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An interview with Dr. Neils Christiansen
Born and raised in southern California, Neils Christiansen obtained a B.Sc. in Forestry at the University of Idaho in 1957, followed by an M.Sc. in Forestry Economics at the State University of New York, College of Forestry in 1959. Following a year and a-half as a forest economist for the U.S. Forest Service in Charlottesville, Virginia, Neils returned to the College of Forestry in New York as an instructor in Forestry Economics and began work on a Ph.D., which he completed in 1966. Remaining at the College as an Associate Professor until 1981, Neils taught graduate and undergraduate courses in forestry economics and management. During the last four years of his tenure Neils worked as a Resource Economist on the Clean Lakes Program for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencyís Program in Corvallis, Oregon.
In 1992 Neils met his wife, Dorothy Argent, a resident of Salmon Arm, British Columbia. He moved to Salmon Arm, becoming active in the life of the community and formed, along with Dorothy, ARCH Consultants. It was at this time that Neils was introduced to the facilitation techniques developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs, (ICA). He has been amazed at the way the techniques can build consensus and team work to arrive at a plan of action agreed to by all participants. Neils has a reputation as a skilled facilitator.
In 1992 Neils helped found the Salmon River Watershed Roundtable, which has achieved a worldwide reputation as a grassroots driven, multi-stakeholder and consensus-based community group. Neils served as its Chair, and worked as well on the Planning and Executive Committees. He was the representative to the Okanagan-Shuswap LRMP, a provincial land-use-planning process. Neils is also Vice Chair of the BC Watershed Stewardship Alliance, a province-wide organization.
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Alida Hilbrander, World Service Association, (WSA): Neils do I understand correctly that you are the President of the Salmon River Watershed Roundtable?
Neils Christiansen, (NC): No, the Chair of the Roundtable is Jamie Felhauer, I was Chair before her for two years and I followed after Dorothy, (Neilsí wife, Dorothy Argent), who had been Chair for three years. She succeeded Dennis Lapierre, who also was Chair for some years. Jamie is also Chair of the Salmon River Watershed Society, which is a non-profit society. The non-profit society is the legal structure.
WSA: In our pre-discussion on Unanimity you mentioned that there are blocks to unanimity and a certain technique that you apply to get through those blocks. Can you elaborate on that?
NC: In any application to groups there are, in my opinion, two elements that are important: One, that is crucial, is a vision of what the group wants to move towards. In the case of the Roundtable that is a healthy watershed. By watershed I do not mean just a piece of land that drains precipitation into some waterway, but everything that happens on that land, everything that affects the people, the plants and the animals. It is necessary to have some kind of vision, which is more or less agreed upon. Everybody will have their particular take on it, but they need a channel for common understanding. The other element that is important is a vision about process and that is where unanimity, from my point of view, comes in. It is not necessary that the people have a vision about being unanimous or approaching unanimity. However, it is important for me when I am working with a group, to have a vision that unanimity, or some approximation of it, is possible. So, as I work with a group I actually have two visions in mind: one is this process of trying to achieve unanimity, and the other is what the group generates as their purpose or goal. And both of them are crucial.
I find some, what I call new age, descriptions of unanimity and ideas that we are all One to be fairly superficial. I do not disagree with the fact that we are all One in a certain sense, but it is often used with no apparent recognition of the fact that while we are all One, we are also all individuals. I hear people say that because we are all One we need to simply acknowledge that fact. But there is more to it than that.
WSA: That is why we want a grounded opinion on what Unanimity is in reality. How do you apply it? It must have a practical application.
NC: Well, in the work that I do with developing consensus- based plans I had never thought in terms of unanimity. However, when you suggested having an interview it made me think along those lines. I do not disagree with the concept, but unanimity in a practical sense is very difficult to come by, at least in the way I interpret unanimity. If we talk of unanimity in terms of a vision, unanimity in terms of a plan, unanimity means that we are all of one mind that we all agree totally. And I think that is impossible. I am not even saying that it is difficult, it is actually impossible. Now that does not mean that we need be in conflict. The reason that I say impossible is that each one of us, by virtue of the diversity in our genes, experiences, interests and goals, has a certain mental makeup.
