cj#472> An excellent piece on consensus (fwd)


Richard Moore

Date: Wed, 7 Feb 1996
To: •••@••.•••
From: •••@••.••• (Randy Schutt)
Subject: ALLIANCE: Hello, Our Mailing List Process, and I Favor Pure Consensus

Dear friends,

A few words on my background: I grew up in a conservative, Bible-belt city
in Texas.  I first worked for progressive change in the campaign against
South African Apartheid in 1977 while in college.  Since then I have worked
against nuclear power, for solar power, against nuclear weapons and
military spending, and against oppression of men and women.

Excuse this long message but I would like to address both the first
question concerning the decision-making process of the Alliance and the
process of this mail list.

First, let me share something I learned from the Religious Society of
Friends (Quakers).  I am not a Quaker, but I have attended Quaker Meeting a
few times, and I saw there something quite wonderful.  In the Meeting I
attended, everyone sits in silence until they are inspired by God to speak
(or from a secular perspective, until they are sufficiently motivated).  As
they speak, everyone else listens carefully.  After the speaker has
finished and has sat down, there is a period of silence during which
everyone considers what the speaker said and its ramifications, why she
said what she said, and what in her background would lead her to her
perspective.  This period of reflection ensures that every person's ideas
are carefully considered.  After the silent period, the next speaker does
not directly address what the last speaker said, but rather speaks
appropriately to the new situation (changed somewhat by the last speaker)
and addresses the whole group.  A "Quaker dialog" is thus very different
than a conversation.  It is a slow process, but often allows a group to
address and resolve quite complicated issues efficiently.

I would like to encourage everyone on this mailing list to try to adopt a
similar mode: send a note only when you have something that you believe is
worth consideration by 150 people.  Please reread your message carefully
before mailing it out to ensure that it is free from flaming, typos, and
excessive verbiage.  Try to refrain from directly responding to someone
(except by direct mail to them).  Instead, write a message that speaks to
everyone and moves the group towards truth.  Read others' messages
carefully and try to discern where they are coming from and what truth they
hold.  I believe this will keep the quality of the discussion high and the
quantity of messages low (allowing me and others to actually read most of
them -- I confess I have not read all of the 200 or so messages that have
gone out in the last week).  From what I have seen so far, this group is
mostly already doing this.  Let's keep it up!

Second, I would like to urge the Alliance to use a good consensus
decision-making process at the founding convention (and everywhere) so that
good decisions can be made quickly and no particular faction has undue
influence.  Let me explain this perspective in some detail because most
people have a very skewed idea of consensus and mix it up with a unanimous
voting procedure (which usually leads to no decisions or to extremely
forced decisions).  I bring to this discussion my 6 years of experience
(1977-1983) working with the Abalone Alliance, an alliance of grassroots
groups in California working against nuclear power that used consensus in
all decisions, and my study of decision-making since then.

In a majority voting process, people express their PREFERENCE for or
against a measure.  These preferences are then tallied up in some fashion
and if more than half of the total number of people voting prefer the
measure, it is adopted.  In such a procedure, it is extremely important who
votes, how many votes each person gets, and in what order the votes are
taken.  This summing preferences process has many problems.  Economist
Kenneth Arrow won the Nobel Prize for proving that it was impossible to
create a vote-your-preference process that could also simultaneously meet
several very reasonable criteria (completeness, fairness, rationality,
etc.).  Moreover, by its nature, voting does not distinguish between deep,
heartfelt preferences and preferences based on craziness or whim.  Also,
voting sums the preferences of everyone at a meeting, even those
police/rightest/crazy infiltrators whose preference may be to make the
group fail.  And it neglects anyone who is not part of the process.

Note that the free enterprise marketplace is a kind of voting process in
which people vote with their dollars.  Those with more dollars can vote
more often.  Capitalism is also a voting process in which the number of
excess dollars a person has determines their number of votes, and rich
people have thousands or millions of times more votes than poor people.  In
these processes, entities without dollars like children, the environment,
animals, future generations, etc.  get no votes and their needs are
frequently ignored.

A good consensus process, in contrast, is a cooperative process in which
everyone CONSENTS to a measure because they believe it is the best one for
the group.  The participants at a meeting work together to solve the
problem "what is the best option for this group (including those not
here)?".  Using this process, people must gather enough information and
discuss all the options enough to determine the advantages of each option
for the group (and its ramifications for other important entities).
Through this process, the group may also need to learn how each person
feels about each option and how strongly they feel to see if the option
matches the needs and desires of the group.  Depending on the decision,
though, this may be unnecessary.

