Busting the Myth that Consensus-with-Unanimity is Good For Communities, Part I
By Diana Leafe Christian
“Consensus . . . allows each person complete power over the group.” —Caroline Estes, Communities Directory (FIC, 1991, 1995)
“You’d better watch out! You’d just better watch out!”
The community member rose from her chair as she said this, obviously distraught. She had just blocked a proposal in the business meeting of a real community I’ll call “Green Meadow.” The facilitator, after conducting several go-rounds about its legitimacy, declared the block invalid. “The proposal passes,” he said.
The member who blocked seemed stunned. Testing for the legitimacy of a block had happened only once before in their 13 years as a community. Theore tically they had agreed in the beginning to use the "principled block"process, meaning the group determines whether a block is valid, based on whether the proposal violates the group’s underlying principles. Unfortunately early members had failed to write down this decision. So, while the community gave lip service to the idea that they used the "principled block" method, many Green Meadow members either didn’t know they had the right to test a block for validity, or knew it but were afraid to use it.
This particular Green Meadow member had threatened to block numerous times over the years, which of course stopped potential proposals from being presented. It also stopped people from calling for consensus on proposals they were considering but knew she was against. And in the previous year — when they finally stopped being afraid to test for consensus when they knew someone objected — this member had gone ahead and blocked several proposals. Many people had privately expressed frustration with her power over the group, partly because of her many years of threatening to block, and also in the past year, because of her actual blocks.
The phrase “You’d better ''watch out!” was still ringing in the room.
“Excuse me, are you making a threat?” someone asked hesitantly. “What should we watch out for?”
“What should you watch . . . out . . . for?” the Green Meadow member asked. She paused and looked around the circle. “That you all don’t trip over your own stupidity!!”
Hey . . . wait a sec. They were using consensus decision making, which is supposed to create more trust, harmony, and good will in a group — all the consensus trainers say so — but instead they had at least one member in high distress and everyone else glued to their seats in stunned silence.
Not only that — for years people had been afraid to even bring up proposals they feared this member would block.
Never again did the group test a block to see if it was valid, regardless of the belief that they use Formal Consensus. Some Green Meadow members certainly tried to test blocks over the next few years. But someone would always say, “But we can’t prove we ever adopted it!” Or, “But we haven’t agreed on what our criteria are!” So anyone who thought a block should be tested for legitimacy didn’t feel enough support and ended up dropping it. Relatively frequent blocking continued.
Those who formerly made proposals stopped making them (and sometimes withdrew from community governance or left altogether). Distrust and conflict increased. Morale plummeted. Twenty-five or 30 people used to come to business meetings. Now they’re lucky to get eight or nine.
Was Green Meadow an example of consensus working well?
“Consensus” as described in the story above refers to what I now call consensus-with-unanimity.
The first part of consensus is the process — the intention to hear from everyone in the circle, asking clarifying questions, expressing concerns, and modifying and improving the proposal.
The second part is sometimes called the “decision rule” — the percentage of agreement needed to pass a proposal. In many communities it is 100 percent or “unanimity” or “full consent.” Except for anyone standing aside, everyone in the meeting must agree to a proposal — unanimity or full consent — before the proposal can pass.
(This distinction between the process and decision rule was first pointed out by Sam Kaner, et. al. in the book Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (New Society Publishers, 1996.)
In practice, consensus-with-unanimity means essentially that anyone can block a proposal for any reason, and there’s no recourse — such as having criteria for a legitimate block, or requiring people who block proposals to co-create a new proposal with the advocates of the old one. (By the way, I don’t think having criteria for a legitimate block works well for most communities either, as I’ll explain in Part II of this article.)
In my experience, consensus-with-unanimity is what most communitarians mean when they say “consensus,” and most believe it’s the best thing out there.
