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Embrace Dissonance and Difference

Darryl Wallis

Encourage your group to honour contradictory viewpoints, sitting with the uncertainty and ambiguity this brings. Acknowledge all perspectives as equally valid and explore them as fully as needed, especially when tensions are high and agreement seems far away.


[old edit: consider adding a dimension of transcendence into this pattern...]

Disagreement is natural. It's unrealistic to expect everyone to think the same way or have the same opinion, and the more invested people are in the outcome, the more charged the conversation is likely to become. Group sessions may encounter differences, divergences and dissonances for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • different worldviews or cultures,
  • different conversational styles (aggressive, shy),
  • different knowledge levels and understandings,
  • power dynamics,
  • stressful circumstances or sense of urgency.

Facilitators of group process must hold these differences, even when this is difficult, because otherwise the outcome of the session will:

  • lack consensus,
  • allow bullies to prevail,
  • have participants disengage or quietly sabotage the process,
  • gloss over important disagreements or misunderstandings,
  • suppress important truths, and/or
  • discourage authentic participation.

Facilitators need to be alert for situations and environments in which these circumstances are to be expected, and alert when they actually arise, both overtly and subtly (as evidenced by body language, unequal participation, raised voices, etc.). When such disturbances do arise, part of what a group needs is to be reassured that it's ok and a natural part of the process.

Instructions: Some techniques that can be applied to hold difference/dissonance include:

  • recognizing, acknowledging and naming differences and dissonances and their manifestations, to bring them out into the open
  • holding open differences and not glossing over them, and sometimes actually provoking them to engender creative tension, encouraging diverse views to be aired and illuminating conflicting perceptions to produce understanding
  • acknowledging that many differences are unexpressed and visceral/somatic, and are evidenced by what is not said more than what is said
  • recognizing cultural differences and adapting facilitation style to them (e.g. Japanese reticence to overtly disagree)
  • anticipating, preparing for and coping with 'surprise' differences and dissonances as they arise (e.g. recognizing the power dynamics of the group and the personality types of participants)
  • appreciating that sometimes surprise is good
  • holding open differences and not glossing over them, and sometimes actually provoking them to engender creative tension, encouraging diverse views to be aired and illuminating conflicting perceptions to produce understanding
  • drawing out and empowering "wall-flowers" and inarticulate speakers; Shared Airtime
  • avoiding making unreasonable promises, commitments or raising expectations too high
  • using introductions, level-setting exercises (e.g. 5-minute university to bring everyone up to a level of understanding) etc. to lower anxiety, build trust and lessen power advantage
  • using humour to discharge unhealthy tension and conflict
  • honouring the space as 'safe' and the value of all participants, of diversity, and of constructive differences; Creating a Container
  • allowing the group to agree in advance on Ground Rules of civility that work for all, that encourage candour without hurting feelings or requiring participants to take undue risks
  • making clear that views expressed stay in the room, and that confidentiality and respect are sacred
  • trusting the process -- not short-circuiting it when differences arise
  • using buddies to help explain and cool down participants who are feeling overwhelmed, confused or hostile
  • helping participants see different viewpoints by reframing, and encouraging discussion of differences honestly but politiely, and without pushing for convergence or consensus if it doesn't appear to be forthcoming (sometimes dissensus is appropriate to surface and appreciate different viewpoints even if they ultimately cannot be reconciled)
  • preventing the session from being hijacked by bullies or power-brokers, or by impromptu us-vs.-them alliances
  • use of consensus and conflict resolution techniques as appropriate
  • teasing out the issues that are process issues, ideological issues, and personal issues
  • using "knowledge management" in advance of the session to ensure that the data, premises and assumptions that the group session is based on are not wrong, biased or flawed

Cautions & Caveats:

  • beware of being set up by session organizers to validate pre-determined decisions
  • some environments are inherently unsafe, and some have the illusion of being safe when they aren't
  • holding difference often gets more difficult as group size increases
  • since there is no certain and complete knowledge there is often no "absolute" truth and the search for such truth can be futile and divisive: know how "frames" work (positively and as a tool to manipulate and substitute emotional for rational argument)

Jerry Michalski is a master of holding differences. He uses Quaker techniques (e.g. silences when differences become too emotional), and intervenes frequently in discussions whenever there is unfairness, lack of clarity, power politics or over-emotionalism, naming the cause of the tension and suggesting ways to resolve it without glossing over essential differences. In this way he is able to encourage differences and dissonances, often several at once in a group discussion, while actively teaching participants how to appreciate and help hold open space for these differences.


"Peace is conflict done well." --Brandon WilliamsCraig