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Group decision-making is a long held and increasingly influential form of planning for children with problems in living. While it is believed that ‘two heads are better than one’, the outcome of such collaboration is not always productive. Most people in human services are trained to be, and to see themselves as, advocates. We assume positions and believe them to be substantially unassailable. In collaborative groups, we often have professional advocates from several fields of practice and an advocate selected by the child/family. This advocate may see his/her advocacy as being for the child, the parents, or both. When both, s/he has a dilemma when the child and parent differ in opinion. The professionals often feel that they, not the parents are the advocates for the child. Rarely does anyone ask the child to advocate for him/herself.

Advocacy without reflection, can be quite misdirected and often advocates have trouble listening to other positions; even from other advocates. If there is an expectation of collaboration, the first step must be in defining a common outcome – a common goal which defines what is best for the child/family. We must start with ‘end in sight’. Any advocacy position must be based upon a reflective position. As we shall see, such reflection will examine the basis for your own position. However, even reflective advocacy without inquiry begets more advocacy….this can be called escalation. In entering into the group decision making process one must keep in mind the spirit of balancing inquiry and reflective advocacy. Generative learning requires reflection and inquiry skills, not just advocacy.

Skills of reflection concern slowing down our own thinking processes so that we can become more aware of how we form our mental models and the ways they influence our actions. Many of our cognitive models involve focusing on the motives of behavior rather than the behavior itself. Such a focus is not only of questionable value since there may be many motives behind a given behavior, but it tends to personalize the quality of the thinking. To assume that a person is lying, covering-up, being manipulative, etc. generates a negative consequence to the discussion which may or may not be correct.

Human information processing is prone to error. The problem appears to be one of continual overload. Simon, a pioneer in cognitive science suggests that human beings do not have the cognitive capacity to seek optimal answers to real questions. Instead humans artificially simplify the question to a level that is comprehensible; accept the first answer that is good enough to satisfy recognized demands, or use a shortcut that has been acceptable in similar contexts. [Carlson – 1993] The group approach to such problem solving can not be helpful without full cognizance of these human errors and an acceptance of the need to monitor closely positions that we formulate.

Leaps of abstraction occur when we move from direct observation [concrete ‘data’] to generalizations [abstractions] so quickly that we never think to test them. We substitute generalization for specific behaviors and begin to treat the generalization as fact. Such ‘leaps’ often slow down the process of learning since most of us are not disciplined in distinguishing what we observe directly from generalizations we infer from our observations and we become stuck on the personal aspects of the general thought. Nothing undermines openness more surely than certainty. You must develop the mind of a beginner; “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities.” [Suzuki – 1970]

To undertake reflective attitudes in order to monitor your own thinking, you need to ask yourself what you believe about the way the world works – the nature of the business you are undertaking, people in general and specific individuals. Ask “What is the ‘data’ upon which these generalizations are based?” Then ask yourself if you are willing to consider that your generalization may be inaccurate or misleading. If the answer is no, there is no point in proceeding. But if you are truly prepared to change your position with new information [to be wrong], you are prepared for the next step.

If you are still not convinced that you might be wrong, other researchers assure us that there are a variety of human information processing problems that you may want to consider. These include haphazard detail, the influence of experience, ignoring complexity, the need for closure, and inadequate self correction [Carlson – 1993].

“In our … life we are usually trying to do something, trying to change something into something else, or trying to attain something. Just this trying is already in itself an expression of our true nature. The meaning lies in the effort itself. We should find out the meaning of our effort before we attain something.” “We should not be concerned about the result of our effort before we know its origin. If the origin is not clear and pure, our effort will not be pure, and its result will not satisfy us.” [Suzuki – 1970]

Part of your inquiry might be to test the generalization…ASK. Inquiry skills concern how we operate in face-to-face interaction with others. Reciprocal inquiry means that everyone will make his thinking explicit and subject to public examination. This creates an atmosphere of genuine vulnerability…the goal is no longer to ‘win the argument’, but to find the best argument. This can be especially difficult in a highly political environment that is not open to genuine inquiry, but is essential to finding consensus among participants who have their own world views of the issues at hand. The willingness to risk is essential to the collaborative process.

