Living Decisions

Is Consensus Decision-Making Hard?

In cohousing communities, consensus decision-making is the standard. And the fearful question is “Is consensus decision-making hard?”

In consensus decision-making,* all decision-makers work together to decide how the community will function, how it will look, and how the money will be spent. Each member is expected to participate in the process of making decisions and to consent to solutions that meet their own community-related needs and those of the community as a whole. Is it hard? Well, compared to what?

Musicians to demonstrate that we make consensus decisions all the time.

On the other hand, we make decisions by consent many times every day.

Is Consensus Decision-Making Holding Us Back?

It has been suggested that making decisions by consensus is holding back the cohousing movement. If another type of governance and authority were accepted, communities might develop faster and we would have more of them. I think this is not true.

The process of achieving consensus is easier in groups that have similar family backgrounds, income levels, educations, ages, religions, etc. In these groups, everyone is likely to share many values and have similar expectations about daily living. Many decisions have already been made while growing up in their communities.

But the value in cohousing communities is to be open and welcoming to people from all backgrounds. To have their own experience and understanding stretched and enriched by this diversity. This brings a higher level of complexity to decision-making. Members are likely to have more widely varying expectations.

Is Consensus Decision-Making Hard?

The hard place is not consensus; it is decision-making itself. The number of decisions with immediate consequences is probably much greater than members have experienced before. The hard parts of decision-making seem to be with consensus but that is only because cohousing members have never had to make so many decisions before.

1. Making decisions is hard regardless of the decision-making method. 

What is easier in both the short and long term than consensus? Is community enriched with autocratic decision-making? Or a majority vote. Or management company decisions? Or political tradeoffs.

2. Making decisions that affect one’s self and everyone else is hard. 

A team is not making decisions about planting trees for themselves. They are making decisions for many people as individuals. And no one hired you to do it –– you have no professional training in placing and planting trees.

3. Communications are hard.

In the process of investigation and study, information relevant to the decision is lost. Preferences gathered in October are forgotten by January. Options have changed by the time the order is placed. People have different mental images of expected results. Without communication, unresolved expectations cause conflict in any decision-making process.

4. Having patience is hard.

A decision that you see as clear-cut, a no-brainer, is new to others and they need to sit with it. It may seem more efficient to set time limits on discussion, but that may discourage some people from getting involved at all. And some of those people will nurse grievances that build up and affect their own and everyone else’s comfort in the community.

5. Decisions that affect us physically and emotionally are hard.

Cohousing is where we live. Our soul is invested. Can we live with appliances made in Germany? Which religious practices are comfortable for us in the CH? Do we value casual or formal? Do we need better air in the CH? Sometimes these are decisions made for health or ethical reasons, but they are also decisions about things that affect us physically and emotionally at a barely conscious level.

6. Decisions that place limits on our future are hard.

If we plant trees outside the kitchen window will we be sorry next winter when there is no light or next summer when the birds are roosting and pooping on the glider? If we give up the hot tub, will we really build that darkroom? If we give up parking spaces, will it be a problem when we have to sell our unit?

7. Decisions that require sacrifices to our ethical beliefs are hard.

Engaging and trying to change ourselves and the world is hard. It’s swimming upstream every day. How far can we go on shopping locally? Or organic? Can we avoid shopping at a store that treats employees unfairly? Is that even the best way to change the store? Is the effect of using wool the same for animal welfare as using leather?

8. Decisions that require spending large amounts of money are hard.

Cohousing is designed to facilitate and encourage community living but it is also a significant real estate investment and responsibility. Moving into a cohousing community means making decisions about the management of a multi-million-dollar housing development that regularly requires spending tens of thousands of dollars to maintain. Actively consenting to spend $500,000 on solar panels even with all their promise to be more economically and environmentally advantageous is still hard.

9. Decisions that must harmonize multiple socio-economic, ethnic, and cultural differences are hard.

We want diversity but we also need consensus. Any decision-making process that creates divisions defeats the purpose of cohousing. Meeting a variety of cultural expectations often requires spending money and time on things that may have little value to some members. Avoiding discrimination against or in favor of one group or the other according to age, gender, socio-economic class, education levels, etc., requires a depth of consideration that few of us have experienced.

Can We Fix Decision-Making?

Living in a cohousing community may be richer, but it isn’t always simpler. Some people are not in a place in their lives that allows them to confront all these Hards. A person may be too stressed physically or mentally to cope with additional demands on their attention. Others may have large nuclear families, strong neighborhoods, or long-term friendships that satisfy their need for community.

It is unlikely that these Hards will be made easier with better processing, or more training, or setting time limits on discussion. Or setting limits after which the group switches to majority vote. Some decisions are more appropriately made by different methods. Majority-vote may work better for choosing dates when most people can attend. Ranked-choice voting may work better than consensus when choosing the strongest preference between 6 alternatives. Solidarity might be required for deciding on actions that put the community at risk legally or financially.

Process training might help members be more comfortable participating in the decision-making process. And in understanding that there is no right way to reach a perfect decision. But for the majority of decisions with consequences, the difference will be only a matter of degree.

Accepting Consensus Decision-Making as the Best Choice

Group decisions become easier over the years as community members gain understanding and build trust between themselves. This is what is produced by the consensus process. But there will always new community members with different opinions, needs, customs, and expectations. It is also not unusual for a person to join a community with predetermined ideas of how to fix it.

Consensus becomes easier when we accept that consensus decision-making is hard. And that it is hard for good reason, not because we are inexperienced, afraid of conflict, have psychological problems, we are too dominant or too passive, are social failures, or despicable human beings. Decisions are easier when we don’t make judgments unrelated to the consequences of the decision.

*A comprehensive guide to consensus decision-making is on the Seeds for Change website.

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