Re: Moving back from concensus?
From: Mac Thomson (
Date: Mon, 14 Dec 2020 10:34:25 -0800 (PST)
Our community, Heartwood Cohousing in rural SW Colorado, have been practicing 
consensus for >20 years. We ran into some trouble a couple years ago with what 
seemed to many of us to be inappropriate blocking of a big community decision.

We set up a social task force to work on it. One of the important things that 
we learned is that a consensus process does not require a 100% unanimous 
consent. That was a revelation to me. Consensus process means that we’re all in 
this together; we value everyone’s voice and welcome it to the circle; we 
strive to meet all the needs presented for the good of the community. If we 
follow that process and make a decision based on a 75% supermajority, we’re 
still using the consensus process.

We ended up using a modified N Street process as reflected in our Decision 
Making and Meetings agreement 
<>. Here’s the 
relevant excerpt:
> If one or more members red cards a proposal, the red card holder(s) is 
> responsible for organizing meetings with the Topic Guide(s) who presented the 
> proposal or their appointed representatives, and any other interested members 
> in a series of solution-oriented, consensus-building meetings. The purpose of 
> the meetings is to work through the concerns and mutually agree on a revised 
> proposal that addresses the same problem as the original blocked proposal. 
> These meetings must take place within two months. It is recommended that four 
> meetings are held, if needed, to find resolution and create a revised 
> proposal.
> If a revised proposal is created within two months of the red card, the 
> revised proposal is brought to the community for consideration as a new 
> proposal.
> If resolution cannot be achieved and no revised proposal is created within 
> two months of the red card, the original blocked proposal is brought to the 
> next available Community Meeting for a Fallback Supermajority Vote. The 
> original blocked proposal passes, resulting in a community decision, if a 
> supermajority of 80% of the members present at the Community Meeting vote for 
> the proposal.
> The two month clock for the Fallback Resolution Process starts running in the 
> case of any of the following:
> Community Meeting ends with an unresolved red card concern in a straw poll.
> Community Meeting ends with an unresolved red card concern in a consensus 
> vote.
> Red card is posted in a posted decision proposal.

I took a bunch of notes when we were researching alternatives. I’ve pasted 
those notes below in case they may be of use to someone.

Heartwood Decision Making 2019
Consensus decision making requires too much responsibility for Heartwood 
members. It requires a high level of:
understanding and skill in our decision making process
emotional intelligence
engagement with topic being considered

Members can be all over the place in these three areas. It is common for 
someone to not be at a high level in all three areas. That creates the 
opportunity for one or a few members to hold too much power in the decision 
making process. That is, the rights they are exercising are much greater than 
the responsibility they are taking.

Cohousing adopted consensus decision making from other intentional communities 
(communes of the 70’s) that are more cohesive (share assets and industry). 
Consensus requires higher level of commitment than is typical in cohousing, or 
in most communities.

“Granted, only a small proportion of groups have the necessary conditions to 
effectively use . . . consensus . . . with unanimity,” wrote the Leftist 
activist authors of Building United Judgment. “Such groups are small, cohesive, 
and cooperative.” They add, “If attempted under the wrong circumstances or 
without a good understanding of the technique, the consensus process can result 
in confusion, disruption, or unrest in a group.”

consensus-with-unanimity requires:
participants must trust each other and value their relationships highly
participants must be trained to participate responsibly
participants must put the best interests of the group before their own
participants must spend lots of group process time to keep their relationships 
open, clear, and healthy

Tim Hartnett: "The blocking power that comes with consensus-with-unanimity 
necessitates that all group members have the ethics and maturity to use this 
power responsibly. This may not be a realistic expectation.”

Our decision making should build our relationships, not damage them. The P2 
decision making process last summer damaged relationships without improving the 

Having criteria for a legitimate blocks doesn’t work well, especially for 
groups with more general visions, that are too subject to interpretation.

Revise our system so that we retain a consensus decision making process 
(everyone’s needs matter, etc.), but not a unanimous vote.

It would be good to research what other communities are using. Diana Leafe 
Christian is a big proponent of this and is probably familiar with 

We could test out a new system by using during the next P2 decision, utilizing 
the Alternative Method Vote to get there.

My Conclusions
keep consensus process (work collaboratively for the good of the group; craft 
proposals to meet all needs as much as possible; give all participants equal 
opportunity to participate, embracing disagreement )
get rid of consensus-with-unanimity or go to some kind of N Street model 
(consensus-with-unanimity, but if someone blocks, they must meet with proposers 
to come up with revised proposal; after X meetings within X weeks, new proposal 
comes to community for unanimous decision or original proposal comes back for 
supermajority vote
if we go this route, the potential downside is that the concerns of the red 
card holder might not be given serious consideration so we need to be super 
diligent in giving them full consideration
test out a new system by during a big upcoming community decision, utilizing 
the Alternative Method Vote to get there
reinstitute consensus trading as a requirement for voting
Formal Consensus (C.T. Butler)
The facilitator asks how the concern is based upon the foundation of the group. 
That is not decided by the red card holder alone; it is determined in 
cooperation with the whole group. The group determines the concern’s 
legitimacy. A concern is legitimate if it is based upon the principles of the 
group and therefore relevant to the whole group.
personal preference vs. range of tolerance
consent vs. consensus: can mean the same thing when people are voting based on 
what’s in the best interest of the community and they are working within their 
range of tolerance rather than personal preference
big component of sociocracy is organization structure and delegation, which we 
already do with our team structure and Teams agreement (responsibilities and 
authorities = aims and domains)
Other Models
(from Busting the Myth that Consensus-with-Unanimity is Good For Communities, 
Part IV, by Diana Leafe Christian, Communities mag #159)

L’Arche de Saint Antione, France
different decision rules for different decisions:
committee meetings: 67%
business meetings: 75%
approve members: 100%
elect directors: 100%
change bylaws: 100%

Kommune Niederkaufungen & Sieben Linden, Germany
(two communities with similar approaches, but not identical)
blocker meets in small group (up to 6 meetings in 2 months) to revise proposal
if revised, new proposal is considered by the plenary
if not revised, plenary decides on original proposal using consensus-minus-three
Busting the Myth that Consensus-with-Unanimity is Good For Communities, Part I
By Diana Leafe Christian

“Consensus . . . allows each person complete power over the group.” —Caroline 
Estes, Communities Directory (FIC, 1991, 1995)

“You’d better watch out! You’d just better watch out!”

The community member rose from her chair as she said this, obviously 
distraught. She had just blocked a proposal in the business meeting of a real 
community I’ll call “Green Meadow.” The facilitator, after conducting several 
go-rounds about its legitimacy, declared the block invalid. “The proposal 
passes,” he said.

The member who blocked seemed stunned. Testing for the legitimacy of a block 
had happened only once before in their 13 years as a community. Theoretically 
they had agreed in the beginning to use the "principled block” process, meaning 
the group determines whether a block is valid, based on whether the proposal 
violates the group’s underlying principles. Unfortunately early members had 
failed to write down this decision. So, while the community gave lip service to 
the idea that they used the "principled block" method, many Green Meadow 
members either didn’t know they had the right to test a block for validity, or 
knew it but were afraid to use it.

This particular Green Meadow member had threatened to block numerous times over 
the years, which of course stopped potential proposals from being presented. It 
also stopped people from calling for consensus on proposals they were 
considering, but knew she was against. And in the previous year — when they 
finally stopped being afraid to test for consensus when they knew someone 
objected — this member had gone ahead and blocked several proposals. Many 
people had privately expressed frustration with her power over the group, 
partly because of her many years of threatening to block, and also in the past 
year, because of her actual blocks.

The phrase “You’d better ''watch out!” was still ringing in the room.

“Excuse me, are you making a threat?” someone asked hesitantly. “What should we 
watch out for?”

“What should you watch . . . out . . . for?” the Green Meadow member asked. She 
paused and looked around the circle. “That you all don’t trip over your own 

Hey . . . wait a sec. They were using consensus decision making, which is 
supposed to create more trust, harmony, and good will in a group — all the 
consensus trainers say so — but instead they had at least one member in high 
distress and everyone else glued to their seats in stunned silence.

Not only that — for years people had been afraid to even bring up proposals 
they feared this member would block.

Never again did the group test a block to see if it was valid, regardless of 
the belief that they use Formal Consensus. Some Green Meadow members certainly 
tried to test blocks over the next few years. But someone would always say, 
“But we can’t prove we ever adopted it!” Or, “But we haven’t agreed on what our 
criteria are!” So anyone who thought a block should be tested for legitimacy 
didn’t feel enough support and ended up dropping it. Relatively frequent 
blocking continued.

