin Dukes, a mediation specialist at U.Va., aims to help large or small groups function at their best. In Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution: Tools for Powerful Groups and Communities, Dukes and co-authors John Stephens of UNC and Marina Piscolish of Antioch University assert that few groups -- whether a local school board, a business team, a deeply divided community, or a family facing important issues -- truly harness the power of their members' collective wisdom and aspirations to achieve something out of the ordinary. In fact, despite widespread understanding of the idea of seeking "win-win" common ground, effective and positive group experiences tend to be exceptions, they say.

In their "reaching for higher ground" approach to group problem solving and conflict resolution, they urge setting up a group "covenant" and then maintaining shared expectations and commitments to an agreed-upon vision as an integral part of the effective group process. More essential than basic ground rules such as "no interruptions" and "listen first, ask questions later," this establishing of "relatedness" among members can help create authentic community and sustainable agreements, the authors say.

The book, illustrated with real-life "snapshot" examples of group problem solving, is meant for anyone who works with or in groups, including managers, committee chairs, team leaders, mediators, consultants and teachers. It outlines techniques for helping groups articulate the values that members hold dear, develop the principles that will guide their efforts, and set clearly the shared expectations that will be honored throughout their work.

People are recognizing that through careful communication and creative problem solving, they can find ways in which their own interests can be satisfied without denying the needs of others, said Dukes, who is director of U.Va.'s Institute for Environmental Negotiation. He has worked closely as a mediator in discussions among tobacco farming communities and public health interests in seeking ways to sustain rural communities while promoting health goals.

But going even beyond attempts at "win-win" solutions, he said, group members can find that they can "connect with others in ways that affirm both oneself and the other," transcend self-interest and "seek not just common ground but also the common good."

Approaches vary depending on the size and purpose of the group, but following are six key elements that can help groups reach for higher ground.

Seek understanding and agreement about the need for shared expectations for higher ground.

Offer sufficient support, including time for reflection and discussion, illustrations of other covenants or ground rules, examples of how rules have been used and abused, and indications of commitment to developing and honoring a covenant from group leadership.

Begin by envisioning the desired outcomes that will define higher ground for your group, then develop the specific rules that will allow you to reach those outcomes.

Work actively to give each group member a real voice in developing the covenant.

Be accountable. Honor the agreements made.

Evaluate, modify and recommit whenever necessary.


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of the University of Virginia

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