RE: Reviewing our consensus process and voting
From: Rob Sandelin (
Date: Tue, 28 Apr 1998 20:29:22 -0500
Four to six times each year I get called from a local community to help them 
mediate a consensus block or other dispute. Trying from a far to sort out a 
multi-step problem with group process is fraught with peril. However, one 
thing in your post stands out clearly to me:

"so, for one issue, one member blocked
consensus at least partly because she didn't feel safe with the proposed
policy and others were extremely angry because of their perception that
someone could impose a rule on them based more on personal feelings than what 
was right for the group as a whole."

In my learning and teaching about consensus, I have come to the conclusion, 
that almost always, blocking is done inappropriately. In my experience, in a  
group where an individual blocks to "get their way" rather than what is best 
for the whole group, that group should probably not be using consensus as 
their decision making system and should use a meta majority vote instead. 

Consensus is like a chain saw, and when used incorrectly can seriously damage 
your group. You need to have every member be well trained in its use, and have 
a common set of agreements about using it before you start. I am continually 
astonished at how many naive groups of people use consensus incorrectly, with 
no understanding of how to use consensus, get into all kinds of group troubles 
(even disbanding) and then blame consensus for their problems. Short of like 
swinging a chainsaw with one hand like an axe against a tree, getting your arm 
cut off, and calling the chainsaw faulty.

In my experience and learning, blocking is ONLY valid, if the individual is 
committed that the solution will seriously damage the group, or violate its 
mission. It is never OK to block for personal dislike, or personal values that 
are not group values. The latter case is one of the most common situations I 
get into when I mediate intentional community disputes.  To hold an entire 
group to your personal value system against their will, is a  dysfunctional 

I am a large advocate of having well trained group members, and excellent, 
well trained facilitators. Most groups have totally naive facilitators, and 
stumble along with long, painful meetings that people do not want to go to.

Meetings should be exciting, fun (Oh my god, did he say fun?), and people 
should look forward to them, not dread them. A well trained facilitator plans 
every meeting and uses special techniques and skills to make meetings 
effective. A poorly trained, or untrained facilitator does not have a clue, 
doesn't prepare, reacts rather than guides, and the meetings end up lasting 
five painful hours. This killed dozens of social activist groups that tried 
using consensus. Don't let it kill your group. Use voting instead, and don't 
use consensus until every member is trained.

Rob Sandelin
Running Effective Consensus Meetings Workshop
Openings for October and Nov.
The book is in first draft and will be out next Spring. Probably.


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