The failures of consensus
From: Rob Sandelin (
Date: Fri, 26 Feb 2010 09:36:36 -0800 (PST)
Consensus is a very difficult, perhaps even the most difficult of decision
processes. It can fail in many ways. Below are some of the ways I have
watched it fail, maybe you will recognize some of these. 

It is easy for consensus to be railroaded by dominant individuals who have
strong opinions, and good verbal skills to convey their opinions and points.
It is easy for people to give in, to give up, to stay quiet. It can be hard
to challenge a dominant personality.  Especially if you perceive your
relationships with others might be damaged you they speak up.  

It is easy to withdrawal from the process, not show up at the meeting or not
bring up ideas because: "if it took 4 meetings just to buy some dishes, it
will take forever to decide this".  And it's just not worth the effort.

Sometimes the meeting environment itself becomes toxic, people get called
names, are subjected to unpleasant emotional reactions, get angry blasts
directed at them personally. Why put up with that find of abuse? Easier to
let it go. 

So members stop participating, and in some cases people might be relieved
that they are not there. It is not common for most cohousing groups to
actively inquire about why its members are not attending meetings.  Once
someone has given up on the process it can be hard to get them to come back.
Avoidance is one of the most common conflict resolution strategies and if
meetings are full of conflict they are easy to avoid. Some people live in
cohousing only because their partner really wanted to. Often these
disaffected spouses just don't engage much.

The problem cohousing has is that there is not a strong common cause that
unites everyone. Unlike say, Greenpeace, which has a strong vision and
mission, most cohousing groups have vague, undefined purposes and the truth
is people are rarely ever screened by the mission of the group. Someone
might just want a comfortable, safe and convenient place to live. If
meetings are not comfortable or safe why go?   Without a common purpose you
can agree and unite around it is easy to define the bottom line of any
decision as, how does this impact me. When a decision affects members
differently is can be seen as unfair and then easy to stand against. 

And finally, without an under laying set of agreements about how to conduct
yourself in meeting, without well trained facilitators to uphold these
agreements, and without a clear understanding of how to run an effective
process or even what consensus means, its easy to bogged down, tied up and
unable to move even simple things forward.

Pt. Barnum, the famous Barnum and Bailey circus owner used to go out into
the crowd to measure the responses to his shows.  One day there was a woman
who criticized the dancing bear, that the bear didn't know how to keep time,
that was no waltz, etc.  His response was:
"Madam, the amazing thing about a dancing bear is NOT how well it dances,
but that it dances at all".  

I have observed some consensus processes that dance really well, and others
which barely dance at all. Yet somehow things move on and eventually those
which work poorly usually figure out some strategies on how to make things

Best of luck on using the most difficult decision process. If its not
working well for your group you are  not alone.

Rob Sandelin

  • Re: balance Lynn Nadeau / Maraiah, February 24 2010
    • The failures of consensus Rob Sandelin, February 26 2010

Results generated by Tiger Technologies Web hosting using MHonArc.