A qualm about consensus

How Mandorla Cohousing will look when it is built in 2016

How Mandorla Cohousing will look when it is built in 2016

In my last blog, I spelled out some of the plusses and minuses of consensus, as I see them. I ended by saying that none of the minuses that I have come across in my reading quite hit the mark, in relation to my experience with Mandorla Cohousing. In this blog, I’d like to explain the main difficulty that I have come across.

That difficulty has to do with the nature of consent. In a formal consensus procedure, as I understand it, the consent of everyone involved is sought, whether given actively, or by standing aside. Now, that seems to me unnecessary. I trust my fellow members. We give issues that matter space on the agenda of our monthly meetings for several meetings before trying to decide. We have opportunities to challenge and change decisions in subsequent meetings.

The result is that I would have been quite content had I not been present, whenever the cohousing group taken a decision. As it happens, I think I’ve been fine with pretty much every decision, but I would make the same point even if I had not.

Consent, I have concluded, is important, but it does not need to be given afresh for every decision. I gave my consent when I became a full member of the group, and my experience over the last three years has reinforced that feeling.

I’m not saying that my presence was useless. The food is always excellent, and I may have contributed to the discussion, or helped it along if I was the chair, and I did my job well. But I am saying that if we had not adopted a consensus model, we might have felt more able to delegate more tasks to small working groups, and then to trust them to decide and act.

I’ve been thinking a lot about decision-making recently. There are a couple of aspects that I think are vital: building common ground between people; and looking for creative solutions that give all parties as much as possible of what they want. I don’t think consensus procedures are explicit about how to do this. I’ll make some suggestions on how I go about both aspects next time.


Consensus decision-making in crisis

Consensus decision-making is in crisis. I suspect it always has been and possibly always will be simply because it’s a process used by human beings.

Wherever you look groups, coops and networks are struggling with consensus. Moreover they’re often having to adopt or invent mechanisms to deal with a breakdown in the process. And many of those mechanisms are aimed at exclusion – silencing a persistent minority that is seen as blocking the flow of consensus, sometimes forcing them out of the group. That wouldn’t be the stated intention of the group, but it’s often the reality. When this happens consensus becomes a form of majority voting – even if the majority needed is 70%, 80% or 90% rather than 51%.

That this happens is understandable. When groups are deadlocked and there’s a sense that ‘most of us’ want to move forward and that irritating minority is blocking progress it can seem like the only way out. We can justify excluding people, or restricting the rights of the few. We can find fault with their behaviour and merit in our own.

In essence we default to our factory setting, which believes that we should act in the interests of the majority (it’s probably more accurate to say that it believes we should act in the interests of whichever group we are in, and we try hard to ensure that that’s the majority). It’s a factory setting because we exist in a factory – an education system, parenting, government all aimed at turning out predictable and malleable individuals. What’s natural is a different matter. I suspect we’re born capable of a lot more cooperation and collaboration, but I’ll leave that to the neuroscientists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists to decide.

And yet most, if not all, of those using consensus don’t see themselves as part of that norm – the thoughtless consumers, the 9-5ers, the reality TVers etc. etc. If you ask people why they work in a coop, live in a cohousing group, take part in political action groups, work for the benefit of their community, it’s usually an implicit or explicit criticism of the norm. Yet we, the minority, solve our problems with our egalitarian decision-making processes by adopting their mentality – majoritarianism – when the going gets tough.

So what’s the answer? I wish there were a sentence I could type that would shift the future course of egalitarian working, lift the scales off our eyes and solve all our problems. Sorry folks! But it has something to do with the following:

Consensus as values not process.

I feel we need to stop assuming we can collaborate just ‘cos we’re well-intentioned people and do the work to embed a culture of consensus into our own lives and our group lives. If we use consensus as a decision-making process it can only take us so far, and we will hit difficulties. If we adopt consensus as part of our values system, and make it part of the culture of our thinking and our group thinking we may still hit difficulties but at least we’ll have a compass to help determine the right direction for the group. We need to live consensus not just do consensus.

But that’s hard work. Constant introspection. Learning to communicate (with others and ourselves) compassionately and honestly. Learning to read the signs that it’s our ego talking. Learning to do something about it once we’ve read the signs. And doing all of that cheerfully so it’s not all sackcloth and ashes. Who has the time, right? There’s a world to save, a co-operative business to run…… so we do consensus up to a point. And then we revert to factory settings.

Acceptance of our flaws

So let’s accept that we’re flawed individuals that come together to make flawed groups and networks, and that consensus is aspirational. No-one gets it ‘right’ first time. But not getting it ‘right’ doesn’t mean getting it wrong, or that we’ve failed as long as we’ve sincerely tried. After all who lives up to their values all of the time? Let’s practice consensus and accept that we all need more practice. Essential to this is cultivating the ability to laugh together, cry together and learn from our mistakes without defaulting to a culture of blame and judgement.

Honesty about our decision-making processes

If we find the demands of consensus too rigorous for our group, if we realise that we do have an element of pragmatic majoritarianism in our thinking, and that that’s OK with us, then let’s not do consensus. Otherwise we set ourselves on a collision course with conflict between what we state we do and believe and what we actually do and believe.

There are plenty of decision-making systems that have elements of consensus in them without demanding the commitment to collective self-awareness that consensus does demand. There’s sociocracy, holacracy, consensus-oriented decision-making. There are systems such as crowd wise and the soon-to-be renamed dotmocracy. These are all far, far superior to the norm that consensus-types want to move away from.

