RE: Conflict Resolution: Really about Consensus blocking
From: Rob Sandelin (
Date: Fri, 4 Dec 1998 09:13:53 -0600
The subject line refers to conflict resolution, but the question seemed more
about dealing with blocking and it role in consensus. Both are fairly
complex topics so I'll tackle the easier one, the role of blocking.

A key understanding of consensus is that consensus does not mean you agree
with a decision. You can consent, and will consent, to many decisions you do
not agree with. Consensus does not mean agreement, it means permission, the
root word of consensus is consent. By consenting, you give permission to the
group to go ahead with a decision. Often you will do so, thinking the group
is blowing it, only to learn that YOU were wrong. This personal humility is
a very important key to using consensus as a group process. Or, maybe in
fact, you were right, the group is blowing it, and will learn something from
the experience, and then apply that learning as you redo the decision.
Either way, keeping the group from moving forward is the wrong thing to do.

In my experience, blocking is very misused by poorly trained groups using
consensus, and it causes them a lot of problems. In my opinion as a
consensus facilitator trainer, you should withhold your consent (block) a
decision only  where you can clearly state either:
1. How this decision will have long lasting, disastrous, or very negative,
irreparable effects on the whole group.
2. How this decision clearly violates the mission or purpose of the group.

If individuals block the group because they don't like a decision, or
because they need or want to exert power over the group, then you should NOT
be using consensus as your decision making process because you will be very
ineffective, make few real decisions, frustrate just about everybody in the
group, and lose group members. Consensus is like a chainsaw. Its a powerful
tool, when used with understanding and proper training gives wonderful
results. However, in the hands of the careless or ignorant, it can cut the
hell out of you. I have seen, and been part of, groups that broke apart
trying to use consensus without a clue about how to do so. I also seen and
been a part of groups that have been transformed by consensus into
wonderful, collaborative, close, dynamic entities. When the tool works, its
impressive, but it works best when the whole group understands it, not just
the facilitator.

Sometimes groups lack the experience together to listen and to trust each
other and so blocking is used as a way to be heard. This is a break down in
your process and should be remedied.

One of the common problems I have observed repeatedly regarding blocking is
when there is a difference between individually held values and group
values. For example, an individual with strong vegetarian beliefs  blocks a
decision to serve chicken at community dinner. When an individual does this,
they are holding the group hostage to their personal values.  In my opinion,
this should not be acceptable and the group should process this with clarity
and compassion, but override the blocking individual. Unless the whole group
is willing to agree to accept the individuals value as a group value (this
occasionally happens but is pretty rare)

When you over-ride a persons blocking objections you need to do so with the
understanding that if this is not resolved with the individual, the blocking
individual will probably leave the group. Sometimes this is the right thing
to do. If an individual is constantly at odds with a group, clearly they are
in the wrong group and need to be told this.

In my opinion, most cohousing groups would be better to create a decision
making process based on a 3/4 majority vote, then strive to achieve
consensus. The Quaker consensus model, as practiced by Quakers, will not
work in cohousing groups unless they are strongly religious. The modified
consensus process as created in the social change movements in the 70's is a
much more likely process to succeed.

I teach this method to social change, non profit groups, in custom designed
workshops. There a openings now for Spring of 1999.

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