Author: Tree Bressen
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #136
Q: We have a long-time community member who seems to know a lot about the consensus process, yet in our opinion blocks decisions way too often. We’re not talking about blocking seemingly inappropriate new people from becoming members, which seems like a different kind of issue and where blocking seems more appropriate, but blocking proposals that the whole group or committees have crafted. This person gives a lot of negative feedback and criticism for much of what others are doing and thinks nothing of blocking something a small group has worked hard on for months. In fact, in the 6 years we have each lived in this community, this person has blocked at least 3 to 6 times per year. Neither of us has ever blocked once in all our years living in 4 different communities (12 years and 6 years respectively), and we feel offended by this behavior. We were taught long ago that blocking is reserved for grave endangerment to the community and shouldn’t be misused. If you think this person is out of line with this much blocking, can you please advise our community what to do about it? Is this something for which there should or could be some kind of consequence? Could a community impose, say, “probation” from process or some such other action? Thank you for your thoughts.
Caroline Estes responds:
First of all, the person is obviously out of line and misunderstands blocking as it’s used within the consensus model. It is important to remember that blocking comes from the Quaker process of “standing in the way of” a decision, and is very seldom used, and on only the most important decisions, from the person’s perspective. Blocking is never used on small, incidental items. It must also be used for a substantial reason only; for example, pointing out that the group is violating or making a mistake in relationship to its basic reason for being together, its mission and purpose. I would suggest that the person misusing the blocking-decision process be “weighted on” by those whom he or she respects within the group. (“Weighted on” is a Quaker term meaning people who have wisdom and some standing in the group bringing their weight to bear on the person who’s out of line.)
I’m now teaching about blocking differently than I did 30 years ago: now I recommend that the facilitator has the right to overrule a block if it is being incorrectly used. And the facilitator can be called on their ruling by the group as a whole, but not by the person’s who’s blocking.
If your community doesn’t already have one, I suggest you create a process team: a small group of community members who learn more and help teach the community more about consensus and other communication and process skills. I assume your group has been trained in consensus, however given this person’s misuse of blocking, you may want to ask an outside consensus teacher to come and teach the group consensus again. So, to recap, the person misusing the blocking first needs to be talked to by wiser, more aware community members, perhaps by a process team. If that doesn’t work, the person and the whole group should receive a retraining in the consensus process, including, ideally, the provision that the facilitator can choose to overrule a block when it’s misused. And if these measures don’t work, as a last resort the blocking person needs to be asked to leave the community.
Laird Schaub responds:
There are a number of possible explanations for the behavior shown by “The Blocker.” Keeping in mind that the actual situation may be a combination of factors, let’s walk through the possibilities to see what fits:
I’d start by looking at how well the group’s consensus process is spelled out. In particular, has the group made explicit the legitimate grounds for blocking and the process by which that will be examined? To the extent that this work hasn’t been completed, it’s not fair holding someone to a standard that has not been delineated.
If that’s been handled, my next question is whether The Blocker is generally acting in line with the group’s agreements about blocking. If the blocks are not violating your process, that suggests one of two possibilities: a) The Blocker is out of alignment with the rest of the group around common values; or b) the upset is more properly directed toward the group for consistently bringing half-digested proposals forward for approval, and The Blocker has become the target of the group’s frustration with sloppy process.
You mentioned that committee work is consistently shot down by The Blocker’s negativity. While it’s hard to imagine that consistent negativity can be good for any group, how clearly has the small group’s mandate been established and has The Blocker been given a fair chance to offer guidance on what they should be doing before they begin their work? If not, I’d tighten up the way assignments are delegated, making certain all concerns about the subgroup’s focus—including The Blocker’s—are flushed out before work begins.
While The Blocker may have an abrasive style (which I’m not excusing), it’s possible that his/her “squeaky wheel” is actually helping the group learn where it needs to apply grease.
All that said, if your process is clear and the agreements are being violated, have you made an effort to call The Blocker on her/his inappropriate behavior? If not, that is certainly the next step. If you have, and the behavior persists, what’s The Blocker’s story? Does this person agree that his/her behavior is out of line? If so, then I’d ask The Blocker what she/he thinks is the best way to proceed (in the face of consistent inappropriate behavior), even to the point of the group’s specifying loss of privileges if it continues.
Finally, if a) you’re satisfied that you’ve worked through all of the above, b) the inappropriate behavior persists, and c) The Blocker alone denies that his/her behavior is out of agreement, then you can consider the involuntary suspension of some or all of The Blocker’s rights. In the extreme, this means expulsion. This is, of course, a grave step, and I caution you to be thoroughly satisfied that you’ve exhausted every other potential remedy before going there.
