Consensus and cohousing

I spent Friday in the company of 17 folk from 6 cohousing projects in the southern half of Wales and England. We came together for a 1 day consensus decision-making workshop that I was delivering for the UK Cohousing Network.

Those of us who do a lot of work with the activist community can sometimes forget that it’s not the only hotbed of radical democracy. Consensus seems to be the assumed decision-making process for many (most?) cohousing projects. In some ways this is odd, as it’s certainly not the assumed norm for co-operative businesses. Most rules for co-ops assume majority voting. What makes co-operative living different to co-operative working, I wonder?

Whatever the answer to that question, there was no doubt that these cohousers were curious, committed and keen to share their wealth of experience in group decision-making and group dynamics. As is the Rhizome preference we focused on the state of mind that is consensus rather than just the mechanics of the process. I’ve been playing with a few activities that help support exploration of empathy and connection. I trialled a new activity to give us insight into the tension between personal values and shared group values (between the stand aside and the block). These seemed to work well, especially the latter, thanks to the volunteer that shared her story with us.

Of course not everything worked that well – one of the practice roleplays needs a rethink. Maybe the scenario I used needs overhauling and more detail adding, or maybe it needs to go altogether. It’s hard to say – one participant astutely pointed out on their evaluation form that whilst the activity itself didn’t feel like it worked well, it might have played a role in paving the way for the activity that followed, which did work well. Sadly this workshop wasn’t co-facilitated so I don’t have the benefit of a co-facilitator’s wisdom in debriefing the session.

And I’m aware that there was more to be done to equalise the voices in the group. As a group we had conversations about this – that sometimes everyone gets to speak, but that doesn’t mean they all get heard equally. I could have done more to support the group in modelling that dynamic.

There was an immense amount of experience in the room, and it’s always humbling to work in that environment. There were those who have spent years immersed in Quaker Business Method as well as others that have used consensus decision-making in various groups at various times over many years. In many ways it felt as if just bringing them together to talk and share was the most useful contribution. The fact I was there to structure some specific learning was a minor detail (and some might say even an obstacle!).

There was a lot of energy in the group at the end of the day, which I take to be a good sign. Their evaluations were very affirming, though they didn’t steer clear of also confirming what I suspected about the practice roleplay, for which I thank them.