Handling objections in a governance meeting

This article assumes you are already familiar with the facilitator basics and basic governance processes (including the meeting cheat sheets).

Someone has a tension. They have crafted a proposal, which is brought to the governance meeting you are facilitating. You’ve had the present proposal, clarifying questions, reaction and amend & clarify rounds. Everything went smooth. Now it’s time for objections! And, as facilitator, you cross your fingers and quietly hope no one raises one because you don’t really know how to deal with them, and because they feel weird and clunky and awkward.

Sounds familiar?

This is a guide that hopefully makes handling objections easier and more graceful. Because they are really one of the most powerful tools Holacracy has.

What is an objection?

This is what the Holacracy constitution has to say about objections:

Those other Circle Members may then ask clarifying questions, share reactions, and raise concerns about adopting the Proposal. Each concern is an “Objection”  if it meets the criteria herein, and the person who raised it is the “Objector”. (source)

So, an objection is basically a concern around a proposal. Simple enough! But there is a reference to criteria, we’ll get to those later.

You want people to express concerns: it’s a way to uncover potential issues with a proposal or to improve it.

Essentially, you want to encourage objections!

Framing the objection round

Framing each step of the meeting process is something a good facilitator does: it is a reminder of the function of each step and tells the group what is expected of them. For an objection round this is especially important. If you feel trepidation about objections as a facilitator, you might subconsciously convey the message that you don’t want any objections to be raised. Good framing avoids that.

Framing of the objection round means:

  • Explaining the importance of the objection round: a chance to uncover any potential issues with a proposal
  • Lowering the bar for raising objections: “Do you see ANY reason at all why this proposal might cause harm or move us backwards?” or even “If you don’t like the proposal, raise an objection! We can figure out if it is valid later” or “Would you like to try an objection?”

An objection has been raised 🎉

Yes! Someone raised an objection! Now what?

The first thing to do as Facilitator is to ask the objector what their objection is. You can ask this in several ways but the easiest is just to literally ask “What is your objection?”. It’s helpful if the Secretary captures the answer in the scratchpad in GlassFrog.

That’s it for now. Sounds super simple, right? Unfortunately this step is often skipped.

Criteria for valid objections

As mentioned before, any concern with a proposal is an objection. But not all objections are valid, meaning that they not all have to be integrated.

This is what the Holacracy constitution has to say about valid objections 👇

A concern about adopting a Proposal only counts as an Objection if the Objector can provide a reasonable argument for why it meets all of the following criteria:

(a) The Proposal would reduce the capacity of the Circle to enact its Purpose or Accountabilities.

(b) The Proposal would limit the Objector's capacity to enact the Purpose or an Accountability of a Role the Objector represents in the Circle, even if the Objector filled no other Roles in the Organization.

(c) The concern does not already exist even in the absence of the Proposal. Thus, a new Tension would be created specifically by adopting the Proposal.

(d) The Proposal would necessarily cause the impact, or, if it might cause the impact, the Circle wouldn't have an adequate opportunity to adapt before significant harm could result.

However, regardless of the above criteria, a concern always counts as an Objection if adopting the Proposal would violate a rule in this Constitution.

In typical constitution fashion, the way this is written leaves something up for interpretation. In other words: the objector needs to be able to give a reasonable argument for why a proposal causes harm, what that harm is, how it limits one of their roles. The harm needs to be caused by this proposal (and not already exist and this proposal merely failing to address it) and the harm must occur before there’s an opportunity to adapt.

Your role as Facilitator is NOT to judge whether an objection is valid or not. Only the objector can do that themselves. You merely check for argumentation.

In constitutional terms: “When assessing responses, the Facilitator may only judge whether the Objector presented arguments for each criteria using logical reasoning. The Facilitator may not judge on the basis of an argument’s accuracy or the importance of addressing it”

Golden rule

Remember the golden rule of testing objections, it’s far better to let in an invalid objection than to push out a valid one. Integrating an invalid objection means you are integrating two tensions at once. You're still resolving the original proposer’s tension no matter what. An objection, even a valid one, can never stop someone else from solving their issue. However, if you dismiss, push out, exclude, or otherwise ignore a valid objection, then you've introduced harm by definition. You solved one tension but created another one. You're going one step forward, one step back. No meeting might have been better.

Using the testing questions

That’s quite something! Luckily, on the Governance meeting cheat sheets, you can find a simple set of questions that you can use to test the validity of an objection. They’re a super helpful tool to let an Objector figure out if their objection is valid.

What I see happening often is that the Facilitator immediately jumps to testing the objection the moment one is raised. You don’t have to. In fact, you don’t have to test an objection at all! Only when someone in the meeting (which can also be you, the Facilitator, or the Proposer, or anyone else) wants to test the objection after the objector has described it, do you move on to the testing phase. You can ask whether anyone wants to test the objection.

Sidenote: Does that mean you can jump straight to the integration phase without testing an objection? Absolutely! This can be super helpful if a Proposer wants help improving their proposal, but couldn’t get any during the reaction or amend & clarify rounds. But remember, if they don’t want help it’s okay too.

For newer facilitators especially, the easiest and most structured way to test an objection is to just go through the questions on the meeting card one by one, and let the Objector answer.

But....you don’t have to start from the top. If the Objector said that their objection is that the proposal hurts their ability to express their role’s purpose, that’s already an answer to the first question so you can skip it.

Personally, I find it more fluid if I change up the order of the questions: 1, 4, 2, 3. Try and experiment if that works for you! You don’t also have to use the questions at all (they’re just an easy tool to test the criteria outlined in the constitution, but you can do this other ways too).

As mentioned above, the Facilitator is not the judge of whether an objection is valid. The questions are merely there to guide the Objector through that discovery process. It is therefore not helpful if, as Facilitator, you bring a “Ha, GOTCHA!” energy to the table when it turns out an objection is invalid. A better way to phrase this is by saying (example) “By saying that you think this impact might occur, you are saying you’re anticipating and that your objection is not valid”.

What happens after a valid objection has been raised?

You move on to the Integration step of the meeting. This is the best part of Governance, and it’s almost a shame that we almost never get there. This is the part where anything goes! The whole group can chip in, suddenly there is no rigid format anymore, and people can speak freely and help each other making the proposal better. Awesome, right? This is exactly why we want to encourage objections 😊

Read more about the integration phase here.

Dealing with multiple objections

One Objector can have multiple objections (multiple reasons why they consider a proposal harmful) and of course multiple people can have different objections. Just as we solve tensions one by one, we deal with objections one by one. That means testing them separately, and integrating them separately. This can feel a bit tedious, but makes the process really clear and structured, and guarantees that everyone gets their tensions solved and that no new tensions are raised with a proposal.

Read more 📔