Beliefnet

From "What the World Needs to Know About Interfaith Dialogue" by Richard M. Landau. Reprinted with permission of the author.

How Many Is too Many?
The rules of engagement outlined in the previous few pages are best suited to groups of up to nine people, and maybe as many as 11. But after you reach 11, social psychologists will tell you that group process becomes slow, difficult and often unwieldy, no matter how capable the chair, nor how mature the participants.

Instead, try these rules:

1. The chair is a traffic cop. The chair is simply a traffic cop, ensuring that each person is heard on the points each wishes to address and making sure that the consultations remain on topic. With only ONE vote. The chair votes as does everyone else. The chair has no preponderant vote. In other words, the chair votes on every issue and represents one vote only. In some groups, where there is a tie vote, the side the Chair votes with will carry a motion. How absurd! Under the consultative model, the Chair isn't restricted to voting only when a tie must be broken, and his or her vote counts as just one vote.

2. Consensus: the aim of consultation. The aim of consultation is to arrive at a common consensus without having to incur the disunity of voting on opposing sides of a resolution. If the participants are mature in their deliberations, there will likely be no need for a vote.

3. Take five. If you do indeed find that there is no agreement on what you are discussing, don't be afraid to step away from it and return to it later or at a subsequent meeting. Surprisingly, most of us in interfaith dialogue groups tend to forget that when matters are at loggerheads is the best time to stop, pray and meditate.

4. Leave your baggage at the door. So you don't like Buddhists and you positively loathe evangelistic Christians. You think Joe is too old, Selena is too young, Selim is completely off the wall and you feel threatened by the smart younger fellow (though you give yourself another more self-flattering reason for rejecting his every idea). Too bad!

Once the meeting begins, all the labels are suspended. That also goes for people you like or to whom you may be related. If a consultation is about finding the truth, any pre-conceived notions or biases you bring into the meeting will prevent the truth from emerging. Just because you are Jewish doesn't mean you can't support a point raised by a Muslim or oppose one raised by a fellow Jew. All the identities are suspended in a true consultation. This also means you'll have to do some soul-searching of your own. When you come to the meeting, attempt to suspend the notions you have about yourself. If you are an All-Believer, allow yourself the room to accept that some plain wrong ideas are going to come up. If you are a Pious Prophet, remember that you are equal to everyone else in the room--not superior. If you are an Intellectual, remember that in true consultation sometimes the most untutored soul will come up with the idea that saves the day.

Don't arrive with a hidden agenda expecting to get your own way or to ioram throughlg your pet project. This will create opposition and discord and will prevent the truth from arising.

5. The Clash of Opinions. The truth emerges when opinions clash. But it cannot come forth when personalities clash. Personalities clash when people take ownership of an idea. When people bring other ideas to attack the one you have put forth, you feel as though you are being attacked personally. There's no room for pride in true consultation.

Worst of all, the others rub it in by incessantly identifying the flawed idea with you. To compound things, a weak chair will allow undisciplined participants to keep repeating the same attacks on your idea. What's the net effect? Well, you launched a trial balloon and then you got to hear six or seven people attack it while associating it with your name--one would have been enough. That makes you feel lousy, especially since you could see the idea was flawed after the first person harpooned it. But a weak chair has forced you,, to listen to you and your idea get trashed for half an hour. And if you're really lucky, yet another person will attack the idea after the consultation or at the next meeting of the group. It's no wonder some people refuse to speak up in groups.

However, when opinions clash without reference to personality, the shining spark of truth can emerge.

6. The Right to Change Your Mind. Because of our news media, we have become accustomed to a sort of cat-and-mouse chase where people's opinions and beliefs are concerned. The media corner the politician: "Well, Senator, 22 years ago you held a different view on this matter. Is this some kind of flip-flop?" Since when did we lose the right to change our views, to grow and perhaps even renounce positions we once held? I don't remember ever giving up that right, do you? People should also be allowed to change opinions and the processes in any interfaith dialogue up until the time the decision is made final by the group.

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