Consensus is in crisis, and as I said at the start, probably always will be. It’s the age-old crisis of living up to our values not just as individuals but as part of a collective. It’s the crisis that makes life interesting and makes consensus both so infuriating and so compelling.


Truth and reconciliation in consensus

Nelson Mandela has been laid to rest. Countless words have been written about his life and his legacy, and with good cause. I’m not going to try to add too many more to that count. What’s clear is that he (and those around him) inspired a nation to act against expectations, against self-interest, for a higher ‘good’ – a unified, multiracial South Africa.

Inspiration, acting against self-interest and for a higher purpose are all necessary, central values in any consensus decision-making group. How many groups that use consensus actually, consciously, live and work to those values is another matter.

What most consensus groups need are more Mandela moments. They need to find inspiring, collaborative ways out of seemingly impossible, sometimes ideological, struggles. Positions are taken and fiercely held too. They are reinforced and dug in with the language of values and idealism. The stage is set for yet another conflict in which there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The real loser is our ability to collaborate, our belief in co-operation, our sense of community.

Where’s the truth and reconciliation in all this? We invent truths, fly our standards from them, gather our forces around them, forgetting that they are just one possible view of the truth. And reconciliation, real reconciliation is rare. Feelings are usually strained but never fully repaired. Our groups are weakened, and with that our ability to function as cohesive forces for social change.

It’s tough, but we need more people, more groups, to step up and inspire those Mandela moments – to show the way to processes of truth and reconciliation. And we need more people and more groups to do the work to turn inspiration into consensus.

Of course if we deify Mandela we’ll never achieve that. What we need to remember is that inspiration needs to be channeled and turned into action and behaviour, to be enshrined in cultures, for it to make change. And that’s something that took many, many ‘ordinary’ people to achieve. Mandela provided the inspiration and the example, but tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans took that inspiration and did the work that made change possible.


Consensus: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

Over at Organizing Change, Drew Serres is writing about the problems of consensus and how to fix them. It’s good stuff and I’d urge you to read it and join the conversation. He shares some of the problems of contemporary consensus and offers five thoughts on dealing with those problems.

Critiques of contemporary consensus are not new. Movements such as Occupy lead to both a resurgence of consensus decision-making and a new flurry of writing on the weakness and naivety of consensus as a model.

Alternative (competing?) models of consent-based decision-making such as sociocracy and holacracy have emerged specifically to deal with some of the perceived flaws in consensus. At this year’s UK Cohousing Network’s gathering one of the main attractions was renowned US co-operator Diana Leafe Christian speaking on sociocracy as an alternative to consensus decision-making for cohousers.

Personally I’m less sure consensus is as broken as you’d think from the energy that goes into critiquing and replacing it. There’s very little that other systems do that can’t happen just as effectively in a living consensus process. I think there are 2 fundamental problems:

1. The flexibility and adaptability of consensus is poorly understood. Time and again I hear folk talking about the clumsiness of bringing all decisions to the full group for agreement, for example. Time and again I wonder what decision-making process they’re using. Somewhere along the lines we’ve adopted a series of unquestioned ‘rules’ of how consensus must be done, and these rules don’t work for most groups. In recent years mass movements such as Camp for Climate Action  and Occupy may have aggravated these, with the best of intentions, confusing democracy with everyone needing to be present for every decision. There are plenty of other examples we could explore. Rest assured consensus can do whatever you can imagine it can do (as long as that’s referenced to those central values of participation, inclusion, co-operation, empathy and compassion). Consensus can:

  • allow individuals or small groups to follow their own path alongside the path of the wider group
  • mandate working groups to make decisions about their own areas of work
  • mandate working groups to make decisions, accountably, for the whole group
  • make decisions in short periods of time, if that’s all the time that can be given to a decision
  • embrace diversity and conflict and come out stronger
  • break traditions (such as hearing from speakers in the order they indicate they wish to speak) to support the margins of the group to be heard

and so much more…

2. We’re all human. I don’t see consensus as a flawed process. I see it as a living process undertaken by flawed human beings. If we bring the ideals of competition, getting our own way and so on the the process then it will struggle. So isn’t that the flaw in consensus then? It requires us to be perfect co-operators before it will work… I don’t think so. I think consensus supports us to be better co-operators. It helps create a space in which we can risk letting go of our own agenda, of ego, of competition. And when we do that, collectively, it rapidly rewards us with the benefits of co-operation – empowerment, a sense of the rightness of our collective actions. Problem is that most of us are force-fed competition until we start espousing it ourselves and it’s a tenacious ‘value’. So consensus will take us a while to achieve, but it’ll support every step of the way if we let it. The big question is ‘do we let it?’. Do we keep competing because that feeds our ego whilst blaming consensus for our failure to co-operate?

