The Special Place of Blocking in Consensus

For many groups working by consensus “blocking” is a dirty word. To help rehabilitate the block in consensus, over the next couple of weeks we’re reproducing 3 of Tree Bressen’s articles on the role of the block in consensus decision-making. Enjoy!

The Special Place of Blocking in Consensus

Funny as it may seem, people who teach consensus process are not in consensus on what constitutes an appropriate block.
Standards vary widely, and i’d be willing to bet it’s a disagreement that goes back many years before the 1981 publication of the classic manual Building United Judgment. That book describes how the collective producing it almost broke up over their inability to come to agreement on how to address blocking. In their case, the breakthrough came when the authors agreed to include multiple viewpoints in the text, each set off in its own box.

That solution met the needs of that particular situation. But what are practicing groups to do who need clarity in order to move ahead? My aim here is to describe different standards in use, explain roles and functions that blocking can serve, and leave it up to you to decide.

* * *

First, let’s be clear on the areas of agreement, which are substantial. I have seen no source of information on consensus that allows for blocking based on individual preference. That is, all the trainers and books agree that blocks must be based on a member’s perception of group needs rather than on something they want for themselves. This is a key point on blocking and the one most often overlooked by newcomers to the process. Consensus is not extreme voting—it’s a genuinely different method that requires participants to adopt a bigger perspective and focus on group needs.

Second, it’s essential that any blocks which emerge are fully understood as to what the blocker’s concern is and why they feel that way. Accessing that knowledge will assist a meeting in discerning whether to continue further work on the proposal or to lay it down.

Third, in a well-functioning group, blocks shouldn’t happen very often. Consensus guru Caroline Estes is known for saying that a person should only block up to half a dozen times in their lifetime, total, for all the groups they participate in. If blocking is happening often, the group needs more training in consensus process.

* * *

C.T. Butler, in his Formal Consensus booklet, sets a high bar. He maintains that the entire group must agree that a block is based in a group principle or the group’s well-being in order for the block to hold. This standard is a reasonable response to the context that C.T.’s methodology was developed in: political groups who had to deal with government infiltrators and provocateurs.

In contrast, communitarian Laird Schaub says that the blocker only needs to be able to convince at least one other member of the group that the block is based in an explicitly held group value. (The other person doesn’t need to feel the same way as the blocker, they just need to admit the validity of the analysis.)

Using that model, blocks are most likely to arise either when two different values that a group holds come into conflict with each other (e.g., ecological sustainability vs. affordability when constructing a community building) or when there are different interpretations of an existing common value. As Laird puts it: “I urge a community to not be dismayed by discovering that different members have different spins on what a common value means. You weren’t really thinking you all thought the same way on everything, were you? I didn’t think so. So expect differences to arise.

The standard used by Quaker elder Caroline Estes is that one can only block when the outcome for the group would be otherwise catastrophic. Not just bad, but disastrously bad. She also says that it’s not okay for one person to prevent the group from taking risks, so long as the group is making an informed choice.

As an example, she tells a story of Pacific Yearly Meeting which, during the Vietnam War, wanted to send a ship bearing humanitarian aid to the North Vietnamese. Such an act fell under the official definition of treason, but the Quakers have long been a determined, pacifist people, and energy was building in support. Near the end of the meeting, one person stood to speak. This person pointed out that technically such an act would put in a liable position not only all the Friends in the room, but all the members of Pacific Yearly Meeting, many of whom were not in attendance at the meeting that day to give their assent to such a drastic risk. The person sat down, and the clerk (facilitator) announced, “Friends, we will now adjourn for lunch.”

The correctness of the person’s action was clear, as there was widespread agreement that it wouldn’t have been fair to subject absent members to severe legal penalties. Over lunch, the people in support of the proposal got together and went forward with their plans to charter the ship—just not in the official name of Pacific Yearly Meeting. Note that the strong desire to act did find an outlet, and one that truly addressed the concern which had been raised.

* * *

However, the story above brings up an interesting question. Why didn’t the person object sooner? Could they not get a turn to speak? Did the concern not occur to them until the eleventh hour? It seems to me that if they’d spoken up earlier, the rest of the group would have seen the wisdom of the statement, and rather than ending at a block, the whole group would have shifted to a search for new solutions.

In fact I’ve sometimes suggested this as a filter to people who are wondering whether a block is appropriate; i tell them that if there’s not a sense of resonance from others who hear the block, then it’s probably based in self-interest rather than the group’s needs, and therefore the blocker should likely stand aside instead. In that sense appropriate blocks cease to exist, because they result in a shift in group insight which converts them from barriers held by one person into concerns to be integrated by the whole.

However, blocks also serve as a safety valve in the system. I once worked with a land trust that reported a high frequency of blocks. As i inquired further, i discovered that in their process blocking was the only way to say, “I need more time for discussion on this item before we make a decision.” I encouraged the group not to rush so much, and to include an option in their decision-making for “I have some concerns and would like to dialogue more” that would feel different and more positive than blocking, thus reserving blocking for catastrophic-level concerns that emerge after substantial discussion.
While we all wish for good process with people who listen fully to each other, there are a lot of real groups out there that aren’t operating that way. For those groups with weak process, blocking is the way to ensure that if someone is being railroaded, they have a way to stop the train.

On the other hand, the blocking option is much more likely to be invoked by assertive personalities who can resist peer pressure from the group, and sometimes these are the “problem” members of the community.

That’s why teacher Rob Sandelin advocates a voting fallback, so that one member can’t exercise a “tyranny of the minority” over the group. If someone knows they can be outvoted, Rob thinks they’ll be more likely to act cooperatively. Other trainers, however, raise the concern that groups with voting fallbacks may avoid the hard work of coming to consensus. I’ve been happy to see that cohousing communities, which all have voting fallbacks in their bylaws due to requirements arising from conventional bank financing, rarely if ever invoke them in practice.

N Street Cohousing in Davis, California has another safety mechanism in place to protect the integrity of the consensus process. Part of their standard for blocking is that the person who blocks must meet multiple times with the people who made the proposal in order to try to craft something that will meet all the needs and concerns. If this requirement is not met, then the block doesn’t count and the decision can proceed. That policy is a way of codifying the need for anyone who is considering blocking a decision to work constructively on ways to resolve their concerns, which is an essential part of making consensus work.

When teaching consensus i tend to de-emphasize blocking, focusing on the process as “the power to listen” rather than “the power to block.” However, as a key feature that distinguishes consensus from majority voting, it’s critical to recognize the place of blocking in the system.

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.


We’ve blogged about Crowd Wise, a consensus voting technique, on a number of occasions on this site. And indeed, Perry Walker its originator is one of Rhizome’s members nowadays.

For those keen to learn more is now up and running complete with several case studies to show you how it’s worked in practice in remarkably varied contexts, from football clubs to Transition Towns.

Formal consensus and Crowd Wise

Perry and I were delivering a day’s training on consensus for Talk Action yesterday. The day covered an overview of formal consensus (often simply called consensus or consensus decision-making) and an introduction to Crowd Wise. We rounded off with a ‘clinic’ – collectively troubleshooting a consensus-related issues for one of the group and trying to apply the day’s learning to that organisation’s needs.

One of the things that makes this training more interesting and perhaps challenging is that it draws in people from a wide range if backgrounds and organisations – those whose work involves participatory engagement, such as community workers and freelance and local authority planners; staff and volunteers for small charities and community organisations; staff from NGOs of varying sizes; as well as those with an activist or campaigning background. Yesterday we had participants from a local authority, Garden Organic, the Occupy movement, a local CVS support organisation, a network of residents associations and more.

This was the second time out for the training and we’d had a good clear out, de-cluttering the content and focusing on the experiential activities wherever we could. It seemed to go well, and there was a lot of energy and warmth at the end of the day.

Inevitably there are a couple of activities we will tweak again for next time. Our warm up activity produced less clear learning about consensus than last time. Similarly the clinic tended towards broad group dynamics topics where we had hoped it would be more obviously consensus-focused. Talk Action have the evaluation forms, and we’ll come back to you and share some headlines when we get a look at them. We’ll also let you know when the next course is running. Maybe see you there?

As an aside, Anna from Talk Action tweeted her way through the morning – not something I’m used too, but an interesting insight into what at least one participant was taking away from the course:

A forum for consensus

Hannah and I were at work with the Detention Forum on earlier this month, facilitating a 5 hour session on consensus decision-making. The Forum is “a loose network of over 30 NGOs who are working on immigration detention issues” and as such is evolving its processes all the time. The co-ordination group are trying to work as consensually as possible and want to support other working groups and the wider Forum to do the same. Hence the training.

This was very much a chance for the Forum to explore whether formal consensus was for them, or whether there were elements or values within consensus that were useful to them without necessarily adopting the formal consensus process wholesale.

We threw them into a decision-making experience out of which we drew the values, attitudes, states of mind, of co-operative decision-making. These we discusses, explored and mapped onto the formal consensus process before throwing them back into another decision-making activity.

