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.
However, in fairness, once a decision is made, that's it. If you have bold and brave new evidence that encourages you to ask that the matter be re-opened, that's fine.
How to Handle Different Types of People
Talkative types. You may have long-winded or know-it-all participants who have lengthy opinions and condescending tones to their comments. The methods that I have found successful in dealing with such people is first of all, have the chair reduce eye contact with the long-winded speaker. If the chair is looking elsewhere or at his or her notes, the long-winded type will lose an audience and gradually peter out. If this is not successful, then a careful chair will listen attentively, wait for the person to inhale, and then quickly jump in and ask the person to rap up his or her point or may simply thank the person and recognize the next speaker. There is no harm in telling the group that you want to ensure that everyone is given an equal opportunity to speak. You must do this without singling out an individual. Over a period of time, this will cause the long-winded person to speak less and more directly to the point.
Silent types. Quite the opposite, the reluctant participant may avoid speaking because of shyness or because he or she is content to listen to others or is hiding something. As chair, you should make every effort to allow the withdrawn types to express themselves on all key issues. This may mean going around the room or circle and asking each person if they have something to add. You may also find this type of person is more willing to speak in a smaller group or one-on-one.
Misinformed types. The erroneous group member inadvertently provides the group with inaccurate information. Often enough, a inknow-it-alll. will jump in and let the erroneous person know that he or she is iswrongls by saying something like, "Your facts are wrong" or "Mr. Smith's facts are not accurate." This type of statement identifies the person with the erroneous information and brands the person as "wrong." That shouldn't be acceptable. If you tell someone that he or she is wrong often enough, that person will eventually withdraw from the group. If it is critical that the erroneous information is refuted or corrected immediately, then another group member can say, "The facts that I have say...". Then you may allow the erroneous person to save face by responding, "I may have my facts wrong" or "I got my information from etc., etc."
Guilty types. Interfaith dialogue groups may also attract people who carry with them a burden of guilt (and perhaps shame) that is often played out in consultation. Remember, guilt and shame are too often fellow travellers of religion. These people do two destructive activities during consultation. First, they use the undifferentiated first-person plural ("we"). Second, they speak and act as though they themselves are acting with the authority of the group or some higher source.
I've seen it used to spread a feeling of crippling guilt to everyone in the room. For example, I've attended meetings where someone will make comments like "We don't pray enough" or "We aren't good at organizing" Please speak for yourself and yourself only.
Authority types. By the same token, you may have people in your group who have superior insights on many issues. Again, to attach a correct or popular position to a person is counterproductive. Every time you say "I agree with Anne" or "Ahmad's point reflects my opinion," you are again identifying an opinion with a person. Over a period of time this tends to lend authority to one or two people in the group so that they become first among equals. Here again, the process has become tilted. So, it is better to identify the substance of the opinion or fact rather than the person.
As a dialogue group you cannot afford to allow yourself to be tyrannized by anyone who claims to have "the truth". No one can claim to speak for the entire group, unless they have been assigned to do so by the group. It is the group's responsibility to ensure that responsibility is diffused and that no one, whether they founded the group or joined it recently, considers themselves the spokesperson for the group without prior group consent.