I agree with the critiques of consensus decision-making. What we call consensus at the moment largely isn’t working. I disagree that that discredits consensus as a process; a set of values; an ideal; a model that can deliver just and co-operative decisions, and support the growth of just and co-operative groups and societies.


essentials of conflict resolution


Matthew and I have been doing some work with a food coop; helping voluntary team leaders review and add to their conflict management tools. We’ll shortly be running our third workshop. Here’s what we work with people on –


  • To develop the understanding and application of appropriate states of mind (consensual, non-judgemental, solution focussed)
  • To develop the understanding and application of active listening and dialogue skills
  • To enable participants to know when to apply these skills; and to what degree
  • To enable participants to identify their further learning needs (if necessary)


Approach used in training

  • Using small and large group discussions, activities, role plays and debriefs.
  • Supporting material to back up learning. All participants to get material on State of Mind and Active Listening and the principles of cooperative conflict resolution.
  • No slides – learning by doing.
  • Two trainers – for support, to facilitate skills demonstrations, to maximise feedback to participants, for some variety


Outline session plan

  • Introduction – housekeeping, people, negotiating how we’ll work together
  • What is conflict resolution? Different approaches to this – focus on the models more appropriate to cooperatives – facilitative styles; person and group focussed.
  • States of mind – exercises to build internal understanding of being non-judgemental, consensually focussed, solution focussed, unbiased, people/work orientated.
  • Active Listening – listen, reflect, clarify, summarise, explore, produce ways forward, agree on them, action them. Go through these phases and make explicit why different to everyday conversations.
  • Practise sessions – rounds of work on threes or fours with peer to peer work and peer observers giving feedback, along with the trainers (if needed), on realistic role plays.
  • Review sessions – check ins on understanding of material and its application.
  • Co-designing a process to deal with small scale conflicts and knowing when to refer them to personnel.
  • Evaluation session.

All of the handouts we used, are available on our resources pages. Use and share.


Consensus Handbook

consbookcoverOur friends at Seeds for Change have compiled their excellent briefings on consensus decision-making into one place  – a new book on consensus and facilitation: A Consensus Handbook – Co-operative decision-making for activists, co-ops and communities

Here’s what they say about it:

After decades of facilitating, years of planning, months of hard work and days of laying out and proofing, the Seeds for Change book on consensus and facilitation is (nearly) here!
We’ve put a PDF of the book on our website for you to have a look at and if you want, you can get a hard copy (£3.50+p&p) by the end of April (details on how to get it on our website). We’re selling the book at a price which just covers printing costs to make it as accessible as possible – so please help us to spread the word about it… Thank you for all the help so far, and we hope you enjoy the book!


We’ve been promised a review copy, so once it’s in print (30th April) we’ll let you know what we think of it here on the blog. If you download and read the pdf in the meantime and want to share your thoughts, please do – we’re happy to host them here!


Consensus: on being right

Perry like’s stories and uses them to great effect in his facilitation and training. We co-facilitated this past weekend and decided the time had come to post some of them on the blog. So from time to time we’ll add a story or saying that offers insight into the process of coming to consensus. Here’s a couple of quotes on being right to start us off:

“The world is divided into those who think they are right.” Anonymous (popularised by Peggy Seeger)


“From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.” Yehuda Amichai

Form an orderly queue (but not a democratic one?)

A few Saturdays ago, Maria and I were at the Springhill Cohousing community facilitating a day on consensus decision-making.

One issue arose a few times in both full group and small group sessions. And I don’t think we addressed it adequately. Other issues dominated – more on those another time, perhaps.

And the issue? How to nurture a real conversation between participants that stays focused on one topic for as long as that topic needs whilst still adhering to notions of democracy and fairness. In this case calling people to speak in the order in which they raise their hand. Conversation versus fairness? Why on earth would these concepts need to be in opposition? Why indeed.

Groups that choose to work by consensus usually have high democracy thresholds. That is, they’re not content that ‘1 person 1 vote’ delivers a really sound and participatory decision. And yet, unwittingly, they can fall into all sorts of practices that limit the depth of democracy and fairness in their consensus process. More to the point many of these practices are adopted precisely because it’s thought they will deepen that democracy and fairness. So what’s going on? Why do practices aimed at supporting participation and equality actually limit it?

“Stacking” is a good example. Stacking is the US term for keeping a list of who is waiting to speak and calling on them to do so in order. It’s not a term I’ve ever warmed to, but UK consensus culture doesn’t have an easy equivalent. Usually “the stack” (the list of who is waiting to speak) is determined by the order in which people raise their hands. Some groups, including Springhill, use coloured cards instead of hands, but the principles the same. I’m sure there are other mechanisms in use too.

The idea is to create a structure that supports everyone to be able to take part. Folk that aren’t able, or are unwilling, to cut across others to have their voice heard, can raise a hand, or card, safe in the knowledge that their voice will be heard as their name reaches the top of the stack. So far so good. That’s fair, right? So what’s wrong with stacking? And more importantly what else can we do?

We’ve written about this before but it warrants more attention.

The problem

Firstly the process doesn’t guarantee inclusion and fairness. There’s still a hierarchy of the quickest, and most confident, to raise their hands – often the same people in every conversation. This may reflect the way they think (quick to form opinions….), their comfort in speaking their mind early in the conversation, and a sense that they have a right to do so (often a product of educational, gender and class privilege). Others, who feel the need to contemplate, reflect, or simply don’t feel they have a right to speak out, for whatever reason, may not raise their hand at all, or in the time allowed for the conversation.

If you keep a list of who wants to speak and analyse it afterwards, as I’ve done on occasion, you’ll almost always note that a small number of people spoke many times and the rest made occasional contributions, and in some case no contribution. So the consensus ideal of fair contribution and full participation isn’t guaranteed by stacking alone.

