Questioning "Consensus" Decision-Making
From: Dan Suchman (
Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 16:31:41 -0500
In several of the thoughtful responses I received on the subject of "Base Model"
Cohousing, people questioned or criticized my treatment of consensus
decision-making as an "option", rather than an essential element of the "base
model".  At the risk of becoming the "village heretic", I'd like to begin a
critique of the  several types of decision-making that have been loosely grouped
under the description  "consensus", and their value in creating and sustaining
cohousing communities. 

MY BIAS: First I must confess my bias against consensus decision making (at
least as I  have seen it practiced in several cohousing communities and one
other intentional  community that I have visited).  I simply do no buy its
implied premises that the "contributions" of all participants are equally
valuable, or that all conflicting points of  view and feelings must somehow be
healed and reconciled before the group can  move forward.   I do believe
that everyone has a right to be heard.  However, I do not  believe that everyone
has the right to impose their minority view-points upon the larger group or to
frustrate group process.  At the same time, I believe that minorities  deserve
protection from *certain types* (but not all) forms of tyranny by the majority.
As an extreme example, I don't believe the Jeffrey Dammers of the world deserve
protection from the mainstream belief that cannibalism is
not an acceptable practice. 

THE POSSIBLE BENEFITS OF CONSENSUS:  In fairness to proponents of consensus, I
acknowledge that it may provide some benefits that democratic process may not.
It is  certainly more "inclusive" (if one believes that to be an inherent virtue
-- I do not).  It  also
probably forces participants to examine more closely the possible merits of
minority points of view.  This may occasionally result in a solution or even an
entire  paradigm shift that benefits the majority.  Consensus my also allow
minority  participants to feel more fully "heard" and "understood", and thereby
help them "buy into" the decisions ultimately reached.  But at what cost should
we pursue these  occasional benefits?

WHO'S DEFINITION OF CONSENSUS:  And just what IS consensus decision-making?   As
I understand it, the seminal Quaker model [those knowledgeable of Quaker
practices, please help me out here]of consensus most often referred to within
cohousing does not
require unanimity.  It also allows individuals to "block" consensus, but only
under extraordinary circumstances in which a decision might  cause irreparable
harm to the community as a whole. My understanding is that, in  the Quaker
tradition, a "block" is
not a legitimate or acceptable means of enforcing a  personal preference against
the will of the majority.  It is also my understanding that  the condition of
"consensus" is determined by
someone within the group who devines  the "sense" of the group, without actually
taking a count or vote of those in favor or against the proposal.

NOT APPLICABLE TO COHOUSING:  I believe the Quaker model of consensus to be
inappropriate to American cohousing (and most other American communities) for
several reasons:

LACK OF COMMON VALUES AND VISION:  First, unlike the Quakers (or any other
religious or quasi-religious group), the residents of most cohousing communities
do  not have a strong set of common goals and values toward which they are all
working  in unison -- that it, even a cohousing community of exclusively
well-educated, middle-income white folks (or African Americans for that matter)
can have  irreconcilable differences in ideologies, values and
visions for the community.  Stated  simply, a group is unlikely to reach
agreement on "means" if it has not yet agreed on  "ends".  I believe that this
problem can be mitigated in part by the development of a  strong and detailed
"mission statement" during the formation stage.  However, the  mission
statements that I have seen are usually little more than a page or less of
platitudes (e.g., "We will all respect one another"), providing little practical
guidance  or information to prospective members.  Even when the mission
statements are more  detailed, new members soon replace old ones, bringing with
them new values and  visions. Having new members go through the perfunctory
exercise of reading and  signing the old mission statement does little to change
this.  I acknowledge that  democratic decision-making (voting) does not
completely alleviate this problem.   However, democracy allows the group to act
when necessary, even if a few people  don't agree.

communities with which I am familiar have a clear, detailed, written
explanation of their consensus decision-making process.  In short, there seems
to be  no way for these communities even to determine when consensus has been
reached!   I've more often than not seen consensus confused with unanimity.  If
a mere 12 jurors  must struggle for weeks to make a single unanimous decision,
what does this portend  for a community of 80 people that
faces a much larger number of decisions?  Very  few of us have been trained in,
or even grown up around, consensus  decision-making.  It is not a familiar or
mainstream form of process in the U.S.  Because it does not "come naturally" to
most of us, we are likely
to misunderstand it and do it less skillfully than those participating in the
Quaker model that we try to  emulate.  In addition, the compositions of our
communities change over time. 
This  will require that each new arrival be trained and brought up to speed.  I
suggest that  these continuing drains on community time and energy is not worth
the purported  benefits (assuming such benefits truly exist).  In addition,
having to adopt consensus  as the primary decision making mechanism creates yet
another barrier between cohousing and the American mainstream that could most
benefit from cohousing.   Almost every person to whom I describe my community
asks incredulously, "you  mean everybody has to agree in
order for the group to make a decision?!"  I try to  explain that consensus does
not require that in theory, but that it seems to end up that  way in practice.
Consensus alone is a major deterrent to the mainstream of wanting  to live in

communities with which I am familiar, the strongest advocates of consensus are
also  the most vocal opponents of delegation of decision making to individuals
or  sub-groups.  Even
those who pay lip-service to delegation seem to want the right to second-guess
or veto the decision purportedly "delegated".  I suggest that consensus  does
not preclude delegation.  In fact, the larger the community (and all communities
of more than about 12 people), the more essential is delegation to the effective
operation of group decision-making.  I believe this to be true regardless of
whether  the prevailing decision-making mechanism is consensual or democratic,
hierarchical  or egalitarian.  Perhaps the reluctance to give up control is a
problem endemic to  American cohousing pioneers.  But give up control we must if
we want the group to  function as a whole.  See especially the example under the
next heading. 

