Saturday, January 29, 2011

Guerrilla Consensus

I'm a consensus trainer. I've been living in a community—Sandhill Farm—that has made decisions by consensus since its inception in 1974 (which we jumped into using before we even knew what we were doing). I've been integrally involved in network organizations that have also made all their decisions by consensus—the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (1979-2001), and the Fellowship for Intentional Community (1987-present). I have been a process consultant and trainer since 1987, and the core of my work has built on a foundation of cooperative dynamics. As such, I have a deep appreciation of consensus and an equally deep commitment to promoting it.

All of that said, many groups commit to using consensus without having a clear understanding of how it works, or of the work it takes to make it work. [See blog of Dec 3, 2010, Lack of Consensus on the Meaning of "Consensus"]

Even for people who "get" consensus and actively want to promote it in the world, it is often appropriate to be cautious about walking into a group and trying to convert them into true believers. Most people will not thank you for "saving" them. What to do?

Actually, there's quite a bit you can do using consensus principles without having explicit permission to use consensus. That is, it's possible to participate in groups using consensus principles and be effective, even if no one has a clue what you're doing! Here are some ideas about how to go about it:

o Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. While this is one of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (#5 if you're keeping score at home), long before that it was a basic consensus principle. No one will take offense if you unilaterally start making sure you understand fully what others are saying before adding your piece to the conversation.

o Try to weave connections between comments that are related but not identical. In the mainstream culture, we've been so conditioned to think first in terms of differences, that we often miss points of commonality. If you accurately point out how one person's contribution fits well with something another said earlier, no one will jump down your throat. You just helped simplify the conversation by reducing the number of variables people have to juggle. What's not to like?

o If you see two people not understanding each other, or being reactive to one another, perhaps you can figure out a way to rephrase what Person A said such that Person B can now hear it (and Person A still recognizes it as an accurate re-framing). When you offer people with a bridge to cross a gulf of misunderstanding, nobody gets upset with the person who offered the bridge.

o When it comes time for problem solving, if you set aside advocacy and focus on how to balance all the input, you may be the first one to see a way to move forward in such a way that everyone can feel respected by the decision. While you may look like King Solomon to everyone else, you're just using Guerrilla Consensus.

While all of this thinking about what's best for others and for the group may seem like a heroic act of altruism (giving yourself up for the team), it really isn't. The beauty of what I'm advocating is that it's actually in your best interest to function as much as possible as if you're in a consensus group. You'll never regret learning to be a better listener, seeing linkages between comments, learning how to bridge people who are not connecting, or developing a talent for balancing factors.

The more genuinely you move in the direction of consensus, the more others will appreciate having you in the conversation; the more you will be trusted for your even-handedness; the more your advice will be sought about how to proceed. In short, the more effective you'll become.

Just remember: guerrilla consensus has nothing to do with pounding your chest and acting like a 300-lb anthropoid; it's about aping the behavior of people who are thoughtful, caring, and compassionate. Don't let bad meeting dynamics make a monkey out of you!

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