Secondly it’s an artificial structure that doesn’t reflect the way that we usually communicate. This arose in one of the Springhill practice sessions where there was tension between those who wanted a conversation (with the natural animation and cut and thrust of conversation, including moments in which several people are speaking at once and/or speaking over each other) and those who felt that interruption was an unacceptable form of behaviour in meetings. And being artificial it’s something that newcomers have to learn, which in itself can be a barrier to inclusion – especially as it echoes earlier learning in environments like school, environments in which we didn’t all thrive and don’t all have positive associations.

A third dynamic. and the one Springhill folk complained of, is that sticking rigidly to a list based on who puts up their hand when doesn’t keep the discussion focused. The first person on the list raises one issue, but the second wants to speak to a different aspect of the discussion, and the third yet a different aspect. If the whole discussion is held this way it become fragmented and hard to follow. Not only can that be inefficient, but it’s also a participation issue. A perfectly valid point often gets lost because people are still digesting the point just before it or are distracted by the point that follows. If it’s your point that gets lost, you can feel undervalued and that’s a real obstacle to wanting to participate (as well as a major cause of ‘problem behaviour’ in meetings. Plus it creates a sense that meetings meander, take longer than needed if they were kept focused, which leaves some people turned off. They may withdraw in the meeting, or withdraw from meetings altogether.

The solution

Here’s a few ideas:

Keeping a modified stack. That’s a bit of a mouthful for saying keep a list of who wants to speak but use filters of one kind or another to ‘tweak’ it. You might find yourself saying “I’m aware that Mike, John and Ryan are waiting to speak, but I’m also aware that the last 4 voices have all been male. I’m going to deviate from the list to bring in some female voices”.

I use male/female as shorthand for whatever the dynamic of your group is. It could be long-standing members and newcomers. It could be around class, race, age, or some combination of these factors).

Focusing on one topic at a time. It’s perfectly possible to use a stack and stay on topic. State the issue to be discussed. Invite speakers, let the conversation develop for a short while to draw out what the major issues are, and then focus on them one at a time. Now you’re using the stack differently. Now you’re saying, “OK, so let’s take those issues one at a time. Can I only see hands for those people that want to speak directly to this issue. We’ll come back to the others later in the meeting” or “I’m aware there are other people waiting to speak, but let’s ensure we’ve finished the discussion on this issue first. So if you’re point’s about something else, can you put your hand back down and we’ll come to you later”. Of course the urge to be heard sometimes blurs people’s ability to honestly reflect on whether their point is relevant, and you may need to challenge some speakers “how does that connect to this issue?”. If it doesn’t acknowledge it, but park it for later. If it does acknowledge the connection and hear the point.

Acknowledging conscious or unconscious mainstream culture. The ‘no interruption’ debate highlights this. Interruption is seen as rude in some but not all social groups. It can be a nationality thing, or a class thing, or an education thing. In white middle class circles we prefer one voice at a time (although I’ve noted that we commonly apply the rule to others, whilst willingly deviating from it ourselves. What we’re often really saying is “my voice, uninterrupted”, but I digress). That cultural norm doesn’t apply everywhere and we need to be aware that it might not be the norm of everyone in our meetings. It’s about acknowledging and exploring, and appreciating our diversity. As a facilitator, there may be times when it’s absolutely OK to let (even encourage) the discussion get animated, hear several voices at once and so on. After all it can be a testament to the energy and excitement of the group. There may be other times when we want to ask the group to simmer down so we can hear one voice, especially if that voice is a marginal one that struggles to be heard. It might be as practical as there being people in the meeting who are hearing impaired and can only follow discussions if they are held with one voice at a time.

Group process – servant or master?

At the heart of this is whether our meeting process serves us as a group (and I mean the entire group, not just the mainstream of the group) or whether we serve it. We too often conform to structures, even when they chafe against our personality, our diversity and our values. We need to use structures that serve our values and not vice versa. I don’t think that necessarily means we throw the baby out with the bathwater. More often, for me, it means flexibility. Knowing when to come in and say “things are getting a little heated, and it feels like it’s time for some deeper listening. What would aid that is if we heard just one person at a time, and ensured they were given the time they needed to make their point” and knowing when to let the group have its head.

In short, facilitators, chairs – don’t let the ‘rules’ hinder you in involving the whole group, in welcoming in a diverse range of voices and opinions. Redefine the rules, break the rules. Democracy and fairness aren’t rules. They’re values. And it’s those living values, not some artificial meeting construct that we should facilitate (and participate) to.


You might also want to read our posts ‘Groundrules – empowering or oppressive?’ Part 1 and Part 2

Liberating structures… holacracy and consensus

holacracylogo_nickI sat up late chatting to Nick Osborne last night. Nick’s recently become a certified practitioner in Holacracy and I wanted to get a better sense of the Holacracy model and ethos. According to holacracy.org:

“Holacracy is a real-world-tested social technology for purposeful organization. It radically changes how an organization is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed.”

There are significant overlaps with formal consensus decision-making. Hence the relevance to our work at Rhizome. There are also significant differences, amongst which is that holacracy has a different relationship with hierarchy. That’s of real interest given the number of times I’ve been asked how formal consensus can be applied to hierarchical organisations. I asked Nick to clarify:

“In one sense Holacracy is not designed to work in hierarchies and in another sense it is. It doesn’t work in hierarchical power structures, and replaces the power structure with a holarchic, fractal, distributed  structure. But it does work with a hierarchy of scale….What that means is that different levels of the holarchy work at different scales, some being more focused on specific areas, some being more general and including those other areas. Like concentric circles.”

