Responding to request for recommended decision-making methods
From: Diana Leafe Christian (diana.leafe.christiangmail.com)
Date: Sat, 4 Oct 2014 13:36:48 -0700 (PDT)
Hello,
 
This is a belated response to Alan Weiner of Village Hill Cohousing in 
Northampton, who recently asked for recommendations for decision-making methods 
and resources.
 
I hope you don’t mind my revisiting Alan’s request with two recommendations. 
One is what I call the “N St. Consensus Method,” which Kevin Wolf outlined 
below. (The blocking person(s) meets with those who advocated the proposal in a 
series of solution-oriented meetings to co-create a new proposal. If they 
don’t, the original proposal comes back for a 67% super-majority vote. Although 
I had always thought it was 75%.) Regardless of whatever supermajority-vote 
percentage a group uses, I recommend the N St. Method for any cohousing 
community that would like to use consensus.
 
Both Patricia of JP Cohousing and Mary Ann of Manzanita Village noted that 
communities can suffer from not using consensus correctly, and each community 
did better after learning how to do it more effectively. I couldn’t agree more! 
In my work with communities I’ve learned that a lot of conflict and 
discouragement can be reduced by first, all being on the same page about which 
of several different consensus methods the group is using, like Eris said, and 
everyone learning how to use that method. And second, by having some kind of 
recourse for blocks. Laird and Ma’ikwe recommend having criteria for what 
constitutes a valid block, and an agreed-upon way for the group to test for a 
block’s validity. However, I’ve found that trying to agree on these things can 
introduce a whole not of new problems. So the much better recourse for blocks, 
I’ve found, is the N St. Consensus Method. I’m a consensus trainer myself, and 
nowadays the N St. Method is the only method I recommend for groups who want to 
use consensus.
 
Unfortunately, some cohousing communities and other kinds of intentional 
communities use a method I don’t recommend, which I call 
“consensus-with-unanimity” — in which anyone can block any proposal any time, 
with no recourse. This tends to result in the so-called “tyranny of the 
minority” My own community (Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina) used this 
method for many years, but fortunately not now.
 
Alan, a good resource for learning consensus, besides Eris and the other 
consensus trainers, is the book Building United Judgment, available from the 
FIC’s Community Bookshelf mail-order book service.  I also highly recommend Tim 
Hartnett’s book Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making, about an effective modified 
version of consensus, available from amazon. And for my workshop handout on how 
to do the N St. Consensus Method, “How the ‘N Street Consensus Method’ Helps N 
Street Cohousing Thrive,”
please click http://l.cohousing.org/  (You have to scroll down a bit.)
 
The second method I recommend for communities is Sociocracy (sometimes called 
Dynamic Governance in the US). Sociocracy is a whole governance structure as 
well as a decision-making process (consent decision-making) and meeting 
processes for making new proposals and electing people for roles, based on 
transparency, equivalence of voice, and effectiveness. I love how well 
communities can function when they’ve learned Sociocracy and practice it 
correctly. I now recommend Sociocracy instead of consensus. I now teach 
Sociocracy too.
 
Two Sociocracy trainings are being offered this month by Sociocracy trainer 
Jerry Koch-Gonzalez of Pioneer Valley Cohousing (he uses the name Dynamic 
Self-Governance).
 
October 19 - Pioneer Valley Cohousing Community, Amherst MA.  
October 24-26 - Cornerstone Cohousing, Cambridge MA.
To learn more: j.kochgonzalez~at~gmail.com  413-549-1747
 
For my workshop handout that gives a brief, one-page overview of Sociocracy, 
“Overview: Sociocracy," please click http://l.cohousing.org/ 
 
Thank you for reading this.
 
Diana
 
Date: Sat, 20 Sep 2014 06:24:08 +0800
From: R Philip Dowds <rpdowds [at] comcast.net>
I agree with all of Mr Wolf's remarks about a fall-back.  We have a similar 
approach at Cornerstone (Cambridge, MA); we call it the escape hatch.  But the 
super-majority is 75%, and can be sought after fewer meetings.  We have yet to 
vote.
Philip Dowds
 