The final decision may not be anyone's first choice (and it may even be
many people's last choice), but everyone recognizes that it is the best
choice for the group and CONSENTS to it.  Let me repeat: In a good, pure
consensus process, people do not express their preferences, but instead
agree to consent to the option that they believe is best for the group.

The main advantages of a good consensus process is that it encourages
cooperation and problem solving and discourages factionalism and
ego-attachment.  It also ensures that no minority is oppressed or

I would particularly like to urge the Alliance to use a consensus
decision-making process in which many options are proposed and then the
group lists the advantages and disadvantages of each option.  After
thorough discussion, everyone would then mutually choose the option that
they feel is best for the group.  With this kind of process, everyone can
see that all options have some merit and that no proposal is perfect.

With such a process, several of the options would probably be clearly
inferior and they could be eliminated without objection.  One option might
stand above the others and the group could easily adopt it.  If several
options are good but none stands above the others, then the group may have
more difficulty choosing.  But usually at this point, everyone will see
that all these alternatives have some merit, they all match the needs of
the group reasonably well, and any one of them can be chosen without
regret.  If pressed for time, the group could even choose one of these
options by lot.  If the group cannot consent to an option, then the group
may be too diverse and need to split into smaller groups that can consent.
Usually a group will decide that it can consent to some measure rather than
have to split.

A GOOD consensus process usually requires several things:

(1) Everyone must understand the process and agree to cooperate with one
another to work for what is best for the group, not to work for their pet
ideas or for their own glory.  People must be willing to look out for those
who could not attend the meeting, not just for themselves.  At the
beginning of each meeting, it helps to explain the process and ask everyone
if they agree to these conditions.

(2) Everyone must be known and accountable to other people so that those
police/rightest/crazy infiltrators do not have undue influence.  For the
Alliance, this probably means that everyone must be an authorized
representative of a local group.  Those who arrive at the convention
unconnected could form their own temporary local group and choose a
representative who would actively participate in the decision-making (all
others could contribute somewhat, but would not be part of the final
decision except through their representative so their voices would not

(3) At least a few people must have experience with good consensus process
and be able to facilitate well.  If everyone is experienced, then the group
might be able to self-facilitate, but with less-experienced people, it is
essential to have a facilitator (or 2 or 3 co-facilitators) who can keep
the process on track.  It is also useful to have experienced people who can
serve as process watchers to point out bad process and suggest good
alternatives.  Quakers also have "elders" who support and encourage shy
people to speak out and gently tell overly-loquacious people to shut up.
If emotions run high it is also useful to have experienced emotional
counselors who can let people vent their emotions away from the large

(4) People must be willing to break down into small groups for initial
discussion of alternatives.  It is impossible for a group of more than
about 20 people to really explore ideas and their ramifications and it is
very frustrating not to be able to speak in a group.  In a small group of
5-10, each person gets a chance to speak and be heard.  I have even been in
meetings where we first broke into pairs, with one person speaking while
the other listened, then switching.  This let everyone have a chance to
have their say right away.

This kind of consensus process worked reasonably well for the Abalone
Alliance and its 60 local groups.  The times that it didn't work were, I
believe, when we did not abide by these four criteria.

The largest meeting I ever attended consisted of about 2,000 people trying
to decide when to end the three-week-long civil disobedience demonstration
at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in 1981.  The process was
complicated because throughout, several hundred people were in jail and
could only communicate through our lawyers.  Each of the local groups chose
a spokesperson that met together in a coordinating council to convey the
thinking of their groups.  After discussion, they went back to their local
group and reported what they had learned about the thinking of the other
local groups.  Then they met once again in the council and reported the
revised thinking of their own local group.  This process took a while, but
since people were risking their lives, it made everyone feel much better to
make a good decision.

Note that the consensus process I have described here is quite different
from FORMAL CONSENSUS as described in the book by Butler and Rothstein and
summarized in Ralph Suter's message.  As I understand it, Formal Consensus
is more of a cross between voting and consensus.  I don't like it as much
as the more pure consensus process I have described above since it relies
more on voting-your-preferences and so has many of the same problems that
voting does.

For anyone who is interested: I have written several sets of notes that I
use when I facilitate consensus workshops and which explain this process in
much more detail.  I would be happy to e-mail you a list of these papers
with a short description, and I will send you nicely-formatted paper copies
of any of them for a small donation to cover my copying and mailing costs.
Unfortunately, they are not available in electronic form.


Randy Schutt -- •••@••.••• -- (415) 725-0097
LiNCS - Local Integrated Network and Computer Services, Stanford University


 Posted by Richard K. Moore  -  •••@••.•••  -  Wexford, Ireland
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