The Consensus Process

When I first heard about decision-making by consensus, I couldn’t figure out how something like that would work in a large group.  I assumed it meant that everyone had to agree on every decision, which seems totally implausible.  Experiencing it for myself changed my mind.  

Making decisions by consensus doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees on everything.  Rather, it is a formal process that allows differing viewpoints to be heard and considered when making proposals that affect the group.  We gather information about how group members feel about a given topic, and the information is then consolidated into a coherent proposal that the group can discuss and decide to adopt.  Everyone doesn’t get their way all of the time, but a good proposal is a compromise that captures the overall tone of the group while also addressing individual concerns and needs.

Richmond Cohousing has adopted a consensus decision making process that contains several specific steps.

  1. Any individual or committee can propose a topic for discussion.  These topics can be anything that may be of concern or interest to the group, ranging from pets to the group budget.  The topic is presented at a plenary (full group) meeting for an initial structured discussion.  Typically we use a “diverge-converge” approach, dividing into small groups and discussing the issue and then sharing that discussion with the larger group.  
  2. The individual or committee then creates a first written draft of a proposal related to the topic, taking into account what was shared during the discussion. We have a template that makes it easy to write a proposal, making sure it includes evaluation criteria and possible alternatives.
  3. When the written proposal is ready, it is presented to the group at another plenary for discussion.  The group gives feedback at the meeting and a deadline is set for giving additional feedback after the meeting.  
  4. The responsible party revises the proposal, taking into consideration the group’s feedback, and later presents it back to the group for a vote.  If the proposal passes, we adopt it, but, if the proposal is blocked or fails, it goes back for another round of revisions.

We don’t operate as a simple democracy, though!  Voting is done with the “5 Fingers” method.  Each full member household has 5 votes that they can cast for the proposal, with 1 “finger” being minimum support of the policy (e.g. I can tolerate it but won’t help) and 5 being full support.  The total number of votes cast must exceed 75% of the total possible votes without any blocks, so a proposal must have enthusiastic support in order to pass.  A single member can block a decision if they believe that it is not in the best interest of the whole group to adopt the proposal.  But, anyone who blocks is then responsible for working to find a mutually agreeable solution for the entire group.

Decision Making Card used by Richmond Cohousing (see references below)

For those of us who are used to the types of decision-making used in our government, many workplaces, and other venues, consensus decision-making can take some getting used to.  It’s a whole new way of thinking about group decisions and dynamics.  Now that we have been using our decision-making process for about a year, most of the members have become familiar with it and have found it to work very well so far.  We have used it to agree on policies such as a pet policy, a common meal policy, and a shared values statement.  

Through my own experience with this decision-making process, I have been trying out modified consensus approaches in other settings in my personal life, including work and at home.  It has been interesting to present a challenge to the status quo which usually tells us “the majority rules” or “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”.  Traditional approaches may work in some settings, but they can also create alienation and disempowerment which have their own consequences.

Richmond Cohousing seeks to respect and consider the voices of all of its members in making decisions that affect the group.  If you are like I was and are skeptical of the idea of consensus decision-making, I invite you to read more about consensus and to consider the benefits of living in a community where decisions are made with equanimity, compassion, and consideration for all.

Thanks to L for both writing about consensus and being a willing and strong facilitator to guide our group through the decision making process. And we’ve got a lot of decisions up ahead (land purchase! architectural style! paint color!)!


Decision Card text adapted from: Don Wells Consulting, with thanks to the Partnership for Health, Inc.

Decision Card graphics adapted from:

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