Those who formerly made proposals stopped making them (and sometimes withdrew 
from community governance or left altogether). Distrust and conflict increased. 
Morale plummeted. Twenty-five or 30 people used to come to business meetings. 
Now they’re lucky to get eight or nine.

Was Green Meadow an example of consensus working well?

“Consensus” as described in the story above refers to what I now call 

The first part of consensus is the process — the intention to hear from 
everyone in the circle, asking clarifying questions, expressing concerns, and 
modifying and improving the proposal.

The second part is sometimes called the “decision rule” — the percentage of 
agreement needed to pass a proposal. In many communities it is 100 percent or 
“unanimity” or “full consent.” Except for anyone standing aside, everyone in 
the meeting must agree to a proposal — unanimity or full consent — before the 
proposal can pass.

(This distinction between the process and decision rule was first pointed out 
by Sam Kaner, et. al. in the book Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory 
Decision-Making (New Society Publishers, 1996.)

In practice, consensus-with-unanimity means essentially that anyone can block a 
proposal for any reason, and there’s no recourse — such as having criteria for 
a legitimate block, or requiring people who block proposals to co-create a new 
proposal with the advocates of the old one. (By the way, I don’t think having 
criteria for a legitimate block works well for most communities either, as I’ll 
explain in Part II of this article.)

In my experience, consensus-with-unanimity is what most communitarians mean 
when they say “consensus,” and most believe it’s the best thing out there.

Other Decision Rules
There are certainly other decision rules groups can use with the consensus 
process. These include supermajority voting, with 90 percent, 80 percent, 85 
percent, 75 percent, etc. agreement needed to pass the proposal, or first 
trying for unanimity and having a supermajority voting fallback. 
(Consensus-minus-one and consensus-minus-two are also decision rules. However, 
I believe they generate the same kinds of problems as 
consensus-with-unanimity.) An especially effective decision rule is used in the 
N Street Cohousing Method, described later in this article (see “What Works 
Better Instead”, below.).

Falling in Love with Consensus
Consensus-with-unanimity was created in the 1600s by the Quakers because of 
their deeply held values of equality, justice, and fairness, and thus was a 
reaction against autocratic rule and outright tyranny. They had the insight 
that anyone who saw problems in a proposal that the group couldn’t see, even 
after much discussion, should be able to block the proposal in order to protect 
the group. Leftist activist groups and communitarians in the 1960s and ’70s — 
also with deeply held values of equality, justice, and fairness — adopted 
consensus-with-unanimity partly because it seemed so fair and equitable — and 
thus partly as a reaction against not only autocracy, but also majority-rule 
voting, because in the latter a proposal can pass even if up to 49 percent of 
the group is dead-set against it.

Quakers, Leftist activists, and communitarians all understood that 
consensus-with-unanimity forces a group to use a participatory process that 
guarantees inclusion of everyone’s perspectives. It was good for groups. 
“Consensus creates a cooperative dynamic,” wrote C.T. Butler in his book 
Conflict & Consensus (Food Not Bombs Publishing, 1987, 1991). Consensus is “a 
powerful tool for building group unity and strength,” wrote the authors of 
Building United Judgment (Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981).

Consensus-with-unanimity was especially appealing to baby boomers hoping to 
change the world back in the ’60s and ’70s. It was so much better than the 
majority-rule voting we all grew up with. It was as if special, magical gifts 
arrived just for our generation. We had sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. We had 

Appropriate Blocks, Inappropriate Blocks
One of the reasons I believe consensus-with-unanimity does not work well in 
most communities is that people often misunderstand and mis-use the blocking 
privilege. As you probably know, it is appropriate (and desirable) to block if 
the proposal clearly violates the community’s values, underlying principles, or 
Mission and Purpose, and one can clearly show why — or to block because 
implementing the proposal would harm the community in some real, demonstrable 
way, and the person(s) blocking can clearly show why.

Here's an example of an appropriate block from consensus trainer Caroline 
Estes. This proposal was blocked — appropriately — because it violated the 
group’s underlying principles. A member of a peace organization devoted to 
nonviolence blocked a proposal that their organization throw chicken blood from 
a slaughterhouse on the wall of a building belonging to a Wall Street 
investment firm. The idea was to create a visual, dramatic, photo-op way to 
show that the Wall Street company had “blood on its hands” because of its 
investments in weapons manufacturers. The person blocking pointed out that 
passing this proposal would violate the group’s basic principle of nonviolence 
(since defacing the wall with blood would not be a nonviolent action). The 
person blocking could clearly show how the proposal violated the organization’s 

When Consensus-with-Unanimity Does Work
“Granted, only a small proportion of groups have the necessary conditions to 
effectively use . . . consensus . . . with unanimity,” wrote the Leftist 
activist authors of Building United Judgment. “Such groups are small, cohesive, 
and cooperative.” They add, “If attempted under the wrong circumstances or 
without a good understanding of the technique, the consensus process can result 
in confusion, disruption, or unrest in a group.”

Most community-based consensus trainers advise groups not to use consensus 
unless they meet the specific requirements for using it.

“(Consensus is) not appropriate for all situations,” cautions consensus trainer 
Tree Bressen, but works best “for groups that have a shared purpose, explicit 
values, some level of trust and openness to each other, and enough time to work 
with material in depth.” (“Consensus Basics,” website: 

Tim Hartnett, in his book Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making: the CODM Model 
for Facilitating Groups to Widespread Agreement (New Society Publishers, 2010) 
is even more specific. Besides noting that the smaller and more homogeneous the 
group, the easier it is to reach agreement when using consensus-with-unanimity, 
he writes: “participants must trust each other and value their relationships 
highly . . . must be trained to participate responsibly . . . must put the best 
interests of the group before their own.” And they must spend lots of group 
process time to keep their relationships open, clear, and healthy.

In my experience, relatively few intentional communities meet these 

Some have vague, unwritten ideas about shared values rather than explicit, 
written-down shared values. Some communities assume they have a shared common 
purpose, but actually have idealistic, theoretical, and vague Mission and 
Purpose statements that can be interpreted many different ways. Thus they 
experience confusion and conflict when trying to assess whether or not a 
proposal is aligned with their (multiply interpretable) shared common purpose. 
In other communities, designed primarily to be nice places to live where 
members can buy houses or housing units, people may not necessarily be — or 
care about being — cohesive and cooperative, or having sufficient trust or 
openness with one another, or highly valuing their relationships with one 
another. They just want to live in a nice place with nice neighbors (and to 
heck with this touchy-feely stuff). And only a handful of communities require 
all new incoming members to take a consensus training before they get full 
decision-making rights, including the blocking privilege.

Nevertheless — no matter how often consensus trainers caution against it — 
communities everywhere often choose consensus-with-unanimity even though they 
don’t have even the most basic requirements in place. They choose it, 
apparently, because they aren’t aware of these cautions or disregard them 
because consensus-with-unanimity appeals to their aspirations for fairness, 
equality, and a better world.

Threatening to Block and “Premature Proposal Death”
In some communities that use consensus-with-unanimity no one has ever blocked, 
or blocking has occurred only rarely. Yet the problems of too-frequent blocking 
or personal blocking are actually there anyway. This is one of the most 
demoralizing unintended consequences of using consensus-with-unanimity.

This happens when people threaten to block a proposal, either directly (“I’d 
never support that,” or, “I’ll block that proposal!”) or indirectly, by 
indicating disapproval, disdain, or even contempt for a proposal through facial 
expressions, tone of voice, and body language. This can happen even when 
someone is just voicing an idea that isn’t even a proposal yet.

When either of these happens — threatening to block a proposal, or threatening 
to block an idea that isn’t a proposal yet — the community suffers. People drop 
their ideas or proposals completely. Community members don’t get to illuminate 
the issue through discussion and examination. An idea that could benefit the 
community, or could shed light on an important issue, is cast aside before it 
is even considered — dying before it was ever born!

In communities that no longer use consensus-with-unanimity no one has this kind 
of power over other people’s ideas.

I now believe that for many communities consensus-with-unanimity results in 
unintended consequences: discouragement, low morale, and diminished meeting 
attendance. I believe it can create a different kind of power abuse than either 
autocracy or majority-rule voting.

Power-Over . . . Damn!
Tim Hartnett, a community-based consensus facilitator and trainer, and licensed 
family therapist, is the first consensus trainer I know of to say publicly that 
the benefits of using consensus-with-unanimity are often outweighed by its 

“Requiring unanimity,” he writes in Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making, “is 
usually intended to ensure widespread agreement. When unanimity is blocked by a 
small number of people, however, the group actually experiences widespread 
disagreement with the result. This widespread disagreement can have very toxic 
effects on the group dynamic.”

He observes that no matter how well and accurately a group practices 
consensus-with-unanimity, doing so does not ensure unanimous approval of the 
final, modified proposal. And when people block, no matter that we’re supposed 
to assume they have a piece of the truth the rest of us don’t see, we still end 
up with . . . power-over dynamics.

