Re: The politics of cohousing
From: Tree Bressen (
Date: Wed, 8 Dec 2004 16:05:58 -0800 (PST)
Hi Matt & folks,

I got off to a bad start when I objected to their desire to do _everything_ via concensus. While they do have some very valid points, the experts strongly recommend a backup mechanism for when concensus can't be reached. Probably the strongest point for having a backup mechanism is the unfortunate necessity that most groups will have for dealing with financial institutions. This really offended a number of folks.
Doing EVERYTHING by consensus does not work unless you are talking about an extremely small project--perhaps if you had only three households and you were going to buy a 3-family and subdivide it maybe consensus would work--but first you'd have to get consensus on what is consensus!

Yeah, my main disagreement with doing everything by concensus is that the experts say it's a really bad idea to not have a backup, even if the backup never gets used.

I suppose i am one of those presumed "experts" (having worked with 15 cohousing groups as a professional facilitator and visited ~70 other intentional communities), and i'd like to make a few points here.

While you are right that due to the constraints of conventional financing cohousing groups consistently have a voting back-up written into their bylaws, since those back-ups are rarely if ever used, the reality is that they are in fact deciding everything by consensus, at least everything deemed worthy of whole group attention rather than being delegated to a committee or individual to take care of. If your suggestion had been framed as putting a back-up system into the bylaws to satisfy bankers, rather than objecting to "their desire to do everything via consensus," it might have been received more amicably. (I will say that in my opinion many groups don't delegate enough, which bogs down the consensus process. But it still sounds like you may have been interpreted as suggesting voting as a replacement in practice for consensus, which may not have been what you intended.)

Secondly, not everyone who is out there facilitating and teaching cohousing groups process skills agrees on the utility of voting back-ups. Rob Sandelin thinks having a voting back-up prevents people from blocking consensus inappropriately, that they'll be more cooperative when they know the group has the option to out-vote them. Laird Schaub thinks having a voting back-up may create an easy out, why do the hard work of creating consensus if you can just vote instead? I can see both sides of it. Personally i've been happy to note how much work cohousers have put into learning and practicing consensus and how rarely the back-ups are invoked.

For more info you may want to check out my article "Decision-Making in Cohousing Communities" posted on my website at

They kicked me out after I made a comment about a member "not even bothering to call a realtor who was anxious to work with the group". Of course, this same member seemed to go out of his way to pick a fight by trying to read some subtleties into other email. I don't do subtle. In this case, I commented that I was glad that something worked for him. Somehow he took that as an attack. I meant exactly what I said, I was (happy, glad, pleased) that something worked for him. I wasn't sure if it would work for me, but that the fact that it made his life better was a good thing. No more, no less.

As far as starting a group, I have no ability to inspire folks. I'm a geek. I'm a person you want to go over the details and ask "what if?" I'm the person who will constantly be thinking of backup plans. I'm the person who will think 20 years down the road after the project is built. Valuable skills, but they really get in the way of selling the overall idea to people.

-- Matt
It's not what I know that counts, it's what I can remember in time to use.

I grew up in a subculture that is often in conflict with mainstream American society. I am much more interested in having the right answer at the end of a discussion or meeting than I am with having it at the beginning. If I'm wrong about something, which isn't that unusual, I want to know what and why. This can be a major problem when applied to people or groups that don't think that way, a challenge to an idea is percieved as being a challenge to the person expressing it. When a number of people are engaged in some sort of "groupthink", this can be taken as an attempt to tear down or destroy the group. Not my intention, but as I said before, I'm a terrible politician. Being right is often the worst thing to do in many organizations.

So, what do y'all think?

It sounds like you have some great strengths to offer potential cohousing groups as they walk down the long road of developing a community. It also sounds to me like you probably have some communication behaviors that tend to get in the way of those strengths being seen, appreciated, and accessed by some groups you may want to be part of. Groups will willingly and gratefully put up with challenging questions from members, as long as the tone is usually positive and as long as the ratio of challenge to other kinds of engagement stays in a proportion they can handle.

*It's all about tone.*

You say you don't do subtle, and that you're a terrible politician. That's ok, but in order to succeed here you will need to find a way to let people know in your communications with them that you love them, respect them, care about their well-being, and so on. I've had my own challenges with this over the years. I am committed to honesty and sometimes that results in things coming out bluntly. I never hurt anyone's feelings on purpose, yet it took me a long time to realize just how insecure people are, how sensitive, how easily their egos are upset. Nowadays i try to be more careful about how i frame things, and about the timing. Yet what really counts isn't using diplomatic words, it's about the underlying energy.

You might try reading the book Difficult Conversations, by Stone, Patton & Heen. It's a current favorite of mine for addressing interpersonal conflicts. Among other topics it emphasizes the importance of curiosity, of communicating an authentic desire to listen and understand what's going on for the other person(s).

Email is terrible for dealing with tone, i generally recommend that groups building community avoid using it for anything complex or anything with emotions attached. Of course, they don't always do what i say! And it depends on what other options they have. But it's a set-up for problems, i'm not surprised that your former colleague apparently interpreted you as being sarcastic when your intent was sincere.

Best of luck,



Tree Bressen
1680 Walnut St.
Eugene, OR 97403
(541) 484-1156
tree [at]

Results generated by Tiger Technologies Web hosting using MHonArc.