It’s clear that all the talk of values had an impact – reaffirming to the participants how they envision their relationships in meetings, causing pause for thought in some cases. The session left them with challenges and questions – one being about sharing the experience and learning with the wider Forum. How do you support others to work towards these laudable values? How do you make the transition from values to actual behaviour in meetings?

Fortunately Hannah and Perry will be working with them again at the end of the month, with a focus on facilitation. I suspect the role of facilitation in supporting groups to work to their higher values will be on the agenda!

With the Forum’s permission we used the session to so some internal skill-sharing. Hannah was keen to learn more about facilitating consensus training. Not that you’d have known she had more to learn from her assured performance!

From the evaluation we seem to have been successful in supporting people to see beyond consensus process to consensus values, and in helping them to appreciate that potentially tricky aspects of consensus, such as the block, are positive when used appropriately.

“It was very timely and useful for us, giving us much to think about but also helping us to think differently about meetings and discussions we’ve already had, seeing them in context…

I was quite cynical beforehand but this session has completely changed my mind”

Of the couple of ‘negative’ comments we received one was concerned with an activity we did in which we asked some people to take on roles. The roles were unnecessary in this instance and as much (or more) would have been learnt without them. Hannah and I drew the same conclusion in our debrief conversation. Always good to have that confirmed by the participants. The other was simply a comment that the formal consensus process wasn’t, in this participant’s view, appropriate for the Detention Forum.

mediating and meaning

Mediated a dispute between members of a core group in a direct action group. The agreement was to keep the content and fact of the mediation confidential, so I can only talk about the process without any reference to the members of the group or the group.

One member of the group, that had agreed a plan of action and how it would be communicated, broke this agreement. A sub-group was set up to finalise the wording before the call out was publicised. A member decided to publish what they thought best. This annoyed the rest of the sub-group and the larger group that had come to consensus about the nature of the call out.

I spoke to some members of the group by phone and face to face before we met, and ironed out some of the conditions for the mediation. This included finding out who else needed to be involved, and how those involved represented the views of the wider group.

We only had an hour and a half, but spent it clarifying how the issue had arisen and what the underlying needs and motivations were. This helped to clarify where people where coming from, their intentions, how these intentions had been received and how they could be resolved. Those present thought that progress had been made and some initial steps were agreed to take forward this positive momentum.

For those interested in process issues. I began by negotiating the boundaries of confidentiality (I’d keep all confidential, they agreed to share the outputs with the rest of the group), the spirit with which we’d converse (using inquiry, rather than adversarialism) and started the conversation by asking why they thought I was present.

I then used a series of clarifying questions, summarised what I thought I’d heard every now and again and helped them to recognise any momentum that had been gained. I used notes and diagrams to keep track of what was said and destroyed them at the end of the meeting.

Spokescouncils – learning from Stop New Nukes: Part 2

I was back at Hinkley power station this weekend for the Fukushima anniversary action. Actions at Hinkley have a new poignancy – the site for the new and much bigger Hinkley C reactor has now been cleared, despite valiant efforts to hinder it (a tree-sit and occupation of some farm buildings), and G4S security guards are everywhere.

Once again my role was that of spokescouncil facilitator. But whereas last time we had several days at a pre-action camp to help people get used to the idea of affinity groups and consensus, and in particular spokescouncils, this action had no such preamble. All spokescouncils were held in the immediate vicinity of the station and mid-action.

Over the course of 24 hours we held 3 meetings, all of them spokes-only meetings, so as not to distract people from the blockade itself.

  • The first to check in, share information and respond to anything that might arise from the group.
  • The second to plan the transition from the big ‘surround the station’ action to the more contentious blockade. Ingeniously, the group decided to solve the problem by moving the meeting into the roadway, thus the meeting became the blockade, and runners were sent out to tell others that the blockade had begun.
  • The third to check out how much energy the group had for maintaining the blockade after a cold and (for many) sleepless night and decide on an end time and process.

I don’t want to repeat the learning from previous involvement in this campaign. If you want that, have a glance at the previous post. But I thought I’d update you with what’s working well and less well (in my opinion, of course) in the world of spokescouncil consensus, Stop New Nuclear style

Working well?

  • I continue to be impressed at the willingness to co-operate within meetings. It felt like we were doing at least half decent consensus in a disparate group of people whose only connection was the choice to take part in a particular action. None of the posturing and positioning that I’ve witnessed elsewhere. And all this with a short introduction to the mindset needed for consensus, to hand signals and to spokescouncils at the start of each meeting.
  • The short intro, and the action setting mean that the group is starting the consensus process without necessarily being aware of where it’s taking them. I’ve been introducing each step of the process as the meeting unfolds (“lets hear a few perspectives?”… “any more perspectives that we need to hear?”…. “can anyone see a way forward that brings together what we’ve heard so far”… “any major objections to what we’re hearing”… and so on). It’s a potentially risky strategy, but one that’s working at the moment.

And less well?

  • The lack of a pre-action camp meant that not everything I’d hoped we could do to improve awareness of spokescouncils was able to take place – induction meetings and workshops, a flier handed out at the welcome tent, and so forth.
  • I probably should have taken a deep breath and done a formal intro to the whole group over the PA system since one was available. Partly this was an aversion to public speaking, and partly deference to those who had come to speak and whose words seemed so much more necessary than mine – for example the young Japanese couple who shared their personal story of the impact of the Fukushima disaster.
  • If spokescouncils are an affinity group tool, then we’re not really doing spokescouncils at all! Many, possibly most, of the people present were not in affinity groups. Some were in looser group formation (a few mates, the folk they traveled with on the coach…). Others were there as individuals. Whilst the spokescouncils did attract people from the looser groups, many of the individuals were essentially not represented. As I see it this will continue to be the case until we succeed in encouraging greater take-up of the affinity group model, or start  having fishbowl-format spokescouncils. At these latter meetings it’s easy enough to cluster individuals into ad hoc groups and invite them to select a spoke.

For all of these failings, in the relatively small confines of this action (the blockade focused on one gate only), and in the relaxed atmosphere of the action (once again the police took a laissez-faire approach), the meetings are working. Decisions are being networked out to the wider crowd, and I saw no signs of them being ignored. When there’s more than one physical location, and tougher policing? Then we’ll need the discipline of affinity groups and more experience in consensus. But we have a little time….

Consensus decision-making: guiding groups to good decisions

We talk a lot about consensus on this blog. Supporting groups to navigate the sometimes less than clear waters of consensus is a large part of our work. Over the last year or so I’ve spoken to several fellow consensus trainers about work we’ve done together from the 2005 G8 protests onwards. One of the reflections we’ve shared is that the emphasis seems to have fallen on consensus process as opposed to consensus as a state of mind, a set of values. That was not deliberate, but it seems quite clear that some groups that have tried to use consensus have done so in the absence of clear and shared co-operative values. At that point they’re off the edge of the map of good consensus, and there be dragons.

As part of our contribution to re-establishing balance, we’ve just uploaded two new consensus decision-making guides to our Resources page. We hope there’s a suitable focus on that state of mind.

One is an abridged version of two of our most popular blog posts on the history and evolution of consensus, with the information brought together in one place. The second is an introduction and overview of what consensus is, how it works, common misconceptions, alternatives for those that can’t commit to consensus and some places to go for further information. There’s a third guide in the pipeline, aimed at facilitators of consensus.

These guides will undoubtedly evolve. Your feedback is a part of that evolution. We’d love to hear from you – what’s not clear? what’s missing? We’d also love to include more case studies of when consensus works and doesn’t, so if you have experiences to share, please get in touch.


Consensus training: Talk Action, January 26th, London

Rhizome don’t put on many open courses, though we do get asked. As it happens 2 of our facilitators are at work in an open course on Consensus Decision-Making next month, courtesy of the team at Talk Action.

We’ll look at the values that underpin effective consensual decision-making as well as at 2 models of consensus: formal consensus and Crowd Wise.

We’d love to see you there.

Crowd Wise: ongoing learning

Here at Rhizome we’ve recently completed a piece of consultancy work for the Fairtrade Foundation.

We used the Crowd Wise consensus process as a central plank of the work – running five regional Crowd Wise conversations with grassroots fair trade campaigners to develop options around grassroots membership of the Foundation, prioritise the options and then move towards agreement.

Crowd Wise is a relatively new approach, and it’s still developing. This is the first time it’s been used across a series of events. Naturally we’ve had a chat about how that worked and the lessons we learnt.

So what was the main difference about how we used it here? Previous Crowd Wise sessions have been a single event. Usually the options under discussion had been created in advance, but in a few cases the session time had to be used to identify possible options, discuss and develop those options and then reach an agreement. Given that some of these sessions have been quite short, that’s a tall order. But it was also cleaner. One event and it’s done and dusted.

Here we had five events, so we could take our time, and gently nudge our way towards agreement. Alongside Foundation staff, we drew together five options based on the views we’d heard in the first stage of the consultation (through interviews, surveys, meetings and so on). The longer time frame meant that in the first four events we could concentrate on shaping options, merging them and then de-merging them, prioritising and so on, leaving the final event to pull together the threads of the previous four.

