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Busting the Myth that Consensus-with-Unanimity Is Good for Communities, Part II

We’re all sitting here in a cold sweat,” exclaimed one member.

Most people in the room felt apprehensive. The atmosphere was grim.
 
The conflict in this real community I’ll call “Green Meadow” (first described in Part I of this article, Communities #155, Summer 2012) was between two community members who had frequently blocked proposals and a roomful of people who wanted to pass an Agriculture (Ag) Committee proposal about a community site plan for future farms, pastures, and orchards. Passing the proposal would mean clearing more of their forest. The two frequently blocking members were committed to protecting the community’s land—to protecting the Earth—from the human impact of clearing more forest and implementing the proposed agricultural site plans.
 
Community meetings had been increasingly characterized by tension, frustration, and over-the-top behavior on both sides of the agriculture issue ever since the committee proposed their ag site plan six weeks earlier.
 
The frequently blocking members seemed desperate, apparently feeling a heartfelt obligation to, once again, protect the Earth from fellow community members. Those who supported the proposed ag site plan seemed desperate too, including committee members who’d spent months assessing and categorizing the community’s potential agricultural sites for their probable best agricultural use.
 
People’s demeanor in meetings was at the high-stress end of everyone’s spectrum. Courtesy had given way to intensity; easy discussion to speaking through gritted teeth.
 
A few months later, during the three-week, post-meeting review period for committee decisions, one of the two chronic blockers retroactively blocked four out of five of the Ag Committee’s own decisions. And while this member later rescinded her blocks, the relatively frequent blocks of both of these members had a devastating effect on the committee. Discouraged and demoralized, they stopped meeting for over a year.
 
It’s been three years since Green Meadow’s “cold sweat” meeting and the subsequent blocks of four Agriculture Committee proposals. Growing and raising on-site organic food is one of Green Meadow’s explicit goals in its online Mission Statement. Yet as a result of these blocks—and because other members didn’t know how to respond effectively — the community has never reconsidered the proposed agricultural site plan, and no new small agricultural projects, pastures, or orchards have been proposed since then.
 
This kind of no-win situation is why I no longer think that consensus-with-unanimity is not only not helpful for most communities, but actually harmful. It’s harmful when it results in deadlocks, desperation, and heartbreak; in low morale and dwindling meeting attendance; and sometimes, in people just giving up and just moving away.
 
“Consensus-with-Unanimity”
As noted in Part I of this article, I use the term “consensus-with-unanimity” for the usual consensus process (agenda, proposals, facilitator, the group modifying and improving proposal), coupled with the “decision-rule” of 100 percent or unanimous agreement required to pass a proposal, not counting stand-asides. (The “decision rule” is the percentage of agreement needed to pass a proposal.)
 
When a community has no criteria for what constitutes a legitimate block (see below), nor a requirement that those who block a proposal must work with its advocates to collaboratively create a new proposal that addresses the same issues as the first one, then it has no recourse if someone blocks a proposal. With a decision-making method like this, anyone can block a proposal any time for any reason.
 
Consensus advocates say that because in consensus everyone’s agreement is required to pass a proposal, the process naturally results in widespread agreement, harmony, trust, and a sense of connection among members.
 
Yet consider the 15-year-old community that still doesn’t have a pet policy because a member who has several dogs blocks any proposal to even create an ad hoc pet policy committee to draft a proposal. Or the 18-year-old group still with no community building because several members blocked a proposal to build it due to their personal abhorrence of being in debt—even though the community borrowed money to buy their property in the first place. Or the cohousing community that has no community labor requirement, no matter that most people want it, because a member blocks every proposal to create one, believing that if it’s a real community people would contribute voluntarily from the heart.
 
These communities don’t only have no pet policy, community building, or labor requirements. They also have the demoralization and discouragement that results when their vision of a congenial, collaborative community is destroyed, over and over, as they finally realize that some of their fellow community members have the power to stop what everyone else wants, or nearly everyone else wants, without the requisite personal maturity and responsibility to handle that power wisely—and there’s nothing they can do about it.
 
