Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part II
More on how the most number of people can get the most of what they want, most of the time.
By Diana Leafe Christian
N Street Cohousing in Davis, California uses a 75 percent voting fallback. But this only happens if, after a series of small-group meetings between the blocking person and advocates of the proposal, they cannot create a new mutually agreeable proposal. (See Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part I).
N Street has only needed to use this small-group meeting method twice in 20 years! Thus they've never gone to a 75 percent vote. And the N Street members I met with in August, 2008 said they like and appreciate their decision-making process.
As I see it, N Street's form of consensus seems ideal for communities hamstrung by one or more people blocking too much.
A Different Problem at Sieben Linden
A few years ago Ecovillage Sieben Linden near Poppau, Germany replaced their consensus process with a new method they developed — not because people blocked too much, but because they didn't!
According to Sieben Linden member Kosha Anja Joubert, too many people were silent when they didn't like a proposal because they didn't want to stop others from having what they wanted. “Lukewarm” is how she describes their consensus decisions. “We developed a wish for more outspokenness and clarity,” she wrote in Beyond You and Me (Permanent Publications, 2007), the GEN/Gaia Education book on the social aspects of ecovillages. (See Review: Beyond You and Me this issue.)
How Sieben Linden’s Four-Option Method Works
- Fully positive.
- Not fully positive, but I’ll support the proposal.
- I don’t support it, but I’ll stand aside.
- I’m blocking it.
For a proposal to pass, two-thirds, that is, 66 percent, of the members present must be fully positive.
If two-thirds are not fully positive yet no one blocks, the proposal is set aside. It may be brought up again in the future.
When Someone Blocks
If the proposal is blocked, the two blocking people have until the next whole-group meeting four to six weeks later to meet with others to craft a new proposal that addresses the same issue.
“The person who sees the proposal as enough of a problem to block it must then be part of the solution,” Kosha said.
Sieben Linden uses the four-option/two-thirds voting fallback method only in whole-group meetings, although not in committees, which decide by consensus.
Who This Helps
This four-choice method, Kosha says, seems to help those who want to express their lack of full support for the proposal but not block it outright.
I asked Kosha whether this method also helps those who might otherwise have blocked a proposal, but now don't need to block because they have two other, less extreme options. She said she thinks that this may be so.
“It all boils down to trust.”
This happens when people in the whole-group meeting don't fully understand – or trust – what the committees are doing. “Do they read the committee minutes first?” I asked. I was going by what happens at Earthaven. I assumed that if most Sieben Linden members read committee minutes, they’d know the deep consideration of ideas and hours of research that went into the proposal, and the ideas the committee had already considered and rejected.
But at Sieben Linden many people don't read committee minutes. “How many minutes do you want to read?” asked Kosha. “If people placed more trust in the committees, they wouldn't have to read committee minutes so much. It all boils down to trust.”
This happens at Earthaven too. A few members have expressed distrust for some of our committees, and these tend to be the same people who consistently block decisions.
Yet consensus trainers point out the need for trust among group members in order to use consensus.
- “Foremost is the need for trust. Without some amount of trust, there will be no cooperation or nonviolent resolution to conflict.”
- —U.S. consensus trainer C. T. Butler in his book On Conflict and Consensus. (Food Not Bombs Publishing, 1991.)
- “In the consensus process, . . . the assumption is that we are all trustworthy (or at least can become so)”
- —U.S. consensus trainer Caroline Estes in her article, “Consensus Ingredients.” (Communities Directory, 1990.)
- “If consensus is to work, group members must strive for trust in one another.”
- —Members of the Wisconsin-based Center for Conflict Resolution in their consensus manual Building United Judgment. (Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981.)
Fortunately, the tendency to block proposals with too little information is countered by a natural consequence at Sieben Linden. “If a person blocks often, it takes up a lot of group time in subsequent meetings to create a new proposal,” Kosha told me. Thus the person who blocks frequently pays for it socially, she said, as they lose “social capital” in the community. And that happens at Earthaven too.
Ah, community life.
“Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part III” in the May, 2009 issue of this newsletter, will look at ways to build trust among ecovillagers, both in terms of governance . . . and in who joins us.
- Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part I – Oct ’08
- The Feeling, Thinking, and Business Meetings of Ecovillage Sieben Linden – This issue
- What We Can Learn from Ecovillage Sieben Linden – This issue