Take, for example this Croton (plant), we both look at it and are talking about it. Your concept of that Croton is unique to you for even when we are looking at the same plant we see different things. If we then move to something abstract like a healthy watershed, the diversity in what that means is huge and I believe is unique to each person. So, while a group can come to an agreement to do this or that each has a different understanding of what that means. So I donít believe that unanimity is possible. I do think that it is entirely possible for a group to come to an agreement, a long-standing agreement, on what they are going to do and how they are going to do it,. Then, as they step through time, they can create more and more detailed plans that work. But I prefer the term consensus. Consensus also has various meanings but the one I use is that everyone involved accepts the idea, description, plan, or whatever.
To some, it may not be terribly appealing but they are willing to accept it. And not grudgingly, for if it is grudgingly then they are not really accepting it. As long as everybody in the room is at least OK with it, and hopefully there are a few people who are enthusiastic, then I believe you have consensus. Consensus arises through collaboration although that does not need to be explicit. I mean people do not have to agree that they are going to collaborate, it may just happen. But for it to happen there must be some ideas and attitudes that need to be expressed.
WSA: But is not that unanimity, the idea, that is expressed in having a healthy watershed? Is not that your unanimous decision?
NC: Yes, as long as it is understood that we are all unanimous in working towards a healthy watershed and we all have our notions of what that means. A group may do a visioning exercise and the resulting vision is a healthy watershed, everybody says great, and then they start working towards how to get there, they need some plans. As soon as they start doing that they will discover that there are differences in what various people consider a healthy watershed. Then they need to work through those differences.
WSA: So it will become part of a mosaic.
NC: Within the Watershed Roundtable we have created a grand vision, although we do not actually describe anything as our vision. We move towards that vision step by step, wherever there is enough agreement that people are willing to spend their time to work out the details and perhaps some disagreements. Wherever there are big disagreements, we put these aside and someday we will get to them. The interesting thing is that as we work through the small disagreements, attitudes seem to change and the consensus grows stronger and stronger.
WSA: How diverse a group is it? What kind of people, or groups of people, gather around the table?
NC: What we call our community of interest, and everybody in the community has an interest, is eligible to participate. Not all of them do. Our community of interest includes anybody who has a legitimate interest in the watershed. Anybody who lives there, any business that operates in the watershed, any other organization that operates in the watershed, and agencies whose mandate bring them into the watershed. There are about 7000 residents, and there are about 127 government agencies that have some interest in the watershed. That is local, provincial and federal government and First Nations people, who also view themselves as a level of government.
WSA: So, when you are meeting, who is represented?
NC: When we got started, before we actually called ourselves a Roundtable, that was when Dorothy was a Councillor for the District of Salmon Arm, a few people showed up at the Environmental Management Committee, which was her responsibility.
Meetings were held once a month. A few people showed up with an interest in the river. Some of them were landowners losing away fields during Spring freshet and some of them were natives, concerned about the salmon run which had seriously declined. Gradually, more and more people came. Then we got a fair amount of money to do some big planning. We held community meetings, we had a big strategic planning session on a weekend in December 95, and a rather large number of people participated. Still, it was a very small percentage of the 7000 residents and 127 agencies. But we had a fair number of people who were attending meetings and actively participating. Since that time participation in meetings has steadily declined. In one sense I understand it and think it reasonable and in another sense it worries me. The reasonable part is, going back to the diversity you asked about, that most of the residents are people with an agricultural interest. Either they earn a living in the valley from agriculture or work in town, but live on 10 acres or so as a hobby farm. Agricultural people tend to be action oriented. It is not that they donít think, many are excellent thinkers, but they are not inclined to sit in an office and think about theories or plans. They look at their property and say 'How do I get water to my cattle', or something like that. They are action oriented; they use their thinking to solve problems on the ground. As a group they are not attracted to meetings, they go to a meeting only if they see some significant reason. If the meeting is likely to affect their property or their interests, they will attend. Otherwise it is like, let somebody else take care of it.