That’s not to say that each individual session had no time pressure. We had about 2 to 2.5 hours for each session, and could easily have filled more time.

So it was a more spacious process, but one that left us with some choices to make.

  • For example, we chose to allow the options to evolve between meetings rather than present each group with exactly the same choices to discuss. Often this evolution was subtle – a shift of emphasis within the same rough parameters.
  • We chose to leave one particularly ‘weak’ option in the running. Partly this was in deference to our client, who had proposed this option, to ensure it got a fair hearing. But it also did no harm to leave it there. It was part of the wide package of information that stimulated discussion, thinking and ultimately decision. On the other hand, if circumstances had been only slightly different we might have ‘culled’ it, as a visible sign of moving towards consensus.
  • We chose to involve Foundation staff in the conversations between each event about the evolution of the options. This collaboration had real strength. The Foundation have a much more intimate and connected relationship with the process because of it. We also benefited from their perception of each event – it wasn’t possible for us to hear every conversation. But it did take time – theirs and ours. On balance though it was the right thing to do.
  • We kept all the stakeholders informed through a project blog. After each meeting we blogged about the meeting, the key conversations and the outcomes. We then gave an indication of how we were developing the options for the next event based on what we’d witnessed at that event. This gave the project transparency and integrity. And of course allowed readers to interact and leave comments, some of which gave us very useful feedback on how the process was working from a participant’s perspective. We made useful changes to the information participants were given based on these comments.
  • We chose to do the final event differently. The first four involved small groups exploring one or two options each – strengths and weaknesses and potential for mergers between options. Each group then put the case for the options it had discussed to the full group before more discussion and a final vote (using a consensus voting system). Whereas in the final event each group was asked to consider all options and specifically look for a way forward that took the best from all options.

Most of these choices were intuitive ones. There’s no Crowd Wise rulebook, which is why we want to share these thoughts here as part of the process of developing a body of thought and hopefully best practice.

Other observations and learning

  1. Part of the process in this case was about developing trust – trust in the process and in the wisdom of the group. It’s Crowd Wise after all. We had to trust that each group would pick up, to an extent, where the previous group had left off. And we had to trust that the final group could discern the developing consensus of their peers from the previous events and pull together a solution that fully considered their views. It worked wonderfully.
  2.  The process also confirmed the power of collective process to change individual perspectives for the better. At each event we started with a quick vote on the options before any discussion had taken place. This gave us a benchmark, and gave the group a chance to get a sense of how the consensus voting process worked. It allowed us to clearly see the changes of mind that the group had undergone. For example in several sessions one option ranked highly in the opening vote but came last in the final vote.
  3.  We were reminded about the power of the individual within the collective. There were several examples of individuals making contributions that shaped the process and outcomes as a whole. One person making a distinction between having access to the Foundation’s AGM and access to the Board (where he considered real power to lie) had a significant impact on the conversation at that session and the two that followed. Another participant shared an idea about randomly inviting campaigners to sit on a national committee in order to involve people who would never think to stand for the position. A simple idea, but one that leapt out as useful and found its way into the final report. The Crowd Wise environment seems to nurture this possibility both because it’s based on face-to-face meeting, but also because it explicitly values exploration, innovation and creativity.
  4. We learnt the importance of carefully setting the context. Despite a reasonable amount of background material being available ‘out there’ in one form or another, face-to-face briefings prior to the Crowd Wise session on the background and purpose of the consultation made a significant contribution to the quality of the event.
  5.  We were reminded that groups will talk about what interests them – not all of the questions posed to the Crowd Wise sessions elicited a response. Some fell flat and it became clear that in these cases campaigners were happy to leave the detail to the Foundation. Our job was to pick up on this and not force the question, leaving the group to talk about the issues it had energy for.


At Rhizome we bring very different perspectives to consensus building. I have been using and then facilitating and training folk in formal consensus for getting on for 18 years. Perry, who developed Crowd Wise and facilitated the sessions for the Fairtrade Foundation, is twenty years a facilitator and tells me that until he developed Crowd Wise, he knew little about this field, and his concerns were more about how to create dialogue in a world that thinks that conversation in politics – however small the ‘p’- means debate.

If I hadn’t been aware of Crowd Wise, I could have proposed to the Foundation a method called ‘Small to large group consensus’ which shares several of the characteristics of Crowd Wise. But in reality I probably wouldn’t have done so because it would have felt like imposing my consensus ideology on them (I’m certain that they are interested in consensus in that ‘broad coming together’ sense of the word that is in common usage, but probably less so in the formal consensus process with its non-hierarchical values and its particular process quirks like blocks and stand asides).

Traditionally consensus works well among co-operatives and non-hierarchical activists who are committed to its values and for whom any form of voting can be suspect. Crowd Wise, by contrast, may need less commitment to consensual values, which makes it more suitable to situations in which there is some form of hierarchy. It may also appeal more to those happy to use (consensus) voting in the cause of speeding things up. The dividing line – if indeed it really exists – is unclear. We’ll be exploring it further at a training course run by Talk Action on 26th January 2012. You’d be most welcome.

Are you listening?

Thanks to the folk at the Interaction Institute for their post The Art of Listening. They quote extensively from an essay on the power of listening by Brenda Ueland.

In facilitation and group work circles listening is more than a core skill, it’s a core state of mind, but one that’s often undervalued and under-practiced. Ueland’s essay focuses on listening in a family and social context, but what if we shifted it to a meeting context and particularly a consensus decision-making meeting?

“when I went to a party, I would think anxiously: “Now try hard. Be lively. Say bright things. Talk. Don’t let down.” And when tired, I would have to drink a lot of coffee to keep this up.
Now before going to a party, I just tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk; to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs, or arguing, or changing the subject.
Sometimes, of course, I cannot listen as well as others. But when I have this listening power, people crowd around and their heads keep turning to me as though irresistibly pulled. By listening I have started up their creative fountain. I do them good.

Now read ‘meeting’ for ‘party’. When was the last time you went to a meeting and left thinking you’d listened with affection, genuinely walked in another participant’s shoes and started up their creative fountain, and done them good? When was the last time it happened to you?

For just as the tragedy of parents and children is not listening, so it is of husbands and wives. If they disagree they begin to shout louder and louder – if not actually, at least inwardly – hanging fiercely and deafly onto their own ideas, instead of listening and becoming quieter and more comprehending.

But the most serious result of not listening is that worst thing in the world, boredom; for it is really the death of love. It seals people off from each other more than any other thing…

Sound familiar? And not just to the parents and partners out there. It sounds like many meetings I’ve been to. Can we really afford to seal ourselves off from one another? What impact does that have on our ability to come together and consent on important decisions?

…When we listen to people there is an alternating current that recharges us so we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created.
Now, there are brilliant people who cannot listen much. They have no ingoing wires on their apparatus. They are entertaining, but exhausting, too.
I think it is because these lecturers, these brilliant performers, by not giving us a chance to talk, do not let this little creative fountain inside us begin to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom.

Activist meetings are full of charismatic and brilliant people who seemingly cannot listen. I think their ability to perform well – to come with a constant supply of good ideas, incisive analysis and the ability to convey both clearly – becomes an self-reinforcing excuse not to listen. Their dominance means that when they do pause for breath the short silence is rarely filled with (in their judgment) equally creative and incisive thought. Or it’s simply filled by another brilliant person lacking ingoing wires. They roll their eyes and think “I better say some more or this campaign will never happen”. The end result is the same though – they stifle the creativity in others and create a downward spiral in the majority of the group who are consigned to the role of increasingly passive spectator.

How to listen

Now, how to listen. It is harder than you think. Creative listeners are those who want you to be recklessly yourself, even at your very worst, even vituperative, bad-tempered. They are laughing and just delighted with any manifestation of yourself, bad or good. For true listeners know that if you are bad-tempered it does not mean that you are always so. They don’t love you just when you are nice; they love all of you.

In order to listen, here are some suggestions: Try to learn tranquility, to live in the present a part of the time every day. Sometimes say to yourself: “Now. What is happening now? This friend is talking. I am quiet. There is endless time. I hear it, every word.” Then suddenly you begin to hear not only what people are saying, but also what they are trying to say, and you sense the whole truth about them. And you sense existence, not piecemeal, not this object and that, but as a translucent whole.

Then watch your self-assertiveness. And give it up. Remember, it is not enough just to will to listen to people. One must really listen. Only then does the magic begin.

Think about it…. treating each and every contributor to a meeting as if there were endless time to hear, digest and understand every word. Being curious. Looking for the whole truth in what they are saying, in who they are. Really listening.

I’m lucky enough to have had moments  that seemed genuinely magical in consensus-based groups, some of which happened because we finally heard each other despite our best efforts otherwise. Those moments keep me going through the mundane meetings and the horrendous meetings. What if we could work to make ‘magic’ a regular part of our meetings?

