Thursday, January 31, 2008

On the Stump for Consensus

Tonight I'm in Atlanta (actually Canton, a northern suburb) amidst a much-needed rain. I'm the house guest of Liz Logan, who aspires to be a professional facilitator and who set up an evening for me to pitch my Mid-Atlantic States two-year facilitation training to East Lake Commons, a cohousing cmty in the southeast quadrant of Atlanta.

We were the featured entertainment for the regular Thursday evening potluck. Interestingly, attendance at the meal was slightly less than those who drifted into the Common House to hear my rap. (Yes, I'm an engaging speaker, but better than food?) For 90 minutes I explained the program and fielded questions. Amazingly, the 20 or so people in the room (out of a total population of about 100—it's a large cohousing cmty) were overwhelmingly curious about the program and favorable to their hosting one of the weekends. The only way I could account for such a positive initial response to the training was that Liz must have done a bang up job while working with the cmty
the last half year to upgrade their facilitation skills. Now they're all geeked about getting trained. Whoopee!

One of the fun things about working with groups is that you never really know what's going to happen. Tonight I got three standout questions:

1. What could the host cmty expect to get out of a weekend given over to 8-9 hours focused on one gnarly topic?

While the answer obviously depends on the complexity of the topic and the cmty's history with it, there is still a generic answer:
a. A complete laying out of the issue, including a full hearing of any upsets connected with the topic. In the process, the overall topic will be subdivided into a handful of key questions, all of which will be articulated.
b. From among the key questions, we'll select one or possibly two to examine thoroughly. (Sometimes a particular question is more urgent, or more appropriate for taking advantage of the opportunity of having outside facilitation.) We'll work these subquestions as far as possible, generally to the point of reaching new agreements and assigning tasks connected with implementation.
c. While we won't have gotten through all the subquestions, they will have been identified and the process by which the first couple were worked can serve as a template for examining the remaining one, thus providing a road map for completing the work.

2. Does it make sense for a senior to participate in the training if they used to facilitate but have given up because memory isn't as good any more (this posed by a 79-year-old woman)?

Yes! Facilitation can usefully be viewed as a bundle of roles, which don't necessarily have to be handled by just one person. (In fact, some process roles shouldn't be handled by the facilitator—such as notetaking or gatekeeping—while other roles can be, such as timekeeping and vibes watching.) For people with diminished capabilities, there can still be important and useful roles. Forexample, an experienced facilitator who has a failing memory may be highly useful in planning mtgs, and helping to articulate the essential nugget of what a speaker has just contributed to the conversation. They might be an excellent scribe, or someone who can help hold the container of caring and curiosity in heavy traffic.

It's my personal view that being active (both physically and mentally) is one the best ways to age gracefully. If you just stop contributing because you're no longer as fully capable as you used to be, everything tends to atrophy in a hurry and you lose the chance to contribute. Communities can—and should—be a great place to create flexibility about aging in place and finding ways for seniors to meaningfully contribute. I'm not talking about pretending that people are contributing when they're not; I'm talking about being creative in how you assemble facilitation teams, so that one person's limitations are complemented by another's strengths.

3. If there are more members wanting to participate in the training than the cmty can afford to subsidize, how should it choose from among the candidates?

I thought of four screens right off the top:
a. Get as wide a variety of styles as possible. That way, when the trained people are facilitating, you'll have the widest possible range of choices in who to use for any given mtg. No one style works for everyone and the cmty will be well served by having a broad range.
b. Take a look at the compatibility of the people selected. They'll need to get along with and support one another if they're going to be an effective team in helping to inculcate cultural changes in the cmty based on what they've learned in the training. [Note: this is not the same thing as asking if people have similar styles of facilitating; this is asking if they get along well and can respect each other.]
c. Give preference to those who can thrive (or at least not get overwhelmed) in an intense learning environment. Being "on" for 28 hours in a 44-hour stretch can be exhausting for some, and that's the way the training weekends operate.
d. Select those who can make a commitment to giving back to the cmty by facilitating mtgs after they've been trained.

• • •
I just love good questions. I can hardly wait to see what the next group comes up with.


Mitch said...

Hi Laird,

I'm in the UK and a member of a newly forming eco-community. We aim to be purchase the property at the end of this year.

I would really like to take some information to the group on an American alternative to 100% consensus. I read about it many years ago in the FIC directory - it was something like 'consensus as everything but 1' and had a very robust consultation and negotiation process. Can you point me in the right direction?

I have previous experience of intentional community using 100% consensus that wasn't entirely satisfactory and so I am eager to explore equally valuable possibly better functioning systems of consensus.

As a group we feel that the structure of our meeting and decision making is crucial from getting started right through to staying together.

I would be grateful for any and all useful advice, books or articles you could furnish details of.

Thank you very much for your time and attention,

Mitch Wakefield - Exeter Eco-Project (intentional community) - UK.

Laird Schaub said...

Dear Mitch,

The most common term for this is "Consensus Minus One" (or Consensus Minus Two, etc.). Another version of this is Consensus with a Voting Back-up. There are a number of communities which use these forms, but I am not much impressed with them. Essentially they're an attempt to deal with difficult people with structure, rather than to be more careful about whom you admit into the group or to have a better understanding about how to work constructively with conflict.

For my money, it's much better to focus on training people in the consensus process and understanding the cultural shifts necessary to get consistently good results. One of the key tenets of consensus is a belief in the process, and when you institutionalize an escape clause (being able to proceed over one person's objection, or falling back on a vote) you are essentially saying you "sorta" believe in the process.

The two books I'd recommend as the best primers on secular consensus are:
Building United Judgment
Manual for Group Facilitators

They are both available from FIC's online bookstore:

I think it's excellent that you're paying close attention to decision-making in your forming group. Let me know if I can help further.

In cooperation