Author: Tree Bressen
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #134
Q: I understand that in a consensus-based group, people are supposed to follow whatever agreements have been made in the past unless a new agreement, agreed on by everyone, replaces it. But doesn’t this put too much power in the hands of the original members? A few sticks-in-the mud could keep any change from happening, and often these long-time members aren’t necessarily acting in the best interests of the group. Do you have any suggestions on how to find a better balance between stability and change while respecting the essential spirit of consensus?
Beatrice Briggs responds:
For me the principle value of the “only way to change a consensus agreement is by reaching another consensus” rule is to respect the conscientious work of the group who, after considering all points of view on an issue, reaches an agreement that they all can support. Problems typically arise when, at the very next meeting, one or two members who were not present at the meeting at which the decision was taken try to re-open the discussion and change the outcome. This usually meets with outraged resistance from those who participated in the original decision and want to move on to other issues. The only solution to this dilemma is to make sure that all interested parties are advised when the issue is to be decided—and that one faction does not deliberately schedule the decision for a time when the “opposition” will not be present.
In the case of agreements that need to be modified to reflect changing conditions, I suggest the following precautions: • Include a “sunset clause” that requires all, or certain, decisions to be reviewed and renewed after a certain time. If not explicitly renewed, they “fade into the sunset,” i.e., are no longer valid.
• Ask both the “sticks-in-the-mud” and the advocates for change to make a strong case for their respective positions, explaining the reasons why the agreement should or should not be modified, what benefits could be gained and what difficulties could be encountered if their view prevails, always keeping in mind the interests of the group, rather than their personal preferences. Then let reason prevail.
• Be sure that those promoting change are willing to do most of the work in implementing the new proposal. Sometimes resistance on the part of the old guard is simply battle fatigue!
Laird Schaub responds:
There are a number of ways that the dynamics between old members and new members can get out of balance. Without coming down on one side or the other, let’s illuminate the issues at play. First, how well is the group making clear to new members what body of agreements are already in place— so they’ll be more fully informed about what they’re joining? Underneath that is the job the group has done to provide the rationale for those agreements, so that the new folks can discern whether they have original thinking on the matter (or just warmed up leftovers). It’s not fair expecting newbies to be aware of information that is obscure to them. That said, it is reasonable to expect new members to avail themselves of the information extant and to research why things are the way they are. Just bursting on the scene with naive enthusiasm and expecting all the long-term folks to dance to the tune of the new hornpipe is downright disrespectful.
Let’s suppose however, you’ve passed those first two hurdles and the new folks have done their homework. If they still think they have a new angle on an existing agreement, they should be given air time to make their case. Then, if you have “a few sticks-in-the-mud” who “aren’t necessarily acting in the group’s best interests,” that can certainly derail the conversation. In the extreme, it may suggest a lack of alignment about the group’s purpose or common values, which is a major problem. [Caution: do not assume that being unpersuaded by the new voices equates with not acting in the group’s best interest. Reasonable people can and will disagree.]
In consensus, the “sticks-in-the-mud” have the same responsibility as anyone else in the group to make clear the ways in which they see any proposed action—in this case, a change from an existing agreement—not to be in the group’s best interest as opposed to simply a matter of personal preference. While they have the right to stop the group from making a “mistake,” they have the responsibility to make clear how the proposed action works against the group’s purpose or common values, or is otherwise inferior to the existing agreement, or get out of the way and give the new ideas a chance.
Underneath all this is another issue: the challenge of integrating new members. If a group desires fresh blood, existing members need to step to the plate in making the agreements and culture of the group as transparent as possible, both to make plain what the group is about (so that the best matches will be found), and to expedite the acculturation process. There is a significant power gradient between new members and established ones, and if a group is serious about integrating new folks, then the old-timers need to commit to bridging this power gap by educating new members about what the group has done and how it conducts business, and then by displaying a genuine openness to new ideas. “Been there, done that” responses will not get the job done.