The challenge in the essay is obvious – listen deeply and genuinely and start doing it now. The reality feels more difficult. “No-one else at the meeting seems to be listening, why should I?”. “If I listen will my own perspective get heard?”. But what choice do we have? If we want groups that can actually make powerful change we need to make powerful changes in the way we interact. If we want those groups to be the cornerstone of entire movements we have to grasp the nettle and build foundations that will stand the weight. Too many other groups have tried and failed for lack of attention to things as simple as listening (and the valuing of difference and diversity that it enshrines). Time is short and we can’t afford to fail too many more times.

Process, power and privilege in the Occupy movement

Ivan Boothe has written an excellent post on the Fellowship of Reconciliation website. He talks about the cornerstones of the process used by the growing occupy movement in the States such as the people’s mic, consensus decision-making, and general assemblies – useful stuff about the purpose and problems associated with them, including some insights for facilitators and organisers.

He also talks about the racism and classism of the movement, caused in part by these very processes, and offers an analysis of its causes. Here’s a snippet, but there’s plenty more:

In an ideal community, participants would collectively decide how to debate and pass proposals, and would learn from one another about how that process operates. In most cases, however, differences in experience lead to some people having more familiarity and comfort with things like consensus and spokescouncils. Since those “some people” are usually white college-educated activists, community organizers with decades of experience among working class neighborhoods and people of color can feel culturally marginalized.

Organizers often want to undermine the traditional hierarchy of leader-oriented movements. Without adequate transparency, however, this quickly becomes the “tyranny of structurelessness,” in which existing ties between individuals become unofficial — and therefore unaccountable — decision-making structures in which others find impossible to participate.

An unfamiliar process combined with poor facilitation, poor communication, and the inevitable rush of activist planning leads to a unaware but pervasive racism and classism that makes the setup feel far more oppressive than majoritarian voting systems with which people are familiar.

He also talks of the rarely acknowledged privilege that allows people to engage in the Occupy movement:

“Occupy” encampments take an enormous amount of privilege. The privilege to take time off — from family, work or school — and participate in an overwhelming and sometimes confusing community. The privilege to, in some cases, risk arrest simply by participating. But more than anything, the privilege to debate things like “an ideal community” in the midst of life-or-death struggles going on on the ground.

I guess that applies to bloggers too!

Building a strong grassroots foundation…

We’ve not been reporting back on so much work of late. It’s not that were not working, just that we’ve been working more on one project – facilitating a dialogue between the Fairtrade Foundation and their grassroots campaigners.

The Foundation wants to offer campaigners membership – a place in the formal governance structure of the organisation – in recognition of their amazing energy and efforts in building awareness of fair trade here in the UK. Rhizome has spent the last few months gathering campaigner responses, talking to other membership organisations and testing options and facilitating an emerging consensus using the Crowd Wise process.

Although the initial brief was for a fairly traditional consultancy approach, we pitched a few other ideas at the Foundation. These included using a combination of techniques such as Open Space and World Cafe at regional or national level to initiate a conversation, uncover the issues and suggest ways forward. We suggested coupling these with Crowd Wise to test out possibilities and build towards a widely owned outcome. We settled on a fairly traditional opening process using discussion groups, phone interviews, phone conferences and a web survey to elicit concerns, excitement and other responses, followed by a series of 5 regional events at which we’d employ Crowd Wise.

We kept campaigners and other stakeholders informed of every step through a dedicated project blog, which allowed those not able to make an event to follow and interact with the process.

It all culminated in a short report earlier this week, and in a report back workshop at the Foundation’s annual Supporter Conference, today.

For Rhizome the work created an exciting opportunity. Our paths had crossed that of Perry Walker a few times of late. You may have noticed his biography appear on our Who We Are page as we invited him  on board. Perry’s a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and developed Crowd Wise (amongst other things). And alongside Perry we were able to test Crowd Wise in a new situation – a series of 5 connected meetings. We’ll talk more about what we learnt from that soon.

The Foundation seem happy with the outcomes even though they differ significantly from the initial proposal they had developed. They also found the process valuable and plan to share their reflections with colleagues in other countries.

One interesting reflection that I heard today from a veteran Fairtrade Town campaigner was that he had been surprised at the regional event that he attended that many other campaigners weren’t interested in the offer of a governance role. Then he remembered that when he was less-than-veteran he had also been focused on more immediate and more directly campaign-related concerns.

This was one of the strengths of the process – it brought campaigners of all stripes and experience together in a way that challenged their assumptions and asked them to step into each other’s shoes.

Spokescouncils – learning from Stop New Nukes

Photo: Stop New Nuclear

Hinkley Point nuclear power station was successfully blockaded on Monday 3rd for an entire day. The Stop New Nuclear organisers had decided in advance on an affinity group model of action, and therefore that communication and decision making would happen by spokescouncil.

I joined the fray on the Saturday to help facilitate the spokescouncils both at the camp and on the blockade itself. From Saturday to Monday I facilitated 4 spokescouncil meetings – 2 at the camp, 1 during a camp-wide practice blockade, and the fourth and final one at the blockade itself. With the exception of the practice, on the surface at least, the others seemed to go well. The practice spokescouncil hit problems, but that’s why we practiced!

In fact I was amazed by all of the meetings I facilitated or witnesses at the camp, whether spokescouncils and general camp info meetings. They all ended on or ahead of the scheduled time and ran pretty smoothly. There was a real will to co-operate that you can’t assume will be present.

But why ‘on the surface at least’? I think there were some real issues bubbling away under the surface. Nothing insurmountable, but issues nevertheless. So what was going on?

Experience and understanding

The most obvious was the challenge that spokescouncils presented to those less versed in the ways of affinity group organising. Some of the folk attending were not just new to consensus, but had also only formed affinity groups a few hours (and in some cases a few minutes) before their first spokescouncil meeting. I wonder whether some of the ease with which we got through the meetings was caused by the mild daze that some people were in, trying to catch up with a process that’s pretty weird if you’ve never encountered it before.

There were no scheduled inductions to consensus, and I think the quality of information at the welcome tent very much depended on the volunteer who greeted you. Some probably took the time to talk to people about how the camp worked, but I don’t think that was a universal experience. A few sentences from me at the start of the meeting don’t compensate for a proper induction.

Perhaps it’s also a comment on the nature of affinity group action here in the UK. It’s fallen out of favour in recent years. Somehow “affinity group based mass action” has become just “mass action” and affinity groups have become the preserve of long-standing activists from the peace movement and Earth First! We need to remember that in actions like this blockade it’s not as simple as stating that it’s an action configured around affinity groups and expecting everyone to know what that means and to have experience of affinity group processes. And even if folk understand all of the above, they aren’t necessarily part of an affinity group at this point in their lives.

So more induction and more awareness raising of the realities of affinity group activism, and the undoubted benefits that it brings.

Spokes 1: Fishbowls 0

By the time I arrived at the camp the first spokescouncil meeting had already taken place. It would have been good to have been there, but life’s busy and it wasn’t possible. Having said that there weren’t really any significant decisions to be made so it was treated more as a practice run. Everyone was welcome and affinity groups sat behind their spoke in the traditional ‘pizza slice’ formation with spokes effectively working in a fishbowl. However it was discovered fairly rapidly that groups weren’t content to communicate through their spoke and lots of other voices tried to make themselves heard. The result was that by the time I arrived the camp organisers had already decided on a ‘spokes-only’ model for the remainder of the camp.

On one level that made things easier – smaller meetings, fewer distractions, crystallising the role of the spoke as a representative and so on. It’s a shame there wasn’t time and energy to keep working at it though and use the experience to build better individual and collective meeting practice. But nuclear power stations don’t blockade themselves and the action was understandably the focus.

Inevitably though the remaining spokescouncil meetings draw other people to them like flames draw moths. So at my first spokes meeting one or two people came along as observers. Did they just observe? Don’t be silly. They (though to be fair, not all) were amongst the most vociferous and tangential voices there. So we agreed to enforce the spokes-only ruling from then on, making an exception only for note takers where groups chose to send one.

Rule number 1: you can’t impose consensus

I said it was all fine on the surface. I’d go as far as to say that for most people the spokescouncil meetings were fine full stop. But there were definite signs of dissent, of people not buying into the authority of the spokescouncil to make decisions for the collective.

And why should they? After all they hadn’t been consulted on that decision, it was simply part of the model of action that the organisers had decided on. On one level you can say “if you don’t agree with these parameters, this actions not for you”, but the reality is people will still turn up because they’re passionate about the issue and it’s the only show in town. It’s not like there’s a choice of blockades, each with a different organising ethos so you can choose the one that works for you. People don’t necessarily think about the process until it becomes an obstacle to them taking action in a manner that fits their vision for the day.

This dissent began to manifest itself after the first action spokescouncil on the day of the blockade. One person sounded off to me, at length, about a decision, despite consenting to it in the meeting. Another activist made an announcement over the PA system that a consensus decision had been taken about an idea they were keen on and that we would “all” take their preferred action at a set time. In reality no such decision had in fact been made. A misunderstanding? That’s certainly the line I was given when I had a gentle word with them. An attempt to hijack the process? A response to being politely but firmly denied more time to talk on their subject by the facilitator (me in this instance)? We’ll never know. Suffice it to say that they were passionate about an idea and wanted to think that everyone else would be too. It’s also fair to say that they were representing personal rather than group views – not the role of a spoke.

