The Special Place of Blocking in Consensus

For many groups working by consensus “blocking” is a dirty word. To help rehabilitate the block in consensus, over the next couple of weeks we’re reproducing 3 of Tree Bressen’s articles on the role of the block in consensus decision-making. Enjoy!

The Special Place of Blocking in Consensus

Funny as it may seem, people who teach consensus process are not in consensus on what constitutes an appropriate block.
Standards vary widely, and i’d be willing to bet it’s a disagreement that goes back many years before the 1981 publication of the classic manual Building United Judgment. That book describes how the collective producing it almost broke up over their inability to come to agreement on how to address blocking. In their case, the breakthrough came when the authors agreed to include multiple viewpoints in the text, each set off in its own box.

That solution met the needs of that particular situation. But what are practicing groups to do who need clarity in order to move ahead? My aim here is to describe different standards in use, explain roles and functions that blocking can serve, and leave it up to you to decide.

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First, let’s be clear on the areas of agreement, which are substantial. I have seen no source of information on consensus that allows for blocking based on individual preference. That is, all the trainers and books agree that blocks must be based on a member’s perception of group needs rather than on something they want for themselves. This is a key point on blocking and the one most often overlooked by newcomers to the process. Consensus is not extreme voting—it’s a genuinely different method that requires participants to adopt a bigger perspective and focus on group needs.

Second, it’s essential that any blocks which emerge are fully understood as to what the blocker’s concern is and why they feel that way. Accessing that knowledge will assist a meeting in discerning whether to continue further work on the proposal or to lay it down.

Third, in a well-functioning group, blocks shouldn’t happen very often. Consensus guru Caroline Estes is known for saying that a person should only block up to half a dozen times in their lifetime, total, for all the groups they participate in. If blocking is happening often, the group needs more training in consensus process.

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C.T. Butler, in his Formal Consensus booklet, sets a high bar. He maintains that the entire group must agree that a block is based in a group principle or the group’s well-being in order for the block to hold. This standard is a reasonable response to the context that C.T.’s methodology was developed in: political groups who had to deal with government infiltrators and provocateurs.

In contrast, communitarian Laird Schaub says that the blocker only needs to be able to convince at least one other member of the group that the block is based in an explicitly held group value. (The other person doesn’t need to feel the same way as the blocker, they just need to admit the validity of the analysis.)

Using that model, blocks are most likely to arise either when two different values that a group holds come into conflict with each other (e.g., ecological sustainability vs. affordability when constructing a community building) or when there are different interpretations of an existing common value. As Laird puts it: “I urge a community to not be dismayed by discovering that different members have different spins on what a common value means. You weren’t really thinking you all thought the same way on everything, were you? I didn’t think so. So expect differences to arise.

The standard used by Quaker elder Caroline Estes is that one can only block when the outcome for the group would be otherwise catastrophic. Not just bad, but disastrously bad. She also says that it’s not okay for one person to prevent the group from taking risks, so long as the group is making an informed choice.

As an example, she tells a story of Pacific Yearly Meeting which, during the Vietnam War, wanted to send a ship bearing humanitarian aid to the North Vietnamese. Such an act fell under the official definition of treason, but the Quakers have long been a determined, pacifist people, and energy was building in support. Near the end of the meeting, one person stood to speak. This person pointed out that technically such an act would put in a liable position not only all the Friends in the room, but all the members of Pacific Yearly Meeting, many of whom were not in attendance at the meeting that day to give their assent to such a drastic risk. The person sat down, and the clerk (facilitator) announced, “Friends, we will now adjourn for lunch.”

The correctness of the person’s action was clear, as there was widespread agreement that it wouldn’t have been fair to subject absent members to severe legal penalties. Over lunch, the people in support of the proposal got together and went forward with their plans to charter the ship—just not in the official name of Pacific Yearly Meeting. Note that the strong desire to act did find an outlet, and one that truly addressed the concern which had been raised.

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However, the story above brings up an interesting question. Why didn’t the person object sooner? Could they not get a turn to speak? Did the concern not occur to them until the eleventh hour? It seems to me that if they’d spoken up earlier, the rest of the group would have seen the wisdom of the statement, and rather than ending at a block, the whole group would have shifted to a search for new solutions.

In fact I’ve sometimes suggested this as a filter to people who are wondering whether a block is appropriate; i tell them that if there’s not a sense of resonance from others who hear the block, then it’s probably based in self-interest rather than the group’s needs, and therefore the blocker should likely stand aside instead. In that sense appropriate blocks cease to exist, because they result in a shift in group insight which converts them from barriers held by one person into concerns to be integrated by the whole.

However, blocks also serve as a safety valve in the system. I once worked with a land trust that reported a high frequency of blocks. As i inquired further, i discovered that in their process blocking was the only way to say, “I need more time for discussion on this item before we make a decision.” I encouraged the group not to rush so much, and to include an option in their decision-making for “I have some concerns and would like to dialogue more” that would feel different and more positive than blocking, thus reserving blocking for catastrophic-level concerns that emerge after substantial discussion.
While we all wish for good process with people who listen fully to each other, there are a lot of real groups out there that aren’t operating that way. For those groups with weak process, blocking is the way to ensure that if someone is being railroaded, they have a way to stop the train.

On the other hand, the blocking option is much more likely to be invoked by assertive personalities who can resist peer pressure from the group, and sometimes these are the “problem” members of the community.

That’s why teacher Rob Sandelin advocates a voting fallback, so that one member can’t exercise a “tyranny of the minority” over the group. If someone knows they can be outvoted, Rob thinks they’ll be more likely to act cooperatively. Other trainers, however, raise the concern that groups with voting fallbacks may avoid the hard work of coming to consensus. I’ve been happy to see that cohousing communities, which all have voting fallbacks in their bylaws due to requirements arising from conventional bank financing, rarely if ever invoke them in practice.

N Street Cohousing in Davis, California has another safety mechanism in place to protect the integrity of the consensus process. Part of their standard for blocking is that the person who blocks must meet multiple times with the people who made the proposal in order to try to craft something that will meet all the needs and concerns. If this requirement is not met, then the block doesn’t count and the decision can proceed. That policy is a way of codifying the need for anyone who is considering blocking a decision to work constructively on ways to resolve their concerns, which is an essential part of making consensus work.

When teaching consensus i tend to de-emphasize blocking, focusing on the process as “the power to listen” rather than “the power to block.” However, as a key feature that distinguishes consensus from majority voting, it’s critical to recognize the place of blocking in the system.

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Tree Bressen is a skilled group facilitator serving a wide variety of organizations.  Her gifts include elegant process design, holding space for tough conversations, and using good process to achieve excellent product.  Her original training comes from the graduate school of communal living, working with groups using full consensus decision-making.  She founded the collaborative that produced the Group Works cards, a distillation of core wisdom in the field of facilitation.  Practicing on a gift economy basis since 2004, she also maintains a website with extensive free resources.