Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part III
Why We Need to Trust Each Other If We Use Consensus
By Diana Leafe Christian
“I trust everyone here,” one of my friends told a new member at Earthaven, where I live.
“Well, there are people here I don’t trust,” the new member replied with some heat.
The new member had been trained in our consensus decision-making process. Yet soon after becoming a full member she told us that she didn’t trust one of our committees, and — Bang Bang Bang Bang Bang Bang — blocked six times.
This was a useful, though painful, educational process for our ecovillage. What had we failed to adequately convey to her in our required consensus training? And why do we assume that new people entering into our decision-making process will automatically trust the community, trust the consensus process, and trust our self-governance process?
It had never occurred to me not to trust our diligent committee members. I’d never thought, for instance, that the finance committee might skim off funds for their own personal use, or land use folks might secretly pour toxic liquids on the soil. So our new member’s public declaration of her distrust was a shock.
Trust and Consensus
It was a shock because trust is a requirement to do consensus decision-making in the first place.
“Foremost is the need for trust,” writes consensus trainer C.T. Butler in his widely used consensus manual, On Conflict and Consensus. “Without some amount of trust, there will be no cooperation or nonviolent resolution to conflict.”
“If consensus is to work, group members must strive for trust in one another,” wrote the members of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Center for Conflict Resolution, in their classic 1981 consensus manual, Building United Judgment.
“In the consensus process . . . the assumption is that we are all trustworthy (or at least can become so),” writes Caroline Estes, doyenne of community-based consensus trainers in the US, in the Fellowship for Intentional Community’s Communities Directory (1990 and 2000 editions).
And, like most communities, we’ve got policies and agreements in place to protect against any unexpected wavering of integrity. Our committees — and all individual members — are bound by our Bylaws, land-use agreements, agricultural policies and ag lease documents. And if a committee passed a proposal we didn’t like, we’ve got three weeks to tell them so, and they’ll reconsider their decision.
Sources of Trust
Our new member’s six blocks has got many of us thinking about trust in community. It seems to me that trust among community members comes from two sources.
First, the new members themselves carry a certain amount of trust in their own psyches when they enter the community. How much inherent trust for life, trust for themselves, trust for others, do they have in their individual emotional make-up to start with? Have they felt safe and confident in their lives up till now? Do they inherently trust someone only until the person does or says something questionable, perhaps several times, and only then become cautious? Or have they had such traumatic experiences in their lives that they journey through life feeling unsafe and vigilant, and viewing life, new situations, and other people suspiciously from the start? That is, do they bring mistrust of life with them when they enter the community gate?
You can easily tell this with dogs. If you go to the animal shelter, you’ll find some dogs leaping up with thumping tails and shiny eyes. “Choose me! Choose me!” they say in doggy body language. You know these animals have been well-cared-for and have inherent trust. But another dog in the shelter keeps his head low and his tail low and still: he’s not standing tall but in a bit of a crouch, a cringe. You know this is an animal that has been mistreated, and he’s not sure you won’t mistreat him either. Well, you know about mistreated dogs . . . when they feel uncertain, they bite.
We humans are like this too, I think, which is why I advocate selecting new community members for high levels of trust and confidence and low levels of fear and suspicion. (How can you tell? It helps to ask for and call references and to have a long provisional membership period if possible, perhaps six months to a year.)
But this sure isn’t the whole story. A community could be so dysfunctional, for example, or its individual members could behave in such hurtful ways, that even the most confident, high-trust new member could quickly learn not to trust the place. This is where community agreements and policies come in: the “checks and balances.” For a new member to trust the group, the group also has to be trustworthy. And for that, I think it takes both confident, contributing, high-trust members, as well as crystal-clear agreements that protect new people, community members, their land, and their finances, from any potential abuses.
To me, community members are like trapeze artists flying through the high altitudes of trust and connection. Their community agreements are the net. They catch them if they fall.
Why Trust is Important
“When you trust the others in your group,” say the authors of Building United Judgment, “you will not conceal or distort information and will not avoid stating facts, ideas, conclusions, and feelings that might make you vulnerable to the others. You won’t be defensive about the attempts by other members to influence you, but will be responsive to suggestions, even when you don’t agree. When you trust other members, you can depend on them to abide by agreements and carry out tasks competently. You can also trust that others will attend to and remember what you say so you don’t have to continually repeat and defend your ideas.”
“For trust to flourish, it is desirable for individuals to be willing to examine their attitudes and be open to new ideas,” says C.T. Butler. “Neither approval nor friendship is necessary for a good working relationship,” he continues. “By developing trust, the process of consensus encourages the intellectual and emotional development of the individuals within a group.”
What happens if members of an ecovillage, or even some of its members, don’t fully trust each other? Since this can create conflict if the group uses pure consensus, in such cases I highly recommend using a consensus process like the solutions-oriented voting fallback method of N Street Cohousing in California (See Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part II)
Well, it’s clear we need to think more about trust in my community, whether it’s in the new-member screening process or our consensus training for new members. And, if we can, we need to help our new member develop more trust. Yet . . . I believe Earthaven — and most ecovillages — would also benefit from having clear criteria for what constitutes a principled block.
We’ll take up criteria for principled blocks in a future issue of this newsletter.
- Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part I — Oct '08
- Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part II — Jan '08
- The Feeling, Thinking, and Business Meetings of Ecovillage Sieben Linden — Jan '08