Tim Hartnett points out that blocking in consensus-with-unanimity is often 
considered a way to equally share power in a group. However, giving people 
equal rights to control the group’s ability to make a decision can actually 
create problems with equality. “It necessitates that all group members have the 
ethics and maturity to use this power responsibly,” he writes. “This may not be 
a realistic expectation.” (Whew! Somebody actually said this outloud!)

“True equality may be better secured by a system that ensures that no group 
member ever has the power to individually control the group,” he continues. 
[Emphasis mine.]

“The process allows each person complete power over the group,” Caroline Estes 
cautions. “(When someone blocks) they should also examine themselves closely to 
assure that they are not withholding consensus out of self-interest, bias, 
vengeance, or any other such feeling.” (“Consensus Ingredients,” Communities 
Directory, FIC, 1991, 1995.)

You can see the effects of this power-over dynamic clearly when committee 
members have worked long, hard hours on a proposal and then spent more time and 
energy in a series of whole-group meetings to modify and improve it, and most 
of the community members are looking forward to implementing it. When it is 
blocked by one or two people (for any of the above inappropriate-block reasons) 
do we feel harmony, trust, and connection? On the contrary, we often feel 
heartsick, even devastated. And when this kind of blocking happens often — or 
the threat to block, which usually has the same effect — it can result in even 
more unhappiness, and increased distrust, low morale, ever-dwindling meeting 
attendance . . . and people leaving the community.

Many of us chose consensus-with-unanimity in order to help our community 
thrive, and because we value fairness, mutual respect, trust, compassion, and 

But fairness, mutual respect, trust, compassion, and equality are often not 
what we get. We get conflict instead — and sometimes, gut-wrenching conflict.

This is the “shadow-side” of consensus-with-unanimity that consensus trainers 
don’t often talk about. Yet Leftist activists and the communities movement have 
come up with a name for this: “Tyranny of the Minority.”

Other Consequences of “Tyranny of the Minority”
Here are some other unintended consequences Tim Hartnett points out. I’ve seen 
each of these dynamics too.

People able to endure more conflict may prevail, creating “decision by 
endurance.” Sometimes community members who can endure high amounts of conflict 
and for longer periods of time have a greater chance of prevailing over those 
who can’t bear conflict for long. “OK, I give up! Do whatever you want!” When 
this happens, it is sometimes the ability to endure conflict, rather than the 
ability to seek deeper understanding and to collaborate, that determines 
whether or not and with which modifications a proposal may be passed.

“More obstinate participants may more frequently get their way,” Tim Hartnett 

About two-thirds of the people in Green Meadow community — including all the 
young and most middle-years members — no longer attend community business 
meetings. Having little stomach for the intensity of the power struggles in 
their business meetings (which seem to be about proposals but may actually be 
about different underlying paradigms), their voices are not heard at all.

Disproportionate power to whoever supports the status quo. If most people in a 
community support a proposal to change one or more long-standing policies — the 
status quo — they cannot do so until they convince everyone in the group. If 
one or two people don’t support the proposal (no matter that everyone else 
wants it) the original policies will remain. This gives exceptional power to 
anyone who does not want anything to change. At Green Meadow, most people yearn 
to replace consensus-with-unanimity with a decision-making process that works 
better, but the consistent blockers are against it. Thus they have more power 
than anyone else.

“This differential burden,” Tim Hartnett observes, “is contrary to the 
principle of equality.”

The community may stagnate, unable to change or evolve. When a community 
experiences conflict because people can’t agree, there may be little chance of 
passing new proposals or revising outdated agreements, as noted above. Thus 
whatever the group has already put in place — the status quo — may remain in 
effect for years beyond its actual effectiveness for the group. As at Green 
Meadow, the group may be locked into their original choices for years to come.

Power struggles may drive out some of the group’s most responsible, effective 
members. When people with high levels of personal effectiveness, initiative, 
and leadership make proposals in a community they often expect and require a 
timely response. If there are underlying paradigm-differences in the community, 
or people block for personal reasons, or for subconscious bids for group 
attention, these natural leaders may end up spending a lot of time in 
whole-group meetings processing people’s reluctance or anxieties, or having 
long discussions outside of meetings. This kind of high-initiative person 
usually prefers situations in which their contributions are more easily 
understood, appreciated, and approved in a timely manner so they can get on 
with the project. When their proposed initiatives are slowed or stopped — and 
when this happens repeatedly — they are often too discouraged and frustrated to 
stay, so take their talents elsewhere.

Green Meadow used to have a relatively high number of young men with abundant 
creativity, initiative, and drive who founded cottage industries to provide 
income for themselves and jobs for other members, or created agricultural 
enterprises to provide organic food onsite, or both. They struggled for years 
making proposals which had widespread community appreciation and support, but 
which were blocked nevertheless. For these, and for other, more immediate 
reasons, most have now left.

What Works Better Instead — Three Collaborative, Win-Win Methods
What can communities do?

They can use the consensus process itself but replace unanimity with a 
completely different decision rule, such as the N Street Consensus Method. This 
method, developed by Kevin Wolf, co-founder of N Street Cohousing in Davis, 
California, combines the usual consensus process with a decision-rule method 
that respects the viewpoints and intentions of both the advocates of a proposal 
and those who may block it. Briefly, here’s how it works. Community members 
first seek consensus-with-unanimity. However, if one or more people block the 
proposal, the blocking persons organize a series of solution-oriented meetings 
with one or two proposal advocates to create a new proposal that addresses the 
same issues as the original proposal. The new proposal goes to the next 
meeting, where it probably will pass. If a new proposal is not created, the 
original proposal comes to the next meeting for a 75 percent super-majority 
vote, and it will probably pass. In 25 years at N Street Cohousing this process 
has happened only twice, with two solution-oriented meetings each — that is, 
only four of these small meetings total in 25 years.

Or, communities can replace consensus-with-unanimity with another method 
altogether, such as Sociocracy or Holacracy. Sociocracy, developed in the 
Netherlands in the 1970s, and Holacracy, developed in the US in the early 
2000s, are each whole-systems governance methods which include a 
decision-making process. (The N Street Method is a decision-making process 

In both Sociocracy and Holacracy everyone has a voice in modifying and 
approving proposals and everyone’s consent is required to pass a proposal. 
However, unlike in consensus, decisions can be changed easily, which means 
there is far less pressure to make a “perfect” decision. In both Sociocracy and 
Holacracy decisions need only be “good enough for now” and can easily be 
changed again with experience or new information. This seems to liberate 
energy, optimism, creativity, and freedom to try new things. Both Sociocracy 
and Holacracy work best for communities that have a clear common purpose or aim.

While Sociocracy, Holacracy, and the N Street Method each have a collaborative, 
win/win decision-making process, they do not allow the kinds of power-over 
dynamics that can occur with consensus-with-unanimity. Communities that use 
these methods don’t tend to have the unintended consequences that can occur 
when using consensus-with-unanimity. Rather, these methods tend to generate a 
sense of connection, trust, and well-being in the group.

Future articles in this series will describe each of these methods in more 

And What About Green Meadow Community?
I actually have hope for Green Meadow community. The longer their challenges 
continue — and especially each time a proposal is blocked — the more 
community-wide demoralization intensifies. Fortunately, this “fed-up” energy 
motivates action, and now enough community members (not just the “early 
adopters” who saw these problems years ago) seriously want change.

Increasing numbers of Green Meadow members are curious about other decision 
rules besides unanimity, as well as about other governance systems. Some are 
discussing radical change. For example, some are talking about using a 75 
percent supermajority vote as their decision rule. Others suggest a new process 
for business meetings in which people would nominate themselves and be approved 
by most others before they could participate. Still others imagine coalescing 
into a loose federation of sub-communities, each with its own purpose, budget, 
and governance process, with a whole-community “federal” government tasked only 
to maintain common infrastructure and pay property taxes, etc.

And some, inspired by the Declaration of Independence — which affirms that 
governments can only exist by the consent of the governed — are talking about 
withdrawing their consent that the frequent blockers continue to have governing 
power over everyone else. They’re considering a proposal that the frequent 
blocking members step out of the governance process entirely.

Several members recently presented the case to Green Meadow’s steering 
committee that to remain healthy, intentional communities, like love 
relationships, must periodically “die” and be reborn. To many of its members, 
Green Meadow community seems to be simultaneously in the process of dying . . . 
and of being reborn — in new and far healthier ways.

Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making, Tim Hartnett (New Society Publishers, 2011)
/Is_Consensus_Right_for_Your_Group%3F_Part_I The N Street Consensus Method]
How Lost Valley Community uses Sociocracy (Scroll down to 4th video, 
“ <>”
We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, A Guide to Sociocratic 
Principles and Methods, John Buck and Sharon Villines (2007)
The Consensus Consulting Group

Part II, "Consensus as a 'Type One Error'," in January 2013, will focus on why 
having criteria for a legitimate block and a way to test blocks against it 
doesn’t work well for most communities; the underlying dynamics of 
inappropriate blocks; and the mistaken notion that consensus-with-unanimity 
works well if people would just try harder.

Diana Leafe Christian is author of the books Creating a Life Together: 
Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities and Finding 
Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community, and editor and 
publisher of this newsletter. She lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North 
Carolina, US.

Excerpted from an article in Communities magazine (Summer 2012).
Busting the Myth That Consensus-with-Unanimity Is Good for Communities, Part II
By Diana Leafe Christian

“We’re all sitting here in a cold sweat,” exclaimed one member.

Most people in the room felt apprehensive. The atmosphere was grim.

The conflict in this real community I’ll call “Green Meadow” (first described 
in Part I of this article, Communities #155, Summer 2012) was between two 
community members who had frequently blocked proposals and a roomful of people 
who wanted to pass an Agriculture (Ag) Committee proposal about a community 
site plan for future farms, pastures, and orchards. Passing the proposal would 
mean clearing more of their forest. The two frequently blocking members were 
committed to protecting the community’s land — to protecting the Earth — from 
the human impact of clearing more forest and implementing the proposed 
agricultural site plans.

Community meetings had been increasingly characterized by tension, frustration, 
and over-the-top behavior on both sides of the agriculture issue ever since the 
committee proposed their ag site plan six weeks earlier.

The frequently blocking members seemed desperate, apparently feeling a 
heartfelt obligation to, once again, protect the Earth from fellow community 
members. Those who supported the proposed ag site plan seemed desperate too, 
including committee members who’d spent months assessing and categorizing the 
community’s potential agricultural sites for their probable best agricultural 

People’s demeanor in meetings was at the high-stress end of everyone’s 
spectrum. Courtesy had given way to intensity; easy discussion to speaking 
through gritted teeth.

A few months later, during the three-week, post-meeting review period for 
committee decisions, one of the two chronic blockers retroactively blocked four 
out of five of the Ag Committee’s own decisions. And while this member later 
rescinded her blocks, the relatively frequent blocks of both of these members 
had a devastating effect on the committee. Discouraged and demoralized, they 
stopped meeting for over a year.

It’s been three years since Green Meadow’s “cold sweat” meeting and the 
subsequent blocks of four Agriculture Committee proposals. Growing and raising 
on-site organic food is one of Green Meadow’s explicit goals in its online 
Mission Statement. Yet as a result of these blocks — and because other members 
didn’t know how to respond effectively — the community has never reconsidered 
the proposed agricultural site plan, and no new small agricultural projects, 
pastures, or orchards have been proposed since then.

This kind of no-win situation is why I no longer think that 
consensus-with-unanimity is not only not helpful for most communities, but 
actually harmful. It’s harmful when it results in deadlocks, desperation, and 
heartbreak; in low morale and dwindling meeting attendance; and sometimes, in 
people just giving up and just moving away.

As noted in Part I of this article, I use the term “consensus-with-unanimity” 
for the usual consensus process (agenda, proposals, facilitator, the group 
modifying and improving proposal), coupled with the “decision-rule” of 100 
percent or unanimous agreement required to pass a proposal, not counting 
stand-asides. (The “decision rule” is the percentage of agreement needed to 
pass a proposal.)

When a community has no criteria for what constitutes a legitimate block (see 
below), nor a requirement that those who block a proposal must work with its 
advocates to collaboratively create a new proposal that addresses the same 
issues as the first one, then it has no recourse if someone blocks a proposal. 
With a decision-making method like this, anyone can block a proposal any time 
for any reason.

Consensus advocates say that because in consensus everyone’s agreement is 
required to pass a proposal, the process naturally results in widespread 
agreement, harmony, trust, and a sense of connection among members.

Yet consider the 15-year-old community that still doesn’t have a pet policy 
because a member who has several dogs blocks any proposal to even create an ad 
hoc pet policy committee to draft a proposal. Or the 18-year-old group still 
with no community building because several members blocked a proposal to build 
it due to their personal abhorrence of being in debt—even though the community 
borrowed money to buy their property in the first place. Or the cohousing 
community that has no community labor requirement, no matter that most people 
want it, because a member blocks every proposal to create one, believing that 
if it’s a real community people would contribute voluntarily from the heart.

These communities don’t only have no pet policy, community building, or labor 
requirements. They also have the demoralization and discouragement that results 
when their vision of a congenial, collaborative community is destroyed, over 
and over, as they finally realize that some of their fellow community members 
have the power to stop what everyone else wants, or nearly everyone else wants, 
without the requisite personal maturity and responsibility to handle that power 
wisely—and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Appropriate Blocks                                                              
As noted in Part I, there certainly are appropriate blocks (also sometimes 
called “principled” blocks, “valid” blocks, or “legitimate” blocks). 
Appropriate blocks are usually described by community-based consensus trainers 
as those in which the blocker can clearly demonstrate that if the proposal 
passed it would violate the group’s deeply held values or shared purpose, or 
would otherwise harm the community. (See “Criteria for a Principled Block,” 
below.) Yet at many communities, members have never been taught the difference 
between appropriate and inappropriate blocks, or they have learned this, but no 
community member has the courage to point out that someone’s latest block isn’t 
actually legitimate, but is based on his or her personal preferences or values. 
Thus the group meekly acquiesces to the block —even though many consensus 
trainers caution that blocking is so extreme, and such a nearly “sacred” 
privilege, that it should be used rarely.

Type One Errors and “Work-Arounds”
I believe consensus-with-unanimityas practiced in most communities is itself 
what Permaculturists call a “Type One Design Error.” And having criteria for a 
principled block, as C.T. Butler recommends in his Formal Consensus process, is 
just another ineffective “work-around.”

A Type One Error, as it’s known informally in Permaculture circles, is a basic 
design flaw so fundamental to the whole system that it unleashes a cascade of 
subsequent, smaller errors downstream. My greenhouse was built with a Type One 
Error. With small, ineffectual vents in its end walls, it didn’t have enough 
ventilation, and was far too hot for either plants or people. I couldn’t create 
a new vent across the apex of the roof where greenhouse vents are usually 
located, as this was where the rafters were braced, and doing so would mean 
rebuilding the roof.

I use the term “work-around” to describe the attempts people make to compensate 
for such basic, foundational errors. I tried work-arounds for my greenhouse. I 
kept the door open all day. I cut a long, wide vent along the bottom of the 
front wall. I covered the roof with a tarp in summer. I tried to grow kiwis 
across the roof. Nothing worked: the place was still hotter than Hades. Using a 
vent fan would violate everything I know about Permaculture—using limited 
off-grid power to run a motor to cool a greenhouse that should have been cooled 
naturally by convection. But I could find no inexpensive structural or 
horticultural solution to my Type One Error. I should have just built the 
greenhouse with appropriately sized, properly located vents in the first place! 
(I finally installed a fan, and it’s still too hot.)

Likewise, the Type One Error of using consensus-with-unanimity causes many 
communities to have ongoing, seemingly irresolvable problems.

Many communities attempt various work-arounds to deal with the unintended 
consequences of consensus-with-unanimity. They bring in outside consultants or 
get more or better consensus training. They try to create more effective 
agendas or better proposals. They introduce “process time” in meetings to deal 
with emotional upsets. I think these work-arounds work no better than mine did.

“Criteria for a Principled Block”—Just Another Work-Around
I believe having criteria for a principled block can work well for one-issue 
environmental or political activist groups. Shut down a nuclear power plant in 
your county. Get your local schools to serve organic lunches. Save the redwoods.

However, intentional communities—whether ecovillages, cohousing neighborhoods, 
or other kinds of communities—are not simple one-issue organizations. On the 
contrary, they are complex entities with multiple purposes and needs, both 
physical and non-physical. These include shelter, private or shared ownership 
of land and/or equipment, a place to raise children safely, a place to live 
one’s values, collaborative decision-making, problem-solving, and conflict 
resolution. If the community has an educational mission, it’s also a place to 
offer classes and workshops for others. And if it’s rural, it can also be a 
place to grow and raise food, and create member-owned or community-owned 
cottage industries.

For these reasons, I believe intentional communities are much too complex for 
people to easily see whether a block meets any chosen criteria for legitimacy. 
In an entity as multi-faceted as an intentional community, it’s much more 
difficult to know whether a proposal does or doesn’t violate its mission and 
purpose, because there’s so much room for interpretation. Trying to test 
whether a block is valid or not—trying to determine whether a proposal meets 
the test for harming the community, or not being aligned with its purpose—is 
too murky. And if the community has no agreed-upon criteria for a legitimate 
block, the process of testing the block itself could trigger conflict.

