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NCDD Listserv Discussion on Consensus

The following is a transcript of a rich discussion on consensus that occurred on NCDD’s main discussion list in March and April, 2005. This discussion was begun by Rogier Gregoire on March 20th, 2005. Enjoy!

Rogier A. Gregoire:

I have been following this particular thread with interest and would like to bring to the conversation a particular insight. The discussion on whether one can have, and honor a particular point of view is critical to dialogue. What has not been considered is how easily we (within the conversation) avoid the issue of diversity as an asset. The dialogic conversation must honor diversity as an asset not just a convenience or mechanism of conversation.

Inquiry is most useful when we look at our own assumptions rather than use it to whip another perspective. I have found from my own experience that as a society we have little tolerance, and less appreciation, for diversity as an asset. It is this virtue, which gets lost in the pursuit of some narrowly held and popular point of view.

Somewhere between the liberal and conservative political poles there is an infinitely graduated field of differences that we eschew out of our cultural fear of diversity. Consequently, our conversations (and dialogues) suffer from mediocrity. Consensus is a trivial and worthless ambition. It might sooth our politics but it will not contribute to our wisdom.

Tree Bressen:

Hello,

Roger Gregoire wrote:
“The dialogic conversation must honor diversity as an asset not just a convenience or mechanism of conversation. It is this virtue which gets lost in the pursuit of some narrowly held and popular point of view. Somewhere between the liberal and conservative political poles there is an infinitely graduated field of differences that we eschew out of our cultural fear of diversity. Consequently, our conversations (and dialogues) suffer from mediocrity. Consensus is a trivial and worthless ambition. It might sooth our politics but it will not contribute to our wisdom. ”

As someone whose facilitation work (as well as everyday life in several organizations) is based in Consensus decision-making, I feel a need to speak up here.

There are multiple definitions of the word Consensus. A common one is something along the lines of, “whatever a bunch of people involved in the issue mostly agree on,” and it’s this interpretation of the word that I believe you are critiquing in your message.

In the type of Consensus that I practice, deeply exploring and utilizing the diverse perspectives of participants is integral to the process. The goal is to bring together the wisdom of the group in order to create the best possible decisions. This is Consensus as collective search for solutions, as trust in the individuals present to discern what’s needed to move forward, as the time-honored process of waiting to act until all viewpoints have been considered.

Far from being a trivial and worthless ambition, Consensus in that context is the expression of exactly the kind of exploration you advocate here, taken to the next step of, “And what are we going to do about it?” [whatever "it" is].

Cheers,

Tree

Rogier A. Gregoire:

Dear Tree, Thank you for your thoughtful response to my posting. I have to agree with you to a point. What you practice is not consensus by any definition that I can find. I do agree with the process you assign to this faulty definition of consensus. That is what I would (and others) call Dialogue. It is an honorable and much needed process and the objective is inclusion and the increased diversity of ideas and points of view. Consensus is a narrowing process in which divergent ideas and approaches are discarded to achieve a certain “least common denominator.”

The Process with consensus as a goal requires as narrowing of individual ideas and perspectives so that they fit into common trough easily. It is not the expansion of individual perspectives from and effort at enrichment and fullness.

Your definition of consensus (which I like) is a search for broader and richly textured notions of a shared reality; it does not ask us to abandon our uniquely individual and hard won sense of the real but helps us contribute it to the common consciousness enlightened and intact.

I do go on.
Forgive me, I simply wanted to question the label of consensus that I believe you have inaccurately labeled your fine work as; consensus is a more trivial and simple end point. We are both working at making ourselves wiser as we serve the wisdom in others. That is not aimed at consensus in either of our hearts, the minds of others or the definitions that most hold for consensus.

The antithesis of consensus is the broadening of our understanding, the movement that comes from our collective transformation.

Tree Bressen:

Dear Gregoire,

I’m glad we are having this exchange. Thank you!

“Thank you for your thoughtful response to my posting. I have to agree with you to a point. What you practice is not consensus by any definition that I can find. ”

There is a whole tradition out there of consensus decision-making that it sounds like you are unfamiliar with, and you are probably not the only one on this list for whom that is the case. Down through these many years, among indigenous peoples from the Congo to Native Americans to Poland, among Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), among political activists in numerous anti-nuclear and anti-globalization campaigns, among intentional communities (groups of people who consciously choose to live together, e.g. ecovillages, communes, cohousing, etc.), and more, through these years people have gathered together to discern how to act as a group.