Tree Bressen responds:
My community has struggled with this issue over time. Some of our residents have come to see an agreement not being followed as a sign for further conversation needed, rather than viewing it as a problem to curtail. That supports the spirit of the consensus process, but sometimes runs up against realworld limits on time and energy. If someone puts an item on the agenda list but we don’t get to it for months, what happens in the meantime? The people who don’t like a policy feel oppressed if they follow it, while the people who support it feel betrayed if it’s not.
In practice i’ve seen a variety of responses to the dilemma. Some groups have guidelines for when to reopen a decision, such as when a quorum of members requests it, or when new information is available (see my website at treegroup.info/topics/B21- reopening for a list of these options). The sociocratic consensus system includes a review period for every decision. While that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of what to do if there is no agreement at the review point, it at least puts the forces of change and stability on a more equal footing than in some other consensus systems.
I think it’s the responsibility of the people who want to change something to initiate the process. If they take the time to find out the history of a particular agreement and understand the reasons for it, their efforts are much more likely to be supported by the members who participated in the creation of the original agreement. It’s not fair to the group for someone to unilaterally stop following a policy just because they personally don’t like it. A group’s policies and agreements reflect an expression of the group’s will and were usually arrived at after considerable deliberation, and it undermines the group to cross them. At the same time, the other group members (usually those who have been there longer) need to take seriously the concerns of those who want change. A group that cannot maintain some flexibility will lose energy and decay over time, and it is incumbent upon the older members to do some soul-searching to discern the difference between their personal preferences or what they are comfortable with versus what’s best for the whole. There is also a responsibility on all parties to ensure that incoming members are fully informed as to what agreements they are signing on with when they join.
Caroline Estes responds:
This is a common problem for many communities and secular groups. When secular communities adopted consensus from the Quakers, which use the process in a spiritual context, the basic agreements about how to use consensus often changed.With the basic Quaker belief, “there is God in everyone,” there was a unified agreement from which to proceed.
So, while trying to practice pure consensus at Alpha Farm, where I live, we added an agreement to answer the problem of turnover of people, outgrowing some old agreements, and so on. For any decision that we consider might need to be revisited in the future, we add a sundown clause. That is, after an agreed-upon date in the future, the agreement will be null—and a new agreement must be arrived at. If there is no agreement of our members at that time, there is then no agreement to proceed on—or we must craft a new agreement.
The downside of using sundown clauses is that you must create a process calendar and keep it up-to-date so that agreements can be reconsidered in a timely fashion.
This seems to work with the groups where I have taught consensus.
Karl Steyaert responds:
When it comes to this question of maintaining and changing agreements, I particularly enjoy drawing on the approach employed in sociocracy. In sociocratic decision-making, all decisions have a “term limit,” whether it is an agreement to have a five-minute check-in at the beginning of meetings, or the selection of someone to the position of treasurer for an organization.
Essentially, this consists of having a review date on decisions, so that an organization revisits the choice made in the past and determines whether the decision is continuing to meet the needs intended, or whether a new, adjusted strategy might better meet the needs in the group. Term limits thereby allow for dynamic organizational learning, relying on an ongoing feedback loop: from deciding to acting to assessing, and back to deciding.
For example, in September a member of my community had a proposal for a rotating “house tending” system. Seeking order and ease, she suggested a plan with each community member taking responsibility for a particular set of house chores (recycling, trash, cleaning, etc) for the month. Because some community members had concerns about the new arrangement, we set a term limit of two months, deciding to revisit the policy in November.
In November, we saw the term limit marked on our community calendar and revisited the decision. Finding that people were wanting more companionship and variety in their house tending, we adjusted the policy by creating teams of two people for each set of chores, and rotating every two weeks, setting a new term limit on this decision as well. However, if the house tending system had been working smoothly, we simply could have set a new term limit, say, to revisit the original decision in six months or a year.
Not only does this approach prevent old decisions from becoming “stuck,” but it also encourages more freedom and confidence in trying out with new ways of doing things, as all decision-makers know that they will naturally revisit the choice and can make another agreement when the term is up. Ultimately, I find that this kind of adaptive decision-making is essential to a healthy, evolving organization and leads to decisions that meet more of the needs of everyone involved.