About This Newsletter What is an Ecovillage? Ecovillage Resources Diana Leafe Christian, Editor

Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part II

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More on how the most number of people can get the most of what they want, most of the time.

By Diana Leafe Christian

In warm weather Sieben Linden members meet in their amphitheater.
The consensus method practiced by N Street Cohousing in Davis, California uses a 75 percent voting fallback. But this only happens if, after a series of small-group meetings between the blocking person and advocates of the proposal, they cannot create a new mutually agreeable proposal. (See Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part I).

N Street has only needed to use this small-group meeting method twice in 20 years! Thus they've never gone to a 75 percent vote. And the N Street members I met with in August, 2008 said they like and appreciate their decision-making process.

As I see it, N Street's form of consensus seems ideal for communities hamstrung by one or more people blocking too much.

A Different Problem at Sieben Linden

A few years ago Ecovillage Sieben Linden near Poppau, Germany replaced their consensus process with a new method they developed — not because people blocked too much, but because they didn't!

According to Sieben Linden member Kosha Anja Joubert, too many people were silent when they didn't like a proposal because they didn't want to stop others from having what they wanted. “Lukewarm” is how she describes their consensus decisions. “We developed a wish for more outspokenness and clarity,” she wrote in Beyond You and Me (Permanent Publications, 2007), the GEN/Gaia Education book on the social aspects of ecovillages. (See Review: Beyond You and Me this issue.)

How Sieben Linden’s Four-Option Method Works

Two-thirds of the members must choose ”fully positive” for a proposal to pass. (Here, a meeting of the 2008 GEN-Europe General Assembly held at Sieben Linden.)
Sieben Linden members have four options when a facilitator calls for a decision:
  1. Fully positive.
  2. Not fully positive, but I’ll support the proposal.
  3. I don’t support it, but I’ll stand aside.
  4. I’m blocking it.

For a proposal to pass, two-thirds, that is, 66 percent, of the members present must be fully positive.

If two-thirds are not fully positive yet no one blocks, the proposal is set aside. It may be brought up again in the future.

When Someone Blocks

Someone who blocks must organize a series of small-group meetings with proposal proponents. (Another meeting at the 2008 GEN-Europe General Assembly at Sieben Linden.)
If someone does block, the proposal is put on hold for two weeks while the blocking person tries to find at least one other person to also support the block. If this happens, the proposal is considered blocked. If not — no one else supports the block — the proposal is considered passed. (Thus, having to find a second person to support the block functions like consensus-minus-one.)

If the proposal is blocked, the two blocking people have until the next whole-group meeting four to six weeks later to meet with others to craft a new proposal that addresses the same issue.

“The person who sees the proposal as enough of a problem to block it must then be part of the solution,” Kosha said.

Sieben Linden uses the four-option/two-thirds voting fallback method only in whole-group meetings, although not in committees, which decide by consensus.

Who This Helps

This four-choice method, Kosha says, seems to help those who want to express their lack of full support for the proposal but not block it outright.

I asked Kosha whether this method also helps those who might otherwise have blocked a proposal, but now don't need to block because they have two other, less extreme options. She said she thinks that this may be so.

“It all boils down to trust.”

A night meeting of the GEN-Europe General Assembly.
Even though this decision-making method helps more Sieben Linden members get more of what they want more of the time, sometimes there are still problems, Kosha said. Because Sieben Linden members have a wide diversity of views and practices, they have quite consciously set up committees with members who are diverse in their values and opinions. In this way their committees function like a representative democracy. Committee members work long and hard to create proposals that will be agreeable to their widely diverse membership, and, as noted, make committee decisions by full consensus. But sometimes a committee’s proposal to the whole-group meeting can be misunderstood, delayed, or stopped.

This happens when people in the whole-group meeting don't fully understand – or trust – what the committees are doing. “Do they read the committee minutes first?” I asked. I was going by what happens at Earthaven. I assumed that if most Sieben Linden members read committee minutes, they’d know the deep consideration of ideas and hours of research that went into the proposal, and the ideas the committee had already considered and rejected.

But at Sieben Linden many people don't read committee minutes. “How many minutes do you want to read?” asked Kosha. “If people placed more trust in the committees, they wouldn't have to read committee minutes so much. It all boils down to trust.”

This happens at Earthaven too. A few members have expressed distrust for some of our committees, and these tend to be the same people who consistently block decisions.

Yet consensus trainers point out the need for trust among group members in order to use consensus.

  • “Foremost is the need for trust. Without some amount of trust, there will be no cooperation or nonviolent resolution to conflict.”
    U.S. consensus trainer C. T. Butler in his book On Conflict and Consensus. (Food Not Bombs Publishing, 1991.)
  • “In the consensus process, . . . the assumption is that we are all trustworthy (or at least can become so)”
    U.S. consensus trainer Caroline Estes in her article, “Consensus Ingredients.” (Communities Directory, 1990.)
  • “If consensus is to work, group members must strive for trust in one another.”
    Members of the Wisconsin-based Center for Conflict Resolution in their consensus manual Building United Judgment. (Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981.)

