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Consensus and the Burden of Added Process: Are There Easier Ways to Make Decisions?

“I need to say something,” the consensus trainer interjected. She and other visiting consensus advocates were facilitating a meeting in a real community I’ll call Green Meadow. “I can see that one of your biggest problems is trust. You’re talking about all these different things you don’t agree on, but you really need to work on trusting each other better.”
 
 “Get on the stack!” roared one community member, annoyed by the interruption. A few others glared as well. They believed not trusting each other was a consequence of their problems, not a cause. One of the unfortunate results of their members’ different interpretations of their community purpose. Some members consistently blocked proposals most others wanted in order to protect what they saw as the community’s mission. Widespread distrust also resulted from what was seen as disruptive behaviors in meetings by a few people, some of whom were also the consistent blockers.
 
The annoyed meeting participants wanted to spend less meeting time with the blockers, not more. They’d already done too much emotional processing over the years with no visible results. They were “processed out.” They wanted instead to use a decision-making method that didn’t allow a few members so much power over the group. They believed trust could return only if people could feel hope for the community again.
 
Others in the meeting, however, agreed completely with the visiting trainer and appreciated her insights. Clearly there was massive distrust at Green Meadow. Clearly the group needed to spend even more emotional process time than they already had. They needed to really hear each other—to deeply understand each others’ choices, values, and emotional wounds. This, they hoped, would rebuild trust.
 
Sharp differences had also surfaced when the community first considered the outside facilitators’ offer of low-cost facilitation for whatever problems the community wanted to work on. “I’m not going to those meetings,” snorted one farmer. “Me neither,” growled another. Discouraged by the community’s three consistent blockers (who had already blocked or tried to block most agricultural proposals), and no longer having the patience to do more processing, which had so far yielded neither mutual understanding nor resolution, few of the farmers or entrepreneurs planned to attend. (See “Busting the Myth,” Part II, Communities #156, Fall 2012.)
 
Green Meadow chose its agricultural conflicts as the challenge requiring the most help, and asked two members to communicate this to the visiting facilitators. “Please, no more emotional processing,” begged the representatives. They instead wanted the facilitators to ask Green Meadow’s most frequent blocker to make a proposal for an agricultural policy she did want, so the visiting facilitators could facilitate a community discussion about it.
 
However, the facilitators didn’t do this. Instead, they hosted three special meetings over the weekend devoted to . . . more emotional processing. Their purpose, they said, was to explore the beliefs, values, and emotional distress of anyone who felt upset about the community’s agricultural dilemma. Only half the community, mostly older members, ended up participating in these process meetings. Most farmers, entrepreneurs, and younger members stayed away.
 
Afterwards the community rift seemed worse. And the frequently blocking member—for whose sole benefit the meetings seemed designed—sat through each one grim-faced and silent, reporting later that she’d been miserable the whole time.
 
Two Versions of Community Reality?
This tale illustrates what I suspect are at least two different assumptions about the amount of process time people are willing to put into community. And these two assumptions, I suspect, are themselves based on deeper, possibly unconscious, assumptions about why people join community in the first place.
 
Assumption A: We’re willing to put in a lot of emotional process time because the main reason most of us live in community is for a deeper connection with others. Processing emotions in a group is one way to feel connected.
 
Assumption B: We don’t want much process time. Most of us live in community for neighborliness, sustainability/ecological values, and/or changing the wider culture. Some of us may want more emotional closeness with others (and are fine with a lot of process time) but most of us don’t.
 
Here are some examples of this latter view, first from Oz Ragland, former Executive Director of Cohousing Association of the US:
While theoretically I’d enjoy a deeper connection with all other community members, in actual practice and given the limits of time, I only seek deeper connections with some—my closer friends. Besides, process time in meetings seems a poor way to grow closer compared to working together, sharing meals, and generally having fun together.
 
Regardless of the advice from consensus trainers to do as much emotional processing as is needed when we get stuck, I don’t personally want to live in a therapeutic environment requiring long hours of meeting process. I want to choose when I do processing rather than having it forced on us because we use consensus.
 