proponents of consensus must acknowledge that there are certain types of
decisions that do not lend themselves to consensus process.  This is especially
true of  design issues,
which are inherently subjective and not amenable to rational discussion. I can
think of one particularly  striking example of the problem in which  an entire
cohousing community was attempting to design a fence.  Even after  extensive
research and meetings by
a sub-committee, forty or so people sat through  two general meetings, of
several hours each, debating the merits of various materials  and the placement
of screws and other connections to used on this $1,500 fence.   Someone
estimated that, assuming each
participant's time to be worth $10 per hour,  over $5,000 was spent on the
DECISION alone -- ignoring the cost of labor and  materials.  As best I could
discern, the excess time and energy had done little more  than allow a small
number of opinionated and controlling people to work out on the  group some of
their family of origin problems.

BAD PROCESS MAKES BAD DECISIONS:  All of these reasons contribute to a system
that is inefficient (slow and expensive), indecisive (does nothing rather than
risking  conflict), stifles leadership (empowers the weak and non-participatory
to undermine at  the last
minute the hard work and research of others) and tends to produce bland,
low-quality "least common denominator" or "least-offensive" solutions.   

POOR STUDENTS OF HISTORY:  In his recent post to cohousing-l about "base model"
cohousing, Frank Mancino suggests that "[s]ometimes it is useful to consider
things in  a historical perspective."  I agree completely.  While living in and
with cohousing  over the
past few years I continue to be amazed by how disinterested in, and unimpressed
by, history are the vast majority of American cohousing pioneers.  One  need not
be "shackled to the past" to learn from it.  Consider instead the old saying
that "those who are ignorant
of history are doomed to repeat it."   It may be true that consensus
decision-making is part of most Danish cohousing communities.  But,  Chuck and
Katie do not expressly advocate it as
an essential element of American  cohousing, and I've seen little if any
evidence that consensus works well within a  community of heterogeneous,
individualistic Americans.  Perhaps the best-known and  one of the longest lived
examples of a secular American
intentional community is  Twin Oaks, in Virginia.  Twin Oaks, which thrives
today, was formed more than 25  years ago on secular principals of cooperation
and egalitarian government.  It does not now and never has used consensus
decision-making.  Kat Kinkade, one of its  founders, has lived there on and off
since its formation and has written two richly  detailed books about the
community, A WALDEN TWO EXPERIMENT (written when the  community was five years
old) and more recently IS IT UTOPIA YET? (written after the 
community 25 years old).  I highly recommend the latter to those who aspire to
design  an egalitarian system or work and government.  On consensus, Kat says
the  following:

>  "The above defense of the planner system [used at Twin Oaks] asopposed to
>   has drawn strong objections from some people within the intentional
>  movement who have read this manuscript. The essence of their rebuttal is that
>  procedures, properly practiced, do not have to take a long time. They say
that the  use of
>  consensus process requires education, but once people understand how to use
it, it  need
>  be no more cumbersome than the planner system and will result in better
feelings  in
>  addition.  In response, I will merely say that if I ever saw this
demonstrated in a  large
>  community [Twin Oaks contains approximately 80 people] with numerous
>  controversial issues that affect the members' personal lives, I would be
convinced.   So far
>  I'm not. 

Frank Mancino also cites an article in the Summer '95 issue of Wilson Quarterly
which "discusses a number of still functioning communities in the US, and
Britain, none of which seemed to be based on consensus -decisionmaking."

I'd be interested to hear from any readers who can cite (by name) examples of
secular,  non-ideological American intentional communities of more than 20
adults, that have existed for more than 10 years, and that have always used
undelegated consensus as their only (or even primary) decision-making mechanism.

SUMMARY / SUGGESTIONS:  In summary, I suggest that we reexamine the inclusion
of consensus in "base model" cohousing.  As currently practiced, it doesn't seem
to  work very well and it seems to alienate from cohousing many of the people
who could  most contribute to and benefit from a cohousing life-style.  If
eliminating consensus  from cohousing seems like too much to ask of it
proponents (many of whom I admire  and wish to work with),
consider perhaps diffusing a bit some of the disadvantages,  for example by
delegating (REALLY delegating -- not just forming an advisory group)  most
decisions to smaller sub-groups and/or individuals.  I personally could live
with consensus decision-making if the entire group faced only two consensus
decisions each year:  appointment of a board of
trustees/directors/planners (having plenary  authority - and who may delegate to
sub-groups), and approval of an annual budget.  Under my proposed model, all
other decisions would be delegated by the board to autonomous individuals and
sub-groups who would poll and/or interview the group at  large, but who in the
end would make the decision (despite the few inevitable objections and
criticisms), within the budget allocation already approved by the  group and/or
the board.   Subgroups could themselves use consensus.  I call this  model
"Representative Consensus" [analogous to "Representative Democracy"],  rather
than Direct Consensus.  I'd be interested to hear your comments and  suggestions
on such a model. 

Dan Suchman
Winslow Cohousing
Bainbridge Island, WA

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