RE: Consensus-A Time to Rethink?
From: Rob Sandelin (
Date: Fri, 20 Jan 95 17:59 CST
Tom Moench asks:
 >Why do we build into our consensus building processes the right to block
>(e.g., red cards) the will of the group in arriving at a decision?  Doesn't
>this promote individualism?

I believe there are at least two prerequisites for a group to use 
consensus. It is my belief that groups which do not have these two 
prerequisites are making a mistake by using consensus to make decisions 
and would be better off voting.

 In order for consensus to function everyone in the group has to agree 
that the good or the mission of the group is more important than their 
own personal agenda. There has to be a commitment to the group.   
Consensus blocking is only reasonable , in my opinion, if the blocker 
fully believes that the proposed course of action is not in the best 
interests of the group.  When someone blocks because it is not in the 
best interests of the group, it is usually pretty easy to figure out a 
solution by just asking, why does this course not serve the best 
interests of the group?

One of the reasons consensus may fail cohousing groups is that they 
often lack any real sense of commitment to a mission or purpose.  
Groups which I have been in which use consensus very well, such as 
greenpeace, have a very strong mission and thus consensus works very 
well because everyone has that mission commitment in mind when they 
block consensus.

It is common for people to block because a decision is not in their own 
best interests and this scenario really is ripe for majority voting, 
not consensus.  The process of "standing aside" can be used for 
individual concerns.

Another prerequisite for consensus is open and honest communication 
among the group.  If people will not state the truth, or are afraid to 
say their honest feelings, then again consensus does not work as a 
decision making process.

It is not uncommon for individuals who block, or even holding 
alternative opinions,  to be vilified, targets of angry outbursts, 
called names, and generally given negative feedback.  When this occurs 
you have an environment where consensus is not possible because only 
the very strongest person, who can take that kind of abuse,  will ever 
speak up.  Consensus values and honors the individual and their 
commitment to the group.  If someone blocks they should not have to 
defend themselves at all, rather be given a chance to speak, if they 
wish to at that time, or encouraged to at a later time.  They should 
not have to answer to an angry mob as if they were in a firing squad.

Consensus assumes there is a best answer for the group. Sometimes there 
is not.  Some decisions come down to personal preference and should 
just be voted on, for example the color of the tile in the commonhouse 
bathroom. I like green, you like brown. Brownish-green is ugly. 
Greenish-brown is ugly. There is no right answer, only my and your 
preferences and if we are both equally adamant about our preferences 
then consensus is a useless waste of time. Assuming either color is 
equally valid as a choice then there is no best answer.   Granted we 
could spend hours and hours and hours until someone gave in on the 
decision, but that isn't consensus, its just wearing down opposition to 
your point of view.

In my opinion, it is in the best interests of any group to clearly 
define what consensus means, how you will know you have it, and what 
types of decisions it should be applied to and not applied to.  It is 
better to be flexible about decision making to fit the right kind of 
decision making to the right sort of decision than trying to make all 
sizes of decisions fit a single model.  In the forming stages of values 
statements and such consensus may work well.  As development happens 
you will have to make fast decisions and consensus may not serve your 
purposes.  During building it may be better to have an individual or 
small group making decisions as they come up, rather than bringing 
every detail to a large group consensus meeting.

Rob Sandelin

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