The Importance of Nurturing Dissent in a Consensus Process

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

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

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

The Abilene Paradox

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

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

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

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

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

Connection Across Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes the Minority is Right After All

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

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

Enjoyed this post? You might like to read:

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

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


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.