Twinkle twinkle little fingers – consensus in action

7th November 2011 by

For the first time recently I’ve taken part in meetings (one small, one very large) where decisions were made by consensus. That’s not to say ‘We turned up and happily it turned out that actually we all agreed, so that was nice and easy’. Rather it means that we were making decisions under a formal ‘consensus decision-making process’ with particular ways of operating and reaching conclusions.

An Occupy LSX general assembly in progress using consensus decision-making

As someone who had only had experience of this through one workshop at a conference, putting it into practice – and using it with others to make important decisions – was a whole new bag for me. So this post is not a 101 in consensus decision-making, because I’m still learning, but more a ‘How it was for me’.

But essentially, the basic principles include having no votes where a decision is decided by majority – any decision made has to have the buy-in of everyone. And that really means everyone. A ‘no’ is in effect a block, or a veto, which sends a message that “I am so unhappy with this proposal that I would feel unable to stay in the organisation/camp/etc if it goes through”, and this can be exercised by even the smallest minority present (though there is an unwritten rule that anyone should limit themselves to one or two of these in a lifetime).

The 'I agree!' twinkling-fingers signal

To try to avoid blocks, however, there is a whole menu of ways to facilitate genuine discussion, listening and negotiation, much of it communicated via hand signals while speakers talk so that the meeting’s general warmth or coolness towards what’s being said can be gauged quickly, or so the type of intervention someone wants to make (clarifying question, direct response, technical point, and so on) can be understood by the facilitator.

That’s not to say it’s a quick process! Even those who are passionate about the value of consensus decision-making admit that it can take frustrating long hours to reach consensus even on simple matters. And a skilled facilitator seems to be really key.

So my first active experience was in an Otesha team meeting recently. We are keen here on using non-hierarchical structures and processes wherever possible, and it’s something we try to pass on also to the people who take part in our Cycle Tours, so it makes sense that we use it ourselves.

My next active experience of consensus decision-making was very different from our small Otesha team meeting. This time I was sat on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in a very large, diverse crowd, gathered for one of the twice-daily ‘General Assemblies’ of the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest camp. [Anyone, by the way, is allowed to turn up for these open-air meetings and contribute to decisions made about how the camp is run and what its strategy should be.]

This was an extraordinary experience. In a large crowd, the use of hand signals, and the eagle eyes and inclusive instincts of a skilled facilitator, seem even more (or perhaps just differently) important. [Here, there was a microphone (unlike Occupy Wall St which uses a ‘human mic’ technique thanks to a police ban on amplifiers).]

Josie Long addresses Occupy LSX

It was deeply impressive. This time it was held very efficiently and quickly because it was to be followed by a scheduled roster of speakers for a rally (including Otesha’s patron, Josie Long, who was as funny and passionate as ever). But that does not mean that dissent was stifled.

One or two voices objected to a proposal to pay travel expenses for Occupy representatives from other parts of the country to visit London, because it had not been made clear what proportion of the camp’s finances this might swallow up. These voices were heard, and in fact the rippling sea of waggling up-turned fingers showed it was a popular point, so the decision was deferred until better financial information would be brought to a future assembly.

Fascinating was that this all took place open to passers-by, tourists on open-top buses, any Londoner within earshot. And as many of the speakers pointed out, the stereotypes and insults flung at the camp by sections of the media often dissolved for curious visitors when they saw the collective discipline, inclusivity and openness with which decisions are being made in the lee of St Paul’s. Consensus decision-making is at the heart of the Occupy protests, not as a nice add-on but as an integral part of their agendas in itself, as the core of what is an experiment in finding alternative or deeper modes of democracy and organisation. That the protests do not have one hard and fast agenda is criticised by outsiders. But ‘the process’ is the agenda: experimenting in how society can feel its way to alternatives that just might work better than current systems.

So how did I take to it? Well, the positives:

  • It felt good to have a recognised process that values everyone’s views – something that can act against the conscious or unconscious shouting-down, pulling of rank, brandishing of expertise, machismo or bias in favour of extroverts that you might find (and probably have found) in standard meetings.
  • It makes sense to have a process which seeks everyone’s buy-in to a decision, even if for some that means ‘It’s not my favourite option, but I’ll accept it for the good of the group’, because it seems obvious that this stands a better chance of there being good morale, and therefore of loyalty and low turnover of staff (if it’s a ‘staffed’ organisation in question).
  • If people feel they and their concerns really will be listened to and so they really can speak their minds, important information is likely to be brought out and discussed that might otherwise have emerged later in a way that causes problems.

The negatives?

  • I’ve got a nagging feeling that it doesn’t eliminate the various ways in which we human primates will ruthlessly try (consciously or unconsciously) to ensure we get our way, whether by body language or anything else. This is where even a skilled facilitator will have to work hard to be very aware and find ways to circumvent these tendencies.
  • Sometimes I might find I’m not ready to have an opinion on something but am expected to give my view. We might all have different ways of mulling over a subject, and not everyone will deal well with being called upon to think aloud in company in this way and express thoughts that might not yet be fully formed. On the other hand, it can be good for those of us less comfortable in thinking aloud to actually do it, practice it and become comfortable, to ensure we are being active rather than passive.

I’m sure I’ll come across lots more positives and negatives as I get more experience in this way of working.

Occupy LSX at St Paul's. Can this many people really reach consensus?

As one Occupy Wall Street participant has pointed out, the movement has been confounding those who assumed it might be impossible to operate consensus models on this scale. The camps may fail or ‘succeed’, whatever that means. Their methods may be flawed in many ways. What is clear is that for those with direct experience of the camps, whether as a one-time drop-in or a pavement-hardened camper, they have already scored a success of kinds by demonstrating for many for the first time the thrill of finding they are capable of joining with others to participate in experiments in direct democracy. They are often messy, often frustrating, but they prove the falsity of claiming that there is no alternative to current systems.

2 Responses to “Twinkle twinkle little fingers – consensus in action”

  1. Nina says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences of Occupy LSX. It is so hard to get through all the media madness and really understand what’s going on at St. Paul’s. This has been a great read and has got me thinking about how to bring some of this approach to decision making with the young people I work with. – Thanks!

  2. Gavin says:

    Thanks, Nina. There are lots of resources out there on the internet for getting to grips with these techniques, and I’d bet there are some about how to use them with young people.

    It would be great to hear how you get on and what your experiences are in trying to put this into action. Keep in touch.

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