Other Decision Rules
There are certainly other decision rules groups can use with the consensus process. These include supermajority voting, with 90 percent, 80 percent, 85 percent, 75 percent, etc. agreement needed to pass the proposal, or first trying for unanimity and having a supermajority voting fallback. (Consensus-minus-one and consensus-minus-two are also decision rules. However, I believe they generate the same kinds of problems as consensus-with-unanimity.) An especially effective decision rule is used in the N Street Cohousing Method, described later in this article (see “What Works Better Instead”, below.).
Falling in Love with Consensus
Consensus-with-unanimity was created in the 1600s by the Quakers because of their deeply held values of equality, justice, and fairness, and thus was a reaction against autocratic rule and outright tyranny. They had the insight that anyone who saw problems in a proposal that the group couldn’t see, even after much discussion, should be able to block the proposal in order to protect the group. Leftist activist groups and communitarians in the 1960s and ’70s — also with deeply held values of equality, justice, and fairness — adopted consensus-with-unanimity partly because it seemed so fair and equitable — and thus partly as a reaction against not only autocracy, but also majority-rule voting, because in the latter a proposal can pass even if up to 49 percent of the group is dead-set against it.
Quakers, Leftist activists, and communitarians all understood that consensus-with-unanimity forces a group to use a participatory process that guarantees inclusion of everyone’s perspectives. It was good for groups. “Consensus creates a cooperative dynamic,” wrote C.T. Butler in his book Conflict & Consensus (Food Not Bombs Publishing, 1987, 1991). Consensus is “a powerful tool for building group unity and strength,” wrote the authors of Building United Judgment (Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981).
Consensus-with-unanimity was especially appealing to baby boomers hoping to change the world back in the ’60s and ’70s. It was so much better than the majority-rule voting we all grew up with. It was as if special, magical gifts arrived just for our generation. We had sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. We had consensus.
Appropriate Blocks, Inappropriate Blocks
One of the reasons I believe consensus-with-unanimity does not work well in most communities is that people often misunderstand and mis-use the blocking privilege. As you probably know, it is appropriate (and desirable) to block if the proposal clearly violates the community’s values, underlying principles, or Mission and Purpose, and one can clearly show why — or to block because implementing the proposal would harm the community in some real, demonstrable way, and the person(s) blocking can clearly show why.
Here's an example of an appropriate block from consensus trainer Caroline Estes. This proposal was blocked — appropriately — because it violated the group’s underlying principles. A member of a peace organization devoted to nonviolence blocked a proposal that their organization throw chicken blood from a slaughterhouse on the wall of a building belonging to a Wall Street investment firm. The idea was to create a visual, dramatic, photo-op way to show that the Wall Street company had “blood on its hands” because of its investments in weapons manufacturers. The person blocking pointed out that passing this proposal would violate the group’s basic principle of nonviolence (since defacing the wall with blood would not be a nonviolent action). The person blocking could clearly show how the proposal violated the organization’s principles.
When Consensus-with-Unanimity Does Work
“Granted, only a small proportion of groups have the necessary conditions to effectively use . . . consensus . . . with unanimity,” wrote the Leftist activist authors of Building United Judgment. “Such groups are small, cohesive, and cooperative.” They add, “If attempted under the wrong circumstances or without a good understanding of the technique, the consensus process can result in confusion, disruption, or unrest in a group.”
Most community-based consensus trainers advise groups not to use consensus unless they meet the specific requirements for using it.
“(Consensus is) not appropriate for all situations,” cautions consensus trainer Tree Bressen, but works best “for groups that have a shared purpose, explicit values, some level of trust and openness to each other, and enough time to work with material in depth.” (“Consensus Basics,” website: www.treegroup.info)
Tim Hartnett, in his book Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making: the CODM Model for Facilitating Groups to Widespread Agreement (New Society Publishers, 2010) is even more specific. Besides noting that the smaller and more homogeneous the group, the easier it is to reach agreement when using consensus-with-unanimity, he writes: “participants must trust each other and value their relationships highly . . . must be trained to participate responsibly . . . must put the best interests of the group before their own.” And they must spend lots of group process time to keep their relationships open, clear, and healthy.
