The Importance of Nurturing Dissent in a Consensus Process

Here’s the last in our series of 3 articles by Tree Bressen.

In an age of unrelenting industrialization, there are reminders all around us of the importance of dissent. How much ecological devastation has been wreaked because no one stopped it from happening? Erich Fromm has written, “Human history began with an act of disobedience, and it is not unlikely that it will be terminated by an act of obedience.” Or as Hugo Adam Bedau put it, “An unyielding ‘No!’ may yet prove to be our sole password to the future.”

On a smaller scale, gathering the wisdom of the group relies on the open and honest sharing of concerns. Without people freely speaking up, the group has no access to information with which to create the best decision. Yet disagreement can feel intimidating. Participants know that speaking a different opinion from others can create distance, and that feels socially uncomfortable.

The Abilene Paradox

There is an old story from management expert Jerry Harvey, telling how a group can do something even when no one actually wants to. This version comes from Wikipedia:

On a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, a family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (53 miles away to the north) for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is bad. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it.” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Connection Across Difference

Staying connected through times of difference is a central challenge of community life. And nowhere is this more apparent than in group meetings. Since the free interplay of ideas (and the resulting improvement in the proposal) is crucial to the consensus process, what can we do to create safe space and honor each other’s contributions?

Nourish solid friendships in the group. The more connected we are, the more we tend to have a sympathetic and respectful attitude when someone has a different opinion than we do.

Support personal empowerment. The more empowered someone feels in their life, the more willing they will be to speak up from a minority viewpoint. Whether it’s doing a personal growth workshop, therapy, finding a job where they are respected and paid decently, or getting out of an abusive relationship and into a healthy one, any changes that result in higher self-esteem and differentiation will help. When you see someone start to take the first steps, give them positive feedback (assuming you can do so from a place of genuine celebration and not patronizing), and give them time and space for the changes to settle in and grow.

Create a respectful climate for discussion. Take responsibility for co-creating safe space in the meeting. Use all the communication tools you know, such as “I statements” and not interrupting each other. If someone speaks to another member with disrespect or sarcasm, don’t let it slide: interrupt this behavior immediately – the impact reaches far beyond just those two people.

Ask questions. Draw each other out. Really search to understand why someone feels the way they do on an issue. Assume you have something to learn from them.

Reflective listening. Stay with what the minority is saying until you can repeat it back to their satisfaction, so that they feel like you are really getting it. Honor the feelings and values that are giving rise to their position.

Shift formats. If you’ve been in open discussion in the meeting, try a fishbowl or small groups or a visualization instead. Sometimes a time of silence can work miracles. Some groups have sharing circles or “distilleries” that are held outside the normal meeting time, in a more informal atmosphere.

Find the dissenter(s) an ally–do not isolate them. Perhaps no one agrees with all of what the lone dissenter is saying, but do they agree with any piece of it? Focus on that, search out the common territory. And don’t let the relationships get damaged by the disagreement; make a point of continuing social connections.

Be mindful of how you talk about the situation outside meetings. Venting behind someone’s back when you are frustrated is understandable and a normal human response. It can sometimes be helpful if it lowers your charge such that when you next encounter the subject, you can listen better. But if you are attempting to gang up support for your side in an attempt to pressure the other into going along, ask yourself whether that is really following the consensus process and the values that you and your group believe in.

Honor diversity. No matter how much you may disagree with a particular viewpoint, it’s highly likely that if you’d had that person’s life experiences, you’d feel the same way. And even if you wouldn’t, they are still entitled to their point of view. Ideally people can love and respect each other even if they vehemently disagree.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. We have all been there at some time in our lives. We’ve had the uncomfortable experience of being in a minority position. Remember what that was like, and think about how you would have wanted to be treated.

Cultivate patience. Hard as it may be to practice, there’s a reason this is an honored virtue, eh? Except for physical and financial decisions by communities in the building and development phase, there are few resolutions that require a tight timeline.