“I do agree with the process you assign to this faulty definition of consensus. That is what I would (and others) call Dialogue. It is an honorable and much needed process and the objective is inclusion and the increased diversity of ideas and points of view. Consensus is a narrowing process in which divergent ideas and approaches are discarded to achieve a certain “least common denominator.”

Your definition of consensus (which I like) is a search for broader and richly textured notions of a shared reality; it does not ask us to abandon our uniquely individual and hard won sense of the real but helps us contribute it to the common consciousness enlightened and intact.

The antithesis of consensus is the broadening of our understanding, the movement that comes from our collective transformation. ”

Tree Bressen:

Consensus as I understand and practice it includes both the broadening exploration *and* the narrowing toward collective action; both phases are necessary. If the group hasn’t considered all the options, if it hasn’t welcomed and utilized its diversity, that is to say, if the narrowing happens prematurely, then in my opinion the consensus process has not been followed appropriately. However, if the need of the group is to do more than engage in exploratory dialogue and/or more than to act purely as individuals, then at some point a narrowing does need to take place. The rule at the decision point can be by autocracy, or by majority vote, or by consensus, and most of the groups I work with operate by consensus.

In that context, a definition of consensus is: “A group decision-making process in which all present must agree before action is taken.” Of course, definitions lead to more definitions, and the word “agree” in that description benefits from more exploration, but that’s more than I want to go into here.

For more information on the kind of consensus I am talking about, you may be interested in the following sites:

Basic article I wrote ~5 years ago on the secular consensus method–it doesn’t go into depth and there are things I might explain differently today, but it does give a practical overview:
http://www.treegroup.info/articles/A1-c … asics.html

Tom Atlee on consensus:

http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-consensus.html

Quaker consensus:

http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-Quakerbusiness.html

There are also quite a few resources linked from this page on my website:

http://www.treegroup.info/resources/C1-resources.html

The book I’d most recommend on the method is:
Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making (1981) Michel Avery, et al. Explains why, when and how to use secular consensus process effectively. This book, originally published by the Center for Conflict Resolution, has been reprinted by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. See http://consensusbooks.ic.org.

Or for a shorter, simpler book, The Consensus Pocket Guide: How to Achieve High-Commitment Decisions, by Larry Dressler, http://consensustools.com.

Cheers,

Tree

Rogier A. Gregoire:

Dear Tree, I can see that you probably believe that I am unfamiliar with the bibliography you offer to clear up any misunderstanding that I might be laboring under. But the sources you mention are flawed by an inherent ambiguity that you clearly mention in your letter. The definitions you have moved under the umbrella of consensus are simply mechanisms to ameliorate the cultural discomfort with diversity.

In your definitions we can be tolerant of differences without honoring them; we use consensus to arbitrarily hold the community together while disallowing the inherent diversity. Allowing diversity and sustaining inclusion demands an expansion of the collected consciousness of the community. That is in conflict with either of your definitions of consensus. All of the authors (including the Quakers) have admonitions about maintaining the status quo, admonitions that protect the community from evolutionary or statutory change; from which Quakers would or might become Buddhists.

(The urge to remain what we are as Quakers or Christian or what ever is driven by a need to protect community, even when community is artificially constructed.) I have never seen a more active effort than the Avery book at coercion. It slyly asks people to agree for the purpose of sustaining community, which it holds as a higher value than wisdom. Theoretically, we would like to make inclusion a “safe” act in which we simply add some minor embellishment to an existing premise as long as we remain pretty much the same. But adding a new or different point of view to the collective without recognizing the inherent change is coercion by the premises you site in your letter.

We don’t like to change either our selves or our communities. We are addicted to the status quo.

Let me be clear about what now seems to look more like a harangue than a dialogue or discussion. The motives and strategies that your work suggests are mislabeled and the label (consensus) is used to protect the status quo. It aspires to include diverse points of view as long as it does not change the state of the collective. You would like us to be more diverse as long as we don’t disturb our inner belief about out identity.