In my experience, relatively few intentional communities meet these requirements.
Some have vague, unwritten ideas about shared values rather than explicit, written-down shared values. Some communities assume they have a shared common purpose but actually have idealistic, theoretical, and vague Mission and Purpose statements that can be interpreted many different ways. Thus they experience confusion and conflict when trying to assess whether or not a proposal is aligned with their (multiply interpretable) shared common purpose. In other communities, designed primarily to be nice places to live where members can buy houses or housing units, people may not necessarily be — or care about being — cohesive and cooperative, or having sufficient trust or openness with one another, or highly valuing their relationships with one another. They just want to live in a nice place with nice neighbors (and to heck with this touchy-feely stuff). And only a handful of communities require all new incoming members to take a consensus training before they get full decision-making rights, including the blocking privilege.
Nevertheless — no matter how often consensus trainers caution against it — communities everywhere often choose consensus-with-unanimity even though they don’t have even the most basic requirements in place. They choose it, apparently, because they aren’t aware of these cautions or disregard them because consensus-with-unanimity appeals to their aspirations for fairness, equality, and a better world.
Threatening to Block and “Premature Proposal Death”
In some communities that use consensus-with-unanimity no one has ever blocked, or blocking has occurred only rarely. Yet the problems of too-frequent blocking or personal blocking are actually there anyway. This is one of the most demoralizing unintended consequences of using consensus-with-unanimity.
This happens when people threaten to block a proposal, either directly (“I’d never support that,” or, “I’ll block that proposal!”) or indirectly, by indicating disapproval, disdain, or even contempt for a proposal through facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. This can happen even when someone is just voicing an idea that isn’t even a proposal yet.
When either of these happens — threatening to block a proposal, or threatening to block an idea that isn’t a proposal yet — the community suffers. People drop their ideas or proposals completely. Community members don’t get to illuminate the issue through discussion and examination. An idea that could benefit the community, or could shed light on an important issue, is cast aside before it is even considered — dying before it was ever born!
In communities that no longer use consensus-with-unanimity no one has this kind of power over other people’s ideas.
I now believe that for many communities consensus-with-unanimity results in unintended consequences: discouragement, low morale, and diminished meeting attendance. I believe it can create a different kind of power abuse than either autocracy or majority-rule voting.
Power-Over . . . Damn!
Tim Hartnett, a community-based consensus facilitator and trainer, and licensed family therapist, is the first consensus trainer I know of to say publicly that the benefits of using consensus-with-unanimity are often outweighed by its downsides.
“Requiring unanimity,” he writes in Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making, “is usually intended to ensure widespread agreement. When unanimity is blocked by a small number of people, however, the group actually experiences widespread disagreement with the result. This widespread disagreement can have very toxic effects on the group dynamic.”
He observes that no matter how well and accurately a group practices consensus-with-unanimity, doing so does not ensure unanimous approval of the final, modified proposal. And when people block, no matter that we’re supposed to assume they have a piece of the truth the rest of us don’t see, we still end up with . . . power-over dynamics.
Tim Hartnett points out that blocking in consensus-with-unanimity is often considered a way to equally share power in a group. However, giving people equal rights to control the group’s ability to make a decision can actually create problems with equality. “It necessitates that all group members have the ethics and maturity to use this power responsibly,” he writes. “This may not be a realistic expectation.” (Whew! Somebody actually said this outloud!)
“True equality may be better secured by a system that ensures that no group member ever has the power to individually control the group,” he continues. [Emphasis mine.]
“The process allows each person complete power over the group,” Caroline Estes cautions. “(When someone blocks) they should also examine themselves closely to assure that they are not withholding consensus out of self-interest, bias, vengeance, or any other such feeling.” (“Consensus Ingredients,” Communities Directory, FIC, 1991, 1995.)