When Nick first suggested Rhizome folk look at Holacracy, back in the summer of last year, I found myself with considerable internal resistance – the slick website, trademarked process, and the obvious similarities to formal consensus decision-making. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was just another attempt to critique and then repackage consensus decision-making for sale to a new market. Others in Rhizome seemed to share some of this resistance. Having spoken to Nick at length I’m more open-minded, but a long way from being seduced away from formal consensus as a preferred approach.

It seems to me that many of the issues with consensus decision-making that holacracy seeks to address, whilst very real, are possible to fix within the consensus model if the values of cooperation are better supported. But the fact that consensus so often works so poorly may demonstrate that new models are indeed warranted, however unpalatable I personally find that.

Here’s more in video form

I’m struck (and slightly uncomfortable) with the idea of “a governance system that’s not of the people, for the people, by the people but of the organisation, through the people, for the purpose”. I like my democracy to be human, but on the understanding that humans can, collectively, aspire to and achieve great things. And this seems to be one difference between formal consensus decision-making and holacracy. Both are liberating structures, but I view consensus as an aspirational structure that supports a collective to be more than the sum of its parts, to work towards the most inspirational decision it can reach. Holacracy focuses on meeting people where they’re at, warts and all, and setting them within a strict set of rules that leaves no room for ego. When people are attempting to act in the interests of their ego rather than the interests of the organisation, that becomes very apparent and the rules don’t allow egos to dominate. I heard Nick say that perhaps the structure of holacracy restricts people more than that of formal consensus, but if it does it is to maximise the potential for liberation.

Nick and I talked a lot about those rules. After all, how do you get people, especially those into alternative democratic systems, to follow the rules when those rules chafe against self-interest? Nick argued that the rules are liberating. Very quickly everyone sees that they have the same autonomy and the same voice as everyone else. The facilitator upholds the rules rigorously – tolerating no interruptions in any of the various rounds that make up a discussion. But everyone has a voice in that round, and everyone can add their ‘tension’ to the agenda. So I may be silenced if I speak out of turn, but I’m also able to put my issue onto the agenda to b processed in its own turn. The assertive facilitation required to uphold the rules seems contrary to our meeting culture, says Nick, even rude, but is so effective that that’s soon forgotten.

One example of that assertive facilitation is in challenging objections to a proposal. In formal consensus this can be a very tricky moment for participants and facilitators alike, and one we’ve written on before. Many groups stumble here, and poor dynamics are created and repeated. Holacracy equips facilitators with a series of incisive questions with which to challenge objections. If the answers are unsatisfactory the objection isn’t valid – it’s more likely to be about ego than the shared purpose of the organisation.

If I’ve understood it right, in holacracy it’s only in matters of governance, where decisions get made about how authority is distributed, that consent is required, and a process akin to that of formal consensus happens. Nick commented that “It’s a very specific form of consent as defined by the ‘Integrative Decision Making’ process, which doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree, it means that no-one has any objections according to very clear criteria for what counts as objections.”

In most work areas within an organisation individuals are effectively autocrats. Power is distributed rather than shared. This means that no-one has the authority to be able to control how anyone else fulfils their roles.

Liberating structures, not about people, autocrat in role more like consensus in governance, rigour of testing objections to deny ego, strength of the facilitator role in upholding “the rules of the game”

Nick and his colleague Clement Hopking will be taking a 1 day holacracy workshop around the country over the next year. The first event is in London. I hope to join them when they come closer to my neck of the woods.


Learning to co-operate?

There’s loads of valuable support out there for anyone wanting to start up a co-op. It’s certainly easier than it was in 1992 when, along with 2 others, I started the process of co-founding the first co-op of my working life. But even now, 20 years later, the focus is still primarily on the ‘business’ end of that process – legal structures, administration and business advice. The ‘people’ end seems to get less emphasis. And yet any successful co-op is far more than a particular form of legally constituted organisation. It’s a group of individuals coming together and choosing to give up a part of their autonomy to work collectively because they understand that by doing so they can realise a vision that they couldn’t realise alone. The whole being more than the sum of its parts, and all that.

Don’t get me wrong, back in ’93 we needed all the support we could get on the business side of things. But it didn’t take long for us to realise that we aren’t all as adept at co-operating on that interpersonal level, day in day out, as we might at first have assumed. Many of the processes we adopted, because they spoke to our values and hopes for how we’d relate (such as consensus decision-making), were learnt through cross-pollination from the activist world rather than through co-op support channels.

Rhizome’s working with Co-operatives UK to try to redress the balance. We’ll be at the Co-operatives United event in Manchester this week helping to conduct a learning needs survey, which we hope will lead to some high quality support for co-ops in areas such as decision-making, communication, and dealing with conflict. There are many ideas under consideration – from the more obvious face-to-face training through online learning to mentoring and workplace secondments.

If you are a co-op and can’t make the event, never fear. Fill in the survey online so that your voice, and learning needs, are heard! If you are at the event and someone leaps out at you with a clipboard, be nice – it could be Rhizome’s own Carl, Gill, Jo or Maria!


Cohousing and consensus – in Scotland

There was a time when I thought nothing of spending far longer travelling to deliver a piece of work than actually delivering it. Nowadays my personal sustainability is a little higher on the agenda so it’s far more of a rarity. Last weekend I made an exception and travelled to Fife to run a consensus decision-making workshop for the folk in the Vivarium Trust’s living group.

