Re: Consent or Consensus
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Wed, 5 Jul 2006 09:07:38 -0700 (PDT)

On Jul 4, 2006, at 10:07 PM, maggiedutton wrote:

This link is to an excellent discussion about Consent and how different it
is in practice from consensus.,consensus.htm

Thank you, Maggie for recording this. I read so much faster than I listen it helped me get to it in things stacked up for me to.

I hope to do a more detailed analysis because there are some wonderful insights here and Brian's company presents a fabulous fishbowl of people who are actually working at a profitable company and experimenting with new ideas.

One thing that continues to plague the consent/consensus debate is the definition of consensus. Bad or uninformed consensus processes are compared with clearly defined and facilitated consent processes. It's too easy to bash consensus, and to no purpose. Consensus also requires a clear and shared aim, and it does not have to lead to "until death do us part" decisions. And it is practically never supposed to mean "agreement." It is most commonly defined as "agreeing to move forward given all the circumstances." But there are a lot of unworkable practices and beliefs that have sprung up around consensus, as with any idea that has been around for a long time.

The major sociocratic theorist is Gerard Endenburg. Gerard's teacher, Kees Boeke, used consensus in his school of 400 teachers and students so Gerard grew up with it. The distinction Gerard made was that consent did not require people to know and care about each other as Boeke's practice of consensus had. The communities that use consensus decision-making today, often want to retain that knowing and caring about each other when they make decisions. They value that feeling.

What "consent" as defined by sociocracy has it its favor is the context -- all the other principles and methods that make any form of decision-making more workable. Personally, I think you could use consensus just as well if you added all the other stuff -- steering, feedback and feedforward loops, measurement, etc. That's what makes consent workable.

Some of the things that are discussed in the interview as properties of consent are really processes of sociocracy. Consent exists within those processes. And the processes of sociocracy are simply the processes that all open systems are based on. (For Wilbur fans, incidentally, Prigigone's book The End of Certainty from 1996 has some interesting things to say about the mystical view of time--negating previous embracing of the mystic's experience of time as the nature of time.)

One distinction that is clear between consent and consensus is that most consensus processes to ask for agreement -- not usually 100% agreement as many claim, but agreement to move forward. Consent, as defined in the sociocratic governing principles, only asks if you have "paramount and argued objections." One could argue that the semantic distinction is slight but John Buck pointed out what may be the best explanation for why it is not.

When you begin a discussion asking for agreement, you _may_ switch off the cognitive processes that look for objections. (John says _do switch off_ but my objections never seem to be switched off by anyone's suggestions and I suspect there are many others like me.) So beginning the discussion with "what are your objections" is more likely to bring out objections than a discussion beginning with "do you agree."

Consensus discussions are also more likely to begin _not_ with do "you" agree but with do "we" agree, which silences many voices when people might otherwise speak up. The desire to actually be a cohesive group is strong in groups that use consensus. This is a cognitive danger.

It also reveals the problem with many consensus processes -- they are heavily majority vote situations. The majority gets very pissed at the one or two who won't go along. Because sociocracy is highly rational and is used in situations where everyone's work, not their preferences, is of paramount importance, this is less of a problem. In intentional communities, for example, "can you live with it" takes on a whole new meaning. Maybe I can today but not forever -- and intentional communities are often making "forever" decisions. Work situations are rarely forever.

I think the most important thing is to define the basis for your decision-making and to match the process with the kind of decision being made. Sociocracy supports all kinds of decision-making methods, as long as consent is used to decide which method will be used in a specific situation. Some need to be made with solidarity, some with majority vote, some by outside experts. It all depends.

Sharon Villines

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