You can see the effects of this power-over dynamic clearly when committee members have worked long, hard hours on a proposal and then spent more time and energy in a series of whole-group meetings to modify and improve it, and most of the community members are looking forward to implementing it. When it is blocked by one or two people (for any of the above inappropriate-block reasons) do we feel harmony, trust, and connection? On the contrary, we often feel heartsick, even devastated. And when this kind of blocking happens often — or the threat to block, which usually has the same effect — it can result in even more unhappiness, and increased distrust, low morale, ever-dwindling meeting attendance . . . and people leaving the community.
Many of us chose consensus-with-unanimity in order to help our community thrive, and because we value fairness, mutual respect, trust, compassion, and equality.
But fairness, mutual respect, trust, compassion, and equality are often not what we get. We get conflict instead — and sometimes, gut-wrenching conflict.
This is the “shadow-side” of consensus-with-unanimity that consensus trainers don’t often talk about. Yet Leftist activists and the communities movement have come up with a name for this: “Tyranny of the Minority.”
Other Consequences of “Tyranny of the Minority”
Here are some other unintended consequences Tim Hartnett points out. I’ve seen each of these dynamics too.
People able to endure more conflict may prevail, creating “decision by endurance.” Sometimes community members who can endure high amounts of conflict and for longer periods of time have a greater chance of prevailing over those who can’t bear conflict for long. “OK, I give up! Do whatever you want!” When this happens, it is sometimes the ability to endure conflict, rather than the ability to seek deeper understanding and to collaborate, that determines whether or not and with which modifications a proposal may be passed.
“More obstinate participants may more frequently get their way,” Tim Hartnett writes.
About two-thirds of the people in Green Meadow community — including all the young and most middle-years members — no longer attend community business meetings. Having little stomach for the intensity of the power struggles in their business meetings (which seem to be about proposals but may actually be about different underlying paradigms), their voices are not heard at all.
Disproportionate power to whoever supports the status quo. If most people in a community support a proposal to change one or more long-standing policies — the status quo — they cannot do so until they convince everyone in the group. If one or two people don’t support the proposal (no matter that everyone else wants it) the original policies will remain. This gives exceptional power to anyone who does not want anything to change. At Green Meadow, most people yearn to replace consensus-with-unanimity with a decision-making process that works better, but the consistent blockers are against it. Thus they have more power than anyone else.
“This differential burden,” Tim Hartnett observes, “is contrary to the principle of equality.”
The community may stagnate, unable to change or evolve. When a community experiences conflict because people can’t agree, there may be little chance of passing new proposals or revising outdated agreements, as noted above. Thus whatever the group has already put in place — the status quo — may remain in effect for years beyond its actual effectiveness for the group. As at Green Meadow, the group may be locked into their original choices for years to come.
Power struggles may drive out some of the group’s most responsible, effective members. When people with high levels of personal effectiveness, initiative, and leadership make proposals in a community they often expect and require a timely response. If there are underlying paradigm-differences in the community, or people block for personal reasons, or for subconscious bids for group attention, these natural leaders may end up spending a lot of time in whole-group meetings processing people’s reluctance or anxieties, or having long discussions outside of meetings. This kind of high-initiative person usually prefers situations in which their contributions are more easily understood, appreciated, and approved in a timely manner so they can get on with the project. When their proposed initiatives are slowed or stopped — and when this happens repeatedly — they are often too discouraged and frustrated to stay, so take their talents elsewhere.
Green Meadow used to have a relatively high number of young men with abundant creativity, initiative, and drive who founded cottage industries to provide income for themselves and jobs for other members, or created agricultural enterprises to provide organic food onsite, or both. They struggled for years making proposals which had widespread community appreciation and support, but which were blocked nevertheless. For these, and for other, more immediate reasons, most have now left.
What Works Better Instead — Three Collaborative, Win-Win Methods
What can communities do?
