Collaboration and the Exploration of Interests
The Golden Key to Consenus
By Nicholas R.M. Martin, MA
as published in the
Autism Asperger's Digest,July-August 2010


“We could really use your help with this one,” said the director in an almost desperate tone. “We’ve got a mom who’s demanding that we allow her to personally attend school with her child because she doesn’t trust any of our staff to take care of her daughter’s special needs. Not only that, she’s bringing an advocate, one who’s often called ‘the piranha,’ and you’ll soon see why.”

This scenario is fictional but is based on my very real experiences as a facilitator of contentious special education meetings. Such an air of apprehension, mistrust, and even dread is all too common…on both “sides” of a table intended to have no sides at all! Instead of being opponents, millions of Americans are expected to work together as partners, harmoniously and effectively, whenever they attend special education planning sessions. The amazing (and alarming) fact, however, is that very few of these participants have ever been trained in how to work collaboratively and reach consensus. Without the appropriate skills and in situations where emotions often run high, consensus can become an almost impossible task.

Though names may vary from state to state, these meetings of school personnel, parents, and sometimes the student him- or herself, are usually called IEP meetings (for individualized education program). The purpose of the IEP “team” is first and foremost to safeguard a child’s entitlement to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), through an individualized education program (IEP). The intent of the law is to assure that children with disabilities will not be denied access to education and thus the opportunity to prepare for their futures as American citizens.

If the teams developing the IEPs are expected to work collaboratively towards consensus, what should this look like in practice? The dictionary defines collaboration as “working together.” We can clarify this process by remembering that real collaboration is always a process of sharing. Teams that are sharing are collaborating, and teams that are collaborating are sharing - sharing ideas, sharing time to speak, sharing courtesy, respect, and support. This is in sharp contrast to competing, demanding, controlling and debating. Thus the simple test of whether a team is collaborating toward consensus is: Are the members really sharing? If not, it is time to step back and restore true collaboration.

Sharing has two broad components: the form and the spirit. The form includes the skills for working together, such as communication skills, listening skills, coming prepared, staying on task, setting agendas, and having ground rules. It’s important to honor all such features of effective meeting management that help the members move toward their common objective of a well-designed plan for the child. The second component of sharing is equally critical, and that is the spirit in which all of these activities take place. Too often team members can have the “right words but the wrong music,” meaning they can lack positive attitudes, open minds and mutual respect. Recognizing these qualitative aspects and leading with the intention that a spirit of sharing be present will help ensure that the right spirit is, indeed, in place.

One of the most helpful skills in the collaboration toolbox is the exploration of underlying interests. It could be considered the royal road to consensus, yet is unfamiliar to many IEP team members. Given its enormous value, it may be well worth taking some time to consider it here.

Whenever people attempt to make decisions together, there is a great tendency to focus on what they want – their options – rather than why they want it – their underlying interests. People want things because they perceive some future benefit in having them. Whether the expectation is well founded or not is a different matter, but as good negotiators have come to understand, it is the anticipated benefits that need to be explored and understood first. A simple example may illustrate.

If we return to the opening scenario, the mother is adamant that she wants to attend school to personally provide services to her child, while the school professionals insist that the services be provided by school personnel. The mother counters that the school staff are being unreasonable and rigid. The staff members consider her to be overly protective and even paranoid. The advocate accuses the school personnel of being controlling and afraid to let outsiders see what really goes on in the classroom. The school personnel consider the advocate belligerent and rude. Each side is demonizing the other, their good intentions are not even recognized, collaboration has broken down, and at this rate, consensus may be impossible.

It is clear the participants are focusing on  the things they want rather than their interests in wanting them. Each “thing” is an option, a means to an end. Yet, how can teams possibly agree on a best option without first understanding where they are trying to go and the future benefits they are hoping to achieve? Very often, they can’t, and yet there’s a simple way to bring their focus back to what’s important: by remembering two simple words, “so that.”