Date: Fri, 19 Sep 2014 06:53:17 -0500
From: Jerry McIntire <jerry.mcintire [at] gmail.com>
Perhaps the determination to measure "objectively" is an enemy of strong
community. I think it would be relatively easy for community members to
report if there relationships within the community have been strengthened
or degraded by a particular round of decision-making. That would be
entirely subjective, and I think that's fine. There are other measures,
some objective: Did everyone speak to the question? Were their
contributions substantive and rich or a simple yes or no? Do  they want to
come to the next meeting? Are they more likely or less likely to engage
other members in conversation outside of the meeting? And more such
questions... Jerry
 
On Fri, Sep 19, 2014 at 1:17 PM, Muriel Kranowski <murielk [at] vt.edu> wrote:
I am soooo skeptical about how it protects the group process if you make
the blocker explain their objection in the politically correct manner. Any
clever-enough person can come up with a community value to cite for almost
anything unless it is just so transparently self-serving that there are no
words, in which case you probably didn't need to go through the exercise.
Some people really are all about the good of the community whether they use
the right words or not, and some are more about what is good for them,
ditto.
Muriel
Shadowlake Village Cohousing, Virginia
 
From: R Philip Dowds <rpdowds [at] comcast.net>
There are often references to the importance of "learning how" to do consensus, 
but I think the main problem is that of attitude, not technique.  Communal life 
requires that one learn to accept compromise, even disappointment, from time 
time, and to support (read, pay money) activities and amenities of interest to 
others, even if you do not share those interests.  In other words, communal 
life is like real life.  Sadly, the consensus methodology is over-sold as a 
fail-safe route to universal peace and harmony.
Philip Dowds
 
On Sep 19, 2014, at 1:33 PM, Kevin Wolf <kevinjwolf [at] gmail.com> wrote:
Hi all
N Street Cohousing has been using a modified consensus process where we
have a fall back super majority (67%) vote if a block continues for more
than six meeting attempts to find common ground.  We have never voted in
the 26 years we have been using this system.  We also have about 10-15 new
members a year, most of whom know nothing about consensus or the history of
the community.   A pure consensus process would be especiallly problematic
with some many newbies in a large community.
There are numerous advantages of having a back up vote if blocks can't be
resolved and the vast majority wants to move ahead against the wishes of
the blocker(s).
     1.  The person(s) blocking have to take the lead in organizing and
participating in the meetings to find a mutually acceptable solution. If
the person doesn't want to do this work, they lose their block.  We have
had a new person who blocked be informed of the work she now had to do and
her response was "Heck, if I knew that was what was involved, I would never
have blocked."   Right, don't block if it isn't important enough for you to
put effort into coming up with a mutually acceptable solution.
     2.  We don't have complete agreement on all the values and goals of our
community and some of those guiding principles and goals aren't defined
well enough and thus openings are created for people to use their
understanding of them to underlie their reason for blocking.  The "threat"
of a community vote is an incentive for the blocker to not be unreasonable
in how they interpret the common values and goals.  So far, no one has been
so obstinate as to cause a vote to occur.  Some people can be very stubborn
without facing a negative consequence for their stubborness, more than
community enmity.  Losing a vote means all that stubborness was for
nothing.
     A pure consensus process needs a lot of education and training, underlying
written goals and guiding principles, and trust to work.  And if the group
has members who are unreasonable because they have a mental illness, a drug
problem, are narcissistic or any other reason, then all the training etc
may still not solve the problems that can come from unreasonable blocks.
Only a  fall back process to overcome such individual opposition and
stubborness can then save the community from the anguish and problems of
the tyranny of the minority problem that pure consensus can face.
Best of luck to all using a pure consensus process. To make it work  well
over decades, you probably will need luck.
Kevin Wolf, co-founder, N Street Cohousing
 