What’s the Problem at Green Meadow?
One of the requirements for a group to use consensus at all—especially when 
practiced as consensus-with-unanimity, and especially when there no is recourse 
— is to have a clearly agreed-upon shared purpose. This is the first thing I 
learned in my first consensus workshop years ago. Yet, most communities’ 
Mission and Purpose documents are vague, ambiguous, and likely to be 
interpreted multiple different ways.

I have observed, and Tim Hartnett (author of Consensus-Oriented 
Decision-Making) has also observed, at least three reasons people may block 
proposals inappropriately: (1) the blocking person interprets the community’s 
stated purpose differently than many, or most, other community members; (2) a 
proposal violates a member’s personal values rather than the community’s 
agreed-upon shared values; (3) the blocker has a (subconscious) wish to gain 
attention, or otherwise to express some painful-but-suppressed emotional issue.

To me, Green Meadow’s situation demonstrates all three reasons for 
inappropriate blocks. First, it seems as if three different sets of members 
live in three different paradigms about what the community is for.
          (A) Some members seem to believe Green Meadow’s purpose is to create 
a rural agrarian village in which some members grow and raise much of the 
community’s food or create cottage industries providing jobs on-site. (They 
don’t mind that others organize emotional processing meetings, but don’t tend 
to participate in them.)
          (B) Others seem to believe the purpose is to be a spiritually and 
emotionally rich group that practices whole-community emotional processing. 
(They don’t mind that some members want to grow and raise food and start 
cottage industries.)
          (C) A few members seem to believe the purpose is to protect the Earth 
from human impact (and so must monitor carefully any proposals about 
village-building or food-growing in terms of the degree of their potential 
human impact).

Second, it seems that there is little knowledge at Green Meadow that it’s not a 
legitimate consensus practice to block because of personal, rather than 
community-held values. Members have blocked because of someone’s personal 
distaste for the insurance industry, devotion to ecofeminism, abhorrence for 
borrowing money, or disdain for on-site small cottage industries and their need 
to expand enough to stay in business.

Third, blocking at Green Meadow seems sometimes to involve personal emotional 
issues. Tim Hartnett writes, “raising objections to a proposal is an easy way 
to become the focus of group attention…their agreement may be courted with both 
attention and other forms of appeasement.”

One Green Meadow member wrote the following account: "It seems that the most 
innovative, creative, forward-moving members have left the community because a 
few folks, mostly older women with a lot of time on their hands, need attention 
and tend to get it by blocking proposals."

It’s certainly true that older women get overlooked in the larger culture. And 
all of us need healing. Yet this group in our community seems to abuse the 
power that consensus gives them. They like a slow and emotional process. How I 
tend to hear it is, “Either slow down and pay attention to us or you won’t get 
your proposal passed.” Other folks (often younger, but not always) have felt 
stopped by this energy to the point of extreme frustration and withdrawal. Many 
of the most passionate and service-oriented folks have actually left the 
community. The ones who are left don’t seem to have the courage or confidence 
to actually create anything innovative. So we get the worst of both worlds — 
overly controlling older members and apathetic and discouraged younger folks.

A well-known professional consensus facilitator came to help us, only to give 
these women even more attention. The theory was, the more attention we give 
them, the more their tension will loosen. But in my opinion the facilitator 
brought more of the same problem we already had. And sure enough, even with the 
facilitator’s group process, they were still not satisfied.

Baby Boomers and Consensus
Despite these problems, and even the oft-expressed support among consensus 
trainers for having criteria for legitimate blocks and other forms of recourse, 
many baby boomer communitarians still seem devoted—perhaps compulsively 
attached—to consensus-with-unanimity. They seem to hold the belief that the 
promised harmony, cohesiveness, and trust will manifest in community if only 
its members would just spend enough time exploring everyone’s emotions and the 
nuances of people’s differing opinions.

However, advocating more emotional processing in meetings to deal with the 
kinds of dilemmas Green Meadow is experiencing can itself create conflict. In 
most communities, many members, especially younger ones, can’t bear such 
meetings. They may believe that therapy is fine, but should be voluntary, and 
conducted on one’s own time. Or they may not want to witness the emotional 
upsets of people twice and three times their age. They’d rather these folks 
behaved as wise elders—not people their parents’ or grandparents’ age who are 
expressing emotional upset about what seems like the current proposal, but in 
fact may be long-held personal issues they haven’t healed yet.

Younger community members may also not participate in these meetings because 
they can’t afford the time. They don’t have retirement income or trust funds. 
On the contrary, they usually work full-time. In rural communities they may 
make ends meet with several different part-time jobs — not to mention raising 
children too. In contrast, baby boomers can often afford the time because they 
may be living on retirement incomes or trust funds.

Baby Boomers and Trauma
I’ve got a theory about this. I think a relatively high percentage of people 
born in the baby boomer generation, like me (born between 1946-1964), 
experienced more trauma at birth and in childhood trauma than subsequent 
generations. I’ve read that early trauma, unless healed by effective therapy 
later, shows up in an adult as a relatively high amount of emotional distress 
and reactivity, a relatively high need for attention, and a relatively high 
tendency to try to control the immediate environment in order to meet a 
probably unconscious and highly charged unmet need from childhood for safety 
and security.

Hospital birth and infant care practices in the 1940s and subsequent decades 
were exceptionally traumatic for mothers and babies. They included huge levels 
of muscle-deadening drugs (natural birth practices were not yet widely known), 
forceps, Cesareans, cutting of the umbilical cord prematurely and slapping the 
infants to suddenly force lung breathing, and removing infants from mothers at 
birth and isolating them in another room. Breastfeeding after birth was not 
even an option; infants received neither colostrum nor human connection, but 
were bottle-fed with manufactured infant formula by nurses on a rigid hospital 
schedule. Mothers held their infants for only a few minutes a day. All natural 
sources of safety, security, connection, trust, and empowerment were removed as 
soon as a baby was born. Psychologists theorize that these infants probably 
felt terrified, desperate, and powerless. (And I speculate that, in terms of 
encouraging healthy emotional development, this is a another Type One Error.)

Flash forward 50 or 60 years. If someone born in these circumstances has not 
gotten effective psychotherapy or other healing, they may have exceptionally 
high needs for safety and security. They may have (subconsciously) adopted a 
strategy of trying to control their immediate environment in order to 
(subconsciously) feel safe enough to get through the day. And 
consensus-with-unanimity allows — no, invites — people to control their 
immediate environment through the power to block. I think people sometimes 
block inappropriately simply because they can.

As Caroline Estes notes, “consensus…allows each person complete power over the 
group.” What? We give people who are likely to have a more than usual amount of 
unresolved trauma — and who may not have healed it yet and are possibly 
compensating with strong control tendencies — “complete power over the group”? 
Living in a community that practices consensus-with-unanimity may be the first 
time any of these folks ever had social permission to place limits; to stop 
people; to say the ”No!” they couldn’t say as a terrorized infant.

So what should we do, kick out all the baby boomers? (Even though, of course, 
they founded most of our communities?) I think we should respect and appreciate 
our boomers, and change our governance system instead. Adopt a decision-making 
and governance process that doesn’t allow anyone to stop proposals because of 
conscious or unconscious personal preferences or personal values, no matter if 
they give us protect-the-community reasons. Instead, let’s shift to a 
governance process that doesn’t just encourage collaboration and cooperation, 
but requires it. Which is exactly what Sociocracy, Holacracy, and the N Street 
Consensus Method do, and why I now recommend them. (See “Resources,” below.)

A Shift at Green Meadow?
Fortunately, increasing numbers of Green Meadow members are now questioning 
whether consensus-with-unanimity actually serves them. A combination of 
demoralization, low meeting attendance, and people packing their bags and 
leaving — along with recent presentations about alternative decision-making 
methods — is apparently having an effect.

Here’s what the 2012 president of Green Meadow declared to his small advisory 
group a few months ago: “Listen, let’s face it. Consensus-with-unanimity is all 
but dead at Green Meadow. It’ll be replaced by something else by the end of the 

Last I heard, they’re considering Sociocracy.

Diana Leafe Christian, author of the books Creating a Life Together and Finding 
Community, is publisher of Ecovillages, a free online newsletter about 
ecovillages worldwide ( <>), and a 
columnist for Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) ( 
<>). She is a trainer in GEN’s Ecovillage Design 
Education (EDE) program, and speaks at conferences, offers consultations, and 
leads workshops internationally. See 

Future articles in the series will describe the “N Street Consensus Method” in 
more detail, the “Four Decision Options/Choose Your Committee Members” method 
of Ecovillage Sieben Linden, Systemic Consensus, Tim Hartnett’s 
“Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making” method, Sociocracy, and Holacracy (and why 
they work especially well in intentional communities), and politically 
incorrect tips for adopting a method that may work better than 
consensus-with-unanimity, even if older members are devoted to it.

