community, education, technology

In Defense of Consensus


Living in an intentional community with twelve mindful and critically constructive people has been a rewarding experience. One of the things that we talked about as a group when we met in the planning stages of our community was our desire to operate under a consensus based decision making framework. It is arguably the most important contributing factor for the long term survival of our community. It is what has kept us going for 3 years in the high turnover rental market of San Francisco.

Recently, someone shared an article with me on the limits of consensus. I can’t help but respond because while I understand that the author is talking about the difficulties in using consensus as a decision making structure in labor organizations and movements that can have hundreds or thousands of people, they fail to make that clear in their article. In order to strengthen their argument, the author overlooks or minimizes many of the benefits that consensus can offer regardless of the size of the organization. Here, I aim to state some of those benefits as well as to provide a more nuanced view of consensus.

Primarily, I disagree with the author’s assertion that democracy somehow encourages “the fullest debate and discussion” while consensus tries to minimize debate for fear of hurting compromise. First, the whole point of consensus is that the ideas and feelings in the room come to light and are debated and acknowledged because we can’t move on until everyone is in agreement. Democracy on the other hand seems to squash debate the minute there is a majority on an issue in the interest of saving time. Secondly, from my experience and from taking a quick account of the world, democracy seems to be more about politicking, positioning, and hidden compromises by the people in power rather than healthy factual debate. But, you might say, the problem is not with democracy itself but with how it is implemented and practiced. And I would say exactly the same thing about consensus. Organizations need to have a healthy consensus based decision making process in order for it to work in a constructive way.

Members need to be informed on what consensus is and need to wield it as a tool to have all voices heard rather than a weapon to get their way. The organization bears the responsibility of conveying this to its members. And when possible - of recruiting members that believe in and understand the concept of consensus. I believe the author is incorrect in their assumption that the situation where an individual or a minority hold up procedures endlessly to get their way is the norm rather than the exception without providing any supporting evidence.

I see the author’s argument that consensus-based decision making environments make people feel like they are being forced to agree. But this seems to further underscore the one-dimensional take on consensus that the author is applying in the writing of this article. Members in a healthy consensus need to be able to abstain from the decision making process. There are processes for consensus that should allow for disagreement or abstention with commitment to the decision made. And this in my mind is better than a situation where one group is allowed to overrule a smaller group.

Furthermore, I strongly disagree with the author’s framing of compromise as a situation where everyone loses something rather than an outcome where everyone gets something they want. Compromise in a healthy way encourages individuals to look for the possibility in a polarized situation. Often, people have excellent reasons for being on any side of an issue – and spirited debate should not be just about getting more than half of the people on your side, but rather about engaging in the conversation as a learner and being open to modifying your position based on the nuances of the issue that you might not have contended with before.

In this way (in my opinion), consensus often has the upper hand over democracy. Consensus enables a minority to take the time necessary to show the majority the blindspots or biases that led them to their initial opinion on an issue. It stops the rule of the majority from becoming tyrannical depending on the issue and how borders between the majority and minority are constructed.

I understand why it would scare or frustrate people. It can be difficult and tedious. It involves work. Not just when there is a decision to be made but constant meta-work on the process for decision making itself. But for all of this work you get a community that is more engaged with and critical of itself. And that is a gift.