“When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen…, just observe what his way is…put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good or bad. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion, you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it….understand the spirit behind the words.” “You should not have your own idea when you listen to someone.” [Suzuki – 1970]

“When you say something to someone, he may not accept it, but do not try to make him understand it intellectually. Do not argue with him; just listen to his objections…” [Suzuki – 1970]

Guidelines for Inquiry

  • Make your own reasoning explicit [i.e. say how you arrived at your view and the ‘data’ upon which it is based].
  • Encourage others to explore your view [e.g. “Do you see any gaps in my reasoning?”]
  • Encourage others to provide different views [i.e., “Do you have either different data or different conclusions, or both?”].
  • Actively inquire into others’ views that differ from your own [i.e., “What are your views?” “How did you arrive at your view?”” Are you taking into account data that are different from what I have considered?”].

When inquiring into others’ views:

  • If you are making assumptions about others’ views, state your assumptions clearly and acknowledge that they are assumptions.
  • State the “data” upon which your assumptions are based.
  • Don’t bother asking questions if you are not genuinely interested in the other’s response.

When you arrive at an impasse [others no longer appear to be open to inquiring into their own views]:

  • Ask what data or logic might change their views.
  • Ask if there is any way you might together design an experiment [or some other inquiry] that might provide new information.

When you or others are hesitant to express your views or to experiment with alternative ideas:

  • Encourage them [or you] to think out loud about what might be making it difficult i.e., “What is it about this situation, and about me or others, that is making open exchange difficult?”].
  • If there is mutual desire to do so, design with others ways of overcoming these barriers.

Practicing inquiry and advocacy means being willing to expose limitations in your own thinking – the willingness to be wrong.

Recognize the gap between our espoused theories [what we say] and our ‘theories-in-use’ [ the theories that lay behind our actions].

Because it’s so hard to see [even your own] theories-in-use, you may need the help of another person – a ‘ruthlessly compassionate’ partner. Ruthless compassion brooks no compromise in both sharing one’s feelings and views and being open to having those views change.

“The eye cannot see itself.”

The collaborative process is geared towards ruthlessly compassionate involvement. The ability to sanction others to assail your positions is built on the knowledge that such intrusion is not personal. It is your position that is being addressed, not you. Your position is neither right nor wrong; although it might be better or worse. The better position is usually based on the most information. If the goal of the team is to really seek the best possible position, then debate is essential. You cannot win; nor lose, in such debate provided the team is focused.

Participative openness leads to people speaking out, reflective openness leads to people looking inward. reflective openness starts with the willingness to challenge our own thinking, to recognize that any certainty we have is, at best, a hypotheses about the world.

Reflective openness is based on skills, not just good intentions.

Any solution is at best an approximation – always subject to improvement. Continuous improvement as we seek better solutions.

Openness is a characteristic of relationships, not individuals. Openness is based on agape [love] which has little to do with emotion, but has everything to do with intentions.

Impasse is, on occasion, to be assumed. People interpret data differently even when all have the same data. But impasse does not get to the best solution, nor to creative responses. If you believe that your solution is right, you cannot proceed. If you believe that your solution is best, it can be improved. Two processes can be developed: negotiation and/or ‘brainstorming’.

The negotiation process is an attempt to ‘get to yes’; to get agreement. It is a win/win process which seeks the next best alternative as a way to achieve consensus. The ‘brainstorming’ process is one that uses a variety of techniques to abate strongly held positions and to open up creative thinking in different avenues. Human beings tend to think in patterned ways and after many occasions of trying to deal with similar situations we lose the ability to think as a beginner. Techniques such as ‘Lateral Thinking’, ‘Nominal Group Technique’, etc. help us to overcome this patterned response.

Another factor that each team member must focus on is the goal of the meeting. The goal is not to find a way to get this issue off your back. This is not a self-serving meeting even though a good solution may relieve a lot of problems for you. Nor is the goal to do what you think is best for the child. The assumption that we know what is best is fraught with problems. The goal is to meet the best possible outcome expectations of the child/family. Those dreams, visions, goals can only be articulated by the child/family and we need to keep them in mind.


Most of this material is a corruption of The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

Also referenced:

Carlson, Raymond W., A Clinical Decision Support System for Mental Health Services, Dalhousie University, 1993.

Suzuki, Shunryu, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970/1990.