Appropriate Blocks                                                                                      
As noted in Part I, there certainly are appropriate blocks (also sometimes called “principled” blocks, “valid” blocks, or “legitimate” blocks). Appropriate blocks are usually described by community-based consensus trainers as those in which the blocker can clearly demonstrate that if the proposal passed it would violate the group’s deeply held values or shared purpose, or would otherwise harm the community. (See “Criteria for a Principled Block,” below.) Yet at many communities, members have never been taught the difference between appropriate and inappropriate blocks, or they have learned this but no community member has the courage to point out that someone’s latest block isn’t actually legitimate, but is based on his or her personal preferences or values. Thus the group meekly acquiesces to the block—even though many consensus trainers caution that blocking is so extreme, and such a nearly “sacred” privilege, that it should be used rarely.
 
Type One Errors and “Work-Arounds”
I believe consensus-with-unanimityas practiced in most communities is itself what Permaculturists call a “Type One Design Error.” And having criteria for a principled block, as C.T. Butler recommends in his Formal Consensus process, is just another ineffective “work-around.”
 
A Type One Error, as it’s known informally in Permaculture circles, is a basic design flaw so fundamental to the whole system that it unleashes a cascade of subsequent, smaller errors downstream. My greenhouse was built with a Type One Error. With small, ineffectual vents in its end walls, it didn’t have enough ventilation, and was far too hot for either plants or people. I couldn’t create a new vent across the apex of the roof where greenhouse vents are usually located, as this was where the rafters were braced, and doing so would mean rebuilding the roof.
 
I use the term “work-around” to describe the attempts people make to compensate for such basic, foundational errors. I tried work-arounds for my greenhouse. I kept the door open all day. I cut a long, wide vent along the bottom of the front wall. I covered the roof with a tarp in summer. I tried to grow kiwis across the roof. Nothing worked: the place was still hotter than Hades. Using a vent fan would violate everything I know about Permaculture—using limited off-grid power to run a motor to cool a greenhouse that should have been cooled naturally by convection. But I could find no inexpensive structural or horticultural solution to my Type One Error. I should have just built the greenhouse with appropriately sized, properly located vents in the first place! (I finally installed a fan, and it’s still too hot.)
 
Likewise, the Type One Error of using consensus-with-unanimity causes many communities to have ongoing, seemingly irresolvable problems.
 
Many communities attempt various work-arounds to deal with the unintended consequences of consensus-with-unanimity. They bring in outside consultants or get more or better consensus training. They try to create more effective agendas or better proposals. They introduce “process time” in meetings to deal with emotional upsets. I think these work-arounds work no better than mine did.
 
“Criteria for a Principled Block”—Just Another Work-Around
 
I believe having criteria for a principled block can work well for one-issue environmental or political activist groups. Shut down a nuclear power plant in your county. Get your local schools to serve organic lunches. Save the redwoods.
 
However, intentional communities—whether ecovillages, cohousing neighborhoods, or other kinds of communities—are not simple one-issue organizations. On the contrary, they are complex entities with multiple purposes and needs, both physical and non-physical. These include shelter, private or shared ownership of land and/or equipment, a place to raise children safely, a place to live one's values, collaborative decision-making, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. If the community has an educational mission, it’s also a place to offer classes and workshops for others. And if it’s rural, it can also be a place to grow and raise food, and create member-owned or community-owned cottage industries.
 
For these reasons, I believe intentional communities are much too complex for people to easily see whether a block meets any chosen criteria for legitimacy. In an entity as multi-faceted as an intentional community, it’s much more difficult to know whether a proposal does or doesn’t violate its mission and purpose, because there’s so much room for interpretation. Trying to test whether a block is valid or not—trying to determine whether a proposal meets the test for harming the community, or not being aligned with its purpose—is too murky. And if the community has no agreed-upon criteria for a legitimate block, the process of testing the block itself could trigger conflict.
 
What’s the Problem at Green Meadow?
One of the requirements for a group to use consensus at all—especially when practiced as consensus-with-unanimity, and especially when there no is recourse—is to have a clearly agreed-upon shared purpose. This is the first thing I learned in my first consensus workshop years ago. Yet, most communities’ Mission and Purpose documents are vague, ambiguous, and likely to be interpreted multiple different ways.
 
I have observed, and Tim Hartnett (author of Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making)has also observed, at least three reasons people may block proposals inappropriately: (1) the blocking person interprets the community’s stated purpose differently than many, or most, other community members; (2) a proposal violates a member’s personal values rather than the community’s agreed-upon shared values; (3) the blocker has a (subconscious) wish to gain attention, or otherwise to express some painful-but-suppressed emotional issue.
 