We would like a multi-cultural society as long as we follow euro centric cultural imperatives. We achieve consensus by mitigating (or intimidating) those elements that threaten our belief about who we are. We talk collectively with the assumption that we are all the same, using the imperial “we” we deny our differences rather than honor them.

Holism is the victim of every effort to promote consensus because it does not suggest and welcome comprehensive change and/or transformation.

Call its something else none of your illustrations, Including those of my good friend Tom Atlee, are persuasive or accurate. The etymology of the word consensus does not explicitly deny diversity but it clearly identifies the uniformity of the collective. It diminishes the diversity of the community in the particular.

Linda Blong:

Hmmm…I wonder what the perspective voiced here might sound like if honoring the different perspective on consensus that Tree had offered?

No need to reach consensus on “consensus” after all but that honoring part seems pretty important given what the listserv represents.

Jimmy Pryor:

Dear Gregoire, Tree and all, I was converted to “consensus” in 1974 when I attended a meeting of Austin Community Project. I could choose different words and say that I was converted to “dialogue” at this time. Or maybe it was “dialogic consensus”. The group of 10 or so that were meeting that night were planning a conference. Most of the people in the room had spoken, all in favor of the event, when Sue White was given the floor. She hesitatingly voiced her reservations about the event. Everyone listened. It was decided that the event should not be held. I was moved at the attention and consideration this lone dissenter was given. And that it changed the minds of the entire group.

I learned that many of the founders of this group had adopted consensus because of their dissatisfaction with “majority-ruled” organizations. For the next six years I continued to work with these people who put a priority on process that valued inclusion and listened to all points of view. I am sure that we fell short in many ways. But on many occasions I experienced the group changing its mind because of an individual or small number of individuals having a different view. This was not “blocking the consensus”. It was coming to consensus on a new understanding.

I also lived consensus in my 12 years with Pueblo to People, a nonprofit business marketing handicrafts from Latin America. My experience is that when we truly listen to the various viewpoints, a new, wiser, collective understanding emerges.

“Consensus” is a word that carries widely different meanings for different people. Rather than debate the word, wouldn’t it be more productive to look at the specific practices we experience their effects?

In my experience, understanding how different participants perceive and value a particular course of action is very important. Often, community and the continuation of the community is a highly ranked. I like those processes that make us aware of how our choices may affect our community. There sometimes comes a point in which there are some in the community that are so strongly opposed to a particular course of action that choosing that direction will result in their leaving of the group or greatly weakening their ties to it. At such a juncture, I want to be aware of this and choose accordingly.

I am, by the way, both Quaker and Buddhist and know others that are, too. Elements in both traditions value the evolution of their traditions (“continuing revelation”) and both traditions continue to evolve and incorporate new practices and elements. And both traditions have experienced many splits and schisms where being faithful to the truth took participants in different directions.

I value both listening and honoring different understandings, and coming to new understandings as a group.

Rogier A. Gregoire:

Dear Jimmy, Thank you for responding to the conversation in such a wonderful and thoughtful way.

I want to take you back to my original response to tree and the limited scope of my original comments. I was interested in contesting the use of the term consensus as my understanding of the term in the context it was used was conflicted. Not that I thought consensus was a bad or limited thing, it just didn’t fit the way it was used from my point of view.

Since then I received a clearer notion of what another writer meant by saying that consensus as process was different from consensus as product. I could see consensus as process as a form of dialogue; but that follows more the definition of consensus defined by Tree. This notion is much closer to my view of dialogue and more specifically Bohmian or generative Dialogue.

Widely varying definitions of term can only lead to confusion and a certain lack of coherence in a conversation or dialogue, which is why I originally wanted to clarify the terms in our discussion.

My use of the Quaker metaphor was only to illustrate the epistemological transitions that could arise out of a rethinking of Quaker religious beliefs along certain lines and no offense was intended.

I have been a proponent of Bohmian Dialogue even though it seems very out of vogue or misunderstood within the NCDD community. My previous comments and assumptions come from a concern that the many and various “dialogue’s” be more clearly distinguished from these various dialogue forms which share very little with generative dialogue in terms of purpose or product. (see previous entry).

