Consensus: Balancing Action and Discernment, the Voice of the Many and the Few

Troy Cohousing community has been around for since 2007 (reflections on living at Troy). We operate on a modified consensus model. The goal of our process is to balance timely action and discernment, honoring the voices of the community in 2 ways: (1) by hearing all pieces of the truth spoken by each person (minority opinions and dissenters included), and (2) by honoring the views of the majority.

From 2007 until September, 2013, we have never had a proposal blocked. But, a recent proposal (to install woodstoves) has elicited strong convictions both pro and con. So, for the first time, we have people willing to block a proposal. Because of how much time has passed since we first received training, because our original process training was more about facilitation and running a good meeting than consensus per se, and because we’ve never had a block before, we found ourselves trying to gain clarity in the midst of a disagreement rather than prior to it. While that’s unfortunate, we have already benefited from our existing process by becoming much more educated about woodstoves than previously and, because of dissatisfaction and confusion with the process, by energizing many members of our community to clarify and modify our process to improve it.

What follows are comments from different books about consensus and they speak to the importance of understanding what a block should be used for.

“Consensus is a cooperative process in which all group members develop and agree to support a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. In consensus, the input of every member is carefully considered and there is a good faith effort to address all legitimate concerns…it is not a unanimous decision in which all group members’ personal preferences are satisfied.” (p. 4, Consensus through Conversation: How to Achieve High-Commitment Decisions by Larry Dressler)

“In any group process there is a possibility that [an individual member] may derail the decision process. Preestablished ground rules, strong facilitation, and a clear distinction between legitimate and nonlegitimate ‘blocks’ of a decision are esssential to prevent this from happening.” (p. 12, Consensus through Conversation: How to Achieve High-Commitment Decisions by Larry Dressler)

“Ironically, many cohousing groups wishing to promote community and the common good choose unanimous voting (wrongfully called “consensus”) for most of their membership decisions and inflict upon themselves many of the worst aspects of individualism…True consensus is the most inclusive form of decision-making. Unlike unanimity, it is the group that decides whether to honor an individual dissenter. The dissenting voice has the right to be heard but not to veto and the responsibility to accept the will of the group when a dissent is not accepted. In every consensus decision-making opportunity, each member has three choices: (1) Affirm the decision; (2) Step aside and agree not to impede implementation, or (3) Request that the group delay implementation of an action until you can make a case for why it is detrimental to the welfare of the whole group…Before choosing consensus as a decision-making option, because of the skill level and emotional flexibility required, the group may find it useful to make decisions by a super majority vote of three-quarters.” (“Decision-making” by Tom Moench, in The Cohousing Handbook: Building a Place for Community, p. 30-31)

Excerpts from Diana Leafe Christian, from Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities

“Blocking the proposal stops it from being adopted, at least for the time being. It is not used for personal reasons, or because someone doesn’t like how the decision will affect them personally. ‘Blocking is a serious matter’, writes consensus teacher Bea Briggs, ‘to be done only when one truly believes that the pending proposal, if adopted, would violate the morals, ethics, or safety of the whole group.'” (p. 57)

“Consensus if often about giving permission to go ahead, even if you are concerned about the outcome.” (p. 59)

“A trained group knows blocking is used only when someone’s ‘piece of the truth’ shows them something important the rest of the group hasn’t seen. One uses this privilege after a time of earnest, objective, soul-searching. Not understanding the blocking privilege is what can make pseudo-consensus dangerous. A whole group can be held hostage to such tyranny.” (p. 61)


“Most cohousing groups try to use consensus as much as possible, but fall back on a majority or two-thirds vote when time pressures require a prompt decision. Some decisions may also be delegated to committees.” (Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, p. 161)

My conclusions from this expert opinion are pretty simple:

First, a block should be honored IF (1) the block helps reveal a new piece of the truth that the community has not yet digested (and then only to ensure that the truth is heard), or (2) the community agrees that the block is supportive and consistent with their vision and mission.

Second, the main purpose of a block is to ensure full discussion, to hear everyone’s piece of the truth. Integral to consensus is the goal of achieving the right balance between the majority honoring the voice of dissent and dissenters honoring the voice of the community, a balance between action and discernment.

Thus, a block is actually more akin to how our community has used objections – if someone objects, they do so within 2 weeks of a proposal being voted on, and then agrees to engage in discussion with the relevant committee at 3 of their meetings. The proposal then returns to the community for another discussion and vote. If full discussion has occurred, a block at this point is not appropriate unless the community feels it is consistent with the community vision.

Future Considerations

The wood stove proposal has inspired and energized our community to clarify and evolve our process so it fits our needs as a community. What future changes might be considered?

Speeding up the process. There has been dissatisfaction about how long proposals take to be approved, providing a disincentive for those who might want to propose something: “Who needs all that work?!” It will be interesting to see how and whether our community tries to tilt the balance more toward timely action. In the excerpted passages above, there is the suggestion of a fall-back of a super-majority when needed. Perhaps that is something we will consider.

Email. It is worth thinking about what role email or a community listserve should play in making community discussions or decisions. I have been involved in several groups where there seems to be an almost unmentioned assumption that email should be a forum equal to meetings for getting business done. However, email is a relatively impoverished medium of communication, without body language, tone of voice, or the ability to interrupt or clarify. Email chains can get so long and multi-branched that it is almost impossible to keep track of it all.

Getting Skills & Knowing Ourselves. There is much to be said about what Tom Moench only alludes to when he mentions “skill level and emotional flexibility.” These skills start at personal awareness of our own issues, buttons and patterns, non-reactivity, and skillful communication. As those involved in a romantic relationship can attest, the steps required for skillfully speaking one’s truth when there is disagreement and the presence of unpleasant emotion are taxing to employ even with one other person. Imagine how much more complex this becomes with a whole community. This is especially true given the fact that our culture, as a generalization, focuses on avoidance strategies for situations involving unpleasant emotion (e.g., distraction, self-medication, “otherizing” and dismissing someone, etc.). These strategies do work sometimes, especially in the short-term, but they are fragile, often do not allow much of the truth to be expressed, and are characterized by silence and violence. This post discusses a 4 quadrant approach to understanding when conversations become difficult and suggests that intimacy strategies are needed to complement the avoidance strategies we are already so expert in.

My own conclusion after years of living in a community with consensus is that consensus requires skills that most people do not possess. Specifically, most people cannot skillfully disagree (see this article for more). And, in any case, I’m not sure consensus is as important as a culture of listening to each other. Were I to start a community, I would advocate for two stages for decision making: (1) Discussion ends when a super-majority agree that everyone has been heard (not necessarily agreed with), (2) Majority vote after that.

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