Practice makes perfect

I alluded to a less than perfect practice run. The day before the blockade I co-facilitated a practice run. The original plan was for another nonviolent direct action session, but the previous ones weren’t generating that much interest or energy (no fault of the trainers). So I’d suggested that we change tack and invite everyone at camp for a full group run through. We created a few ‘scenarios’ to give folk a chance to practice their responses to aggression (both ours and the cops) and to practice the spokescouncil in a quick-decision context.

What happened was that whilst the spokes met and talked about the initial vague information they had, the group gave way to police pressure and cleared the road. By the time the spokes had got the full picture it was more or less too late. Some of the spokes were seriously annoyed that the authority of the spokescouncil to decide when the blockade should clear was clearly lost. Lessons were learnt about who makes the decision and about how long even a ‘quick’ decision would take in reality.

I left the blockade part way through the day to begin my journey home. The spokescouncil facilitation was left in very competent hands. I’m told one of the characters mentioned above came back for more and continued to “misunderstand” the process. Did it matter? In this action probably not – the police were playing it low-key and allowing the blockade to happen. In another action, with confrontation, fast-moving dynamics, the potential for injury and arrest? Of course it matters, which is why we need to continually reflect and learn.

And so to summarise – what I’d do differently next time

Some thoughts on what we could do to improve spokescouncil consensus for future blockades (and it’s just the start of a very long campaign….). I offer these with a great deal of respect for the organisers of this camp and blockade, and recognise that a small group of people simply doesn’t have the capacity to make all of these happen:

  • Don’t assume knowledge of the process or mechanics of spokescouncils – make space for people to find out more. We had prepared a written briefing for groups. I would have liked to see this given out to everyone, but only a few were ever printed, so I think the impact was negligible. But I think there also needs to be regular face-to-face briefings – whether for 15 minutes before meetings, informally over a meal, twice a day scheduled into the programme or whatever.
  • Communicate the rationale for using consensus, spokescouncils and affinity groups to support people in building an affinity for them.
  • Take the time to formally get consensus on using consensus, even if that means one long and difficult meeting to help you get to a process that is faster, more efficient and still consensual – like the spokescouncil.
  • Keep working at the model of meeting that allows affinity groups to sit in with their spoke. It’s going to take more patience and more practice to build a culture that understands and values why we sometimes ask groups to speak through their spoke, but if we never do it, we can never learn.

And what worked well…

It’s also worth reflecting on what worked well at Hinkley:

  • Negotiating a specific mandate at the last camp spokescouncil to facilitate action spokescouncils more firmly than would feel appropriate in an ordinary meeting. By which I mean keeping people focused, moving at an appropriate speed for an action setting, challenging over-contribution more quickly than might otherwise be the case, and so on. The spokes welcomed being asked and were happy to consent. I think the blockade practice had demonstrated that the role of spoke can be difficult, and any help they could be given to stay on topic and working together as fast as the situation demanded was appreciated.
  • Ask all affinity groups to empower their spoke to make decisions without reference to the group in situations that require a quick decision (which in this instance we defined as less than 15 minutes). Our practice showed that very quick decisions with reference to the affinity group were unrealistic.

Spokescouncils: blockades and briefings part 2

I’ve been pondering spokescouncils this week as I head off tomorrow to join the facilitation team at the Hinkley Blockade. Before writing the short briefing for participants I looked around on the web to see if it already existed. Whilst doing so I stumbled across some reflections by a facilitator on The Change Agency’s website (scroll down for article) gleaned from facilitation of the Australian Climate Camp, last year.

Since it’s been a while since I facilitated a spokescouncil, I read Tanya Newman’s ‘hot tips’ with interest and appreciation. As a minimum they should be of value to anyone organising a large consensus-based event, and to large group and consensus facilitators.

I’m slightly envious of the level of organisation. Looking back to my own first encounter with facilitating spokescouncils (at the 2005 G8 summit) it all seems a lot more shambolic and improvised – a haphazard throwing together of facilitators from the UK, the Netherlands, and the USA with varying levels of experience and no track record of working together (plus meetings involving 300-500 people and translation into several languages).

Hinkley should be fairly straightforward by comparison. I’ll be back to eat those words next week.

Spokescouncils – blockades and briefings

I’ll be at the Stop New Nuclear blockade of Hinkley, site of the first proposed new nuclear power station, this weekend. My main role is as part of the facilitation team facilitating spokescouncil meetings at the camp and on the action itself.

graphic: anticopyright

For the uninitiated a spokescouncil is a method of making decisions by consensus within a large groups made up of separate, but co-operating, affinity groups. It allows groups to retain their autonomy whilst working together towards effective decisions. The basic mechanism is that each group speaks through a spoke, a single person empowered by their affinity group to take on that role. Sometimes the rest of the group are present behind their spoke. Sometimes just the spokes meet. Sometimes spokes huddle and consult their groups mid-meeting. Sometimes they’re mandated to decide on behalf of their group.

In preparation for the blockade I jotted down a few notes to support affinity groups in using the spokescouncil method most effectively. This will go to all groups taking part. There’s so much that could be said, but in 2 sides of A5 your options are limited. Anyway, I’ve taken out Hinkley specific stuff and put the short guide up on our resources page. I hope it’s useful for anyone organising an action camp and contemplating using spokescouncils. As always, if you can improve on it, please do, and send us your revised versions so we can upload those.

When consensus doesn’t work

Over at how to save the world, Dave Pollard has written a thought-provoking piece on consensus entitled When consensus doesn’t work. It comes complete with a ‘will consensus work?’ flowchart that highlights some of the issues we raised in our When not to use consensus post.

He touches on some situations in which consensus does not work. Most of these are cases in which it should never even have been tried (and yet groups do try!). But one thread of his argument that’s relevant to groups who do meet the basic criteria for using consensus decision-making is our innate conservatism and how it prevents us making radical change:

There is another situation when consensus is unlikely to work: When the degree of change needed to achieve the goal is necessarily radical. It is in our nature to be resistant to change, and, while change is possible when there is agreement on its urgency or importance, or when the change is easy or fun to make, the more drastic the change needed, the more reluctant people are to agree to it. I have seen too many occasions when a consensus-seeking group opted, after exhaustive discussion, for a decision that was too modest to achieve the needed result, because getting the whole group to agree even in substance on radical change was just impossible. This is particularly true in businesses faced with change-or-die situations: groupthink seems to set in, with the participants trying to reassure each other and persuading themselves to stay the course, usually with tragic results

Now a “modest” decision as part of a conscious and longer process of change, that’s fine (and chimes with the information gap theory we blogged about a few days ago). But Dave’s right isn’t he? We’re often faced with the chance to do something bold, creative, radical and decisive and we opt for less. But is this a criticism of consensus as a decision-making practice or just of people in general? Does consensus support us less to make radical change than other methodologies? I don’t think so, at least not in terms of other participatory methodologies. Clearly a visionary dictator (not saying it’s a nice vision) can make a unilateral decision to make radical change. But the issue is whether when we come together as a group we create a dynamic that blocks change.

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?

Looking at the Climate Camp here in the UK, it more or less pulled itself apart, partly at least, because it was unable to agree a way forward when proposals for significant change emerged. The result of that collapse was that change was forced on the collective, but happened in a way that cost it more in terms of energy and cohesion than if it had consciously opted for change and managed that process.

I’m fortunate enough to have worked in groups that were faced with significant change and found a way to make decisions to support that change. One of the shared characteristics of the groups that did that successfully was a lot of underlying trust in each other. Another was humour – being able to laugh at the sudden fragility of the group when faced with change. Another was commitment – being so profoundly moved by an issue that changes had to be made and it was just a matter of time until everyone did the individual and then collective processing that made it possible.

I remember one meeting in which a campaign of direct action was agreed, although the legal consequences for those involved could have proved very significant indeed. This was a real change for the group – a step into unknown territory. At the next meeting the decision was reversed because we hadn’t caught up emotionally with what we’d decided idealistically. Eventually we did catch up, reversed the reversal and all lived to tell the tale. It sounds messy, but it needed to happen. We needed our wobble, our dip back into conservatism. We needed to acknowledge our weakness and humanity and to do so in a space where that was OK and wasn’t pounced on as ‘failure’.

Good consensus helps groups build those kind of spaces and groups – critical and supportive in the right way at the right times. Human and idealistic. So whilst I agree with Dave that what we see in consensus groups is often a default to conservatism, I think that consensus used well is a fantastic tool to tip us over the edge, collectively, into radical change.

Hat tip Dwight Towers (again!)

