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Enabling breakthrough in a polarized world

Adam Kahane
August, 2021


In a polarized world, how can we bridge our differences and move forward? The solution, according to Reos Partners Director Adam Kahane is transformative facilitation. He introduces this innovative approach to collaboration in his new book Facilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together

In this exclusive excerpt from the book, Adam draws on his experience bringing people together in the midst of contentious situations. In the example Adam shares here, the participants in his workshop had major political, ideological, economic, and cultural differences. Some were sworn enemies. As Adam explains, it is up to the facilitator to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of effective collaboration. With expert facilitation, progress is possible, but it can only be achieved if people are willing to cooperate and collaborate wholeheartedly.

“You Are Removing the Obstacles to the Expression of the Mystery!”

In the sunny outdoor restaurant of a small country hotel, a former guerilla commander and a wealthy businesswoman greet each other by name. The organizer of the workshop tells them he is surprised that they know each other. The businesswoman explains: “We met when I brought him the money to ransom a man who had been kidnapped by his soldiers.” The guerilla adds: “The reason we’re at this meeting is so that no one will have to do such things again.”

Transformative facilitation enables such breakthrough.

This workshop brought together a diverse group of leaders to talk about what they could do to contribute to transforming their country. Seventeen months earlier, in June 2016, the government of Colombia and the FARC (the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) movement had signed a treaty to end their fifty-two-year war, in which thousands had been kidnapped, hundreds of thousands killed, and millions displaced. In October 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of this long-struggled-for accomplishment. Santos appointed Francisco de Roux, the former head of the Jesuit order in Colombia and a renowned peacemaker, to be president of the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition, one of the bodies established to implement the treaty. After decades of being at one another’s throats, Colombians were now trying, amid much turmoil and trepidation, to break through and work together to construct a better future. Our workshop was part of this effort.

In January 2017, in the troubled southwest of the country, two civic-minded leaders, Manuel José Carvajal, a businessman with connections to the elite, and Manuel Ramiro Muñoz, a professor with connections to the grassroots, decided to organize a project to contribute to rebuilding that region’s society and economy. Their idea was to bring together leaders who were representative of all the region’s stakeholders: everyone with a stake in the future of the region and therefore an interest in making it better.

Carvajal and I had worked together twenty years earlier, so he knew my work, and now he and Muñoz engaged Reos Partners to support them in facilitating this new project. We helped them identify and enroll forty influential people from different sectors—politicians from different parties, former guerilla commanders, businesspeople, nonprofit managers, community activists—who, if they could collaborate, could make a real difference in the region. We also helped them get started on a yearlong program of work for this group, first to discuss what could happen in the future—a set of possible scenarios—and then what the group would do to create a better future—a set of initiatives. (In the years that followed, this group continued to grow their membership and their impact on the region.)

In November 2017, the first workshop of this group took place over three days at the country hotel. I was delighted that Francisco de Roux showed up: I had met him before and found him lively and interesting. I asked him why he had taken time away from his important national responsibilities to participate in this local event, and he said he wanted to learn about how we were enabling collaboration across diversity.

On the morning of the first day of the workshop, the participants were tense. They had major political, ideological, economic, and cultural differences, and major disagreements about what had happened in the region and what needed to happen. Some of them were enemies. Many of them had strong prejudices. Most of them felt at risk in being there; one politician insisted that no photographs be taken because he didn’t want it known that he was sitting down with his rivals. But all of them had shown up anyway, because they hoped that the effort could contribute to creating a better future.

Our facilitation team had organized the agenda of the first day as a structured series of exercises to enable the participants to get to know one another and to understand one another’s perspectives on what was happening and what they could do about it. In the first activity, they sat in a circle and each of them took one minute, timed with a bell, to introduce themselves. The activities that followed were precise and varied. Some were conducted all together in plenary and others in different groups of two, four, or six persons. Participants shared and synthesized their thinking using sticky notes, flip-chart paper, or toy bricks. They came together in the meeting room, at the restaurant, or on walks around the hotel grounds. Our facilitation team supported these activities attentively: arranging the workshop space, explaining the exercises, inviting everyone to participate.

By the end of this first, long day, the participants had begun to relax and to hope that they could do something worthwhile together. One of them said he had been amazed “to see the lion lie down with the lamb.” Then, when we all got up to go to dinner, de Roux rushed up to me, overflowing with excitement. “Now I see what you are doing!” he said. “You are removing the obstacles to the expression of the mystery!”

I knew de Roux was telling me something that was important to him—in Catholic theology, “the mystery” refers to the incomprehensible and unknowable mystery of God—but I didn’t understand what he thought this meant for what we had been doing in the workshop. Over dinner we talked for a long time and he patiently tried to give me a secular explanation: “Everything is a manifestation of the mystery. But you cannot predict or provoke or program it: it just emerges. Our key problem is that we obstruct this emergence, especially when our fears cause us to wall ourselves off.”

I found this conversation fascinating but baffling. I said, “I am not aware that I am doing what you say I am doing.” He shrugged and said, “Maybe that’s for the best.”

De Roux’s cryptic comments intrigued me. I understood that the mystery is intrinsically, well, mysterious—not in the sense of a mystery that is solved at the end of an Agatha Christie novel, but in the sense of something that is important but cannot be seen or grasped. Maybe, I thought, it was some sort of felt but invisible force, like gravity, that, if we could remove the obstacles, would pull us forward—like a mountain stream that, if we could remove the boulders that have tumbled in and are blocking and dispersing the water, water would run freely downhill in a strong, coherent flow.

To read further, order your copy of Facilitating Breakthrough today.

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