Sometimes the Minority is Right After All

Don’t assume that someone in a minority position is wrong! Sometimes it is appropriate for the whole group to shift. And the group will, once it sees the wisdom in the concern. When John Woolman first started preaching against slavery among Quakers, many Friends still held slaves, and it wasn’t until almost 20 years after his death that the Society of Friends petitioned the U.S. Congress for abolition.

Consensus decision-making is not about speed nor peer pressure. The point is to fully examine the possibilities and concerns and search out what is best for the whole. This seasoning process calls for reflection and discernment. It requires discipline and commitment, but the results are worth it. As visionary consultant Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) wrote, “Social process may be conceived either as the opposing and battle of desires with the victory of one over the other, or as the confronting and integrating of desires. . . . The latter means a freeing for both sides and increased total power or . . . capacity in the world.

Enjoyed this post? You might like to read:

There are many more articles and handouts on Tree’s website

Tree Bressen is a skilled group facilitator serving a wide variety of organizations.  Her gifts include elegant process design, holding space for tough conversations, and using good process to achieve excellent product.  Her original training comes from the graduate school of communal living, working with groups using full consensus decision-making.  She founded the collaborative that produced the Group Works cards, a distillation of core wisdom in the field of facilitation.  Practicing on a gift economy basis since 2004, she also maintains a website with extensive free resources.


Handling Inappropriate Blocks in a Consensus Process

Here’s the second in our series of 3 articles by Tree Bressen.

Handling Inappropriate Blocks in a Consensus Process

When a block arises the situation is typically frustrating and scary for everyone involved. While the received wisdom says that blocking should only happen extremely rarely (doyenne Caroline Estes says that in 45 years of facilitating hundreds of groups she’s only seen a correct block less than a dozen times), less skilled groups often struggle with more frequent blocks than this. Blocking based on personal preference or values rather than group well-being and values is the most common mistake in attempts at consensus process and causes so much frustration that it gives the whole process a bad rap. If you are participating in a group and someone blocks inappropriately, what are you to do? Here are suggestions for how to address this situation, presented in chronological order.

(1) Nurture solid friendships in your group. The more y’all like each other, the stronger your web of relationships will be for dealing with challenges that come up.

(2) Train all the group members in consensus so that everyone understands when it is and is not appropriate to block. Blocks are not to get your way. Blocks are not because you would have to move out of the community (or not be able to afford to move in) if this happened. Blocks are not because a proposal doesn’t fit your values or how you want to live. Blocks are not to prevent the group from taking a risk. The reason that blocking power exists in the consensus process is to prevent the group from crossing its own stated values or from doing something truly disastrous. All these other things are appropriate and important to raise as concerns, and to modify a proposal in response to–you just can’t block a decision over them, or else the whole process breaks down.

People also need to be informed about the option to Stand Aside, and when to invoke it. Groups must treat Stand Asides seriously so that people will have an outlet to express major concern at the decision point without resorting to blocking.

(3) Clarify the group’s common values to provide criteria for blocking that transcend personal preferences. If the common values are not yet explicit, the next best option is to rely on a general sense of what is in the group’s best interest.

(4) Establish a clear procedure for handling blocks. I recommend creating an expectation that dissenters are responsible for helping seek solutions to the issue under consideration. For example, at N Street Cohousing in Davis, California, anyone who blocks is required to sit down every two weeks for up to three months with representatives of the consensus position in an effort to work out an acceptable alternative. Resident Kevin Wolf says, “If after the six meetings, consensus hasn’t been reached, the community will vote with a 75% supermajority winning. In 18 years of having this process, we have yet to get past two blocked consensus meetings before consensus is reached. We have never voted.

