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Reaching For Higher Ground: Building Powerful And Principled Groups And Communities

October 30, 2000 -- More and more people today are expected to accomplish important work through group activities and group decisions. Not only in the globally connected work place, 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.

"Too often, simply surviving a group experience becomes the primary objective," points out E. Franklin Dukes, a University of Virginia mediation specialist and co-author of a newly published book on helping large or small groups function at their best, "Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution: Tools for Powerful Groups and Communities" (Jossey-Bass).

Dukes and co-authors John Stephens of the University of North Carolina 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 deep commitments to an agreed-on 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 aimed at 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, says Dukes, director of U.Va.’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation who 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 says, 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 will allow you to create your own path, whatever your group, to higher ground. These six elements are:

1) ESTABLISH THE NEED: Seek understanding and agreement about the need for shared expectations for higher ground.

2) EDUCATE AND INSPIRE: 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.

3) BEGIN BY ENVISIONING DESIRED OUTCOMES: 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.

4) PROMOTE FULL PARTICIPATION: Work actively to give each group member a real voice in developing the covenant.

5) BE ACCOUNTABLE: Honor the agreements made.

6) EVALUATE AND REVISE: Evaluate, modify and recommit whenever necessary.

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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