RE: Consensus-A Time to Rethink?
From: Stuart Staniford-Chen (
Date: Fri, 20 Jan 95 15:01 CST
Tom Moench writes:

> I have been fascinated by consensus and unanimity since I began managing
> through it some 15 years ago.  Cohousing and the difficulties around what it
> calls "consensus" were a surprise to me in many ways.   Three years ago I was
> involved in rewriting our bylaws and with it came an attempt to define
> consensus.  While I have been successful in defining, teaching, using and
> consensus decision-making in business and professional groups, I was not able
> to do so for my group.  Why?  For two years now I have been trying to
> understand these nuances about consensus and its role in cohousing--at least

Tom's observations started me thinking more carefully about this issue of 
what consensus is in a cohousing community, and what it does for it.  I'll 
take the last thing first.

I think one of the central truths about joining a cohousing group 
(especially before it is built) is that it is scary.  *Living* in cohousing 
is great, but joining up with a group that has a long way to go means taking 
a lot of risks.  You have to sink lots of money, lots of time, lots of 
emotional energy into the process.  You have to let people really get to 
know you and that feels vulnerable.  The biggest one is the money - it's 
extremely scary to put thousands of your own cash into a process, trusting 
that everything will work out.

At the beginning you don't fully understand what your group will mean, but 
you do know (if only from reading this list!) that it's a very hard process, 
and that not all groups succeeed.  So you take a big risk.  Your parents 
probably think it's weird and your coworkers might not approve if they heard 
about it.  ("Oh yes, Stuart lives in a commune").

Once you are a year or two into the process, you have already invested a lot 
which you don't want to lose, and yet you know you will have to invest a lot 
more before you are done.  It isn't as bad as joining the Mayflower, but 
it's in the same category: a grand crazy endeavour which most people have 
never heard of, many do not approve of, and which may well end in shipwreck.

In addition, you are doing this enterprise with a whole lot of other people 
who you initially don't know.  You have to work with them and depend on 
them.  You have to live with them too, and give up some of your control of 
what might normally be *your* space to them.

Thus while making cohousing happen is exciting, and at times joyous, it does 
involve fear too.  I think this is why consensus is so important.  In a 
meeting, at the back of your mind you always know that if the group is about 
to do something crazy you can stop them.  You on your own, just because you 
think it's crazy.  That gives a lot of security - you've got all this 
investment in the community, and if you see something that you think is 
going to endanger that investment you can stop it - or at least have it 
modified till it doesn't threaten.  You don't have the same security in a 
voting system - the majority can screw-up and there's nothing you can do.

Now of course, you quickly learn that blocking consensus is not something to 
do lightly.  With your power to stop the process has to come responsibility 
- you can single-handedly derail the group, as can anyone else.  It has been 
my experience here at N St that people learn not to do that.  I think this 
is a wonderful and surprising thing about people.  Before I moved here I 
would have said that consensus could not work because there would always be 
*somebody* who would block it and so the process would never get anywhere.  
That does happen for a while, but the longer people work together, the 
better they learn that the progress of the group depends on their 
willingness to be positive.  We learn to compromise, to look for creative 
ways out, to state our real fears rather than the ones we hope will sound 
most persuasive, and only to block as an absolute last resort.  

We also learn from our previous experience of blocking consensus that we are 
far from infallible.  I have personally blocked consensus on a decision 
because I feared some bad consequence, only to later see that my fears were 
completely unjustified by actual events.  We also learn to trust that the 
other people in our group are fair and reasonable and will do the best thing 
they can.  We learn to let go of our fears - and thus the group can move 

Bottom line - one reason consensus is very important to a cohousing group is 
because it gives people a sense of control when embarking on a very risky 
enterprise.  Understanding that can give insight into why it goes wrong 


Stuart Staniford-Chen   Dept of Computer Science, UC Davis, CA 95616
stanifor [at]   OR stuarts [at] OR
stuarts [at]  OR csstanif [at] 

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