● On Conflict and Consensus, C.T. Butler, available for free download on his 
website: <>
● Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making, Tim Hartnett (New Society Publishers, 
2011): <>
N Street Consensus Method:
● “Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part I,” in Ecovillages newsletter: <> (click 
“Articles Alphabetically” to find it)
● We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, A Guide to Sociocratic 
Principles and Methods, by John Buck and Sharon Villines (2007): <>
● SocioNet online discussion: <>
● Governance Alive, author and consultant John Buck: 
● Holacracy One: <>
Sidebar: Four to Six Blocks in a Lifetime
● Only block a few times in one’s lifetime at most, and “only after a sleepless 
night and the shedding of tears.”—Quakers, cited in a handout on the website of 
consensus trainer Tree Bressen
● Community-based consensus trainer Caroline Estes recommends only three to 
four blocks in a lifetime. She says that in her 50+ years of facilitating she 
has seen legitimate blocks less than a dozen times.
● Community-based consensus trainer Bea Briggs recommends only three to six 
blocks in a lifetime. She says that her 20+ years of facilitating she has seen 
only one legitimate block.

Busting the Myth That Consensus-with-Unanimity Is Good for Communities, Part III
Consensus and the Burden of Added Process: Are there Easier Ways to Make 
By Diana Leafe Christian

“I need to say something,” the consensus trainer interjected. She and other 
visiting consensus advocates were facilitating a meeting in a real community 
I’ll call Green Meadow. “I can see that one of your biggest problems is trust. 
You’re talking about all these different things you don’t agree on, but you 
really need to work on trusting each other better.”
     “Get on the stack!” roared one community member, annoyed by the 
interruption. A few others glared as well. They believed not trusting each 
other was a consequence of their problems, not a cause—one of the unfortunate 
results of their members’ different interpretations of their community purpose. 
Some members consistently blocked proposals most others wanted in order to 
protect what they saw as the community’s mission. Widespread distrust also 
resulted from what was seen as disruptive behaviors in meetings by a few 
people, some of whom were also the consistent blockers.
     The annoyed meeting participants wanted to spend less meeting time with 
the blockers, not more. They’d already done too much emotional processing over 
the years with no visible results. They were “processed out.” They wanted 
instead to use a decision-making method that didn’t allow a few members so much 
power over the group. They believed trust could return only if people could 
feel hope for the community again.
     Others in the meeting, however, agreed completely with the visiting 
trainer and appreciated her insights. Clearly there was massive distrust at 
Green Meadow. Clearly the group needed to spend even more emotional process 
time than they already had. They needed to really hear each other—to deeply 
understand each others’ choices, values, and emotional wounds. This, they 
hoped, would rebuild trust.
     Sharp differences had also surfaced when the community first considered 
the outside facilitators’ offer of low-cost facilitation for whatever problems 
the community wanted to work on. “I’m not going to those meetings,” snorted one 
farmer. “Me neither,” growled another. Discouraged by the community’s three 
consistent blockers (who had already blocked or tried to block most 
agricultural proposals), and no longer having the patience to do more 
processing, which had so far yielded neither mutual understanding nor 
resolution, few of the farmers or entrepreneurs planned to attend. (See 
“Busting the Myth,” Part II, Communities #156, Fall 2012.)
     Green Meadow chose its agricultural conflicts as the challenge requiring 
most help, and asked two members to communicate this to the visiting 
facilitators. “Please, no more emotional processing,” begged the 
representatives. They instead wanted the facilitators to ask Green Meadow’s 
most frequent blocker to make a proposal for an agricultural policy she did 
want, so the visiting facilitators could facilitate a community discussion 
about it.
     However, the facilitators didn’t do this. Instead, they hosted three 
special meetings over the weekend devoted to...more emotional processing. Their 
purpose, they said, was to explore the beliefs, values, and emotional distress 
of anyone who felt upset about the community’s agricultural dilemma. Only half 
the community, mostly older members, ended up participating in these process 
meetings. Most farmers, entrepreneurs, and younger members stayed away.
    Afterwards the community rift seemed worse. And the frequently blocking 
member—for whose sole benefit the meetings seemed designed—sat through each one 
grim-faced and silent, reporting later that she’d been miserable the whole time.

Two Versions of Community Reality?
     This tale illustrates what I suspect are at least two different 
assumptions about the amount of process time people are willing to put into 
community. And these two assumptions, I suspect, are themselves based on 
deeper, possibly unconscious, assumptions about why people join community in 
the first place.
    Assumption A: We’re willing to put in a lot of emotional process time 
because the main reason most of us live in community is for a deeper connection 
with others. Processing emotions in a group is one way to feel connected.
    Assumption B: We don’t want much process time. Most of us live in community 
for neighborliness, sustainability/ecological values, and/or changing the wider 
culture. Some of us may want more emotional closeness with others (and are fine 
with a lot of process time) but most of us don’t.

Here are some examples of this latter view, first from Oz Ragland, former 
Executive Director of Cohousing Association of the US:
    While theoretically I’d enjoy a deeper connection with all other community 
members, in actual practice and given the limits of time, I only seek deeper 
connections with some—my closer friends. Besides, process time in meetings 
seems a poor way to grow closer compared to working together, sharing meals, 
and generally having fun together.
Regardless of the advice from consensus trainers to do as much emotional 
processing as is needed when we get stuck, I don’t personally want to live in a 
therapeutic environment requiring long hours of meeting process. I want to 
choose when I do processing rather than having it forced on us because we use 
Before Songaia Cohousing was built we spent many hours processing decisions in 
meetings. However, for some years now, we’ve used a decision-board rather than 
taking all proposals to consensus meetings, and it’s working well. We’re 
currently exploring ways to apply ideas from Sociocracy and the N Street model 
as we improve our process.

Lois Arkin, founder, Los Angeles Eco-Village:
    I believe that what seems to me like “endless processing” with people you 
simply want to be congenial neighbors with, lowers the quality of community 
life, at least for me. Living in community with people who share some of your 
values does not guarantee close friends. I want to know my neighbors can be 
depended to help and cooperate in case of emergency, wave and give a friendly 
smile in passing, loan ingredients for a recipe, or just hang out and we don’t 
have a large enough budget of time, money, and energy for the kind of group 
processing that consensus requires.
     I believe the facilitators visiting Green Meadow and the community members 
who attended their process meetings held Assumption A about community—“We live 
in community for relationship and connection”—and therefore also believed that 
a fairly high amount of emotional processing was necessary and desirable for a 
well-functioning community.
     And I think the community members who boycotted the meetings held 
Assumption B—they joined community for other reasons, including mostly (in 
their case) to create a sustainable village. And they therefore also believed 
that a fairly high level of emotional processing was not only unnecessary, but 

“Added Process Overhead”—Unrealistic for Most Communities?
     If I’m correct about these two assumptions, it may explain why 
communitarians who hold Assumption A believe consensus decision-making, which 
often requires huge amounts of process time, helps communities—and why those 
who hold Assumption B, like me, believe that using consensus often harms 
     As you may know, many community-based consensus trainers advocate 
consensus because they believe it creates more harmony, trust, and connection 
than majority-rule voting or top-down leadership.
     I now believe consensus—as practiced in most intentional communities— may 
create more harmony, trust, and connection than if they used majority-rule 
voting (because of “tyranny of the majority”) or than if they used 
one-leader-decides (because of such concentrated power), but using consensus 
can also lead to disharmony, distrust, lower morale, and dwindling meeting 
attendance (because of “tyranny of the minority”).
     In contrast, three newer methods—Sociocracy, Holacracy, and the N Street 
Consensus Method—do seem to foster more community harmony and well-being.
     In this article series I’ve criticized what I call 
“consensus-with-unanimity”— when everyone but those standing-aside must support 
the proposal for it to pass, with no recourse if someone blocks. In contrast, 
community-based consensus trainers who’ve responded to these articles do 
advocate recourse for blocking, such as (1) having criteria for a valid block 
(and a way to test it), or (2) requiring meetings between blockers and proposal 
advocates to create a new version of the blocked proposal.
     However, in this article I’m using the term “consensus” to include when 
it’s used with or without recourse if someone blocks, because I’m questioning 
whether the rather strict and specific requirements for a group to even use 
consensus in the first place—including its “added process overhead”—are 
realistic for most groups.