Date: Fri, 19 Sep 2014 22:38:53 -0400
From: Sharon Villines <sharon [at] sharonvillines.com>
Kevin's post is so lucid I feel unfair about taking issue with it but again it 
is the word "block" that points to a problem in approaching a decision.
First, proposals should include both reasoning and aims. The objections should 
be part of a process of examining arguments for and against the reasoning, the 
aims, and/or the proposed action. When someone can't consent, it is because 
they have an objection. Objections can be either clearly stated or teased out 
with the help of others. To call these objections "blocks" is to negate the 
purpose of objecting.
     The process of decision-making is about logical argument, even when logic 
is based on personal feelings. NVC is a good technique for teasing out 
feelings, translating them into needs, and then into action. What happens in 
NVC is what needs to happen when considering objections.
     Objections are good things because resolving them strengthens the proposal 
by suggesting amendments or clarifies the reason it is appropriate. This 
process educates everyone and brings the community together with greater 
understanding and acceptance of individual differences.
     But understanding doesn't necessarily mean everyone has a common aim. The 
aim of the vegetarians to exclude turkey at a traditionally turkey meal was not 
the typical aim of welcoming diversity  characteristic of cohousing. This is an 
aims conflict and may require a majority vote, whether votes are actually 
counted or not.
But lack of a common aim, is not a "block". It's lack of a common aim.
     "Block" feels like a concrete wall. The only way you can break it down is 
with a jackhammer or a tank. Or you can ignore it.
     I understand that one often feels like others are "blocking" and I 
sometimes feel that I want to "block" myself. But I can't imagine why it is 
helpful to consider a person a concrete wall. A Block. A Block-Head. A Blocker. 
The language is wrong. it's like saying we are going to have a logical 
conversation but if you disagree with me you will be called a dog for the rest 
of the meeting.
Why is the majority never considered to be blocking?
     Voting is not the end of consensus as an ideal. Calling someone's lack of 
acceptance of the majority opinion a block, could be.
Sharon
 
On Thu, Sep 18, 2014 at 11:21 PM, Ann Zabaldo <zabaldo [at] earthlink.net> 
wrote:
Rick!   I really love this!
     An excellent guide for evaluating one?s decision making process.  Altho?
how do you measure #1 ?strengthen relationship? and #2 respect or improve
the decision-making process?  I guess number 2 might be measured by the
length of time it takes from proposal to decision, the number of drafts,
the number of meetings, the number of concerns or objections to be
resolved.  Hmm.  I don?t know that these would be the measures but yes. #2
could be more easily measured.
     But how to measure/evaluate #1?  Fewer fist-fights?  :-)
In any event ? I do love where you are coming from in looking at
decision-making and its role in building community.
Thank you! Best --Ann Zabaldo
Takoma Village Cohousing
Washington, DC
 
On Sep 18, 2014, at 11:36 PM, Richart Keller <richart.keller [at] gmail.com> 
wrote:
The quality of decisions is one indicator of community success.  I.e.
The measure of a successful decision is the extent to which it meets 3 tests:
does it 1) achieve the desired result, 2) strengthen relationships within the
group, and 3) does it respect or improve the decision-making process?
Rick
 
On Sep 18, 2014 6:12 PM, "Eris Weaver" <eris [at] erisweaver.info> wrote:
Thanks, Rick, for the shout-out!
Yes, most cohousing communities use consensus for the plenary decision
making. I highly recommend that groups get TRAINING in consensus, whether it's 
from me or Tree or Laird or whoever else. It takes learning, commitment, and 
practice to use it well. Also, there are several different "flavors" of 
consensus and it is helpful, in the consensus training, to
work out exactly how YOUR community is going to use and interpret several 
components of consensus.
Even groups that use consensus for most big things may use other 
decision-making methods for some kinds of decisions. Consensus, while a 
wonderful, deep, connecting tool, is not the ONLY tool, and is not appropriate 
for every group, need or situation. (This has been one of MY big learnings over 
the years.) To expand on this would take more time than I have at the moment. 
(California folks: I'm doing a consensus & community building workshop in the 
Bay Area soon, contact me back channel if you want more info.)
Eris Weaver, Facilitator & Group Process Consultant
Founding member, FrogSong cohousing in Cotati, CA
eris [at] erisweaver.info . 707-338-8589 . http://www.erisweaver.info
 