The Quakers are often thought of as the most seasoned practitioners of consensus. Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice book (2001) says that the facilitator can overrule a block if it comes from someone(s) who objects too frequently. Here is the quote:

“Meetings may occasionally act even over the objections of one or more Friends. Due weight should be given to the insights of any Friend, long experienced in Friends meetings, whose judgment and service have been proven over considerable time. A ‘stop’ in such a member’s mind should be heeded. If, on the other hand, the one who is withholding support is known for persistently objecting, then the Clerk [facilitator] may call for a period of silent worship and, if so led, announce that the weight of the Meeting seems decidedly to favor the action, and the proposal is approved. The same principle applies even on occasions when there is more than one objector.”

In a communitarian context, operating in this way would likely offend egalitarian sensibilities and put too much burden on the facilitator-if the facilitator overrules someone’s block, that person (or their friends) are likely to get upset at whoever happened to be facilitating that day. At the national cohousing conference in summer 2006, Annie Russell of Wonderland Hill suggested referring unresolved blocks to a community’s steering council instead, who could then render a ruling on the validity of the block.

There are various other expectations in use to decide what constitutes an appropriate block. Laird Schaub of Sandhill Farm in Missouri applies the standard of, “Can you convince at least one other person in the group [presumably not one’s spouse] that the block is legitimate?CT Butler (author of the Formal Consensus method) says that the group must agree a block is principled, or else it doesn’t count. And so on. Your group needs to get some clarity on what your standards and procedures will be before a particular block comes up; otherwise you run the risk of actual or perceived biased action based on the personalities or content involved. Cohousing groups have voting fallbacks written into their bylaws to satisfy lenders; you need to know under what circumstances and how you will invoke such a fallback.

(5) Work with the substance of the concern.

  • Assume goodwill.
  • Often a dissenter will be inarticulate, and need support. Don’t isolate that person–instead, find them one or more allies.
  • Do major reflective listening. Make an effort to fully understand the blocker’s concerns and then check to be sure that their point of view has been grasped by the rest of the group.
  • Ask questions to draw them out.
  • Listen for the “piece of the truth” the dissenter is holding.
  • Engage the people with concerns in solving the problem–ask them what would work for them that would also address the other needs that are present.
  • Look for common ground, search out how their concern can be integrated.

(6) If it seems that someone is blocking based on personal preference, others in the group need to speak up. Consider starting gently, by having one person approach the blocker outside of meeting. If that doesn’t work, multiple people will need to speak up to get through the resistance and avoid having one person take all the heat. Talk with the person respectfully, honestly, and as kindly as you can. If the group has made a substantial effort to understand the blocker’s point of view, yet the person still insists that she or he is not being heard, someone might say, “I’d like to know how you would tell the difference between not being heard vs. being heard and disagreed with.” Or, “I think we do hear you and are just disagreeing with you. But I could be wrong. Can you tell me what I can do to help you have a sense of being heard?” Again, usually what is needed is some really excellent reflective listening. Occasionally someone needs to be reminded of the Stand Aside option and what it’s there for.

(7) Invoke whatever procedures were agreed to in Step 4, and/or a voting fallback. While traditionally consensus groups have not had voting fallbacks, Rob Sandelin of Sharingwood Cohousing (Snohomish, Washington) points out that they prevent a tyranny of the minority. If someone knows they can potentially be outvoted, they are more likely to act cooperatively with the group.

The Quakers say that one should only block after a sleepless night and the shedding of tears, and at most a few times in lifetime. However, sometimes it really is appropriate. While this article has addressed how to reduce blocks, there is a whole other piece on the importance of nurturing dissent and the open, honest expression of concerns. Living in community, and in consensus, is about finding the balance.

Enjoyed this post? You might like to read:

Tree Bressen is a skilled group facilitator serving a wide variety of organizations.  Her gifts include elegant process design, holding space for tough conversations, and using good process to achieve excellent product.  Her original training comes from the graduate school of communal living, working with groups using full consensus decision-making.  She founded the collaborative that produced the Group Works cards, a distillation of core wisdom in the field of facilitation.  Practicing on a gift economy basis since 2004, she also maintains a website with extensive free resources.