A brief history of consensus decision-making: Part 2

We covered a fair bit of ground in the first part of our tour of consensus past and present, but it was never going to be a complete survey of all movements and peoples who use consensus or consensus-like decision-making. So here’s a second installment. In it we look at

  • The Aymara people of Bolivia
  • The sociocracy movement, particularly the work of Kees Boeke
  • and the Movement for a New Society, who heavily influenced modern consensus

The Aymara

The most useful source I found beyond fleeting references to the Aymara and consensus was Emily Hedin’s paper Voices from the Bolivian Altiplano: Perspectives on empowerment amongst Aymara women. In it she quotes a local NGO worker as saying:

Photo: Micah MacAllen

“There are certain characteristics of Bolivian culture that make us distinct and give empowerment a different meaning. First, we see the community as an entire whole. Community includes everyone. The process of dialogue and consensus is important. Everyone participates in the decision-making process”

And then goes on to write:

Claims of consensus in community participation must not be accepted uncritically. In her study on indigenous politics, Van Cott (2010) warns that the tendency to depict indigenous communities as consensus-driven masks diversity and conflict among different unions, associations, and groups. Nonetheless this perception of community consensus building as an Aymara cultural trait emerged during interviews as women articulated their idea of empowerment as closely related to an already-existing tradition of collective action.

The everyculture website has a bit more to add:

Political Organization. In pre-Conquest time… the Aymara dominated the Andean highlands… The independence of these nations was lost as the Quechua-speaking Incas extended their influence, but on the local level little of Aymara life changed. Decision making in the traditional ayllu was of the consensus type. Leadership authority was executed by the jilaqata, chosen yearly among adult men according to a rotating system. In the new community organization, connected to the national governments, the headman is theoretically chosen by the subprefector in the provincial capital, but in practice he is often elected by his community members. He is merely the “foremost among equals,” and actual decisions are made by the reunión (assembly), where consensus is still a goal.

Once again we have a picture, like that of the Haudenosaunee or the San people, of leaders elected and held to account by the will of the wider community and not regarded as having power over, but borrowing power from. It’s not all perfect. everyculture suggest that there was a high level of gender equality in Aymara culture, but Hedin’s paper demonstrates the modern-day struggle of Aymara women to be heard and to be given leadership roles.

Kees Boeke and Sociocracy

From the high Andes to the low countries of the Netherlands. One of the books I’m currently reading is We the People: consenting to deeper democracy – a guide to Sociocratic principles and methods.

The book defines sociocracy as “simply a method for organising ourselves to live and work together more efficiently and more harmoniously. It can be used by one person, two persons, a corporation, a religious group, a neighbourhood association, or a whole community”

According to Socionet sociocracy is “The vision of sociocracy is a society in which all members are equivalent in their ability to consent to the conditions that govern their lives.”

We the People has a chapter on the history of sociocracy which started to grab my attention when it turned to Kees Boeke (1884-1966), Dutch educationalist and peace activist. He grew up in a Mennonite family and became a Quaker. Given the contribution of these two denominations to consensus perhaps it’s not surprising that he explored models of consent based decision-making and was unhappy with existing European democracies. In 1945 he published Sociocracy: Democracy As It Might Be. We the People quotes that text:

We are so accustomed to majority rule as a necessary part of democracy that it is difficult to imagine any democratic system working without it. It is true that it is better to count heads than to break them…but the party system has proved very far from providing the ideal democracies of people’s dreams

His adaptations of the ideas of sociocracy developed by his predecessors brought it much more in line with what I understand by consensus. He tested his theories in the school he founded, aiming to develop “a sociocratic environment to implement the values he felt would lead to a peaceful society and allow human beings to develop naturally. The school was self-governing community of almost 400 adults and children. He founded his work on Quaker practice:

There are three fundamental rules underlying the system. The first is that the interests of all members must be considered, the individual bowing to the interests of the whole. Secondly, solutions must be sought which everyone can accept: otherwise no action can be taken. Thirdly all members must be ready to act according to these decisions when unanimously made.

The Movement for a New Society (MNS)

I recently happened to come across Andrew Cornell’s article Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society on (can’t remember how I got there, but thanks for the tip whoever it was that drew it to my attention). I’ve had a copy of an MNS publication on my bookshelf for many years – Resource Manual for a Living Revolution. It’s the nearest thing I have to a facilitation and group work bible. So it was great to read more about the work of MNS and draw out some of their contribution to consensus here. In terms of our tour of consensus, we’re now up to the 1970s and 80s. Cornell writes:

Though rarely remembered by name today, many of the new ways of doing radical politics that the Movement for a New Society (MNS) promoted have become central to contemporary anti-authoritarian social movements. MNS popularized consensus decision-making, introduced the spokescouncil method of organization to activists in the United States, and was a leading advocate of a variety of practices—communal living, unlearning oppressive behavior, creating cooperatively owned businesses.

He sets the context to the emergence of the MNS and gives us more history of consensus along the way. I’ll leave you with Cornell for a while because he does such a good job:

Radical pacifists created the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942 and were important conduits of participatory deliberative styles and the tactics of Gandhian non-violence to leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Meanwhile, the Beat culture, incubated by anarchists in the 1940s, fed into the more explicitly political counter-culture of the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) drew on SNCC’s participatory structure and the ethos of the counter-culture to formulate two of the defining demands of the New Left: the implementation of participatory democracy and the overcoming of alienating culture. Yet, in the later 1960s, both the Black Freedom movement and the student movement, smarting from repression on the one hand, and elated by radical victories at home and abroad on the other, moved away from this emergent, anarchistic, political space distinguished from both liberalism and Marxism. Many civil rights organizers took up nationalist politics in hierarchical organizations, while some of the most committed members of SDS returned to variants of Marxist-Leninism and democratic socialism. If participatory democracy and cultural transformation could, together, be seen as a ball about to be dropped, the Movement for a New Society was one of the most important groups diving for it, working hard to keep it in play. The emergent women’s liberation movement likewise placed a premium on developing egalitarian internal relationships and making changes in daily life; not surprisingly, then, feminism left an enduring impact on MNS…

…The impetus to change the internal dynamics of radical organizations stemmed from a variety of sources. Inspired by SNCC—who in turn had been influenced by pacifists such as James Lawson and Bayard Rustin—SDS had promoted the demand for a participatory form of democracy, but had never formalized the concept into a procedure. The early women’s liberation movement responded to the sexism that marred New Left groups by roundly criticizing patriarchal leadership tendencies and attempting to craft egalitarian organizations of its own. The founders of MNS sought to build on both of these initiatives by developing and teaching a formal model of “democratic group process” which drew on the Quaker tradition in which many were steeped as well as the conflict resolution techniques some early MNS members practiced as professional mediators. Beyond adopting a formal consensus procedure with delineated roles, MNS drew on “sensitivity training” techniques, “role playing…listening exercises, and trust games” to increase awareness of group dynamics and challenge members to excise oppressive aspects of their traditional patterns of behavior. Members saw at least three benefits in this process: it helped empower more reserved and less experienced participants; it kept in check the sometimes competing egos of movement veterans involved in the organization; finally, the organization found the highly deliberative aspect of consensus useful in the group’s early stage when it was “searching” for new ideas, and building unity amongst its members.

There is so much for current advocates and practitioners of consensus to learn from MNS. When was the last time you consciously engaged in sensitivity training? Their work has fed into many other movements and groups. I hope it’s influenced Rhizome. It’s there in the work of UK-based Turning The Tide and in US-based Training for Change, which in turn has influenced Australia’s The Change Agency and Plan to Win.

Mind the gap

Photo: Clicsouris - Wikipedia Commons

Dwight Towers sent me a link (as he often does) to Jeff Monday’s short video on information gaps – the difference between what we know now and something new to our experience and how we engage with the new (or don’t, as is often the case). In it Jeff Monday introduces Lowenstein’s Information Gap Theory. But why listen to me when you can see it for yourself (3 minutes)

It’s a bit Goldilocks and the Three Bears: small information gaps are ‘too soft’ – easy to bridge but teach us little. Big gaps are ‘too hard’ – daunting and we run a mile rather than engage with the new information. Medium-sized gaps are ‘just right’ – challenging but possible. For those not watching the video, here’s a little taste of Jeff’s thinking. If you watched, skip on beyond the quote:

The power in medium-sized information gaps is that they inspire curiosity. They are small enough to be crossed but large enough to create interest and this is the key to putting Lowenstein’s Information Gap Theory to work for you…

It amazes me how many new product developers, marketers, and advertisers create the wrong sized gap. They either create a “me too” product or service which creates an information gap that is too small and uninteresting. Or they let their engineers and creatives add wild, bloated, and unnecessary “features”, and create a huge information gap that inspires fear over the size of the gap and size of the of the learning curve.

Each of us has an inherent desire to learn and explore, to the degree that you can create medium-sized information gaps with your audience, with your new website, widget, and or marketing campaign, you will be successful!

And the relevance to facilitation, training, consensus?

Training: As trainers we’re working with groups to learn. It’s easy to see how the theory might be applied in a more top-down learning environment – pitching the new information, theory or experience at the ‘just right’ level. It’s a little less easy to see how to achieve this for those of us committed to a more elicitive approach to learning.

How do we draw out medium-sized gaps from a group? There’s always enough diversity of opinion, experience and knowledge in a group if we’re able to involve everyone and draw on their individual and collective experiences.