As the Roundtable finished its major planning process, meanwhile by doing things on the ground, people in the valley have come to respect the Roundtable. Initially they were suspicious. They were fearful because there were rumours going around that they were going to lose their water-licenses, which, of course, are very critical and other similar comments. None of which were true. This fear has diminished over time and, by and large people, no longer fear what is going to happen to them.
WSA: So a level of trust has been reached?
NC: Yes, and consequently, unless some meeting is dealing with a topic that really grabs them, they will not come to the meeting. It must be really significant to their interest or threatening their interest. That is OK, that is reasonable, everybody has other uses for their time. So, when we make work-plans almost nobody shows up except for the Executive Committee. Thatís because nobody figures they are going to have much impact and that when the work gets around to their property, they will have an opportunity to participate, if they want to. That is the part that is reasonable.
The part that worries me is that our society through its emphasis on individuality and competition, is not very skilled in consensus building. We are not very skilled in listening to one another and building on one anotherís ideas. We tend, as a society, to hear an idea and immediately think that it threaten our interests. Then we go into a defensive mode. In the early days I saw those meetings not only as to producing plans, but as providing practice in consensus-building. Not just about water, fish and agriculture and so on, but also about learning how to work together, to collaborate. That is the part that worries me, because sooner or later, down the line, some big issue is going to come up. I would like to see the people come together to deal with that issue having some significant experience in consensus processes.
WSA: But donít you think that there are instances where that is happening, where people are forced to? I am thinking of, for example, the Silver Creek fire, when the whole community comes together and when even the media is involved in helping people to solve issues and inform the people on what is happening?
NC: Yes and no. Emergencies do bring people together and they can engender a community spirit that is marvellous to observe. However they can also bring all kinds of conflict and we saw that with the Silver Creek fire. After the fire there were people who thought the province should cover their losses, and the province said no, you should have had adequate insurance, and there were all kinds of conflict. Maybe it is all a mixture of unanimity and individuality.
Now speaking about the blocks, I talked about how our society functions and the kind of norms that have been created around individuality and competition, some peopleís style being aggressive and so on. If we go from the societal level to the individual level, we are all programmed, genetically programmed, to give survival first priority. If my interests in the community are significantly threatened, I go into survival mode. When anybody goes into survival mode the area of the brain called the primitive brain takes over and the fore-brain, where our sense of community, our sense of oneness resides, shuts down. Or, if it does not shut down it is captured by the primitive brain, which uses the forebrainís analytical ability to support survival.
All of us have had threatening experiences in the past which we have stored. Those memories are all to easily triggered by some current, seemingly similar, experience. So, when a group of people begin to work together, everybody has their triggers and their blocks. The challenge is to minimize their negative impact. A group that is experienced and skilful in dealing with their own stuff can do so without a facilitator, if they are mature enough, but that is very rare. When a group is successful without a facilitator I think it is partly because they recognize their triggers and know how to deal with the erroneous messages from the past. Even the best of us get caught in our emotional memories without even realizing it. If there are people in the group that are skilful they can help the person move beyond it. I think that level of maturity within a group is unusual. So, a facilitator is helpful to design and guide a process that will minimize the likelihood of triggers arising, and if they do come up to recognize their presence and to help deal them.
I have found in my own work as a facilitator that I tend to be more skilled in structured group processes. Dorothy is more skilled than I in an open meeting in taking ideas and weaving them together. We both can do the other technique, but each of us is stronger in our own approach.
WSA: Within this facilitation process I have often been impressed with the diversity within certain groups. Do they all have the potential for consensus and unanimity when you apply this technique? In the same way as the Roundtable?