Fortunately, the tendency to block proposals with too little information is countered by a natural consequence at Sieben Linden. “If a person blocks often, it takes up a lot of group time in subsequent meetings to create a new proposal,” Kosha told me. Thus the person who blocks frequently pays for it socially, she said, as they lose “social capital” in the community. And that happens at Earthaven too.

Ah, community life.

Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part III” in the May, 2009 issue of this newsletter, will look at ways to build trust among ecovillagers, both in terms of governance . . . and in who joins us.

Diana Leafe Christian, editor of this newsletter, lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, US.

Related articles:

Is Consensus Right for Your Group? Part I – Oct ’08
The Feeling, Thinking, and Business Meetings of Ecovillage Sieben Linden – This issue
What We Can Learn from Ecovillage Sieben Linden – This issue

Also in this issue:
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Newsletter Staff

  • Diana Leafe Christian,
  • Jan Steinman,
    Website Designer, Mailing List Administrator
  • Marie Marcella,

Mission & Purpose

To encourage and inspire new and existing ecovillage projects with news about ecovillages and related projects worldwide.

Advisory Board

  • Lois Arkin,
    CRSP; ENA; Urban Ecovillage Network; Los Angeles Eco-Village, US
  • Peter Bane,
    Permaculture designer; publisher, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Albert Bates,
    Co-founder, GEN; Post-Petroleum Survival Guide; Director, Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm, US
  • Tree Bressen,
    Consensus & Facilitation Trainer; Cofounder, Walnut St. Co-op, US
  • Ernest Callenbach,
    Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging; US
  • Giovanni Ciarlo,
    GEN; ENA; Huehyecoyotl Ecovillage, Mexico
  • Raines Cohen,
    Cohousing Association of the US; Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC); Berkeley Cohousing, US
  • Leila Dregger,
    Peace journalist & writer, Peace Research Center & Ecovillage, Tamera, Portugal
  • Chuck Durrett,
    Cohousing; Senior Cohousing; Architect, The Cohousing Company; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Jonathan Dawson,
    Ecovillages; Findhorn Foundation, Scotland
  • Robert Gilman,
    Co-founder, GEN; Ecovillages & Sustainable Communities; City Council Member, Langley, Washington, US
  • Michael Hale,
    Yarrow Ecovillage, Canada
  • Jeff Grossberg,
    Guidestone Consulting Group, US
  • Martha Harris,
    Earthaven Ecovillage, US
  • Scott Horton,
    Editor, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Hildur Jackson,
    Co-founder, Gaia Trust; cofounder, GEN; Ecovillage Living, Denmark
  • Kosha Joubert,
    Editor, Beyond You and Me, GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage Sieben Linden, Germany
  • Elana Kann & Bill Flemming,
    Co-developers, Westwood Cohousing, US
  • Joseph F. Kennedy,
    Designer/educator; The Art of Natural Building, US
  • Fred & Nancy Lanphear,
    Northwest Intentional Communities Association (NICA); Songaia Cohousing, US
  • Mark Lakeman,
    Founder, Portland City Repair & Village Building Convergence, US
  • Max Lindegger,
    Cofounder, GEN; Director, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Crystal Waters Ecovillage, Australia
  • Chris Mare,
    GEN's EDE Program; Village Design Institute, US
  • Ronaye Matthew,
    Canadian Cohousing Network; Cranberry Commons Cohousing, Canada
  • Kathryn McCamant,
    Architect/Developer, Cohousing Partners, Inc.; Co-author, Cohousing; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Dr. Bill Metcalf,
    Findhorn Book of Community Living; Professor, Environmental Sociology, Griffith University, Australia
  • Ina Meyer-Stoll,
    Co-director, GEN-Europe; ZEGG, Germany
  • Tim Miller,
    The 60s Communes; Professor of Religion, University of Kansas, US
  • Hank Obermayer,
    Mariposa Grove Cohousing, US
  • Toshio Ogata,
    Professor of Economics, Chuo University; GEPA (Global Environment Project in Asia), Japan
  • Craig Ragland,
    Executive Director, Cohousing Association of the US; Songaia Cohousing; New Earth Song Cohousing, US
  • Penelope Reyes,
    President, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Tuwâ - The Laughing Fish, Cabiao, Philippines
  • Michael Rios,
    Network for a New Culture Summer Camp East; Chrysalis, Washington DC, US
  • Jim Shenck,
    Enright Ridge Ecovillage, US
  • Nicola Shirley,
    The Source Farm Ecovillage, Jamaica
  • Tony Sirna,
    Communities Directory; Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, US
  • Jan Steinman,
    EcoReality Co-op, Canada
  • Liz Walker,
    GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage at Ithaca; EcoVillage at Ithaca, US