Monday, December 19, 2016

Consensus Ritual at the Point of Decision

I've been working seriously with secular consensus since Sandhill started in 1974. Although the bulk of my learning has been distilled from living it (on the job training), I participated in a five-day consensus and facilitation training taught by Caroline Estes at her home community (Alpha Farm) in 1987, and I started my career as a group dynamics consultant later that same year.

As consensus—in one or another of its many guises—is by far the most common form of decision-making in intentional communities, and communities are the foundation of my consultancy, I have necessarily been hip deep in consensus for the last four decades, the last three as a professional.

As someone who believes firmly that meetings should be enjoyable as well as productive, I look for occasions where whimsy can seamlessly be inserted into the flow without sacrificing continuity or efficiency. One such place—and the subject of today's essay—is the specific moment when a group is poised to make a decision.

Much of what happens in a meeting is informal (thank god)—things like where to focus the conversation, what topic to address next, whether a summary is good enough, or when to take a break and for how long. While these questions may have gravitas in the moment, they are procedural matters with a short lifespan and will promptly be covered over by the sands of time. This class of decisions stand in sharp contrast with binding decisions about budget or policy—things you want carefully captured in the minutes and the agreement log, ad which may impact the community for years.

While it's generally not that big deal if you're loosey goosey about procedural decisions, you don't want any sloppiness when it comes to policy agreements. Thus, it tends to be a good idea to have some kind of ritual by which group members indicate whether they're in agreement (green light), standing aside (yellow light) or blocking (red light).

A number of groups employ colored cards for this purpose, both to indicate the nature of their comments during discussion, and to indicate their position when testing for consensus. Essentially, each member raises a card at the key moment instead of their hand. Other groups use thumbs (up=yes; sideways=stand aside; down=block). Some are more nuanced, such as relying on the number of fingers held aloft to indicate their degree of support:
0=Over my dead body
1=Stand aside
2=I can swallow
3=No problem
4=I'm liking it strong
5=Best thing since pockets on shirts

Some more adventurous groups really go for the gusto—I once encountered an art collective where people gave a hearty pirate Argh! to signify affirmation. Opa! (At least in my presence rum was not involved and no planks were walked.)

Really, anything can be done so long as the meaning is clear.

Is Silence Golden… or Iron Pyrite)?
A word of caution. It's not such a great idea relying on silence=assent. While it's tempting to reach for this time-tested Quaker standby (after all, the strongest roots of secular consensus are traceable to the worship practices of the Religious Society of Friends, and they like silence=assent) don't be seduced! I counsel against mum's the word, since silence is so easily misunderstood. It can mean any of the following:
o  I heard you and have no problem
o  I'm confused and don't know what you want
o  I'm thinking and not yet ready
o  I didn't hear you; I'm oblivious
o  I'm so angry that I can't speak 

Yikes! Since guessing is a poor strategy, it's better to rely on something proactive and unambiguous. Best is using a symbol that is not used for anything else—so that its employment is crystal clear. (Arghing, for example, is unlikely to be confused with anything else—unless your group is reprising Peter Pan or rehearsing for The Pirates of Penzance).

I figure this is just the kind of opportunity I like: bring out the clowns and the dancing bears! Maybe it could be a perk of facilitating (or a bonus for volunteering to take minutes)—you get to be queen for a day and announce the consensus ritual de jour. It's OK to have fun; just make sure that it's also obvious.

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