To me, Green Meadow’s situation demonstrates all three reasons for inappropriate blocks. First, it seems as if three different sets of members live in three different paradigms about what the community is for.
          (A)Some members seem to believe Green Meadow’s purpose is to create a rural agrarian village in which some members grow and raise much of the community’s food or create cottage industries providing jobs on-site. (They don’t mind that others organize emotional processing meetings, but don’t tend to participate in them.)
          (B) Others seem to believe the purpose is to be a spiritually and emotionally rich group that practices whole-community emotional processing. (They don’t mind that some members want to grow and raise food and start cottage industries.)
          (C) A few members seem to believe the purpose is to protect the Earth from human impact (and so must monitor carefully any proposals about village-building or food-growing in terms of the degree of their potential human impact).
 
Second, it seems that there is little knowledge at Green Meadow that it’s not a legitimate consensus practice to block because of personal, rather than community-held values. Members have blocked because of someone’s personal distaste for the insurance industry, devotion to ecofeminism, abhorrence for borrowing money, or disdain for on-site small cottage industries and their need to expand enough to stay in business.
 
Third, blocking at Green Meadow seems sometimes to involve personal emotional issues. Tim Hartnett writes, “raising objections to a proposal is an easy way to become the focus of group attention...their agreement may be courted with both attention and other forms of appeasement.”
 
One Green Meadow member wrote the following account: It seems that the most innovative, creative, forward-moving members have left the community because a few folks, mostly older women with a lot of time on their hands, need attention and tend to get it by blocking proposals.
 
It’s certainly true that older women get overlooked in the larger culture. And all of us need healing. Yet this group in our community seems to abuse the power that consensus gives them. They like a slow and emotional process. How I tend to hear it is, “Either slow down and pay attention to us or you won’t get your proposal passed.” Other folks (often younger, but not always) have felt stopped by this energy to the point of extreme frustration and withdrawal. Many of the most passionate and service-oriented folks have actually left the community. The ones who are left don’t seem to have the courage or confidence to actually create anything innovative. So we get the worst of both worlds—overly controlling older members and apathetic and discouraged younger folks.
 
A well-known professional consensus facilitator came to help us, only to give these women even more attention. The theory was, the more attention we give them, the more their tension will loosen. But in my opinion the facilitator brought more of the same problem we already had. And sure enough, even with the facilitator’s group process, they were still not satisfied.
 
Baby Boomers and Consensus
Despite these problems, and even the oft-expressed support among consensus trainers for having criteria for legitimate blocks and other forms of recourse, many baby boomer communitarians still seem devoted—perhaps compulsively attached—to consensus-with-unanimity. They seem to hold the belief that the promised harmony, cohesiveness, and trust will manifest in community if only its members would just spend enough time exploring everyone’s emotions and the nuances of people’s differing opinions.
 
However, advocating more emotional processing in meetings to deal with the kinds of dilemmas Green Meadow is experiencing can itself create conflict. In most communities, many members, especially younger ones, can’t bear such meetings. They may believe that therapy is fine but should be voluntary, and conducted on one’s own time. Or they may not want to witness the emotional upsets of people twice and three times their age. They’d rather these folks behaved as wise elders—not people their parents’ or grandparents’ age who are expressing emotional upset about what seems like the current proposal but in fact may be long-held personal issues they haven’t healed yet.
 
Younger community members may also not participate in these meetings because they can’t afford the time. They don’t have retirement income or trust funds. On the contrary, they usually work full-time. In rural communities they may make ends meet with several different part-time jobs—not to mention raising children too. In contrast, baby boomers can often afford the time because they may be living on retirement incomes or trust funds.
 
Baby Boomers and Trauma
I’ve got a theory about this. I think a relatively high percentage of people born in the baby boomer generation, like me (born between 1946-1964), experienced more trauma at birth and in childhood trauma than subsequent generations. I’ve read that early trauma, unless healed by effective therapy later, shows up in an adult as a relatively high amount of emotional distress and reactivity, a relatively high need for attention, and a relatively high tendency to try to control the immediate environment in order to meet a probably unconscious and highly charged unmet need from childhood for safety and security.
 
Hospital birth and infant care practices in the 1940s and subsequent decades were exceptionally traumatic for mothers and babies. They included huge levels of muscle-deadening drugs (natural birth practices were not yet widely known), forceps, Cesareans, cutting of the umbilical cord prematurely and slapping the infants to suddenly force lung breathing, and removing infants from mothers at birth and isolating them in another room. Breastfeeding after birth was not even an option; infants received neither colostrum nor human connection, but were bottle-fed with manufactured infant formula by nurses on a rigid hospital schedule. Mothers held their infants for only a few minutes a day. All natural sources of safety, security, connection, trust, and empowerment were removed as soon as a baby was born. Psychologists theorize that these infants probably felt terrified, desperate, and powerless. (And I speculate that, in terms of encouraging healthy emotional development, this is a another Type One Error.)
 