Steven Mantz:

Hi. My own personal understanding is that “consensus” does not mean pursuing consensus as an end in itself. Rather, it means that each participant puts their genuine concerns and needs on the table, based on their actual situations. Then, the group attains a consensus, by finding a concrete set of plans which is genuinely responsive to all concerns to some degree.

The “consensus” part arises from the idea that, by genuinely responding to one set of concerns, participants will be more willing to allow certain other concerns to be delayed, based on the idea that this is a genuine group process, and that the group has defined authentic priorities, based on what can be handled now, and what needs to wait until later.

Rogier A. Gregoire:

Dear Steve, I agree wholeheartedly with everything you’ve said. However, I don’t hold with the notion that consensus is a legitimate goal of generative dialogue. The goal of dialogue is greater understanding or wisdom. It is at best a poor problem solving tool.

Sandor Schuman:

“Reaching Consensus on Consensus,” an essay that explores the meaning of the word “consensus” and differentiates “consensus as a process” and “consensus as an outcome,” can be found at http://www.exedes.com/consrule.htm

Rogier A. Gregoire:

Dear Sandor, Consensus as process is what I call generative dialogue, perhaps only a difference in definition.

Donald Klein:

The discussion of consensus might be more fruitful if we assumed that consensus is not something that is created (by dialogue or any other means) but is discovered. The question then becomes one of how dialogue contributes to discovering whether or not consensus exists. This view of consensus was posited by Dr. Robert Marshak in his doctoral dissertation.

This definition of consensus simplifies matters considerably. For discovery of consensus two principles apply: (1) give everyone fullest possible opportunity to express their views; (2) don’t waste time on disagreements; look for areas of agreement.

Jim Rough:

Many people on this list are interested in large-scale dialogue among many people or throughout a large system of people. I want to share with you an exciting experiment that Jean (my wife) and I will be attempting in Perth Australia this May. It’s going to be at a conference on “Innovations in Community Engagement: Interactive Learning with World Experts” in Perth, Australia, May 29-30. http://www.dpi.wa.gov.au/dialogue/comengage/

During this conference I’ll be presenting two innovations, Dynamic Facilitation and the Wisdom Council and seeking to use them within the conference itself to establish one whole-conference dialogue.

I differentiate “dialogue” from what I call “choice-creating”. See http://tobe.net/topics/Dialogue.html for a chart of the differences. The conference experiment will use both, with a “choice-creating” process as a prelude to dialogue. In choice-creating, people converse about big, impossible-seeming issues and reach points of “consensus.”

I put quotes around the term “consensus” because I really mean “co-sensus”. This is a term that Tom Atlee uses. He describes the difference between “consensus” and “co-sensus” in his book “The Tao of Democracy,” (a great read for those of you who haven’t read it.) Co-sensus is where everyone looks around the room and just knows what is best, what the joint conclusion needs to be.

The Wisdom Council experiment will contain many of the principles of the Wisdom Council … randomly selecting a few conference-goers, helping them to determine some BIG issue and then dynamically facilitating them to reach points of “co-sensus. We’ll only have about 40 minutes with everyone watching the process, so this part is a little risky. Then, everyone will meet in small groups to continue the exploration with dialogue. Well that’s what would ordinarily happen. This time, however, there will be 35 people trained in Dynamic Facilitation at the conference, so we are hoping to carry the “choice-creating” conversation further in the small groups.

I’m pretty sure that people will experience being part of a “whole-system dialogue” from this experiment and get a feel for how the Wisdom Council might work in a big system like the city of Perth. I’d love to see people there pick up on the idea for the city, for government agencies, for organizations, or for the state of Western Australia.

If you’d like, I’d be happy to share the results of the conference and our experiment in an email when I get back to the States. I’ll probably send something to this list anyway, but if you want to be sure, send me your email address and I’ll add you to our list. (For more information about the Wisdom Council you might check out the Center for Wise Democracy … http://www.WiseDemocracy.org)

Jim Rough
Dynamic Facilitation Skills: http://www.ToBe.net
“Society’s Breakthrough!” by Jim Rough: http://www.SocietysBreakthrough.com

Tim Hartnett

Thanks to you all for an interesting discussion on consensus. I have posted an educational website that covers this topic with a variety of articles: http://consensusdecisionmaking.org. There is a place to post your own articles on the subject or be listed as a facilitator of consensus decision making.

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