Take Time to Save Time: On Human Relationships and Problem-Solving

By Ryan Golten

Imagine you’re convening a group to recommend how best to meet a state’s carbon targets, or to suggest zoning changes for more affordable housing, or to provide input on accessible public transportation. The effort may take three months or two years. The group may be asked to make a consensus decision, or it may simply be asked for advice. While technical in nature, each policy effort involves a group of people working together to solve a problem. As such, each involves the nuances of human relationships along with related questions: How much do I trust other group members to understand and care about my viewpoints? How much do I care about theirs and the interests they represent? To what extent am I motivated to find a solution that works for all of us? 

This human dimension of complex problem-solving raises tricky questions, especially when there’s an urgency around the technical objectives. How much time should a group invest in hearing each other’s stories—what matters to each member, and why—before delving into data-heavy work? And even if it makes sense to build relationships in a long-term or higher-stakes process, isn’t it a potential waste of precious time in shorter efforts, when deadlines loom and there’s so much “substantive” work to be done?  

If you too have some skepticism about the significance of human dynamics in such instances, consider how many times you have sat through a meeting and disagreed strongly with what was being shared but kept your mouth shut. Maybe you didn’t feel comfortable enough with the group to risk sharing your views. Maybe you didn’t feel invested enough to go through the trouble of articulating your thoughts. As a result, some crucial perspective was lost. We inevitably hear the loudest voices in any group process, but in my experience, we don’t hear all voices until people have a basic sense of connection and trust—that is, until they feel seen and included, until they feel their interest will be valuable to the enterprise. And as Caroline Elkins, Frances Frei, and Anne Morris have noted recently in The New York Times, not only does creating a sense of belonging allow us to hear diverse viewpoints, it leads to better outcomes.

A recent experience with curtailing the human side once again reinforced this point for me. A group I was facilitating was to provide input on a new city policy, not a consensus decision. The city—let’s call it Mountainside—was up against a deadline. Moreover, after interviewing each participant, there appeared to be less conflict than we originally suspected. The staff and I decided we would dive quickly into reviewing the policy context and options, after establishing basic group norms and purpose. Building trust among members seemed a bit superfluous given the group’s limited charge and the technical nature of the issues. We were all business. 

Turns out “all business” wasn’t particularly efficient, or effective. In Mountainside, I realized our mistake when people swiftly went back to their original corners with seemingly no ability to think about the collective interests involved. It was clear we had to retrofit the process to build in the relational. We needed folks to care about, or at least see the value in, satisfying everyone’s interests. We started asking the members to share their stories in small groups, to help explain their constituency’s views. I coached some of them to open up with greater vulnerability and made the strategic case for empathy. We devoted more time to reflection on differing interests. We reorientated ourselves around group members’ true needs and concerns, rather than generalized principles that had clearly not been sufficiently “owned” by the group. 

Yes, there are lots of good reasons to get down to business. With so many demands and deadlines competing for our time, you’d better have a good case for asking anyone to invest a valuable couple of hours on anything. Particularly for folks who are asked to participate in lots of public processes, it can take a lot of nerve to ask someone—yet again—to get into a small group with strangers and talk—yet again—about what motivates or keeps them up at night about a certain issue. 

The problem with collaborations that skip building trust and mutual understanding may not become apparent until much later. When policies start getting negotiated and members focus on their groups’ bottom lines, the possibility for magic are immeasurably reduced if members haven’t invested the time with each other to understand, much less care about, their different perspectives. This can affect the output of the group, and it diminishes the likelihood of lasting relationships and opportunities to solve problems together down the road. It’s hard to reverse such things.

In a collaborative process, each stakeholder represents important interests, perspectives, and values. That’s why they’re all there. If we don’t hear from everyone, our solutions are weaker and less durable, or we may be unable to come to shared solutions at all. Not only do we lack information about stakeholders’ needs, we miss the opportunity to see each other’s humanity and thus actually care about those needs. Studies consistently show that we change or open our minds not by persuasion but by hearing others’ stories. 

As a mediator and facilitator, I’m often asked to weigh the benefits of investing time in a process with the costs of spending or asking others to invest that time. One thing is for sure: if we are going to ask people to put down their many other tasks to participate in policy change as a group, it should meaningfully connect every participant to different perspectives—which in turn means that it should, in at least some tiny way, change how they see the world.