They can use the consensus process itself but replace unanimity with a completely different decision rule, such as the N Street Consensus Method. This method, developed by Kevin Wolf, co-founder of N Street Cohousing in Davis, California, combines the usual consensus process with a decision-rule method that respects the viewpoints and intentions of both the advocates of a proposal and those who may block it. Briefly, here’s how it works. Community members first seek consensus-with-unanimity. However, if one or more people block the proposal, the blocking persons organize a series of solution-oriented meetings with one or two proposal advocates to create a new proposal that addresses the same issues as the original proposal. The new proposal goes to the next meeting, where it probably will pass. If a new proposal is not created, the original proposal comes to the next meeting for a 75 percent super-majority vote, and it will probably pass. In 25 years at N Street Cohousing this process has happened only twice, with two solution-oriented meetings each — that is, only four of these small meetings total in 25 years.
Or, communities can replace consensus-with-unanimity with another method altogether, such as Sociocracy or Holacracy. Sociocracy, developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s, and Holacracy, developed in the US in the early 2000s, are each whole-systems governance methods which include a decision-making process. (The N Street Method is a decision-making process only.)
In both Sociocracy and Holacracy everyone has a voice in modifying and approving proposals and everyone’s consent is required to pass a proposal. However, unlike in consensus, decisions can be changed easily, which means there is far less pressure to make a “perfect” decision. In both Sociocracy and Holacracy decisions need only be “good enough for now” and can easily be changed again with experience or new information. This seems to liberate energy, optimism, creativity, and freedom to try new things. Both Sociocracy and Holacracy work best for communities that have a clear common purpose or aim.
While Sociocracy, Holacracy, and the N Street Method each have a collaborative, win/win decision-making process, they do not allow the kinds of power-over dynamics that can occur with consensus-with-unanimity. Communities that use these methods don’t tend to have the unintended consequences that can occur when using consensus-with-unanimity. Rather, these methods tend to generate a sense of connection, trust, and well-being in the group.
Future articles in this series will describe each of these methods in more detail.
And What About Green Meadow Community?
I actually have hope for Green Meadow community. The longer their challenges continue — and especially each time a proposal is blocked — the more community-wide demoralization intensifies. Fortunately, this “fed-up” energy motivates action, and now enough community members (not just the “early adopters” who saw these problems years ago) seriously want change.
Increasing numbers of Green Meadow members are curious about other decision rules besides unanimity, as well as about other governance systems. Some are discussing radical change. For example, some are talking about using a 75 percent supermajority vote as their decision rule. Others suggest a new process for business meetings in which people would nominate themselves and be approved by most others before they could participate. Still others imagine coalescing into a loose federation of sub-communities, each with its own purpose, budget, and governance process, with a whole-community “federal” government tasked only to maintain common infrastructure and pay property taxes, etc.
And some, inspired by the Declaration of Independence — which affirms that governments can only exist by the consent of the governed — are talking about withdrawing their consent that the frequent blockers continue to have governing power over everyone else. They’re considering a proposal that the frequent blocking members step out of the governance process entirely.
Several members recently presented the case to Green Meadow’s steering committee that to remain healthy, intentional communities, like love relationships, must periodically “die” and be reborn. To many of its members, Green Meadow community seems to be simultaneously in the process of dying . . . and of being reborn — in new and far healthier ways.
● Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making, Tim Hartnett (New Society Publishers, 2011)
• [http://www.ecovillagenewsletter.org/wiki/index.php /Is_Consensus_Right_for_Your_Group%3F_Part_I The N Street Consensus Method]
• How Lost Valley Community uses Sociocracy (Scroll down to 4th video, “EcoJaunt.org”
● We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, A Guide to Sociocratic Principles and Methods, John Buck and Sharon Villines (2007)
Part II, "Consensus as a 'Type One Error'," in January 2013, will focus on why having criteria for a legitimate block and a way to test blocks against it doesn’t work well for most communities; the underlying dynamics of inappropriate blocks; and the mistaken notion that consensus-with-unanimity works well if people would just try harder.
Diana Leafe Christian is author of the books Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community, and editor and publisher of this newsletter. She lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, US.
Excerpted from an article in Communities magazine (Summer 2012).