When not to use consensus…

In her book Truth or Dare, Starhawk wrote some oft-quoted and wise words on When not to use consensus. They stand re-quoting, and I’ve had the cheek to add a few thoughts:

When there is no group in mind: A group thinking process cannot work effectively unless the group is cohesive enough to generate shared attitudes and perceptions. When deep divisions exist within a group’s bonding over their individual desires, consensus becomes and exercise in frustration.

When there are no good choices: Consensus process can help a group find the best possible solution to a problem, but it is not an effective way to make an either-or choice between evils, for members will never be able to agree which is worse. If the group has to choose between being shot and hung, flip a coin. When a group gets bogged down trying to make a decision, stop for a moment and consider: Are we blocked because we are given an intolerable situation? Are we being given the illusion, but not the reality, of choice? Might our most empowering act be to refuse to participate in this farce?

When they can see the whites of your eyes In emergencies, in situations where urgent and immediate action is necessary, appointing a temporary leader may be the wisest course of action.

When the issue is trivial: I have known groups to devote half and hour to trying to decide by consensus whether to spend forty minutes or a full hour at lunch. Remember consensus is a thinking process – where there is nothing to think about, flip a coin.

When the group has insufficient information: When you’re lost in the hills, and no one knows the way home, you cannot figure out how to get there by consensus. Send out scouts. Ask: Do we have the information we need to solve this problem? Can we get it?

Starhawk ‘Truth or Dare’. © Miriam Simos, published by Harper and Row

Of course you can appoint your leaders and decide to send out your scouts by consensus

I’d add:

When there’s no decision to take: Not because all the options are poor ones but because there’s genuinely no need for collective agreement on an issue. Let me illustrate with the example I’m thinking of, which I’ve seen a few times. A group of activists gather to plan and take action. Perhaps some have come as organised affinity groups. Perhaps others are there as individuals. They discuss tactics and identify potential targets and as the meeting progresses ideas emerge and energy gathers around them. There comes a stage where a range of ideas for action have been put forward and people need to decide what action they want to take, if any. But it’s not a collective decision, just a personal one – “where do I want to put my energy? what do I feel will be most effective.”

There’s a strange dynamic that can emerge in groups using consensus whereby they start to believe that full group sign-off is needed for everything. So when an affinity group states that they have an idea for action that they are planning to take forwards, and invites others to join in, there can be a response along the lines of “but we haven’t agreed we’re doing that particular action yet”. The action hasn’t been ‘authorised’ by the group. Hmmm – given that consensus enshrines autonomy (and the choice to pool our autonomy for greater effectiveness), this is a tad ironic.

Secondly and more seriously there’s a situation when a group isn’t willing or able to grow. I never thought I’d hear myself suggesting that grassroots groups shouldn’t use consensus (at least not yet), but here I am saying that very thing. Consensus is an aspirational process. We talk in terms of equality, challenging all oppression, including the margins of a group, building the best possible proposal for the group, and more. Visionary stuff. How many groups are genuinely capable of doing that all of the time or any of the time? Not many that I’ve encountered. So we’re constantly working towards consensus, ideally in a virtuous circle: the experience of our attempts at a consensual decision-making process helps us to deepen our mutual understanding and our common ground, making us more likely to reach consensus next time around.

And if we ever get there? Well then there’s a particularly controversial decision to be made, or we’re having an off day, or we have new members that have changed the dynamic of the group, and momentarily we’re  a step back, striving for consensus again.

Many groups use consensus as a process but struggle to grow the values of consensus within the group – competition, lack of empathy, distrust, intolerance of difference are rife and all make reaching consensus harder. This cycle is vicious not virtuous – distrust deepens, intolerance intensifies and before long you don’t so much have the conditions for consensus as for dysfunction. Of course this isn’t true of every individual within the group, but it can be the prevalent group dynamic.

Why is this different to “no group mind”? Because in many such groups there’s plenty of potential for group mind – shared values, a shared political analysis, shared aims or tactics – but the group is focused on difference and where they converge can seem smaller and weaker than where they diverge. Maybe they focus on difference and simultaneously fail to appreciate it as a strength, fail to respect other opinions or views, and fail to synthesise ways forward that engage the full group. At which point of course they’re no longer doing consensus. Maybe they focus on individual values over shared and agreed values. This is usually reflected in the process, which breaks down under a pressure of blocks. At a recent meeting of UK climate activists there was a stand-off of blocks and “anti-blocks”.

But where next for groups ideologically committed to anti-hierarchical methods of decision-making? There are alternatives to consensus which could be described as near-consensus techniques. I’ve never given them a lot of time, being a bit of a consensus purist. But recently I’ve begun to think that they might be better than consensus with no room for growth. If we claim to use consensus but don’t embody its values, wouldn’t it be more honest to accept that we don’t use consensus and choose a near-consensus alternative until we’ve cultivated the values we need? The danger is that, otherwise, we teach a generation of activists that consensus is a dysfunctional, painful and divisive process.

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