Before Songaia Cohousing was built we spent many hours processing decisions in meetings. However, for some years now, we've used a decision-board rather than taking all proposals to consensus meetings, and it’s working well. We’re currently exploring ways to apply ideas from Sociocracy and the N Street model as we improve our process.
 
Lois Arkin, founder, Los Angeles Eco-Village:
 
I believe that what seems to me like “endless processing” with people you simply want to be congenial neighbors with, lowers the quality of community life, at least for me. Living in community with people who share some of your values does not guarantee close friends. I want to know my neighbors can be depended to help and cooperate in case of emergency, wave and give a friendly smile in passing, loan ingredients for a recipe, or just hang out with in the garden—people I enjoy working with. Mostly though, given time constraints, this is enough for those of us committed to deep and rapid change on the planet.
                       
Steve Torma, President, Earthaven Ecovillage, North Carolina:
When you’re creating all the physical and social infrastructure an ecovillage requires, especially when you have people with as widely diverse viewpoints as we do, consensus-with-unanimity doesn’t make sense. We’re not small and close-knit enough, and we don’t have a large enough budget of time, money, and energy for the kind of group processing that consensus requires.
 
 I believe the facilitators visiting Green Meadow and the community members who attended their process meetings held Assumption A about community—“We live in community for relationship and connection”—and therefore also believed that a fairly high amount of emotional processing was necessary and desirable for a well-functioning community.
 
 And I think the community members who boycotted the meetings held Assumption B — they joined community for other reasons, including mostly (in their case) to create a sustainable village. And they therefore also believed that a fairly high level of emotional processing was not only unnecessary, but onerous.
 
 “Added Process Overhead”—Unrealistic for Most Communities?
 If I’m correct about these two assumptions, it may explain why communitarians who hold Assumption A believe consensus decision-making, which often requires huge amounts of process time, helps communities—and why those who hold Assumption B, like me, believe that using consensus often harms communities.
 
As you may know, many community-based consensus trainers advocate consensus because they believe it creates more harmony, trust, and connection than majority-rule voting or top-down leadership.
 
 I now believe consensus—as practiced in most intentional communities—may create more harmony, trust, and connection than if they used majority-rule voting (because of “tyranny of the majority”) or than if they used one-leader-decides (because of such concentrated power), but using consensus can also lead to disharmony, distrust, lower morale, and dwindling meeting attendance (because of “tyranny of the minority”).
 
 In contrast, three newer methods—Sociocracy, Holacracy, and the N Street Consensus Method—do seem to foster more community harmony and well-being.
 
 In this article series I’ve criticized what I call “consensus-with-unanimity”—when everyone but those standing-aside must support the proposal for it to pass, with no recourse if someone blocks. In contrast, community-based consensus trainers who’ve responded to these articles do advocate recourse for blocking, such as (1) having criteria for a valid block (and a way to test it), or (2) requiring meetings between blockers and proposal advocates to create a new version of the blocked proposal.
 
However, in this article I’m using the term “consensus” to include when it’s used with or withoutrecourse if someone blocks, because I’m questioning whether the rather strict and specific requirements for a group to even use consensus in the first place—including its “added process overhead”—are realistic for most groups.
 
Pre-1980s Communities and the Hunger for More Relationship
For me, the light bulb went on when I read the following observations by community-based consensus trainer Laird Schaub in his responses to this article series (italics are mine):
          ● “the hunger for more relationship in one’s life is one of the key reasons most people are drawn to community living.”
          ● “the fundamental challenge of cooperative groups...(is) to disagree about non-trivial matters and have the experience bring the group closer.”
          ● “I see what we’re attempting in community (resolving non-trivial differences in a fundamentally different way than happens in the mainstream) to be one of the crucial things that intentional communities have to offer the wider society.”
          ● [using a decision-making method other than consensus may be] “learning to settle for members being less involved in one another’s lives.”
          ● “I am saddened bythe choice to accept less when you’d rather have more.”
          ● “I find it far more inspiring to offer hope for getting...better relationships than advising folks to downsize their dreams.”
 
Laird’s comments helped me realize there may be different underlying assumptions about community, relative to the quest for more relationship, because I and many other communitarians I know have a different view.
 