Date: Thu, 18 Sep 2014 12:58:14 -0400
 
In terms of process, I would add the value of rounds. We had a decision to make 
this month about the color of a new cork floor. A dots on a posted list showed 
a majority preferring a particular light color. When the proposal came from the 
facilities team to replace the floor in the light color, I agreed to the light 
color but said I wanted to explain my reasons for believing the darker color 
would be better. People had chosen the lighter color because it was exactly 
like what we had but we had also darkened the color of the surrounding wood 
floor and there would be too little contrast. Neither enhanced the look of the 
other.
When I gave my reasons for the dark color. No one or only one or two spoke for 
the lighter color. When we did a "temperature check" a large majority raised 
their hand for the darker color. No one was more surprised than I was.
     The decision was called for the darker color and 4 people, who had said 
nothing in the meeting, stood aside, and then one changed her mind and 
objected. The facilitator said we had to start over. I was angry. They didn't 
participate in the discussion at all and only stood aside and objected when the 
"temperature check" didn't go their way. Not fair.
     After discussion during a break they agreed to the darker color. In the 
evaluation I said we needed a much clearer process in future meetings. The 
non-speakers said they hadn't said anything because they had assumed the dot 
exercise was the decider. They characterized it as "overwhelming."
Then_ the darker color was not available. We were sent the wrong samples. But 
there was another color that was between the two colors that was almost $800 
more. Another decision.
     The facilitator contacted me before the meeting to ask what process I 
thought would be clear. I said if we are going to vote, we have to call it a 
vote and not a temperature check. And if we voted we needed to do a ballot, not 
handraising which is totally subject to influence by friends, etc. He said a 
'temperature check' is not a vote and ballots were too much trouble. I objected 
again. And sent him our bylaws on voting. It would require consent to use a 
majority vote, notice to those not present, and a second meeting.
I suggested the sociocratic process which is a round and the facilitator making 
a judgement call at the end. Then if anyone objected to his call, we would need 
resolution of those objections.
     After the round, the decision was clearly the lighter color, partly 
because of the cost. But the important thing was the tone in the room. In a 
round we could hear why each person wanted one or the other AND we were dealing 
with each other as people who had feelings. Hands raised and ballots don't 
allow you to do that. It's a win-lose contest. A round means listening other's 
feelings as well as being able to express our own.
Because we did a round we also were not focusing on arguments in a back and 
forth way as often happens in discussion based on a queue. And everyone was 
expected to speak up. Even if they only said lighter or darker.
     The room was very calm and I don't think there were any hard feelings when 
the decision was called, and no objections.
     So I highly encourage rounds and to continue doing them. When objections 
are stated, the objectors need to hear everyone's feelings, opinions, 
arguments--whatever you want to call them. A focus on the objectors can 
polarize just like a majority vote.
Sharon
Sharon Villines
Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington DC
 
From: Kevin Wolf <kevinjwolf [at] gmail.com>
Muriel
Agreed. That's why a fallback voting process allows the community to decide
if a block was valid through a vote. Just the threat of a vote the work
needed by the blocker keeps some self-serving blocks from ever occurring
Kevin, N St Cohousing
 
Date: Thu, 18 Sep 2014 23:36:10 -0400
From: Richart Keller <richart.keller [at] gmail.com>
     Thanks for clarifying that.  Even within communities with deeply-seated
common values and a culture of willingness to listen, it takes learning and
practice and patience to find the most suitable ways to deliberate and
reach agreement in different contexts.  And those ways evolve over time
with changes in understanding, needs, personalities and the distribution of
power.
     Building a community, like parenting, takes time and effort, a willingness
to listen, learn, and grow as our understanding and level of maturity
changes.
     While some common agreement on structure of deliberation and
decision-making is essential, that structure needs to allow room for, even
promote, the evolution toward a community based on love and an appreciation
of differences.
     The quality of decisions is one indicator of community success.  I.e.   the
measure of a successful decision is the extent to which it meets 3 tests:
does it 1) achieve the desired result, 2) strengthen relationships within the
group, and 3) does it respect or improve the decision-making process?
Rick
 
From: Mary Ann Clark <drmaryann49 [at] mac.com>
     I would second everything Patti is saying. We also took too many years to 
figure out how to use consensus correctly, allowing one or two people to 
highjack the process (the tyranny of the minority). We also hired Laird to help 
us out but it still took us a while to actually follow through on all the 
required steps to make consensus work especially in the face of a resolute 
blocker.
     Having well-defined common values is essential as is having the fortitude 
to work the process. It also helped us to require that people who stand aside 
or block articulate their objections in light of those values. This has allowed 
us to resolve some issues in the moment. If a block can't be resolved, we 
require that the blocker (and perhaps allies) put together an alternative that 
incorporates what has come before as well as their own ideas for consideration 
at a future meeting.
     Once we figured out what it meant to work the process and resolved to 
really do it, it still took us several messy decisions to actually get good at 
it.
     But there is light at the end of the tunnel. After those few messy 
decisions we have a much more smoothly running process. Consensus is slow. 
There's always the push to just vote and be done with it--which essentially 
means letting the majority overpower the minority. Stick with it and in the end 
you'll have a good process.?
Mary Ann
Manzanita Village where we're waiting for the remnants of the hurricane to 
bring us even more rain
 