Flash forward 50 or 60 years. If someone born in these circumstances has not gotten effective psychotherapy or other healing, they may have exceptionally high needs for safety and security. They may have (subconsciously) adopted a strategy of trying to control their immediate environment in order to (subconsciously) feel safe enough to get through the day. And consensus-with-unanimity allows—no, invites—people to control their immediate environment through the power to block. I think people sometimes block inappropriately simply because they can.
 
As Caroline Estes notes, “consensus...allows each person complete power over the group.” What? We give people who are likely to have a more than usual amount of unresolved trauma—and who may not have healed it yet and are possibly compensating with strong control tendencies—“complete power over the group”? Living in a community that practices consensus-with-unanimity may be the first time any of these folks ever had social permission to place limits; to stop people; to say the ”No!” they couldn’t say as a terrorized infant.
 
So what should we do, kick out all thebaby boomers? (Even though, of course, they founded most of our communities?) I think we should respect and appreciate our boomers, and change our governance system instead. Adopt a decision-making and governance process that doesn’t allow anyone to stop proposals because of conscious or unconscious personal preferences or personal values, no matter if they give us protect-the-community reasons. Instead, let’s shift to a governance process that doesn’t just encourage collaboration and cooperation, but requires it. Which is exactly what Sociocracy, Holacracy, and the N Street Consensus Method do, and why I now recommend them. (See “Resources,” below.)
 
A Shift at Green Meadow?
 
Fortunately, increasing numbers of Green Meadow members are now questioning whether consensus-with-unanimity actually serves them. A combination of demoralization, low meeting attendance, and people packing their bags and leaving—along with recent presentations about alternative decision-making methods—is apparently having an effect.
 
Here’s what the 2012 president of Green Meadow declared to his small advisory group a few months ago: “Listen, let's face it. Consensus-with-unanimity is all but dead at Green Meadow. It’ll be replaced by a something else by the end of the year.”
 
Last I heard, they’re considering Sociocracy.
 
 
Diana Leafe Christian, author of the books Creating a Life Together and Finding Community, is publisher of Ecovillages, a free online newsletter about ecovillages worldwide (EcovillageNews.org), and a columnist for Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) (gen.ecovillage.org). She is a trainer in GEN’s Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) program, and speaks at conferences, offers consultations, and leads workshops internationally. See www.DianaLeafeChristian.org.
 
Future articles in the series will describe the “N Street Consensus Method” in more detail, the “Four Decision Options/Choose Your Committee Members” method of Ecovillage Sieben Linden, Systemic Consensus, Tim Hartnett’s “Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making” method, Sociocracy, and Holacracy (and why they work especially well in intentional communities), and politically incorrect tips for adopting a method that may work better than consensus-with-unanimity, even if older members are devoted to it.
 
Resources
Consensus:
On Conflict and Consensus, C.T. Butler, available for free download on his website: www.consensus.net
Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making, Tim Hartnett (New Society Publishers, 2011): consensusbook.com
 
N Street Consensus Method:
“Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part I,” in Ecovillages newsletter: www.ecovillagenewsletter.org (click “Articles Alphabetically” to find it)
 
Sociocracy:
We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, A Guide to Sociocratic Principles and Methods, by John Buck and Sharon Villines (2007): www.sociocracy.info
SocioNet online discussion: www.socionet.us
Governance Alive, author and consultant John Buck: www.governancealive.com
 
Holacracy:
Holacracy One: www.holacracy.org
  
Sidebar:
Four to Six Blocks in a Lifetime
 
Only block a few times in one’s lifetime at most, and “only after a sleepless night and the shedding of tears.”—Quakers, cited in a handout on the website of consensus trainer Tree Bressen
 
Community-based consensus trainer Caroline Estes recommends only three to four blocks in a lifetime. She says that in her 50+ years of facilitating she has seen legitimate blocks less than a dozen times.
 
Community-based consensus trainer Bea Briggs recommends only three to six blocks in a lifetime. She says that her 20+ years of facilitating she has seen only one legitimate block.
 
 —D.L.C.

 

Editorial Notes: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Communities Magazine.

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