Beyond the Impossible

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 In her new book The Reindeer Chronicles (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020) award-winning science journalist Judith Schwartz follows a three-day consensus building workshop in Cabezon, New Mexico, led by Jeff Goebel of the Community Consensus Institute. Jeff is also a co-founder of the NM Healthy Soil Working Group. Excerpts of the chapter “Beyond the Impossible” are posted here with permission from the publisher.

Jeff Goebel was raised and spent much of his life in the Pacific Northwest, where his father taught range management at the university level. Jeff, too, pursued land management and conservation and worked with agencies like the USDA and US Department of Interior. Over time he observed that projects often stalled despite best intentions, and began to explore consensus work. “I saw great plans that sit on the shelf and nothing happens,” he says. “I didn’t want that. I wanted results. What makes things happen is a change in behavior, and that happens when belief systems change.” He defines consensus as “100 percent agreement to do the right thing.” He distinguishes this from compromise, which—though generally considered the ideal—means that everybody gives up something.

He has been inspired by the late Bob Chadwick, who developed consensus models for businesses, school systems, and land and resource conflicts. From all I’ve heard, Chadwick was a wise man, near sagelike in his trust of others and ability to suspend judgment. He brought together farmers, ranchers, tribal leaders, and environmentalists to create a common vision. Chadwick spoke about the human need to connect and be listened to. What’s important, he says, is that after a workshop “every person feels they have been seen.”

We do the impossible all the time—we just don’t recognize it.

Bob Chatwick

Community Consensus Institute is among many approaches people are using to address conflict, make decisions, and manage change. What unites these models is an invitation to bring one’s whole self into group processes. They also provide alternatives to the standard meeting format, which many people find disempowering due to time constraints, hierarchies, and the tendency for the same people to hog the megaphone.

There is for example Holistic Management (HM), developed and popularized by Allan Savory. An early adopter, Jeff has been a HM trainer since the mid-1980s. Holistic Management is not, as some people think, simply a strategy for managing livestock in the service of grassland restoration. It is actually a decision-making framework that can be applied to any management task, from running a farm or ranch to starting a business to crafting public policy. It happens to be ideally suited to the planning and implementation of grazing—fair enough, since the challenge of overseeing the multiple moving parts of grazing systems is what prompted Allan Savory to devise the model. Savory’s writings and presentations increasingly emphasize the need to shift from reductionist thought, which limits the capacity to manage complexity, to decision making based on a holistic context that clarifies and articulates values, needs, and goals.

After practicing Holistic Management in his work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), BIA, BLM, and USDA Forest Service, Jeff came to feel that, helpful as the model was, it hardly made a dent in the fears, lack of trust, and reluctance to change that leave promising plans languishing on the shelf. He started incorporating consensus in the 1990s, a period when he was Integrated Resource Management Planning (IRMP) coordinator with the Colville Confederated Tribes in eastern Washington.

At any given moment, both the worst and best possible outcomes are present. We can choose which one to pursue.

Jeff Goebel

Jeff emphasizes that at any given moment, worst and best possible outcomes are both present, and that we can choose. Worst possible outcomes tend to dominate our thinking because that’s what we’re wired for: It’s the fight-or-flight response that activates our adrenal system. (Jeff expresses this as a verb: Something “adrenalizes” us.) Confronting fears defuses their power, so we can focus on best possible outcomes and the beliefs, behaviors, strategies, and actions to bring them about.

Jeff talks a lot about how the mind works. In sessions he is deliberate about engaging both right and left sides of the brain—considered the realms, respectively, of emotion and cognition. His typical opening question, some variant of “What is the situation and how do you feel about it?,” is designed to tap both sides. He says the human brain is a powerful problem-solving tool: It is primed to solve problems, and so perceives situations from a problem-solution standpoint. This creates a tendency to define goals according to problems to be solved, an orientation that limits our ability to visualize what we want. What we regard as “the problem” is frequently a symptom of an underlying or systemic problem, a reality that a problem-solving approach may blind us to.

The crucible of this model is the shift between “worst possible outcomes” and “best possible outcomes,” that deliverance from despair to possibility. Getting there involves challenging the built-in tendencies of our own minds. Worst possible outcomes command our attention because our brains are signaling danger. This awakens the mechanisms that process fear, a response many times faster than conscious thought. Worst possible outcomes are based on our own past experiences and therefore feel real, even inescapable. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people believe the worst will transpire, it becomes more likely because their behavior aligns with that outcome.

“People often say they’re ‘pragmatic,’” says Jeff. “That’s code for accepting worst outcomes as the best we can do.” There’s that mischievous brain again: It thinks it’s doing us a favor by steeling us for a bad situation, when in doing so it actually steers us headlong toward it.

Closing circle at the recent Regenerative Agriculture Day, February 2020, Santa Fe, NM

I often think about these dynamics as I read and listen to the news. Articles and broadcast segments are increasingly framed as: “Why Climate Change Will Make [fill-in-the-blank] Worse,” or “How [some proposed policy] May Make Bad Things Happen.” Headlines are written to rivet our attention—you get the most clicks when you “adrenalize”—and they seize our attention because that’s how our brains work. Worst-case-scenario perseverating keeps everyone pumping stress hormones. This leaves us at once frozen and over- whelmed, unable to act or seek alternatives. In short, we stuff our heads with worst possible outcomes and wonder why we get them.

It is tough to think clearly amid a surge of adrenaline. One priority in consensus is getting participants to slow down and listen—which allows you to focus on what you desire rather than what you fear. This wished-for future is “intensely imagined and strongly felt,” says Jeff, even if not drawn from personal experience. “When expressing best possible outcomes, you often people hear people laugh. And say things like,‘Wouldn’t it be cool if . . . ?’ You come up with solutions you hadn’t thought of before.” As with negative outcomes, believing them affects a person’s perceptions, beliefs, values, and strategies; belief in positive outcomes “tends to be self-fulfilling . . . when strongly held.”

Even in highly contentious settings there are ways forward, if we can acknowledge and respect our shared humanity. Part of that humanity is the desire to be heard and understood. Feeling heard dispels tension, leaving us all more receptive to new ideas. It is hard to listen or be curious when you’re scared, suspicious, and/or pumped with adrenaline. Engaging in a way that builds trust helps us all become more open to opportunities, seeing not just barren land but the possibility of oases.

Read more about the consensus process in the chapter Beyond the Impossible – Conflict and Consensus in New Mexico in the new book The Reindeer Chronicles by award-winning science journalist journalist Judith Schwartz. Order your copy from Chelsea Green Publishing or support your local book seller!

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