RE: Concerning Consensus and established CoHo communities
From: Tree Bressen (
Date: Fri, 11 Mar 2005 13:48:36 -0800 (PST)
Dear Saille,

I am looking for information concerning consensus practices in established
CoHo groups. If anyone can provide information, I'd be very grateful.

1.      Are there any established communities who do NOT use consensus?

Not in the cohousing movement so far as i know.

Among the wider intentional communities movement, decision-making and governance systems vary tremendously. While most of my personal experience is in secular communities, my impression is that many (though far from all) spiritually-based intentional communities have a leader or council of elders who make decisions for the group. Geoph Kozeny, aka the Peripatetic Communitarian (based on his visits to 350 different communities), believes that the "best" decision-making system is whatever the members feel good about and have trust in.

As Sharon mentioned there have been a few cohousing groups using sociocracy. There has been much discussion on this list in the past about sociocracy, and how it is the same as and different from consensus. I know my own take on what sociocracy is shifted after i read about how it was created by someone explicitly seeking to apply Quaker consensus process to other kinds of organizations, using a particular business setting to demonstrate how to do that. So i currently see sociocratic decision-making as a direct consensus spin-off, basically one variant of consensus decision-making rather than something substantively different from consensus.

Sharon wrote:
Consensus has no such associated governance structure or rules of procedure.

But cohousing groups do use consensus none-the-less and do get through it. But what happens in our community and other communities (I believe) is that decisions are avoided and more and more made by small groups or individuals with no discussion by the large group. Everyone learns to look the other way and some people just withdraw from the process. Decisions are less often announced so no one knows about it until it is carried out. Things just happen.

I believe that each group using consensus does create rules of procedure, usually a combination of written policy and unwritten custom. And it can change over time as the group develops, including delegating more power outward to committees and individuals taking initiative, which i usually think of as a positive trend (though i understand this can be negative too depending on how it happens). The similarity in consensus procedures across cohousing groups is part of what enables me as a traveling facilitator to go from group to group offering teaching and assistance.

Back to Saille,
We are a new group, and most of our current folks do not have experience, or
very limited experience, in CP. I always assumed that we'd use CP in some
form, since that seems to be one of the foundations of CoHo. My assumption
has been questioned with "Did we consent to use consensus process?" (which
seems like a really dumb question, ie "did we vote on voting?") Since that
point, our governance committee has been working on a proposal for a form of
governance which removes "general assembly" from most decisions, instead
giving that power to a closed council, and using the "general assembly" only
when consensus cannot be reached by that council, and at that point, putting
items up for voting, rather than consensus.

So there are 2 different questions your group is wrestling with: are items decided by a subgroup or by the whole, and in either case what is the decision-making rule for that decision (consensus or voting).

It's an interesting idea, putting most of the decision-making power into a council rather than the whole group. I think most cohousing groups do have some kind of coordinating committee, but the committee's power is usually very limited; it sounds like your group is considering something substantively different. If your group does end up with an explicitly strong council form of government i'll be very interested to hear the results of that down the road; i imagine there will be both advantages and disadvantages compared with how most cohousing communities are currently operating.

I've heard at least one person who works with cohousing communities say that they think having a core group in charge would be a more natural form for things, given that it can be hard to keep a critical mass of members involved with attending meetings. If i remember right, that person thought that many members would just as soon not be bothered with meetings & governance, and would be happy to let the types who are into serving on council take that responsibility. Myself, i'm a believer in direct democracy. I want to see people be involved in the decisions that affect their lives. And i worry that the bold & vibrant cohousing communities i see in my travels would be more likely to devolve into standard condo associations if this central piece of all members learning skills for empowered democracy went away.

They're working on the assumptions that 1) consensus does not work for
larger groups; 2) consensus generally takes too long; and 3) consensus
breaks down in the long term between established community members and "new
blood", meaning oldtimers block consensus on new ideas with the comments
"tried it already/won't work".

To my mind, there are 3 main reasons to use consensus decision-making over other systems (and while i usually think of that as why use consensus rather than voting, it occurs to me in the context of this discussion that it might also be taken as why use direct democracy rather than a council):

1. High quality decisions - based on accessing deep wisdom of the full group.

2. Building and maintaining connections among members - when consensus is practiced well, it brings people together, whereas a split vote with strongly held factions on either side can create lasting divisions.

3. Strong support for implementation - if lots of people had a hand in creating the decision, they will likely feel invested in implementing it. A classic example of a decision that needs this is a work or participation policy, which cannot succeed unless everyone makes it happen.

In order to get these outcomes, groups need to learn the skills to use consensus well. I think most bad experiences that lead people to the assumptions you list above happen in groups where the members never took the time to learn the skills. In contrast to those assumptions, my opinions are:

1. Consensus works fine in larger groups. I've been told that Svanholm Community in Denmark uses it successfully with 100 people, partly by delegating many decisions to the committee level. Caroline Estes tells stories of facilitating for bioregional congresses with 500 people.

2. Consensus allocates time differently than voting. Here is my standard diagram on this, with timelines where A is the point when an issue arises, D is when the decision is made and I is when full implementation is achieved:


Majority Vote


In a voting situation, the decision point happens as soon as one side caucuses enough to reach 51%. But implementation can be held up by the unhappy minority, until their dissent is quelled (if it ever is). In consensus, you wait to make the decision until the group has come to a sense of relative unity--that is, you spend your time in the discussion and exploration stage--and then implementation should happen quickly and easily.

3. Consensus is a conservative process and this does sometimes lead to frustration. If changing things through official channels gets to be too burdensome, people bypass the official channels, and that can be taken as a sign to revisit whether adjustments in the decision-making process are needed (alternatively, perhaps an older member needs someone to gently take them aside and explain how their energy is getting in the way of someone moving forward with enthusiasm on a project that would benefit the group, or perhaps a newer member needs someone to support them in getting empowered in the consensus process and using it effectively). Personally, having observed communities and other organizations of all 3 types, i haven't noticed new member/old member tensions in consensus groups to be any worse than in voting groups or council-led groups. All kinds of groups face challenges in integrating new people and new ideas over time.

I certainly wish you the best of luck in sorting out these issues with your group! Perhaps you could get together a field trip where a van of people from your group visit some of the more established cohousing communities and interview members about their decision-making processes, among other areas of life? In a way the concerns some of your members are raising about consensus have a similar feeling to me as when people who have never lived in an income-sharing intentional community imagine it--to concerned outsiders it seems incredibly risky and scary; yet to those of us who have done it for years, it feels routine, a natural way to live.



P.S. My website at has a bunch of info on consensus and related topics, if you want more resources.


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

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