It’s an exception I’m glad to have made for many reasons. Fife is my old stamping ground – I lived there for a decade or more in the 90’s and early 2000’s. And a very good friend of mine’s living there again, so there was the chance to catch up and spend a little time together.

And of course there was the workshop itself. There are groups that just get it. And the cohousing groups I’ve worked with over the last couple of years seem to number amongst these – open, curious, eager to be challenged and to challenge, and wanting to model a different way of doing things without feeling the need to inflate their egos along the way. Refreshing!

The Vivarium Trust promotes cohousing as a positive way forward, especially in addressing the housing needs of older folk (by which they mean 50+). They also have a living group – about a dozen people coming together to set up a pilot project in Fife.

I say that the group got it – they certainly tackled activities I’ve seen most groups struggle to do with relative ease. Though it may not have felt easy to them! Of course,that doesn’t mean that they’re not without their issues – what group is? Like many cohousing groups, the primary focus may have (understandably) been on the project rather than the process. This workshop gave them the opportunity to be together, to get to know each other better, and to develop a shared understanding of their decision-making process and their group dynamics.

The workshop itself has been developing for a couple of years. Since talking to other trainers about the need to refocus on consensus values over consensus process, I’ve been playing with a number of approaches that explore building empathy and understanding across difference. I’m glad to say that this one seemed to work with Vivarium.

I’m enjoying the chance to work with cohousing groups. So far, at least, there’s a lot less of the competitive mindset I’ve witnessed all too often in some activist groups. Maybe it’s the aspect of cohousing as an intentional community. That focus on community and community building cannot be ignored. In campaigning and activist circles the intention is often more on mobilising around an issue and the community is more haphazard, and less intentional, at least in recent years. There are noticeable impacts on the consensus process.

At a Rhizome meeting this week we mused on the difference between community building and movement building in 21st century Britain. We noted that movements can be full of individuals and don’t necessarily build community. More on that in future blog posts, I’m sure.


The agony of group decision-making

The UK Cohousing Network recently teamed up with us at Rhizome to put on a consensus decision-making training in Birmingham. We’ve extended that relationship by starting to write a column for their newsletter offering cohousing groups the opportunity to share their agony (and their ecstasy!) about any aspect of working and meeting in groups, especially when it comes to decision-making. We’ll then chip in some thoughts, agony aunt style. Hopefully we can use the column to help support them to work together more effectively, to reassure them that they’re not alone in their struggles for effective group process, and to point them towards some useful resources.

Here’s a version of that first column:

One of the topics that emerged in the recent Birmingham workshop was the question of devolved responsibility. It’s a common issue. What’s the balance between individual initiative and the group’s shared responsibility?

Many groups make the mistake of thinking that consensus decision-making means we all have to agree absolutely everything together. Of course there are times when it’s imperative that everyone is actively involved in a decision. Some decisions are that central to the life of a cohousing community. But at other times that’s inefficient and a recipe for long and frustrating meetings.

There’s nothing to say that you can’t agree by consensus to delegate responsibility, even decision-making power, to a subgroup of the community. You can appoint an individual as supreme ruler, by consensus, if you see fit. Wouldn’t recommend it, but it is possible. What’s important is finding the balance between letting a subgroup have room for creativity and initiative and them being accountable to the wider community.

That requires trust. We can’t assume trust. It’s a nice idea and we’d probably all like to think of ourselves as trusting people, but in reality it often needs to be built in groups. So have patience. Much of the time the dynamic at work is that feeling of “how do I know they are considering my perspective properly if I’m not there to advocate it?”. So subgroups need to be careful to take all perspectives into consideration (and to demonstrate that they’re doing so), especially those that are not represented by the members of the subgroup.

For the delegation to work, there needs to be a clear mandate – What are the community empowering the subgroup to do? What are the limits? How will they report back? By when? To whom? And when the time comes to be accountable and to be held accountable there needs to be an atmosphere of supportive learning rather than judgement.

Craig Freshley’s latest Good Group Tip is on accountability. These tips are an excellent resource (and one we’ve mentioned on this blog before). On accountability Craig says, amongst other things, that:

“If you want to hold someone accountable, first ensure that there is shared understanding about the expectation. Write it down. Do not judge against someone for not living up to unclear, or even imagined, expectations.”

Couldn’t agree more. It’s really common for a subgroup leave a meeting with a different understanding of their mandate than the community at large. So check out those understandings to ensure their held in common.

At the workshop I borrowed a simple exercise from my colleague Carl. Think of the colour blue? What are you thinking? It’d be easy to think we all know what “blue” means, right? But in Birmingham people were interpreting it to be as varied as a smurf to the sky. And whilst several people were thinking of sky, they each had different understandings of what that sky looked like – clear blue summer’s day right through to midnight blue night sky. Shared understanding is key to successful delegation in consensus. So check it is shared or you’ll get smurfs instead of midnight skies!

UK cohousers will hopefully send us in some knotty problems to support them in, as well as the odd positive experience that others can learn from. You are of course welcome to do the same.