Pre-1980s Communities and the Hunger for More Relationship
    For me, the light bulb went on when I read the following observations by 
community-based consensus trainer Laird Schaub in his responses to this article 
series (italics are mine):
• “the hunger for more relationship in one’s life is one of the key reasons 
most people are drawn to community living.”
• “the fundamental challenge of cooperative groups...(is) to disagree about 
non-trivial matters and have the experience bring the group closer.”
• “I see what we’re attempting in community (resolving non-trivial differences 
in a fundamentally different way than happens in the mainstream) to be one of 
the crucial things that intentional communities have to offer the wider 
• [using a decision-making method other than consensus may be] “learning to 
settle for members being less involved in one another’s lives.”
• “I am saddened by the choice to accept less when you’d rather have more.”
• “I find it far more inspiring to offer hope for getting...better 
relationships than advising folks to downsize their dreams.”
     Laird’s comments helped me realize there may be different underlying 
assumptions about community, relative to the quest for more relationship, 
because I and many other communitarians I know have a different view.
     I agree that some people do join communities mostly to experience deeper 
relationships and are willing to put in the time required. But I don’t think 
most people join for this reason. Most cohousers and ecovillagers I know seem 
to have other reasons for living in community.
(See sidebar, “So Why Do Cohousers and Ecovillagers Live in Community.”
    In fact, I suspect that people who might have what I’m calling Assumption  
A joined intentional communities formed in the 1980s and earlier. And I suspect 
Assumption B folks mostly live in communities founded after the 1980s, and this 
includes cohousers and most ecovillagers.
Some people join communities mostly to experience deeper relationships, but I 
don’t think most people join for this reason.
  Please note that the two assumptions are not opposite or widely divergent, 
but just different points on a continuum. Each places different degrees of 
emphasis on the importance of wanting more relationship, more connection, and 
more “community” in one’s life. And thus each represents different degrees of 
willingness to spend many hours processing emotions in meetings. And each 
assumption has implications, I believe, for whether slogging through consensus 
decision-making and its associated process time is worth it, or whether trying 
less time-consuming but equally fair methods—such as Sociocracy, Holacracy, or 
the N Street Consensus Method—may appeal more.

New Hope at Green Meadow
After nearly 18 years of conflict, heartbreak, and demoralization (see “Busting 
the Myth,” Parts I and II, Communities #155 and #156, Summer and Fall 2012)—and 
with increasing numbers of members clamoring for a new decision-making 
method—in the fall of 2012 Green Meadow modified its consensus process.
     To choose incoming new members they retained their previous method: 
consensus-with-unanimity with no recourse if someone blocked.
     For all other proposals except annual election of officers (see below) 
they added criteria for a valid block and a way to test blocks against that 
criteria (i.e., a block is declared invalid if 85 percent of members in the 
meeting say it’s invalid). For any remaining blocks that have been declared 
valid, they use an adaptation of the N Street Consensus Method. (See “The N 
Street Consensus Method,” Communities #157, Winter 2012.) To deal with these 
blocks they organize up to three solution-oriented meetings in which blockers 
and one or two proposal advocates are asked to co-create a new proposal to 
address the same issues as the first one. If they cannot do this, the original 
proposal comes back to the next meeting. While the group originally sought an 
85 percent supermajority vote to approve any original proposals that came back, 
their most-frequent blocker only agreed not to block the whole proposal (as 
everyone feared she might) only if this part was changed to 
consensus-minus-one, so they did.
    To choose officers in their annual meeting, Green Meadow adapted a 
technique from Sociocracy: a transparent and collaborative series of 
“go-rounds” to nominate and choose people for these roles. In their annual 
meeting in December 2012, community members cautiously tried this out. Many 
were nervous; in previous years these elections were characterized by 
hostility, contempt, and outright character assassination. However, the meeting 
went well. Each person around the circle described how the skills, experience, 
and relevant qualities of the person they nominated qualified that person for 
the officer role. In subsequent go-rounds people asked questions of the 
candidates, with potential solutions for various people’s concerns built into 
the questions. Hearing all these solutions and getting a sense of what the most 
number of people most wanted to do seemed to generate a sense of confidence and 
good will. The officers were elected with people feeling good about it, and 
feeling good about each other.
And, maybe, feeling some trust again.

Diana Leafe Christian, author of the books Creating a Life Together and Find- 
ing Community, is publisher of Ecovillages, a free online newsletter about 
ecovil- lages worldwide ( <>). She 
is a trainer in GEN’s Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) program, and speaks at 
conferences, offers consultations, and leads workshops internationally. See <>.

So Why Do Cohousers and Ecovillagers Join Community?
Here’s why I think cohousers and ecovillagers choose community, based on 
conversations with many of these folks over the years:
• Friendly relationships with neighbors—the old-fashioned neighborliness and 
helpfulness of former generations— instead of the more isolated, anonymous 
experience of mainstream culture. Feeling good about spending more time 
listening to each other’s differing views, helping make sure people feel heard, 
and devoting process time to resolving differences amicably than people do in 
mainstream culture. But not valuing this so much that they’re willing to spend 
the amount of process time in meetings that Laird and other consensus trainers 
often recommend.
• More safety for raising children and in elder years; having the assurance, 
comfort, and ease of finding help nearby when needed.
• The satisfaction of working with friends and neighbors on community projects 
and achieving shared community goals.
• (For ecovillagers and many cohousers) Living sustainability values in daily 
life; creating a smaller ecological footprint than is usually possible in 
mainstream life.
• (For ecovillagers) Learning and living ecological, social, and economic 
sustainability, and then inspiring and teaching others through onsite workshops 
and tours.
Sociocracy Summary by Scott Kuster 190414

Sociocracy has been adopted by several Cohousing communities – often (if not 
primarily) after bad experiences with poorly-functioning consensus 
decision-making.  What we heard (from several communities), was that people 
blocking initiatives indefinitely - with no interest in or ability to engage in 
productive dialogue, in a community that had no process to ensure resolution, 
was the final impetus.

Sociocracy is not new; it was originally conceived in the late 1800s as a 
theoretical alternative to hierarchical political systems.  In 1926, it was 
made practical in a school and anti-war organizations in the Netherlands.  
Since then, it has been adopted by many businesses, as well as community and 
religious organizations.  Since the 1990s, it has been applied to cohousing 
communities.  Currently, there are at least 9 cohousing communities employing 
Sociocracy for their governance.

Generally, there are 4 main characteristics & principles that define 
Sociocracy, or as some call it, dynamic governance:

Characteristic 1: Decentralized decision-making based on representative, 
semi-autonomous and interdependent management circles.  These are in many ways, 
similar to our “teams,” with the primary difference being that Sociocracy 
employs more delegation of authority to the different circles, and employs 
representation more than direct participation in broader decisions – basically 
favoring efficiency over direct and more broad participation.

A.      The precise structure will change according to the need, and the skills 
and interests of the members – hence the term “dynamic governance.”
B.      Power is distributed with the work, so that these circles make as many 
decisions as possible related to their domain and activities.  Only decisions 
that involve the domains of other circles (like shared equipment, or spending 
beyond the agreed-upon budget) are made in broader circles.
(These 2 previous characteristics are similar to our current system.  The 
following characteristics are significantly different.)
C.      The domains of circles are discreet, and range from specific (like our 
current teams), to broad (such as the “General Circle, focusing on the overall 
operation of teams [like our Steering team]), and the “Top Circle,” responsible 
for long-term planning).
D.     The relationship between circles is known as Circular Hierarchy, or 
“double-linking.”  Each circle has, in addition to a facilitator and secretary, 
both a leader and a delegate.  The leader is a member of the next higher circle 
in addition to leading the specific (lower-level) circle.  The delegate is a 
circle member selected by that circle’s membership to represent them in the 
next-higher circle.  Hence, “double-linking.”  The delegate and the team leader 
together represent the interests of the team in the next broader circle, but 
the leader is also cognizant of and operating in support of the interests of 
next higher circle of which they are a member.  In this way, our plenary 
Community Meetings (unless focused on long-term planning), would consist only 
of delegates and leaders from the various teams.  Thus, each individual is 
likely directly involved in fewer, and more discreet areas of operation, but 
still quite active.
E.      It is important to note that the various circles (and leaders) do not 
have authority over any other.  The GC, for instance, functions more as a forum 
for sharing of information and coordination between and among teams.
F.       Success of this delegatory framework requires: trust.   As Jennifer 
Rau, of Sociocracy For All, stated, “That trust has to be earned.  Trust can be 
earned through transparency by keeping the wider organizational community 
informed of upcoming issues and past decisions….  Trust can be earned by 
gathering feedback from those that will be affected by a policy before a 
decision is made and when reviewing a past decision.  Trust can be earned by 
quality work.  When trust is achieved, then the organization runs like a 
machine with many small, self-controlled gears (as opposed to a machine 
controlled by one big gear in the center).”  It also requires quite a bit of 
responsibility, as members are acting FOR others – for the community.