Involving everyone seems crucial to moving beyond small gaps in this context. It’s those who are more marginal to a group, for whatever reason, that often have the key to unlocking larger gaps. They are, by definition, more divergent from the group’s mainstream norms. Add to that the use of appropriate questions to deepen the conversation and tune people in to experiences that they didn’t realise were relevant and small gaps can be widened very effectively.

Meetings: As facilitators, and facilitators of consensus in particular, I’d say we’re often working with people on the level of gaps in values rather than pure information. So maybe I’m cheating, but as I think we process information through the filters of our values (believing what chimes with our values and being skeptical or plain rejecting the rest) the information gap theory seems to hold.

The struggles in meetings: The struggle of many groups to work together effectively and to reach a high quality of consensus has several gap-related causes, many of which we’ve touched on before.

Clearly a lot of groups struggle to accept diversity which makes gaps seem bigger than they need to be. This is more than making significant difficulties almost insurmountable obstacles. Many groups are perfectly capable of taking small details and turning them into large gaps. In the competitive and ego-driven mindset that most of us have been educated (and I use that word loosely) to hold dear we pick up on details and drive wedges between ourselves and others in order to have a clear and distinct position. In campaigning circles where values and ideals abound these positions can be aggravated. They’re not just what we think but what we believe. And, like many fervent believers we don’t always tolerate those with anything but exactly the same beliefs as ourselves (People’s Front of Judaea et al).

Then we have the perennial issue of margins and mainstreams in a group. The gaps here are usually large enough to actively alienate the margins who only persist in the meetings of activist groups because of their desire to make a difference in the world and because poor meeting dynamics are ubiquitous. The gap between margin and mainstream seems like a large one. For the mainstream to come to understand the margins enough for their behaviour to change so there is no longer a margin (in that particular respect) is a big step. And the reverse is true – for the margins to feel safe to step into the mainstream, to trust that they are now valued and appreciated….

And finally what about compromise? Isn’t all this talk of closing large gaps to medium ones asking us to compromise in that watering down sense of the word. Compromise is often a very dirty word in consensus circles, sparking images of lowest common denominator decisions that satisfy no-one rather than creative highest common factor decisions that inspire us all.

Take a group that exhibits some racist behaviour (and most do if they’re honest). The gap between racist behaviour and having become aware of and dealt with the root causes of that behaviour is huge. No wonder most groups struggle with these issues. Doesn’t advocating medium-sized gaps suggest that we become a little less racist? Doesn’t sound great, does it? Not what you’d want to put on your group’s flyer – “join our group – we’re a tad less racist than the average activist group!”. I’m guessing that’s not what Jeff, or Lowenstein envisaged. Realistically there are a series of medium-sized steps involved in tackling huge issues. These aren’t compromise so much as an action plan, assuming we can articulate the end point without scaring ourselves because of the seeming impossibility of reaching it (large gap syndrome).

The solutions?: Anyway, what to do? If we want groups to get to grips with medium-sized gaps there’s a number of strategies we can adopt. Here’s a few that spring to mind:

Give it time: Opinions, ideas and theories need to be explored in more depth for people to see the commonalities that might close a large gap a little (or see the diversity that might open a small gap a little).

Check assumptions: related to the above point, if we rush we risk people taking a snapshot and forming judgements based on that. They’re not really looking at the ‘information gap’, rather the ‘hurried assumptions about the information gap’. Are we really talking about things that are so very different? We’re quick to see difference and form assumptions. Further exploration to check out assumptions may highlight that our positions are a lot closer than we first thought or imagined. Even if we’re not closer at the end, we hopefully have a better understanding of the other side (see below).

People not positions: Empathy and understanding can close large gaps even when the positions remain quite far apart. We can feel our way into the gaps and find that in doing so they become more manageable. We can understand people’s experience without having to agree with their conclusions

Reflect on diversity: when you do succeed in creating and bridging a medium-sized gap reflect on the role that drawing on the experience of the whole group played in the decision-making process. Help build a culture of genuinely seeing diversity as strength. Specifically welcome the contribution made by the margins of the group.

I’m sure you can see others.

Sticking your hand up to oppression

Hand signals have become part of every meeting in some activist circles. Even when there’s no formal agreement to use them you’ll find a percentage of folk doing so anyway.

There are very good reasons to use hand signals (which I’ll recap at the end), but there are also very real dangers. I’m minded of posts I wrote a while back on groundrules and group agreements – there are good reasons to use group agreements, but as Daniel Hunter argued they can just perpetuate the oppression of the margins by the mainstream of a community, culture or group. Hand signals, the use of which is often part of a group agreement in activist circles, share that same possibility of perpetuating oppressive dynamics.

Here’s a short conversation between myself and Emily Hodgkinson, with whom I’ve co-facilitated a few times over the last year or so, and who’s background is in facilitating process work without the use of hand signals.

Matthew: Emily, you’ve recently starting working in groups where the culture includes using hand signals. And in one group we worked with we were given feedback at the end of the first day of the meeting that people wanted us to be more rigorous in our facilitation of hand signals. What has your reaction been to their use?

Emily: Well, I wouldn’t say hand signals are completely new to me – I’ve been in cultures where it’s common to raise a hand to make a point, as well as waving hands to indicate agreement. But it’s new to me to use them so extensively to try to find consensus around emotionally charged topics, and I was curious to see how it could work. My ethos as a facilitator is to bring an awareness to the dynamics that are happening which cause problems for the group, and the use of hand signals seemed to me to be a bit like pushing those dynamics ‘under the carpet’. This leaves the facilitator with merely the job of being a technician, a safe pair of hands. Perhaps most of the time that is absolutely fine, but when there is conflict or a wide diversity of opinions or communication styles, or when a group is in crisis and needs to find new solutions, sticking to one technique isn’t going to get you there. I’m constantly asking the question ‘Why does this group need facilitation in the first place? What is happening that is un-facilitative?’

Matthew: Why do you think hand signals themselves are a problem, when they’re widely seen as such an effective technique?

Emily: On reflection I don’t think the hand signals themselves need always be a problem, but their use can lead to a situation where people put up their hands to join a ‘queue’ of those wanting to ‘say their bit’, and the facilitator’s main job is to manage that list.

When a group has major differences to sort out (and it’s not always easy for any group to recognise that it does), this can result in many issues and opinions getting aired without anyone owning up to the accusations that are made. Queueing up to say your piece creates a situation where the dialogue consists almost entirely of contributions to a pot but with nobody taking the role of listener. It’s the group equivalent of talking to an imaginary friend (or foe) in your head. So you might say something quite emotional or controversial and then the next person in the queue says something completely unrelated to what you said, and your statement appears not to be acknowledged. There is no interactive dialogue, so criticisms or even ideas are not responded to directly; there is no relationship. So in a situation where accusations are being, or have been made, it is harder to directly take accountability, and the accusation continues to be spoken into thin air. You can have a situation where everyone is complaining about ‘something’ but the ‘something’ never shows up to answer the charge. In Process Work we call the ‘something’ a ‘ghost role’ and try to enable it to get represented for real in order to relieve the atmosphere and reach resolution.

Let’s say for example that a group vaguely knows that it isn’t as inclusive as it wants to be and they are having a discussion about how to change that. With the ‘stacking hands’ formula there will be lots of people saying ‘This group is not diverse enough, it should be better.’ Everyone complains about the exclusiveness but it is hard for anyone to acknowledge their part in it. The discussion remains very theoretical – about how things should be. In the mean time the minorities in the group will be sitting, quietly getting irritated with all this talk about how things should be, while no-one admits that they are being exclusive. Those who are excluded are denied an opponent to address. This is very common in all groups of course.

Matthew: Sounds terrible! So with so many downsides, why do you think a group would persist in using hand signals?

Emily: I was very impressed with many aspects of using them. I’ve seen the ‘queueing up’ procedure result in, for example, a better gender balance in those taking time to speak. It’s a vast improvement on leaving the ideal of equal participation to chance. We get to hear, fully, a far more diverse range of opinions even if we don’t like them, and this must lead to greater respect for diversity. Groups wishing to develop anti-hierarchical cultures will certainly need strong equality rules to protect those who are normally marginalised. So there’s a very reasonable fear that abandoning hand signals will result in losing our ability to ensure equal participation. However, it was still very easy for me to see who held more power and influence in the group and whose views were getting ignored. I see the rules around hand signals as a little like policing or national equality laws: as long as the law is still needed then the problem hasn’t been dealt with.

Matthew: You’ve already mentioned the facilitator as technician and police officer. So hand signals impact on the role of the facilitator?

Emily: That was very interesting. It’s too easy for both facilitator and group to slip into seeing the facilitator as simply a hired pair of hands present to ensure equal participation. I felt like a police-woman! That’s not sustainable. What happens when the facilitators aren’t there? During tea-breaks and the informal evening gossip? When and how do individuals work out what in their own behaviour needs policing? As a facilitator I find this draining, which is always a strong signal of unsustainability. Facilitation can be hard work, but it shouldn’t leave you feeling depressed. That connects to another tenet of Process Work that I find invaluable: that as a facilitator you are not an objective observer but a co-creator of what is going on. You are involved. If you are feeling or thinking something, this is information that belongs to the group; chances are someone else is thinking or feeling it too. Any personal difficulty you have with a group is partly your issue and partly theirs, and they deserve to have access to that information. Not only that but as facilitator you experience some things more strongly because of the way you are focused on the needs of the whole.