I agree that some people do join communities mostly to experience deeper relationships and are willing to put in the time required. But I don’t think most people join for this reason. Most cohousers and ecovillagers I know seem to have other reasons for living in community. (See sidebar, “So Why Do Cohousers and Ecovillagers Live in Community.”)
 
In fact, I suspect that people who might have what I’m calling Assumption A joined intentional communities formed in the 1980s and earlier. And I suspect Assumption B folks mostly live in communities founded after the 1980s, and this includes cohousers and most ecovillagers.
 
          Please note that the two assumptions are not opposite or widely divergent, but just different points on a continuum. Each places different degrees of emphasis on the importance of wanting more relationship, more connection, and more “community” in one’s life. And thus each represents different degrees of willingness to spend many hours processing emotions in meetings. And each assumption has implications, I believe, for whether slogging through consensus decision-making and its associated process time is worth it, or whether trying less time-consuming but equally fair methods—such as Sociocracy, Holacracy, or the N Street Consensus Method—may appeal more.
 
New Hope at Green Meadow
After nearly 18 years of conflict, heartbreak, and demoralization (See “Busting the Myth,” Parts I and II, Communities #155 and #156, Summer and Fall 2012)—and with increasing numbers of members clamoring for a new decision-making method—in the fall of 2012 Green Meadow modified its consensus process.
 
To choose incoming new members they retained their previous method: consensus-with-unanimity with no recourse if someone blocked.
 
For all other proposals except annual election of officers (see below) they added criteria for a valid block and a way to test blocks against that criteria (i.e., a block is declared invalid if 85 percent of members in the meeting say it’s invalid).
 
For any remaining blocks that have been declared valid, they use an adaptation of the N Street Consensus Method. (See “The N Street Consensus Method,” Communities #157, Winter 2012.) To deal with these blocks they organize up to three solution-oriented meetings in which blockers and one or two proposal advocates are asked to co-create a new proposal to address the same issues as the first one. If they cannot do this, the original proposal comes back to the next meeting. While the group originally sought an 85 percent supermajority vote to approve any original proposals that came back, their most-frequent blocker only agreed not to block the whole proposal (as everyone feared she might) only if this part was changed to consensus-minus-one, so they did.
 
To choose officers in their annual meeting, Green Meadow adapted a technique from Sociocracy: a transparent and collaborative series of “go-rounds” to nominate and choose people for these roles. In their annual meeting in December 2012, community members cautiously tried this out. Many were nervous; in previous years these elections were characterized by hostility, contempt, and outright character assassination. However, the meeting went well. Each person around the circle described how the skills, experience and relevant qualities of the person they nominated qualified that person for the officer role. In subsequent go-rounds people asked questions of the candidates with potential solutions for various people’s concerns built into the questions.Hearing all these solutions and getting a sense of what the most number of people most wanted to do seemed to generate a sense of confidence and good will. The officers were elected with people feeling good about it, and feeling good about each other. And, maybe, feeling some trust again.                         
 
The next article (in Communities #159, Summer 2013) will explore Sociocracy and Holacracy, and how they increase morale and effectiveness in the communities that try them.
 
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). 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.
 
----- Sidebar
 
So Why Do Cohousers and Ecovillagers Join Community?
Here’s why I think cohousers and ecovillagers choose community, based on conversations with many of these folks over the years:
 
            ● Friendly relationships with neighbors—the old-fashioned neighborliness and helpfulness of former generations—instead of the more isolated, anonymous experience of mainstream culture. Feeling good about spending more time listening to each other’s differing views, helping make sure people feel heard, and devoting process time to resolving differences amicably than people do in mainstream culture. But not valuing this so much that they’re willing to spend the amount of process time in meetings that Laird and other consensus trainers often recommend.
 
            ● More safety for raising children and in elder years; having the assurance, comfort, and ease of finding help nearby when needed.
 
            ● The satisfaction of working with friends and neighbors on community projects and achieving shared community goals.
 
            ● (For ecovillagers and many cohousers) Living sustainability values in daily life; creating a smaller ecological footprint than is usually possible in mainstream life.
 
            ● (For ecovillagers) Learning and living ecological, social, and economic sustainability, and then inspiring and teaching others through onsite workshops and tours.
 

                                                                                                                 —D.L.C. 

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: Communities Magazine, Issue #155

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