On Sep 17, 2014, at 06:27 AM, Patricia Lautner <lautnerp [at] jpcohousing.org> 
wrote:
This is such an exciting time for you! Congratulations.
     At JPCohousing in Boston we use the consensus decision making model for our
plenary meetings. There is one committee that uses sociocracy sometimes
for their meetings but for the community-wide discussions and decisions, we
use consensus.
     A word of caution: We made it through development and into living together
for a total of about 6-8 years before we learned that we were not using the
consensus process 'correctly'. We hired Laird Saub to help us a few years
back and our understanding and use of the consensus process is 10 times
better now.
     Two points of advice: 1) Consensus does not mean everyone is in agreement;
rather, it means everyone gives their permission for a decision to move
forward. 2) Make sure you have a well defined list of common values. This
will help you IMMENSELY as you begin to make decisions together.
Good luck!
Patti
 
On Sep 17, 2014, at 12:05 PM, Mary Ann Clark <drmaryann49 [at] mac.com> wrote:
 
Having well-defined common values is essential as is having the fortitude to 
work the process. It also helped us to require that people who stand aside or 
block articulate their objections in light of those values.
 
One of the problems of defending an objection on the basis of the community's 
values is the vagueness of "values." Values statements are rarely as specific 
as:
 
"Our purpose is to make shoes for casual wear by teenagers who are 
environmentally conscious and have one of several foot abnormalities."
 
That is a tangible purpose. You can argue how to define "environmentally 
conscious" and "abnormalities" but it's still clearer than a "values" statement 
which might be that "all teenagers should be able to participate in the school 
culture of cool shoes."
 
When you try to write a statement that both includes individual values and 
avoids others, it can be very vague.
 
Better, I think, is writing a purpose for this specific proposal or decision. A 
discussion of the purpose should be held before the proposal is written and, if 
possible, have consent. In that discussion is the place to address general 
values if there are clear contradictions or mandates. A purpose defined in 
relation to "this proposal" will be much clearer because it is addressing a 
specific problem or opportunity and the specific actions that will be taken in 
relation to them.
 
The worst, in my opinion, is trying to argue either consent or objections on 
the basis of the "good  of the community." Who is defining "good of the 
community"? The majority.
 
Date: Wed, 17 Sep 2014 10:13:12 -0400
From: Richart Keller <richart.keller [at] gmail.com>
Hi Alan
       Almost all of the roughly 120 cohousing communities use consensus.
       Over the last few years there has been an aggressive effort, most
intensively in this region, to get communities to adopt or switch to
sociocracy.  A few have adopted it in part or as advocated; its application
in cohousing is still too recent to judge its impact.  Also, while there a
number of claims made about its promise,  there are no impartial studies of
its potential applicability or suitability for cohousing.
Consensus is a well-established process of deliberation.  There are a
number of variations as to the approach to decision-making in a consensus
context.
       I am not aware of any evidence-based peer-reviewed studies of the nature,
issues, and needs of cohousing governance.
        Shadowlake cohousing in Blacksburg VA is a good example of one
well-established community which, after careful study of various options,
has developed a modified consensus-based approach.  You might want to
contact them (they have a web site.)
          You might also contact Diane Margolis, Director of the Cohousing 
Research
Network. She lives in Cambridge Cohousing; CRN has a web site which
probably has her contact information.
       You might also contact Eris Weaver, an experienced professional 
facilitator
who lives in FrogSong Cohousing in Cotati, CA.
        The most important thing is to make your choice after taking the time 
for
thoughtful deliberation as to what fits your community's values and goals.
       Good luck.
Will be interested in what you all decide.
Rick Keller, AICP
Pioneer Valley Cohousing

On Tue, Sep 16, 2014 at 10:11 PM, Alan Weiner <weineralan [at] gmail.com    > 
wrote:
We are 3 months into starting a co-housing community in western MA.
We will soon be discussing how we will make group decisions.
I don't think we have to reinvent the wheel on this one.
Consensus and sociocracy seem to be common strategies.
What approach(es) would you strongly recommend for consideration? Which
ones should be avoided?
What are good resources?
Thank you.
Alan Weiner
Village Hill co-housing
Northampton, MA
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