I live in what is called an “Intentional Community.” This community holds a broadly defined commitment to ecological awareness and practice, healthy community, and ongoing education (by and for us). One of the factors that makes this community experience both wonderful and difficult is that we attempt to make our decisions by means of a process called “Consensus.” The phrase, “come to consensus” is familiar in our culture, but it is usually thought to mean “come to agreement.” That is not really what it means, however.

In his book, Consensus through Conversation, Larry Dressler defines consensus in this way: “Consensus has been achieved when every person involved in the decision can say: ‘I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.’” Clearly, consensus is quite different from simple agreement. And it is certainly different from “majority rules” decision-making.

Let me write about consensus by identifying some of what it is not.

Consensus is not a decision; it is a process that is based on deep mutual respect for the participants and for the group. Getting to the “best decision” is not the same as getting the outcome I want. “The best decision” becomes more possible when more people participate in it, when every perspective is considered (and that may include the environment, other non-human living beings, and the health and well-being of the group beyond individual desires), and when the process generates deeper learning among all the participants. As an individual who participates in this process, I need to recognize that the combined wisdom and perspectives of the group add up to something greater than my own. At the same time, the perspective I bring is vital to the process because it is just as unique as any other.

Consensus is not a debate; it is a respectful consideration of varying values, perspectives, and needs. And there is no such thing as “winning” in the consensus process. The closest thing to winning is when the community comes to a decision that all the participants can commit to.

Consensus is not compromise. Compromise is finding a middle ground between two existing positions. Another way to say it is that “compromise is getting the best deal you can as an individual.” In consensus, the primary focus is not on the individual’s desire, but on the well-being of all, including the individual. The consensus process encourages creativity that does not stay on the axis between two opposing positions. Brand new solutions can emerge that address all needs in a broader way.

Finally, Consensus is not perfect. It takes time, it requires participants to leave room in their minds for growth, learning, and new ideas. When it works well, though, it helps both individuals and communities to become healthier.

It seems worth it for me. And, wouldn’t it be interesting if our political discourse had more of the consensus process in it?

What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

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