NC: Yes, absolutely! That is to say they can agree on a plan and then they can implement the plan working out this, that and the other thing. However, there have been instances where I worked with groups that seemed to agree on a plan but there was no follow through. In one case, I was working with a province-wide, non-profit organization that had a staff and an executive director. I was brought in by the president to help create a strategic plan. I did not meet with the executive director before the planning session except that we had several phone conversations, the president, the executive director and I. I gathered that she was not particularly enthusiastic, but I did not pick up that she was actually against the whole thing. About 20 people attended and I thought it was an excellent meeting. We formulated a vision, identified a structure and created some directions. At the end of two days we had a strategic plan. The vibes in the room seemed very supportive.
However, the strategic plan suggested going in a certain direction while the executive director wanted to go in a different direction. She put the report on a shelf until the presidentís tenure ran out and he was replaced. Then she took the plan in her desired direction. It was a case where I thought I had up-front agreement, but I did not. The plan threatened her vision. Instead of raising her concerns during the meeting and looking for some common ground, she just sat quiet and then ignored it.
WSA: There must often be a situation where people agree to disagree.
NC: Yes and her participation was crucial because she was in the position to apply it or kill it. Her concurrence was critical and I did not pick up on her negative views.
WSA: Neils, how did you get into this? You obviously have a passion for groups, how did this grow in your life - your experience with facilitation and taking training in it?
NC: I do not know, in a fundamental sense where it comes from, but when I look back at my life I can identify certain important points. When I was at the university I was on a faculty committee and after a couple of years I became Chair. We decided that we wanted certain policies adopted by the faculty at large. We had to formulate these policies and present at a faculty meeting. I learned that the image of a university faculty as being a collegiate group of individuals working for a common good around knowledge is a totally erroneous image. University faculties are made up of stubborn individuals who will fight to the last breath for their view.
Quite a number of years later I was living in an intentional community. I went there with the idea of developing and teaching some environmental education courses. I knew they were an intentional community, which neither particularly repelled or attracted me. I went along with it for the opportunity of doing what I wanted to do. It was an egalitarian community and their decisions were made by consensus. I remember sitting through hour after hour after hour with the group trying to achieve consensus. However, one or more individuals hung on to their view, which precluded consensus. I came away from that experience with the view that consensus was impossible.
After I moved here Dorothy and I connected with Wayne Jones around the idea of World Peace University. Wayne suggested I take some courses with the Institute Of Cultural Affairs (ICA). The very first was called Introduction to Group Facilitation. They had techniques for dealing with very practical problems like planning a party or creating an annual work plan. There was the focused conversation method and the workshop method. Those were combined in the action plan method. There was no guarantee of consensus, but the whole thing was structured in such a way that consensus just seemed to naturally occur. The participants were not bowled over, everybody had a chance to contribute. The process took individual ideas and put them together in a way that allowed people to agree. Then I took a second course on the strategic planning method. Then a third course on the philosophy of strategic of facilitation.
The Institute of Cultural Affairs had been in existence, at that time, for something like thirty years, working around the world with learning theories and group dynamics and developing their techniques. I came out of that very first workshop thinking, my God, consensus can work!
Almost immediately after the first course I got involved in the very first action plan that I ever facilitated. Although it was supposed to be a strategic plan I used the action plan (it was the only one I knew) and it worked! This was barely a week after the workshop so it was all fresh in my head. I got to practice it. Then I facilitation another action plan. It was good that I practised right away because in another few months the processes would have faded from my memory.
WSA: It is an awesome process. I have done a few of these sessions with you and even the one where you trained others in this facilitation process of strategic planning and action plans.
NC: Yes, and there are some principles involved: everybody gets a chance to participate. In the process nobodyís ideas are left out, so no one has to fight for their ideas. The workshop method starts with individual brainstorming, they share their ideas with their neighbours, and then ideas are put up on the board. It is a step-wise process that gets everybody involved. Everybody participates in all the steps. Everyone helps organize the ideas into categories and then to name them. The category names turn out to be the answers to the question that started the whole process. Some individual items under each named category may be totally of the wall, but nobody is ever told that. You donít have to deal with that. The individual items are the means to the category names, which are the important results. So the idea of everybody participating, treating all ideas with respect, somehow or other bypasses all this competition.
