Consensus as primrary decision-making method w/voting back-up
From: Diana Leafe Christian (
Date: Sat, 12 Jan 2013 08:24:12 -0800 (PST)
I'm responding to Sharon Villines' response to Willow Murphy's question about a voting back-up for the consensus process. (I recommend using a supermajority_voting back-up, like 85% or 90% Yes votes to pass a proposal, rather than the majority-rule voting most of us are used to.)

A lawyer for an Arizona cohousing community told me she recommended that cohousing groups she works with adopt the following solution when their bank requires majority-rule voting or 100% consensus with no voting back-up, or something else they don't like. She suggests writing in the ByLaws "and for any modifications or special circumstances re decision-making, see Policy Manual." And that the group then creates a separate Policy Manual, the policies of which they can add to or change anytime by their own internal decisions. And anything in the Policy Manual, unlike the Bylaws, can easily be changed. I thought this was good advice!

Also, I agree that not having a voting back-up can be dangerous for a cohousing group's well-being, IF they have the following unfortunate situations. That, say, like Sharon notes, Harry's new wife who just moved in doesn't understand or care about good communication skills or good group process, and just blocks anything anytime because . . . she can. Or, the community may have, or may get in the future, a resident who has a tendency to block (or threaten to block) too frequently, frivolously, or for purely personal reasons. Or the community has or a member who, sadly, as Sharon says, becomes mentally ill, acts out in meetings, and blocks proposals irrationally. Or, a resident with a mental illness they usually control with medication but stops taking their medication and suddenly starts behaving erratically, with the same result. (By the way, the mention of mental illness in community be off-putting for some, however it really does happen sometimes even though many community members don't like to think about it or talk about it. It's something of a Taboo Topic.)

Back to a voting back-up. Just even _having_ an agreed-upon voting back-up and everyone knows it exists -- even if it's rarely used -- can be a useful and legitimate deterrent to too-frequent, frivolous, or purely personal blocking.

However, there's a Catch-22. Sometimes communities that have a voting back-up don't use it, because some members believe it would be "betraying consensus" to do so. The idea that consensus decision- making is somehow a Sacred Cow that they must serve and protect -- rather than a simple decision-making tool that is supposed to _serve the group_ --- is unfortunately all too common. I know of a cohousing community that had a super-majority voting backup but couldn't allow themselves to use it -- or even talk about that possibility -- because of the vigorous opposition of a small group of consensus-only advocates there. And this community was hamstrung with some serious issues they _could_ have resolved if they had a voting back-up.

For example, they were 12 years old but still didn't have a pet policy. This was extremely frustrating for many residents because of the different behaviors of people's dogs and cats, but they had no basis for talking with each other about these challenges because they had no agreements about them. This was because each time someone proposed they create an ad hoc committee to draft a pet policy proposal, one member always blocked the creation of the committee, saying she didn't want her four dogs to have any limits on their freedom, so she adamantly opposed their even being a committee to talk about it! And the community let her get away with this. No one suggested they use their super-majority voting back-up, because of the small group of folks there who vociferously opposed "betraying consensus." It was a painful dilemma.

So I highly recommend that for groups who use consensus, they also get some kind of recourse for when someone blocks. One kind of recourse is to agree ahead of time on criteria for what constitutes a valid block, and how to test any block against that criteria. This is what consensus trainers Laird Schaub and Ma'ikwe Ludwig recommend. Another kind of recourse is a super-majority voting back-up. The best example of this I know is the method used by N Street Cohousing and Manzanita Village Cohousing, where someone who blocks organizes a series of solution-oriented meetings between themselves and 1 or 2 proposal supporters, with the task to co-create a new proposal they can all live with. The new proposal comes to the next whole-community business meeting. But if they cannot create a new proposal (or the blocking person doesn't do this), the original proposal comes back to the next business meeting for a 75% supermajority vote. They've been doing this for 24 years and, as of last spring, they'd only had to do this twice in all those 24 years. And both times they only needed two solution- oriented meetings. Apparently this method works very well for them. As with having a simple voting back-up, the fact that N Street's policy just _exists_ is an effective deterrent to people blocking, or worse, _threatening_ to block, directly or by implication, which can stop, stall, and stymie a group too.

Although I've used consensus decision-making for 18 years myself and for 6 years taught it to communities, I no longer believe consensus works well in most communities, at least the way most communities practice it. What I call the "N St. Consensus Method" is one decision- making method I now recommend to groups instead.

Thanks for reading all this.

Diana Leafe Christian
Date: Fri, 11 Jan 2013 11:54:56 -0500
From: Sharon Villines <sharon [at]>
Subject: Re: [C-L]_ Consensus and voting bylaws
On Jan 9, 2013, at 1:29 AM, Willow Murphy <willowm7 [at]> wrote:

Question: How have other cohousing communities dealt with the process of reconciling voting bylaws and the primary commitment to use consensus,
based on trust and hearing every voice?   What has been your process?

We have consensus as the primary and back-up voting just in case. In 12 years we've never voted.

Our new board is proceeding with work on an
amendment to our boilerplate condo bylaws. They are feeling the need to include a consensus plus voting clause, presumably to protect our consensus process legally, and they are concerned about possible liability issues.

Personally, I believe in a back-up process that is rarely used. The presence of a back-up, I feel may be necessary when communities have a person who is mentally ill or out of sync with the rest of the community.

The consensus process assumes those engaging in the process (1) share a common aim and (2) are willing and able to sit together to deliberate for the time necessary to work out all the objections. Assuming that everyone in a community will share a common aim when that community has little control over who will be involved in the decision is unreasonable.

None of us are so all persuasive or have unlimited time to bring every person around to a specific solution. There are many, many ways to design a way forward so that it addresses all concerns and objections and those should certainly be used. In the end, however, not all of us want or need the same thing. Even in cohousing. That's why intentional communities often have long and specific admission processes. And why coops are coops and not condos. They want control over who they are and where they are going.

Gerard Endenburg, who developed a consensus process that could be used even to manage a corporation, adds another condition to the (1) shared aim and (2) ability to sit together to deliberate, the (3) ability to choose with whom you will make decisions. Cohousers by definition have agreed to make decisions with whomever buys, rents, or marries into a community.

That woman who marries Harry may not be on the same page as the rest of the community, particularly if he was on the outer fringes to begin with and is still starry eyed when he puts her name on the deed. The decision you were in the process of making when she becomes an owner may need to be made without her approval. And she may insist on it.

The community may not have time to educate her or perhaps even fully understand her objections within the time-limit.

Also consider preference voting as an intermediate step. This is much more nuanced way of measuring where everyone is on possible options. It can also be used to gauge sentiment during the consensus process.

Sharon Villines
Co-author with John Buck of We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, a Guide to Sociocratic Principles and Methods

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