Consensus-Based Decision Making: What For and How?

As the pandemic restrictions ease and we come out of our year-long cocoons, we are all hungry for human contact. The members of Bozeman Cohousing are dreaming of when we live nearby and can conveniently and spontaneously socialize and enjoy each other’s company. This image is certainly motivating, but is just the tip of the intentional living iceberg. Let’s look at a big part of what’s under the surface.

Governance is a wonky, decidedly un-spontaneous, but nonetheless essential, part of living in cohousing. Simply put, it’s how we make decisions that benefit all of us. We Americans are used to a simple majority rule system, where the most votes for or against a proposal wins. But just because we’re used to it doesn’t mean it’s the best. It’s not at all hard to think of many situations both personal and on the public political scene where a majority vote has led to many flavors of alienation and discontent. In our small community, that could seriously harm our relationships and even the organization.

Enter the consensus paradigm. If majority voting rests on its simplicity, the crown jewel of consensus is that there are no winners and losers. And while feathers may still be ruffled, the consensus process strives to ensure that everyone is heard and that their needs are accounted for as best as they can. Honestly, coming to consensus can feel tedious and frustrating. But I’ve also experienced deep satisfaction when we’ve reached a conclusion that feels reasonable to everyone.

So how does this work exactly? Instead of a single yes/no vote, our consensus process runs in a spiral of “tests for consensus” to reach a decision. Each pass around the spiral, members are asked to express whether they “support it enthusiastically,” “can live with it,” or “no, it absolutely doesn’t work for me.” The gold standard is to have the entire group fully support the proposal. Depending on the issue, a few hesitations may have to remain. But even a single no vote is not just a residual minority view; it is a show-stopper. Everyone who expressed a concern is invited to share those concerns with the community. In turn, the community is invited to be both open and creative about how to address the concerns. The proposal must then be changed until everyone can at least live with it, or additional information may help the concerned person be ok with the proposal after all.

This can definitely be hard work. We each have our own preferences, experiences, and worries. But we all have also committed to the shared values of our Vision Statement, and as we consider our own votes, we are asked to consider how the proposal benefits the community as a whole and not just us. After several turns around the spiral, “it doesn’t work for me” is therefore something of a nuclear option that we are reminded only to use as a last resort.

Our group has been practicing the consensus process for just exactly two years now, incorporating more voices and perspectives as we grow. And like any skill that improves with practice, with every meeting, we are getting noticeably better at it. Just as we are working to build a physical environment out of sustainable materials and minimize ongoing resource use, our consensus process helps us make sustainable decisions that will endure and support us into the future. Now that is as exciting as sitting on the porch drinking coffee with friends.