I belong to a cohousing group based in Herefordshire called Mandorla Cohousing. You can find out more about us at http://www.cohousing.org.uk/herefordshire-mandorla-cohousing. We try and take decisions by consensus, both formally and informally. My experience there has made me question the value of and need for consensus, especially in formal consensus procedures. This is the first of several blogs in which I’m going to try and clarify my thinking.
Let’s start with the plusses, which are many. They follow directly from the requirement that everybody consent to a decision. Consensus encourages a group to pay attention and talk to everyone. It encourages people to listen carefully both to the emotional tone and the intellectual content of what others say. It can change the feel of a meeting, to being in a joint search for agreement, rather than being opponents in a competitive struggle. It directs members’ attention to the common good, to the needs of the whole. It increases commitment, because everyone has agreed to everything. And, finally, where members rely on each other, consensus gives expression to an emotional need for unity.
Turning to the minuses, there are various common criticisms of consensus. It needs shared values. It can take a long time – “the democratic process breaks down after two hours [of a meeting]”, said a member of the Mifflin Street Community Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. For the sake of consensus, people may suppress their true views. (Someone involved in the women’s movement talked about “the bottled up egos lost in a mush of niceness”.) This self-censorship, in order to maintain group cohesion, has become known as groupthink. For the sake of consensus, also, disagreements may be blurred or masked, and decisions kept vague. It can give a lot of power to a ‘blocker’ (this is a term used in a formal consensus process). In practice, many organisations that espouse consensus will resort to some form of majority voting if blocks continue. In a situation of deadlock, the only alternative to this is social coercion or exclusion. Last, these difficulties can favour the status quo by making decisions difficult to take (whereas majority rule is neutral in relation to the status quo).
Strangely, though, none of these was my main concern. I’ll tell you what that was in the next blog.