Effective, Respectful, Communication—Lessons from Occupy Santa Rosa

November 13, 2011
Respectful discourse and conflict resolution

photo by Chris Bowers

Consensus building, like other valuable parts of negotiation and conflict resolution, is often messy and time consuming, but the result can be a vibrant, inclusive process of reaching decisions to which people feel deeply committed.

I recently witnessed this in action when Occupy Santa Rosa, my local Occupy group here in N. California, put out a request for people who could teach facilitation and consensus building skills. Since I’ve been facilitating meetings of all sizes by consensus for most of my adult life, I thought this would be a good way for me to contribute.

I started by attending one of their general assemblies, and I was pleased and impressed to see how skillfully they were incorporating many principles of conflict resolution and respectful communication. Here are some of the ideas and tools they are using:


If people feel shut out of the dialogue or as if their voice won’t matter, it can lead to resentment and conflict.  Anyone can sign up to speak at these meetings, and I saw people of all ages and in attire from scruffy jeans to business suits present and participating.

At the particular meeting I attended, someone objected to the presence of homeless people. One of the facilitators reminded them of a decision reached at a previous meeting, that as long as they abided by the rules forbidding drugs, alcohol, smoking, and violence, homeless people, as part of the 99%, had just as much right to be there and take part as anyone else.

Consensus building hand gestures

Facilitators can quickly address issues when people can participate non verbally with agreed upon hand gestures. Occupy Santa Rosa has a number of gestures including ones people can use to:

1) Express agreement or enthusiasm.

2) Express disagreement

3) Ask to comment on the current issue or add information

4) Address a point of process

5) ask speaker to get to the point quickly

6) indicate they can’t hear, or

7) block, meaning they can’t be part of  the action if issue is adopted.

Positive speech

There is a conscious emphasis on positive speech and points of agreement rather than tearing down or criticizing another’s ideas, and on working to avoid negativity that closes off dialogue.

Mediators and facilitators know that for conflicts to be resolved, not merely settled and for relationships to be healed, everyone’s needs and views must be heard and respected. Similarly, true democracy is far more than just a majority vote. Consensus building processes honor and value the wisdom and contribution of all voices, minority as well as majority. The Occupy movement is young and imperfect, but as their chant says, “This is what democracy looks like.”

Lorraine Segal and Conflict Remedy, are based in Santa Rosa, California. Lorraine provides one on one communication coaching, training, and mediation by telephone and face to face. She also teaches in the conflict resolution program at Sonoma State University. She has been facilitating meetings for over 30  years.

To schedule a free initial telephone session or get more information, you can reach Lorraine at (707) 236-8079, email lorraine@conflictremedy.com  or contact her through this blog.

© Lorraine Segal http://www.ConflictRemedy.com



5 Steps to Effective Meetings

June 12, 2011

happy team after good facilitated meetingMeetings seem to be an inevitable part of life, whether you’re a stay at home mom active in your kid’s PTA, or the team leader of a big corporate project.

Unfortunately, not enough people have learned the process and skills for creating effective, productive meeting. These skills are rarely taught in schools, or in most professional training programs. As a result, all too many meetings are nightmarish time wasters or stressful battlegrounds.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Meetings can be smooth, productive and even fun. Any conflicts can be managed and lead to creative problem solving instead of confrontation and strife.

Here are 5 brief steps for creating an effective meeting.

1. Plan ahead. 

Successful meetings, especially of more than 2 or 3 people, don’t just happen, but require careful planning, no matter how effortless they appear from the outside.  The two most important parts of pre meeting planning are:

Prepare the agenda.

Meetings need realistic, clear agendas. Agenda items may come from the facilitator, past meetings, and/or participants. The purpose of each agenda item needs to be clear, and a realistic time must be set for each item. If there is too much material for one meeting, leaders need to prioritize and postpone some items.The agenda needs to be sent out ahead of time, or at least available on the board or copies at the beginning of the meeting.

Assign the roles. 

Essential roles for successful meetings include at least a facilitator, recorder/reporter and time keeper. It is a good idea to line people up ahead of time for all these functions, not just the facilitator.

2. Establish ground rules–and follow them.

Although the facilitator is running the meeting, all participants as well as leaders need to agree on and follow ground rules or guidelines for the meeting to be successful. For example, important ground rules generally include not interrupting and otherwise speaking and listening respectfully to others, keeping all comments on the topic and time limited (laser sharing), agreeing to hold the welfare of the whole group as top priority, being willing to let go of an individual desired outcome. The entire group may need some training and practice as well as ongoing reminders.

3. Keep the Time.

The facilitator needs to make sure the meeting starts and ends on time. The time keeper helps the meeting process by keeping track of the time for each item.

4. Keep the Focus.

Good meetings stay on topic and on time for each agenda item, although adjustment is possible if the group agrees . The facilitator has the main responsibility for keeping the meeting focused on topic, with participant support (see ground rules).

5. Close with action plan. The recorder/reporter needs to summarize the decisions and actions, including who is responsible for tasks and follow-up for action items.

Two more tips for successful meetings:

Ditch Robert’s rules; choose collaboration & consensus:

Many groups use Robert’s rules of order, because it is the only process they know. But, the collective wisdom of facilitation experts is that consensus and collaboration processes are far more efficient, effective, and satisfying. Skillful facilitation is even more important, however, in collaborative meetings.

Make sure you have a good facilitator.

Facilitation is an art and a skill that can improve with training and practice. Facilitators, like mediators, see ourselves as guardians of the process,  detached from the outcomes. It is impossible to facilitate well and passionately advocate a specific perspective at the same time.

Through preparing carefully, modeling respectful communication, making sure that participation is fair and full, handling transitions smoothly, summarizing and restating the will of the group, and making sure follow up actions are clear, facilitators can greatly improve the functioning & harmony of  meetings and the viability of groups.

Lorraine Segal

Lorraine Segal, Trainer, Coach, Mediator, Facilitator

Lorraine Segal is a conflict coach, trainer, facilitator, and mediator specializing in transforming communication for parents & teens, and others. Her business, Conflict Remedy, is based in Santa Rosa, California. She teaches in the conflict resolution program at Sonoma State University. She provides conflict coaching and mediation by telephone as well as face to face. Contact her to find out about workshops, small coaching groups or to schedule a free initial telephone session. You can reach her at (707) 236-8079,  lorraine@conflictremedy.com  or this blog.

Next class at SSU, Communicating with Teens  starts July 30. See classes page for more information.

© Lorraine Segal www.ConflictRemedy.com