If the members in this scenario left things/options aside for the moment, they might find that the mother wants to be the one to provide the classroom support so that she can be sure the child’s needs are promptly and appropriately met, so that the child will be safe, and so that she will not have to worry, because no one has had more experience with her child than she has. The school personnel prefer that school staff provide the services so that they can comply with certification standards, so that they can be appropriately accountable, and so that the child develops a degree of independence from her mother. Additionally, school staff want to provide the services so that confidentiality will be protected with regard to the other children in the classroom, so that other parents will not be uncomfortable, and so that a precedent will not be set whereby other parents could make similar demands. The advocate is attending the meeting so that her client’s thoughts and feelings will be heard and considered, and so that the school personnel comply with the law and safeguard the rights of the child. The list of anticipated benefits may be even longer, but already we can see what interests are motivating the parent, advocate and school personnel. We can summarize the anticipated future benefits as follows:

  • child’s needs are met promptly and appropriately
  • the child is safe
  • parents need not worry
  • compliance with certification standards
  • appropriate accountability
  • child develops independence
  • parents’ views are heard and considered
  • compliance with the law
  • safeguard the rights of the child
  • confidentiality of other students
  • comfort of other parents
  • avoid setting an awkward precedent

I always find that something amazing happens when team members take the time to explore each other’s interests. While individuals may differ with regard to the best options, they will almost always agree on, and even share, their interests! Who among the IEP committee members would disagree with the value of any of the items on the above list? Note also that every interest reflects a good intention; all team members mean well. This reflects a universal principle that summarizes this essential key to collaboration: “positions divide us but interests unite us.” In other words, we all want the same benefits (the safety of the child, qualified professionals, compliance with the law, appropriate accountability). The differences arise over the best pathways to achieve them, the options, in this case, of who should provide the services to the child in the classroom.

Many IEP team members have not yet learned how important it is to explore interests and how exactly to go about doing it. Yet this is where the magic lies. Some questions to ask for clarifying interests include:

  • How would this idea be helpful?
  • What do you see happening if we were to do this?
  • What benefits could we expect if we did that?
  • You must have good reasons; would you share them with the team?
  • What harm might there be if we did not do that?

If the members would then share their ideas in the spirit of sharing, they will soon prove to themselves how powerful and helpful such a process can be.

Once the interests are clearly in focus, it is time to turn to the options, the “what if’s” that may lead to agreements. What if the mother meets with the school providers to share ideas about the cues to watch for and how best to serve the child? What if the parent attends a few school classes as an observer? What if the parent volunteers in another room at the school so as to be nearby if needed? What if a plan is made for a trial period to see how it goes? The list of possible solutions is usually far greater than the members may realize, especially if they remain locked into positions, attached to their options (the things) as opposed to their interests (the anticipated benefits).

Having touched on collaboration, we can consider how teams achieve consensus. This now becomes very easy, because what is consensus except a “meeting of the minds” and finding an agreement that all members can support? Consensus is a natural outgrowth of collaboration: sharing ideas leads to sharing agreements. The two go hand in hand.

But what about when all else fails? What if the team has explored interests and shared ideas till the members are blue in the face and yet consensus still seems to elude them? The answer is the same as before: sharing ideas in the spirit of sharing. First, explore what it is that makes it so difficult for the team to come into agreement today; invite the members to share their ideas. Perhaps one member will say there is not enough data. Another might say the team is just tired. Others might say that open minds are needed. Someone might see differences in their understanding of the law or district policy. It is not necessary for the members to agree, only to articulate. Once the members have identified what they believe their obstacles to be, the next step is to collaboratively decide how best to proceed, whether through more testing, seeking expert advice, a chance to start fresh on another day, facilitation or mediation…whatever it might be. When all else fails, make agreements about the disagreements! As long as the ball remains in the collaborative court, the rest will almost always fall neatly into place.

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