Conformity and consensus

Just worked through Dave Pollard’s Links for the Month. TheraminTrees YouTube video (a touch under 10 minutes long) summarising studies on group conformity stood out from some other amazing resources. Probably because I’ve been pondering this stuff of late, including in my recent post on certainty:

If you don’t have time to watch, here’s a taste of the author’s conclusions from his review of the studies that show a real tendency to conform to group views:

“Being part of a group doesn’t mean agreeing with every part of that group. We should always feel able to voice legitimate criticisms with any group…. When we stop feeling able to do that we give those groups a status and an authority that they don’t deserve and that they actually don’t possess. If a group can’t handle legitimate dissent it’s not a group I want to be part of”

Immediately the possible impacts on consensus decision-making are apparent. How do we move towards a shared group decision without eradicating minority opinions and dissent? How do we embrace those views and weave them into our decision-making? If we manage this how do we avoid co-option – by which I mean bringing them into the majority fold in order to exert some level of control over them? Hard questions with many, many examples of failure to illustrate the need to ask them.

Dave’s blogged about consensus as a force for the status quo in the past, and this research adds weight to his thinking, even though I’m stubbornly holding out in the belief that whilst it may often be like that it’s not a default setting of consensus decision-making itself, just how groups (choose to) use it. At the time I wrote:

The interesting aspect of this conversation for me is how radicals can come together and be conservative when gathered collectively to make a decision. Consensus tends to attract folk looking for an alternative to the status quo, disillusioned with mainstream models of power and decision-making. You could argue that they’re folk looking for radical change. So if Dave is right (and I’m sure he’s not the only one to have observed this trait in groups using consensus) what happens? Why do we default to conservatism?

Maybe the studies quoted in the video answer that question.

This week I met with my Leicester-based Rhizome colleagues. Given we live in and around the same city we don’t meet often enough, and it’s always refreshing when we do. Much of our conversation relates to this post – how we as Rhizome need to explore the diversity that 10 different facilitators with very different backgrounds and approached represent, embrace it and root ourselves firmly in it. When we do that we’re in a much better position to support other groups effectively. We need to model the struggle to have shared values but differing visions of the future which disable so many groups. The inability of people to reconcile their differences seems to be a major contributing factor to conformity. Eventually “the other” (whatever or whoever that might be) is alienated, made unwelcome, or forced to conform for the group to move forwards because there’s an expectation of a very narrow shared vision.

We’ll continue to share our journey into co-operation without conformity with you. Please share yours with us.

The danger of certainty

I used to be certain.  I knew what was right and wrong and wasn’t shy in saying so. Some people might say I’m still that way – very black and white, not enough shades of grey. But to me I’ve changed a lot over the years. I’m positively full of doubt and ambivalence nowadays.  And I like it. That might sound odd – who likes doubt and ambivalence? Well me – whenever I encounter the kind of certainty I once had.

So why this train of thought? I’ve had cause to ponder the effects of certainty on the life of groups over the years. 20 years ago it was the effects of my own certainty that, in part, switched me on to good group process. More recently I’ve been watching the comments on an email list with increasing unease.

I attended an event in July. It proved quite controversial. The participants’ email list has been no less controversial. We’ve heard from some very certain voices. And with the certainty comes that close relative – judgement. After all if I’m right and we disagree, then I’m in a position to tell you that you’re wrong.

I need to declare my interests at this point. A fair amount of that certainty has been directed at me. Some at me personally, some at me by dint of my being a white male. You may think that renders this post worthless. I hope not.

The certainty seems to have created a dynamic. Early certain voices brought out other certain voices. The groundswell of judgement increased. There was very little dissent. Other voices confined themselves to other topics, by and large. Off the list four of the female participants contacted me directly. They wanted to offer some support (thank you). To one extent or another, all four expressed some concern that the dynamic on the list was suppressing dissenting voices, that they were muted. These are powerful women and yet these conversation happened off the list, and I really can’t say I blame them.

So we have one certain perspective being offered. It’s self reinforcing as other similar voices rally around, and dissenters feel unsafe to express their views.

Now take that sideways to the group of your choice. Take it into your consensus experience. How often are we suppressing a diversity of views simply by being certain of our own perspective and articulating it forcefully. It’s hard to be certain without taking a position. And it’s hard to shift from a position once you’ve taken it. Take a look at Penny Walker’s blog on this topic (and her position-interest-need graphic). Certainty seems to stimulate  responses – rallying around, or railing against and finding the middle ground in which to converse, to grow, to change is tough. Give me tentative curiosity or hesitant exploration every time. Certainty is dangerous to groups. Of that I’m certain.



PS: any certainty displayed by the author is a rhetorical device to stimulate a response. Use the comments field – all dissent very, very welcome!

Consensus and cohousing

I spent Friday in the company of 17 folk from 6 cohousing projects in the southern half of Wales and England. We came together for a 1 day consensus decision-making workshop that I was delivering for the UK Cohousing Network.

Those of us who do a lot of work with the activist community can sometimes forget that it’s not the only hotbed of radical democracy. Consensus seems to be the assumed decision-making process for many (most?) cohousing projects. In some ways this is odd, as it’s certainly not the assumed norm for co-operative businesses. Most rules for co-ops assume majority voting. What makes co-operative living different to co-operative working, I wonder?

Whatever the answer to that question, there was no doubt that these cohousers were curious, committed and keen to share their wealth of experience in group decision-making and group dynamics. As is the Rhizome preference we focused on the state of mind that is consensus rather than just the mechanics of the process. I’ve been playing with a few activities that help support exploration of empathy and connection. I trialled a new activity to give us insight into the tension between personal values and shared group values (between the stand aside and the block). These seemed to work well, especially the latter, thanks to the volunteer that shared her story with us.

