Kommune Niederkaufungen’s New Decision-Making Method
By the Members of Kommune Niederkaufungen
Kommune Niederkaufungen is a large, successful income-sharing commune in Germany that I had the pleasure of visiting in 2011. Founded in 1986 in the small village of Niederkaufungen, the community’s 60 members live and work in seven large adjacent timberframed houses. Their 13 community-owned businesses include a seminar center, catering service, woodworking business, car-repair business, welding shop, daycare facility for elders, and private holistic kindergarten. When I was there some people had concerns about their consensus decision-making process, so I did a short presentation about N Street Cohousing's consensus method. I’m delighted to note Kommune Niederkaufungen has incorporated some aspects of the N St. method into their modified consensus process, described below. Terms: A “commune” is an income-sharing community; “veto” is block.)
Kommune Niederkaufungen specifically does not identify as an ecovillage, however I consider them an excellent model from which ecovillagers and aspiring ecovillagers can learn much. —Diana Leafe Christian
For the last 25 years we have used consensus decision-making to reach agreement about community issues. We chose it as an alternative to top-down decision-making and freedom from hierarchy. Our wish was — and still is — that no one, not even one lone individual, would be overruled and so fall out of the group. We realized this meant each one of us would need to practice self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-discipline.
However, two problems became visible over the 25 years:
• When no consensus could be reached, whatever policy was currently in place remained in place, reflecting the conservative principle of consensus. One person, through the right to veto a proposal, could stop the community from changing something everyone wanted to change. Thus that person had power over the whole group.
• As a result of this, some of our members withdrew from the decision making process altogether.
So, in order to see if our consensus practice could be improved, we spent nine months in small-group discussions with all our members, sampling everyone’s opinions. On June 26, 2012, while still preserving our established values and core principles, we agreed test a new modification of our consensus method for a maximum of two years. At the end of the two-year trial period we’ll decide if we want to continue using this method. Here’s how it’s different:
(2) We added to our two options (approving or vetoing a proposal) the third option of standing aside (Beiseite Stehen). This is a conscious act of abstention, with the person giving their reasons for standing aside.
(3) As an attempt to create a better balance between those who want change and those who want the existing situation to continue, we strengthened the position of those who wish change, and now one veto does not stop a proposal. Rather we use consensus-minus-three (meaning it takes four vetoes to stop a proposal). (See below.)
We hope that we will now have better-quality decisions and more satisfaction with them, and we can reach consensus more often than in the past. At the same time, we hope to develop solutions that come as close to consensus as possible in situations in which we are not likely to reach full consensus.
The following five steps of our new method do not apply to the entry of new members, for which we use our traditional consensus process (meaning it takes everyone saying Yes and no vetos before someone can join).
Step One – Proposal Presented, Opinions Sampled: Just as we have done in the past, written proposals are posted on the notice board two weeks before the target date. A week later, the proposal is read outloud during the plenary meeting as being up for decision in the following week. The process of sampling the mood and opinions in the group takes place in the meeting. (See below.)
Step Two – Expressing Concerns, Objections: If someone raises an existential objection to the proposal during the opinion-sampling process, the facilitator thanks the person for the effort to reach a better decision and gives them enough room to express and explain their objection. By “existential objection” we mean the person has a basic, foundation objection to the proposal which is more significant to them than simply how to implement the proposal. The facilitator also can allow other people time to express their opinions.
In the following week’s plenary meeting when the proposal is up for decision, the facilitator asks two questions:
“Who can only stand aside (Beiseite Stehen) for this proposal?” We want to value people who stand aside and give them plenty of time to explain why. Their reasons will be noted in the meeting notes about the decision. The facilitator then asks:
“Who cannot live with this decision and also cannot abstain from it?” If someone responds, this is a veto.
The next two cycles of our normal small work groups/discussion groups will be set aside for continued conversations about the vetoed proposal in order to reach a decision which is acceptable to all. If these still don’t bring agreement, the fourth step can be taken if someone from the small work group so wishes.
Step Four - Solution-Oriented Meetings: Those expressing criticism or vetoing the proposal choose two or three other members to participate in up to six meetings in up to two months’ time in order to discuss the issue further and arrive at a decision which can be accepted by all. (We consider it a moral duty to the commune to participate in these meetings if one is asked to.) Any support which may possibly be of assistance, such as another member facilitating the meetings, or the use of representatives in discussion and so on, will be offered on behalf of the commune as a whole.
Every time that this process leads to a vote, we post a folder for feedback on the notice board and hold an evaluation meeting about the contents.
Using Face-Expression Symbols to Sample Mood and Opinion
In our new process for quickly sampling how people feel about a proposal, we use booklets with seven different face symbols, phrases, and short texts on each page — each expressing a different mood and opinion. These are, roughly paraphrased:
1. “I’m happy with whatever everyone decides.”
2. “Not sure yet, it’s still unclear for me.”
3. “I’m totally enthusiastic about it.”
4. “It’s fine.”
5. “I’m so-so about it.”
6. “I don’t think it’s good (though I can live with it with a heavy heart).”
7. “I’m really against it.”
As noted above, the facilitator first asks if anyone has “existential distress” or “existential objections” to whether the proposal were passed or not accepted, and if so people explain their distress or objection.
The facilitator then asks everyone to hold up whichever symbol best expresses their mood or opinion. The group counts the numbers of each different symbol and expression that are helepd up. These are noted in the minutes, though not the names of who feels what. Please note, this is just a quick overview of opinions in-the-moment, and is neither a vote for or against the proposal. However, helps the group get immediate and fairly clear impression of how people feel and the likely acceptance or non-acceptance of the proposal.
After we have used our new decision-making method for a year and a half, we’ll evaluate it and decide whether we want to continue using it, modify it, or return to the more conventional consensus process we had before.