David Massey

November 18, 2018 at 12:25 pm

How can you build consensus when you don’t speak the language?


Working as a facilitator I recently travelled to Vanuatu (google it) then to Beijing and finally to Almaty in Kazakhstan. Beach weather in the South Pacific, smog in China and snow on the ground in the ninth biggest country on the planet (and the largest with no open sea).

But as I changed countries, time zones and cultures my mission was constant: enable people from different places to define their national priorities and reach agreement on their food safety goals that would feed into the Strategic Plan 2020-2025 of the Codex Alimentarius, the international food standard setting body set up in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Building consensus

I use the techniques because they work

The reason I am such a big fan of The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) Technology of Participation (ToP) techniques is primarily because they work! I am fortunate to collaborate with large UN agencies whose mission is frequently to reach consensus across countries and across cultures – even at times across science. But the physical locations in many of the institutional buildings I have visited and worked in are hierarchical and immoveable; no space to move, no room for creativity and visualisation beyond the ubiquitous video projector.

So, I land in Almaty on a freezing Sunday evening knowing that English will not be the only language on the menu. Interpretation had been planned for all the Russian speakers in the region but what did that mean for my consensus workshop ideas?

Sofya and Gaukhar interpret the message

I am very used to seeing the wonderful teams of interpreters who work on international meetings, locked away in their booths, so it was with great delight that the team assigned in Almaty was willing to help out and allow the group of 35 participants who had gathered in Almaty to get up, move about, use the facilitation wall and generate such creativity and energy whilst not losing anything in translation.

As a facilitator I am always on the look out for who is not speaking – you never want to miss the possibility that he or she may have a particular insight that can resonate with the group but thanks to the interpreting team and the willingness of the group to engage we were able to run the consensus workshop in English and Russian and get everybody involved whether they were aged 25 or 70.

When it came to reading the cards we were plotting, I would do those in English and participants heard the Russian through their headsets. Then Sofya read out the Russian which was both translated back into English by Gaukhar through the interpretation system or read aloud in both languages from the wall, so my colleagues could add a key word in English to the cards under the Russian text.

ORID: I is for interpretive or interpretation?

I was also worried about discussions on naming the categories we had plotted on the wall, but at this interpretive level – where I really wanted the deeper thinking that would give the group direction – the team once again worked together almost as if we were working in one language. I have to thank here many of the participants who although they were predominantly using Russian, had enough English and courage to blend the two languages in their answers. This additional collaboration also enrichened the quality of the consensus we were working towards.

Consensus workshop

Planning for success

The plan to attempt this facilitation in two languages had been devised weeks earlier but when the whole team pulled it off there was a sense of relief and satisfaction. Let’s hope the follow up work brings equally satisfying results and that countries head in the direction that will build a strategic plan for 2020-2025 that they have agreed on and that they can actually see themselves in.

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