If it appears you’re at this stage, I strongly suggest you get outside help, both for assessing whether there’s any hope of stepping back from the brink, and for making the consideration of imposing probations or sanctions as safe and fair as possible. It is not uncommon in the dynamic you’ve described (where one group member is perceived to be determinedly out of line in their behavior) for both the “problem” member and the rest of the group to be collectively locked into the pattern in such a way that it takes an outside person to see and sell the possibility of solutions that don’t involve punishments or vindication. These are dangerous waters and your group can significantly enhance the chances that you’ll navigate them successfully by engaging a skilled pilot.
Beatrice Briggs responds:
In consensus process, a block should only be used when a proposal violates the ethics, principles, or safety of the group. I was taught that one has a lifetime limit of 3-4 blocks. By this standard, blocking 3 to 6 times a year is excessive. Before considering “consequences” for the blocker, however, I would like to know why the community’s facilitators, elders, or other process-savvy members like you have not spoken up before, What prevents you from challenging these presumably inappropriate blocks? Does your community have clear criteria for blocking and a procedure for handling blocks? If so, when was the last time you discussed them with the whole group? If not, convene a governance committee to draft a written proposal clarifying the norms of consensus decision-making and present it for discussion by the whole group. If possible, involve the “chronic blocker” in the development of the proposal. Try to educate this person. Use specific examples of their past blocks to illustrate why they were inappropriate. Work with your facilitators to make sure that they understand what to do when a block occurs and when and how to declare a block invalid. (See “Tense Moments in Facilitation: Declaring a Block Invalid” in the January 2003 issue of the International Institute for Facilitation and Consensus’s e-newsletter, Bonfire. [www.iifac.org/bonfire]) If the facilitator fails to respond appropriately, someone else—like you—should speak up, then and there, to question the decision-making process. In short, the solution to this problem lies not in punishing the offender so much as strengthening the community’s capacity to use consensus process well.
Tree Bressen responds:
While i can’t say for sure without having witnessed the details, if the person blocks with that much frequency, it is highly likely that they are out of line. These days, the sequence of events i recommend for handling inappropriate blocks are:
(1) Nurture solid friendships in your group.
(2) Train all the group members in consensus.
(3) Clarify the group’s common values to provide criteria for blocking that transcend mere personal preference.
(4) Establish a clear procedure for handling blocks.
(5) Work with the substance of the concern.
(6) If it seems that someone is blocking based on preference, personal values, or anything short of what you term “grave endangerment to the community,” others in the group need to speak up.
(7) Invoke whatever procedures were agreed to in Step 4, above.
A longer, more nuanced description of these steps is posted on my website (www.treegroup.info/topics/A11-inappropriate_blocks). Note that Steps 1 through 4 happen before a particular block ever arises. However, it sounds like this situation is hurting your community, and if you’ve missed those early steps, I’m not about to tell you to avoid further action until they are complete. Obviously Step 3 (clarifying common values) can take a while, and in the meantime it undermines group morale and cohesion to allow someone to continue blocking inappropriately.
The advantage to having general guidelines worked out is that you avoid accusations of personally targeting this objector. The more general clarity a group has, the less messy it is to deal with inappropriate behaviors. However, it’s still going to be an uncomfortable challenge, and there is no policy or procedure that will remove the need for personal bravery when we live in community.
Before doing this type of confrontation, make sure that you first try really hard to listen to the objector’s concern, reflect back their feelings, and search out the piece of the truth in their viewpoint (Step 5). If you’ve done that as best you can and still believe the objector is blocking inappropriately, then i recommend a combination of community procedure and personal action.
My favorite community procedure comes from N Street Cohousing in Davis, California, where anyone attempting to block an emerging consensus is required to sit down every two weeks for up to three months with people who wanted to pass the proposal in an effort to work out an acceptable alternative. Resident Kevin Wolf says, “If after the 6 meetings, consensus hasn’t been reached, the community will vote with a 75 percent supermajority vote. In 18 years of having this process, we have yet to get past two blocked consensus meetings before consensus is reached. We have never voted.”
As for the personal action piece, my impression is that in older-style hierarchical communities, when someone acted in a way that was damaging to the group, one or more elders would pull the person aside and talk it over with them, sending a clear message. In our newer, more egalitarian communities, we don’t always have “elders,” although we do sometimes farm out a piece of the eldership role to a committee such as a process team, conflict resolution, community wellbeing, or oversight team. But really it’s up to all of us to take responsibility for the well-being of the group. Someone needs to have enough guts to call the overly frequent objector on their behavior, and when this happens—usually later than it should have—others in the community have got to back them up! Ideally a bunch of people will speak up, to avoid any one person taking the heat. Carefully avoid personal attacks; instead speak specifically about the behavior that concerns you.
Likely the objector or their allies will counter-attack or accuse you of scapegoating. When this happens, stay as centered as you can, don’t be thrown off . . . and keep bringing the group’s attention back to the inappropriateness of the block and the negative impacts it has. My experience has been that the more the feedback comes from moderate community members, generally well-liked, who aren’t the ones that usually speak up the most, the more powerful the intervention is.