Characteristic 2: All circle decisions require consent of all circle members.  
Consent is different from consensus.  It is based on answers to 3 questions:
A.      Does the proposal support the circle and its members in accomplishing 
the circle’s aims?
B.      Does anyone have a reasoned or paramount objection to the proposal?
C.      Is the proposal within everyone’s range of tolerance?  Or can I live 
with it?

Characteristic 3: Circle members are selected and approved by the community.  
This is usually based upon both the interest of those offering (or requesting) 
to be part of a circle, and the expertise that person brings to the task.  The 
performance of team members is also reviewed periodically for the purposes of 
growth and accountability.

Characteristic 4: Decision-making has 4 phases, each designed to insure that 
all voices are entertained, that all potential challenges are explored, and 
that the best possible decisions are ultimately made.
A.      Picture forming: Brainstorming of all the dimensions of an issue or 
proposed goal.
B.      Proposal shaping: A proposal is presented, followed by a round of 
clarifying questions, and a round of reactions.  If there are objections, there 
is a free-form discussion, focused on “How might we solve this?”  This could 
lead to the facilitator or original proposer amending the proposal, or an Ad 
Hoc Helping Circle becoming involved (like a HW task force).
C.      Consent round: Based on the 3 questions noted above, are people OK with 
the proposal – willing to agree with it and abide by it.
D.     Review process: This is scheduled into each proposal and decision.  It 
may lead simply to further awareness, or a reconsideration of the original 
decision.  Thus, for many decisions, people are able to base their approval on 
“Am I willing to give this a try?”

When I spoke with representatives of Pioneer Valley cohousing, who use 
Sociocracy, they said that the have significantly less discord and blocking, 
because when a concern or objection is raised, that objection ceases to be the 
sole responsibility of the person who raised it.  Rather the entire circle 
explores the objection in order to both better understand it, and use all minds 
to find potential solutions.

Further information on Sociocracy can be found at:
· <>
· <>
· <>

Mac Thomson

Heartwood Cohousing
Southwest Colorado

"Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than 
any other one thing."
       - Abraham Lincoln

> On Dec 13, 2020, at 12:43 PM, R Philip Dowds via Cohousing-L <cohousing-l 
> [at]> wrote:
> Our formally-defined, written-out consensus process has a minimum of four 
> stages:  Proposal first appearance at plenary, with questions and 
> suggestions; first plenary attempt at solidarity (all objections resolved); 
> individual and small group solution discovery meetings, if there are 
> unresolved objections; and then a third and final appearance at plenary, with 
> objection resolution as the primary aim, but with an option to call for a 
> super-majority vote.  So officially, it’s a maximum two month, three plenary 
> process.
> But and however:  The proponents are in charge of scheduling all meetings and 
> maybe calling the vote (which does not happen until and unless the proponents 
> feel like they’ve given it their best shot).  So in practice, some things 
> will take longer, and involve many more meetings.  For instance, we recently 
> did the consensus process for a highly controversial capital reserve savings 
> plan.  Proponents met weekly for more than a year (sorry, it’s true), and the 
> issue appeared in plenary maybe six different times.  The proponents might 
> have forced the issue to vote much sooner than that … but we all knew that 
> even if the vote were successful (no guarantee), extreme community trauma 
> would be a very high price to pay for a roof replacement fund.
> For lesser issues and proposals, we’re pretty good at getting the job done 
> with three plenaries, sometimes even two.
> Please keep in mind that consensus is a process, not an outcome.  That is, 
> consensus is a series of steps performed in an environment of attitudes.  
> This process may lead to unanimity, and that’s always desired — but 
> additionally, if done well, it can conclude with a vote that need not damage 
> personal relations or community cohesion.  Unresolved disagreements can be a 
> problem.  But so can be paralysis.
> Thanks,
> Philip Dowds
> Cornerstone Village Cohousing
> Cambridge, MA 02140
> mobile: 617.460.4549
> email:   rphilipdowds [at] <mailto:rphilipdowds [at]>
>> On Dec 13, 2020, at 12:39 PM, Lyn Deardorff <lynpeachtree [at] 
>> <mailto:lynpeachtree [at]>> wrote:
>> To Philip Dowds,
>> Thanks for the informative answer.  May I ask at what point you invoked the 
>> supermajority rule?  After a certain number of meetings?  Do you have a 
>> particular ruling on this?
>> Thanks (again)!
>> Lyn Deardorff
>> Sent from Mail <> for Windows 
>> 10
>> From: R Philip Dowds via Cohousing-L <mailto:cohousing-l [at]>
>> Sent: Sunday, December 13, 2020 9:18 AM
>> To: Cohousing-L <mailto:cohousing-l [at]>
>> Cc: R Philip Dowds <mailto:rphilipdowds [at]>
>> Subject: Re: [C-L]_ Moving back from concensus?
>> I agree that consensus in cohousing works best when everyone is on board 
>> with a viable formal process and an expectation of compromise.  It also 
>> helps to implement a structure of delegation such that only major issues and 
>> decisions arrive at plenary / full circle, and only after they’ve been 
>> well-baked by smaller groups.
>> Even so, at Cornerstone, we now allow for a well-defined consensus process 
>> to conclude with one of two outcomes: (1) Ideally, with resolution of all 
>> objections, and solidarity/unanimity on the (revised and evolved) proposal; 
>> or, if solidarity is unfindable even after an arduous good-father effort, 
>> then (2) a super-majority vote (75% affirmation threshold).
>> So have we abandoned consensus?  What’s interesting is that now we find it’s 
>> actually easier to attain consensus agreement.  We almost never go to 
>> super-majority vote.  I think what’s happened is that those who are most in 
>> opposition discover that their own needs and interests are better served by 
>> participation in a consensus agreement than by adamant “blocking” that leads 
>> to a voting outcome.  Compromise works better, I think, when everyone has a 
>> good reason to compromise.
>> Thanks,
>> Philip Dowds
>> Cornerstone Village Cohousing
>> Cambridge, MA 02140
>> mobile: 617.460.4549
>> email:   rphilipdowds [at] <mailto:rphilipdowds [at]> 
>> <mailto:rphilipdowds [at] <mailto:rphilipdowds [at]>>
>>> On Dec 13, 2020, at 9:47 AM, Martie Weatherly <mhweatherly [at] 
>>> <mailto:mhweatherly [at]> <mailto:mhweatherly 
>>> [at] <mailto:mhweatherly [at]>>> wrote:
>>> Re moving back from consensus: I suggest that you investigate what problems 
>>> you are having with consensus. It is not easy and it is different from the 
>>> competitive and individualistic culture we live in. But it does work if the 
>>> community is educated in how to use it. 
>>> In our twenty year old community, we have more challenges now than we did 
>>> at the beginning, mainly because we have not kept up with educating our 
>>> newer people and re-educating ourselves. There is nothing like taking two 
>>> emotional opposing points of view and working out a solution that works for 
>>> everyone. It is possible and it is more important than ever that we learn 
>>> how to work things out. together. 
>>> Martie Weatherly
>>> Liberty Village
>>> Frederick MD
>>> Health and Wellness Coach
>>> Facilitation Coach
>>> <> < 
>>> <>>
>>> -----Original Message-----
>>>> From: Lyn Deardorff <lynpeachtree [at] <mailto:lynpeachtree 
>>>> [at]> <mailto:lynpeachtree [at] 
>>>> <mailto:lynpeachtree [at]>>>
>>>> Sent: Dec 12, 2020 8:11 PM
>>>> To: "cohousing-l [at] <mailto:cohousing-l [at] 
>>>>> <mailto:cohousing-l [at] <mailto:cohousing-l 
>>>> [at]>>" <cohousing-l [at] <mailto:cohousing-l 
>>>> [at]> <mailto:cohousing-l [at] 
>>>> <mailto:cohousing-l [at]>>>
>>>> Subject: [C-L]_ Moving back from concensus?
>>>> Hi Everyone,
>>>> I would like to hear from Co-Housing communities that have in any way 
>>>> moved back from Consensus.  Did you adopt a Hybrid Consensus (move to a 
>>>> supermajority vote for example) or even abandoning it all together for a 
>>>> more traditional majority vote?
>>>> If you wish to reply privately, understood:  lynpeachtree [at] 
>>>> <mailto:lynpeachtree [at]> <mailto:lynpeachtree [at] 
>>>> <mailto:lynpeachtree [at]>>
>>>> Thanks so much for any sharing you can do!
>>>> Lyn Deardorff 
>>>> Sand River Co-Housing
>>>> 404 377 8010
>>>> lynpeachtree [at] <mailto:lynpeachtree [at]> 
>>>> <mailto:lynpeachtree [at] <mailto:lynpeachtree [at] 
>>>> _________________________________________________________________
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