Of course you have to learn to remain involved while also detached in order to recognise these things and make them useful to the group. I’m thinking of a recent experience where I really felt an outsider in the culture of the group I was working with – I thought this was just my issue and not important. But I couldn’t shrug off the feeling and it got in the way of my being an effective facilitator. It turned out that one of the biggest problems that group had was how to deal with outsiders who complain about being excluded. Maybe if I had briefly named my problem or recognised that it was about the group, I would have been free-er to do my job and the group might have learned more about their dynamics and been able to work them out with me.

Emily: Matthew you have particular views about the way in which groups use the consensus process to reach genuinely consensus agreements. What is your view of the use of hand signals as part of that process?

Matthew: Hand signals are designed to give an equality of opportunity to participate, but in reality they just bring about an equality of opportunity to speak. What I’ve realised through in hearing your critique is that they don’t necessarily give an equality of listening. If there’s no equality of listening, of respecting the views that are aired, of empathy, then it’s all pretty hollow. Worse still it can actually mask oppression – because we use hand signals we must be fully inclusive, respectful and egalitarian – right? Wrong. Hand signals are not some kind of group dynamics panacea.

So first and foremost there’s a danger that hand signals can be a crutch, and lead to an abdication of the need to take full responsibility for our own actions – if, for example, (and it’s only appropriate in some cultures) we think interrupting isn’t a good idea, then let’s not interrupt. Should we really need a hand signal to remind us of that? And as you’ve highlighted, it leave us facilitators in a policing role – is that how we want to see ourselves?

Emily: Yes, that was exactly how I felt sometimes when facilitating in these cultures.

Matthew: Some groups have even got into the very lazy habit of equating hand signals directly with consensus decision-making. I came across a ‘Guide to Consensus’ video on YouTube recently which still leaves me spitting feathers – 3 years into the life of Climate Camp and they churn out this? No wonder they’ve struggled to reach consensus from time to time.

And like many facilitation techniques, if hand signals are used too legalistically they can have the opposite effect than desired. Instead of aiding the flow of a meeting, they can break the flow, if a speaker is required to raise a finger before speaking even though no-one else is trying to speak. If you stack the speakers in order of who raises a finger first and keep strictly to that order you may well still have a predominance of male speakers, of core group member speakers, or whatever.

So of course you need to deviate from the stack from time to time “we’ve just heard a run of voices representing one side of the debate. I know you’re next in the stack Matthew, but I’d like invite other perspectives in before we come to you”.

But more than that, you need to also have created a genuinely safe space for marginal voices to be heard, and you need to hold open the invitation for those marginal voices to be heard next. In my experience it’s pretty common for to try to deviate from the stack – to invite voices that haven’t been heard so far – and for the hands that are raised next to be those of the same old people who you’ve been hearing plenty from already. Maybe it’s a symptom of my own inability to create that genuinely safe space. Maybe it’s a symptom of the technique – it creates equality to an extent, but we don’t really want to deeply challenge the power dynamics of the group….

Emily: Yes, what you’re saying helps me to understand that there are some radically different ideas about what facilitation should be, when you mention your aim of creating a safe space for example. Creating safety is an important aim as a facilitator but when working with an ongoing group a more sustainable aim would be to help the group recognise that the space is not safe for everybody and so that they can start to take responsibility for it and to grow. For example, as someone who identifies as queer, there’s no mainstream space I would say is ever really ‘safe’ for me and you as facilitator can’t really make it safe unless you can bring heterosexist attitudes to the surface and get them transformed.

Matthew: And that very realisation – that not everyone is safe – creates a huge challenge for the group which may in turn make their space feel a lot less safe. So we need to be clear that we’re creating spaces in which it’s safe to be challenged and to be uncomfortable at times. For the mainstream of a group this is a really powerful experience even if it’s not pleasant – getting to experience a little of the discomfort that is an everyday occurrence for the margins.

And for us facilitators there’s also a challenge. This issue is the difference between creating a safe space (I’m regretting using that phrase now), and building a strong container as they’d say in direct education circles.Of course there’s also the issue of bringing our own prejudices to the surface and transforming them too.

Matthew:  I think the other issue you’ve highlighted for me is about “contributions to a pot but with nobody taking the role of listener”. As you pointed out, creating a stack also changes the dynamic of the discussion away from that of having a conversation. You might have 7 or 8 speakers in the stack awaiting their turn. There’s nothing to guarantee that what the second speaker says is in any way a reply to what the first speaker said, and so on. This lack of the normal ‘call and response’ of conversation can create an artificial environment with several effects: because it’s artificial people might not feel it necessary to offer the respect and listening that they would (hopefully) offer in conversation; the organic development of ideas is replaced by a more staccato rhythm; and no-one is actually speaking directly to anyone else, and more to the point it can seem that no-one is actually listening to anyone else because there are less of the usual cues you get in a conversation, in which the response helps you decide whether you were listened to. Instead the facilitator can be landed with the whole task of listening, reflecting and summarising to ensure people feel heard. Facilitator as technician, again.

Emily: So now we’ve both criticised an over-reliance on hand signals and it feels one-sided. What’s great about them? And how can we continue to work with them without falling into these traps and help groups who are used to these techniques address these problems without feeling they have to abandon their ideals?

Matthew: Well first and foremost, there’s the equality issue – whilst not everyone feels able or is willing to wade into a sea of voices and shout loud enough to get heard, most if not all of us can raise a finger to indicate that we want to speak. We can then relax, knowing we’ll be called on in turn and be given space to say whatever it is we want to say. There are also a few practical issues.

They can save time. The ‘silent applause’ hand signal allows us to indicate agreement with a speaker without having to join the queue and say “I’d just like to second that idea, I really think that’s something we ought to be giving serious considerations to, blah, blah, blah”. 3 seconds of wiggling our fingers instead of 3 minutes of mutually congratulatory oratory.

They can, if used with discipline, help a group focus on one topic at a time (if that’s desirable). There’s a ‘direct response’ or ‘directly relevant’ hand signal that says “what I have to say fits with the conversation we’re currently having and won’t move us on to a new topic, so it may make sense to take my point next/soon

They are useful for taking the temperature of a group around an emerging idea or proposal. Many facilitators will already use hand signals of this kind – a thumb spectrum, fist to five, or similar.

Like all facilitation techniques they’re there to serve the group’s needs and not to dictate to the group. They’re not an ideology or an identity in themselves and shouldn’t be treated as such. So it’s a case of using them when they’re the right technique for the job, and only then. And they need to be understood in the context of the values they’re used to foster – participation, contribution, equality and effectiveness. If the group doesn’t understand those values, then hand signals aren’t going to deliver them.

I suppose the question is do these benefits outweigh the disadvantages?

Consensus oriented decision-making: the rigour’s in the detail

I’ve been reflecting on our recent blog interview with Tim Hartnett originator of Consensus oriented decision-making (CODM). We focused quite a lot on the rigour that the 7 steps of CODM bring to the decision-making process. In his book Tim’s defined the steps in detail,  the detail does seem to provide facilitators and groups with an approach more likely to lead to good quality consensus that the undefined ‘organic’ process often used. However the interview wasn’t the place to explore the 7 steps in detail. For the real detail you’ll have to get hold of a copy of the book. But Tim’s kindly sent over his “CODM Crib Sheet” – a checklist for facilitators – which we’ve reproduced below. Hopefully it will give you a sense of the detail of the process:

Step One: Framing the Topic

  1. Collect agenda items
  2. Clarify the essence, goals, and appropriate process for each issue
  3. Interview a sample of group members
  4. Identify and delegate useful pre-meeting research
  5. Introduce the discussion

Step Two: Open Discussion

  1. Inspire an open-minded, creative discussion
  2. Provide guidelines and structure for the discussion
  3. Manage the discussion
  4. Support full and varied participation
  5. Record the ideas generated on an “Idea Chart”

Step Three: Identifying Underlying Concerns

  1. Ask the group to identify all the stakeholders affected by the issue.
  2. List all underlying concerns of each stakeholder on an “Underlying Concerns Chart.”
  3. Gather all the identified concerns to form the basis for collaborative proposal development.

Step Four: Collaborative Option Development (Barn-building)

  1. Describe the collaborative process of taking turns to build multiple proposals
  2. Help the group select “root ideas” on which to develop proposals
  3. Use a “Proposal Development Chart” to help the group develop each option to its full potential.

Step Five: Choosing a Direction

  1. Check for readiness to choose a direction
  2. Analyze the proposal options
  3. Use preference gradient voting to choose which option to develop further

Step Six: Synthesizing a Final Proposal

  1. Review any unsatisfied concerns
  2. Identify details that might improve the proposal
  3. Select which details to include in the proposal
  4. Compose final wording for the proposal and a process deciding for any unresolved details.

Step Seven: Closure