Form an orderly queue (but not a democratic one?)

A few Saturdays ago, Maria and I were at the Springhill Cohousing community facilitating a day on consensus decision-making.

One issue arose a few times in both full group and small group sessions. And I don’t think we addressed it adequately. Other issues dominated – more on those another time, perhaps.

And the issue? How to nurture a real conversation between participants that stays focused on one topic for as long as that topic needs whilst still adhering to notions of democracy and fairness. In this case calling people to speak in the order in which they raise their hand. Conversation versus fairness? Why on earth would these concepts need to be in opposition? Why indeed.

Groups that choose to work by consensus usually have high democracy thresholds. That is, they’re not content that ‘1 person 1 vote’ delivers a really sound and participatory decision. And yet, unwittingly, they can fall into all sorts of practices that limit the depth of democracy and fairness in their consensus process. More to the point many of these practices are adopted precisely because it’s thought they will deepen that democracy and fairness. So what’s going on? Why do practices aimed at supporting participation and equality actually limit it?

“Stacking” is a good example. Stacking is the US term for keeping a list of who is waiting to speak and calling on them to do so in order. It’s not a term I’ve ever warmed to, but UK consensus culture doesn’t have an easy equivalent. Usually “the stack” (the list of who is waiting to speak) is determined by the order in which people raise their hands. Some groups, including Springhill, use coloured cards instead of hands, but the principles the same. I’m sure there are other mechanisms in use too.

The idea is to create a structure that supports everyone to be able to take part. Folk that aren’t able, or are unwilling, to cut across others to have their voice heard, can raise a hand, or card, safe in the knowledge that their voice will be heard as their name reaches the top of the stack. So far so good. That’s fair, right? So what’s wrong with stacking? And more importantly what else can we do?

We’ve written about this before but it warrants more attention.

The problem

Firstly the process doesn’t guarantee inclusion and fairness. There’s still a hierarchy of the quickest, and most confident, to raise their hands – often the same people in every conversation. This may reflect the way they think (quick to form opinions….), their comfort in speaking their mind early in the conversation, and a sense that they have a right to do so (often a product of educational, gender and class privilege). Others, who feel the need to contemplate, reflect, or simply don’t feel they have a right to speak out, for whatever reason, may not raise their hand at all, or in the time allowed for the conversation.

If you keep a list of who wants to speak and analyse it afterwards, as I’ve done on occasion, you’ll almost always note that a small number of people spoke many times and the rest made occasional contributions, and in some case no contribution. So the consensus ideal of fair contribution and full participation isn’t guaranteed by stacking alone.

Secondly it’s an artificial structure that doesn’t reflect the way that we usually communicate. This arose in one of the Springhill practice sessions where there was tension between those who wanted a conversation (with the natural animation and cut and thrust of conversation, including moments in which several people are speaking at once and/or speaking over each other) and those who felt that interruption was an unacceptable form of behaviour in meetings. And being artificial it’s something that newcomers have to learn, which in itself can be a barrier to inclusion – especially as it echoes earlier learning in environments like school, environments in which we didn’t all thrive and don’t all have positive associations.

A third dynamic. and the one Springhill folk complained of, is that sticking rigidly to a list based on who puts up their hand when doesn’t keep the discussion focused. The first person on the list raises one issue, but the second wants to speak to a different aspect of the discussion, and the third yet a different aspect. If the whole discussion is held this way it become fragmented and hard to follow. Not only can that be inefficient, but it’s also a participation issue. A perfectly valid point often gets lost because people are still digesting the point just before it or are distracted by the point that follows. If it’s your point that gets lost, you can feel undervalued and that’s a real obstacle to wanting to participate (as well as a major cause of ‘problem behaviour’ in meetings. Plus it creates a sense that meetings meander, take longer than needed if they were kept focused, which leaves some people turned off. They may withdraw in the meeting, or withdraw from meetings altogether.

The solution

Here’s a few ideas:

Keeping a modified stack. That’s a bit of a mouthful for saying keep a list of who wants to speak but use filters of one kind or another to ‘tweak’ it. You might find yourself saying “I’m aware that Mike, John and Ryan are waiting to speak, but I’m also aware that the last 4 voices have all been male. I’m going to deviate from the list to bring in some female voices”.

I use male/female as shorthand for whatever the dynamic of your group is. It could be long-standing members and newcomers. It could be around class, race, age, or some combination of these factors).

Focusing on one topic at a time. It’s perfectly possible to use a stack and stay on topic. State the issue to be discussed. Invite speakers, let the conversation develop for a short while to draw out what the major issues are, and then focus on them one at a time. Now you’re using the stack differently. Now you’re saying, “OK, so let’s take those issues one at a time. Can I only see hands for those people that want to speak directly to this issue. We’ll come back to the others later in the meeting” or “I’m aware there are other people waiting to speak, but let’s ensure we’ve finished the discussion on this issue first. So if you’re point’s about something else, can you put your hand back down and we’ll come to you later”. Of course the urge to be heard sometimes blurs people’s ability to honestly reflect on whether their point is relevant, and you may need to challenge some speakers “how does that connect to this issue?”. If it doesn’t acknowledge it, but park it for later. If it does acknowledge the connection and hear the point.

Acknowledging conscious or unconscious mainstream culture. The ‘no interruption’ debate highlights this. Interruption is seen as rude in some but not all social groups. It can be a nationality thing, or a class thing, or an education thing. In white middle class circles we prefer one voice at a time (although I’ve noted that we commonly apply the rule to others, whilst willingly deviating from it ourselves. What we’re often really saying is “my voice, uninterrupted”, but I digress). That cultural norm doesn’t apply everywhere and we need to be aware that it might not be the norm of everyone in our meetings. It’s about acknowledging and exploring, and appreciating our diversity. As a facilitator, there may be times when it’s absolutely OK to let (even encourage) the discussion get animated, hear several voices at once and so on. After all it can be a testament to the energy and excitement of the group. There may be other times when we want to ask the group to simmer down so we can hear one voice, especially if that voice is a marginal one that struggles to be heard. It might be as practical as there being people in the meeting who are hearing impaired and can only follow discussions if they are held with one voice at a time.

Group process – servant or master?

At the heart of this is whether our meeting process serves us as a group (and I mean the entire group, not just the mainstream of the group) or whether we serve it. We too often conform to structures, even when they chafe against our personality, our diversity and our values. We need to use structures that serve our values and not vice versa. I don’t think that necessarily means we throw the baby out with the bathwater. More often, for me, it means flexibility. Knowing when to come in and say “things are getting a little heated, and it feels like it’s time for some deeper listening. What would aid that is if we heard just one person at a time, and ensured they were given the time they needed to make their point” and knowing when to let the group have its head.

In short, facilitators, chairs – don’t let the ‘rules’ hinder you in involving the whole group, in welcoming in a diverse range of voices and opinions. Redefine the rules, break the rules. Democracy and fairness aren’t rules. They’re values. And it’s those living values, not some artificial meeting construct that we should facilitate (and participate) to.


You might also want to read our posts ‘Groundrules – empowering or oppressive?’ Part 1 and Part 2