Of course not everything worked that well – one of the practice roleplays needs a rethink. Maybe the scenario I used needs overhauling and more detail adding, or maybe it needs to go altogether. It’s hard to say – one participant astutely pointed out on their evaluation form that whilst the activity itself didn’t feel like it worked well, it might have played a role in paving the way for the activity that followed, which did work well. Sadly this workshop wasn’t co-facilitated so I don’t have the benefit of a co-facilitator’s wisdom in debriefing the session.

And I’m aware that there was more to be done to equalise the voices in the group. As a group we had conversations about this – that sometimes everyone gets to speak, but that doesn’t mean they all get heard equally. I could have done more to support the group in modelling that dynamic.

There was an immense amount of experience in the room, and it’s always humbling to work in that environment. There were those who have spent years immersed in Quaker Business Method as well as others that have used consensus decision-making in various groups at various times over many years. In many ways it felt as if just bringing them together to talk and share was the most useful contribution. The fact I was there to structure some specific learning was a minor detail (and some might say even an obstacle!).

There was a lot of energy in the group at the end of the day, which I take to be a good sign. Their evaluations were very affirming, though they didn’t steer clear of also confirming what I suspected about the practice roleplay, for which I thank them.


The power of peer-to-peer networks

Johnnie Moore’s talking about distributed models of conversation in meetings in his recent blog A few thoughts on peer-to-peer networks in meetings. Sensible stuff that addresses the problem caused by that common belief that “we all need to hear everything“. In consensus decision-making circles that can be magnified into “we all need to decide together on everything“.

Johnnie says:

“One objection to those more informal methods comes from people who say that they can’t know everything that’s happening in the room. But I would counter that methods A and B only allow the illusion of hearing everything by throttling the amount that can actually be said by most people and forcing it to remain unspoken.”

There can be dynamics around trust, status in the group and more at play here. The bottom line seems to be equal access – plenary formats rarely, if ever, allow everyone in the room to join the conversation as equals.

In terms of decision-making, when researching our brief history of consensus post, I was grabbed by the description of the Hanseatic League’s dynamics. The League was a 13th to 17th century Northern European trading alliance. If I’ve understood it right, those cities and merchants’ guilds that wanted to discuss a trading venture simply got together and did so, and ultimately made their decision by consensus. Those that weren’t interested simply abstained from both conversation and decision. No judgment accrued to either position. Simple and refreshing.


Can consensus really be E-A-S-Y?

“What about consensus decision-making in hierarchical organisations?”. It’s a question that comes up regularly.

Most of my work around consensus decision-making is in grassroots, flat structured organisations. And that seems to be the natural home of consensus because of the anti-hierarchical values that thrive in that setting. But it’d be foolish to close our eyes to the fact that consensus, and the desire to work by consensus, exist elsewhere. There are hundreds of management consultancies that deliver training in consensus, for example. But is it the same thing we talk about on this blog, a close relation, or something very different?

Then today I read Learning Tree International’s ‘Perspectives on Project Management’ blog, lured in by the title How to Use the E-A-S-Y Approach to Consensus Decision Making. It’s a short and surprisingly good post (surprising only because of my prejudices that we activists have the monopoly on consensus).

Why the E-A-S-Y approach? Here’s a snippet:

An effective way to reach consensus is to use the E-A-S-Y approach:

  • Elicit comments or explanations (oral and written) from all team members
  • Ask  open-ended questions (what, where, when, which, who, how, why) about the topic
  • State the obvious – summarize . . . write it down
  • Your opinion as the project leader is important, but is not likely to be as important as the collective wisdom of the project team.

complex, conceptual and contentious

Adam and I co-facilitated a two day workshop with an international NGO about it’s future shape and governance. Two proposals were on the table. As we talked about them a tsunami of thoughts, reflections, ideas and contentions emerged. We scribbled furiously and summarised often and the group began to understand a shape to the discussions. This helped us to form ideas around themes. We’d already abandoned our client-agreed process plan and were now in emergent territory. But remembering the mantra of listen, reflect and clarify, the group nudged it’s way to a clear picture of what needed to be done to resolve the matter. We got to a resolution on some key matters and a wealth of emerging possibilities on how things might be implemented and what needs to happen next.

Aside from having to improvise, we also faced –

the challenge of a multi-lingual group (we worked in English, but contributions were made, and interpreted, in Spanish);

a range of involvement in the development of the proposals, from those who’d been involved for nearly two years to those coming with fresh eyes (as one participant’s research showed – …allowing for open discussion of differences, regardless of how time consuming… – is a sign of a healthy NGO);

a mixture of understandings and response modes, from detailed observations to those focussing on the big picture and keen to get on (I think we noticed and adapted to this variety of inputs);

the use of a block which wasn’t really a block (the participant resolved his block in his contribution);

a super-heated airless room far too small for the number of people;

the need to acknowledge privileged positions, be it on gender (the room was male dominated), geography (the global North was over-represented); language (it’s much, much harder to work in your second or third language);

the need to air what is happening now and what has happened with regard to people’s understanding of relations amongst the network, before any chance was had of shaping the future (late-ish manifestations of trust issues, which thankfully had some time to be aired);

and being brought in at a very late stage in the game when patterns and dynamics are pretty embedded, and some outcomes fairly inevitable.

I think they have more work to do, but am glad to have worked on something that made me really think on my feet and appreciate having a co-facilitator with me.

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.