You will find, occasionally, somebody who wants to dominate. But the structure is such that it is easy to avoid such efforts. In an ordinary meeting there is a chair who recognizes someone who wants to say something. If that person wants to dominate they can go on and on and the Chair has to find a way to stop them in a non-offensive way. However, with the ICA technique nobody is ever given the floor. Everybody is participating but nobody is given the floor. So you never have to take it back. That I find very fascinating.
WSA: This is interesting because we went from the Roundtable to this facilitation process of the Institute of Cultural Affairs, which actually gives you the most kind of consensus and the potential for unanimity. If you want to look at unanimity it is actually like a star, you always reach for that star. It is a goal you actually never quite get to.
NC: Well, it is the philosophy and the concept, it is the vision that is worth reaching for. And for the facilitator it is crucial. The group does not, necessarily, need to have that notion. They need to make some decisions and reach some kind of consensus, but they do not need an elaborate philosophy spelled out for them.
WSA: Can I ask you another question? Coming back to the Roundtable, you briefly mentioned the native community and how they are involved with the Salmon run. I like the idea of bridging with First Nations people. How is the Roundtable a bridge? How are they involved and how are they acknowledged?
NC: They have interests and their ideas need to be given as much credence as everybody else. On the other hand they should not dominate and need to recognize that otherís ideas are also valid. Because of significant cultural differences you would have a hard time getting consensus on really big questions. I think to proceed in the way we do, where we take practical issues on the river or on the ground, and we asked what do we want to achieve here? The cultures have enough in common that Natives and non-natives could agree on a concept or a plan. When it got into the details, we worked with relatively small chunks and could find commonality. If you back up and look at the social structure of the non-native and you look at the traditional social structure of the Native, they are so different. It takes time for each to learn and understand the other, more time than available in any ordinary planning process.
In the Roundtable, we said there are big issues. These are the subject of treaties and other political processes. We acknowledged that everybody needs to make their contribution to the political processes to sort all of that out. But we left politics at the door and we focused on the watershed. And that worked.
It is also true that the Natives were fearful of weakening their position in the treaty making process and we had to be sensitive to that. Mary Thomas (Shuswap Elder) has been very instrumental in the Roundtable. It was really her work with Dorothy that kicked off the Native/non-native dialogue in the watershed. Over the years she has staunchly supported the Roundtable. There is a Native on the Executive Committee who says he is there because Mary told him to participate! She could do this as an Elder, consensus was automatic!
WSA: Neils, thank you for this interview and elaborating on this process that you have found has worked so well with people in a group working together towards a common vision and a common goal. It is a model that is well worth exploring and for others to follow.
NC: There are still a couple of things I want to mention in concluding. If we are all One and we are also individuals, then each of us is like a facet on a diamond. If any facet is dirty or somehow does not transmit the light properly, the diamond loses its brilliance. Or, if the diamond has not yet been cut, if it has just come out of the ground, its brilliance is not yet realized. Through a combination of facilitation and individual growth, we need, as individuals, to go through some kind of transformation that cuts through our blocks and allows us to contribute to the brilliance of collective wisdom.
If any group, and ideally our whole society, would ever shine with the brilliance of a beautiful diamond, then a continual process of individual transformation is required. In any practical situation when a group gets together to work on something, they, collectively, are like a diamond, but none of the facets are in the right place or some of the facets need polishing. So in the sense of the ideal you are talking about, in the sense of unanimity, we need to work on group processes to be more efficient. And, we need to work on ourselves as individuals to make our contributions more effective.
WSA: Thank you, Neils.
Universal Laws Committee
The World Service Association - P.O. Box 733, Salmon Arm, BC. V1E 4N8
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