Sharing & Caring | Choosing to Live in Community

Caroline Estes

transcribed by Anne Ennis

In a truly operating consensus group, you are no longer just yourself. You become more a composite of the energies that are around you. These words are not easy for me. Anybody else better at spiritual expressions than I am? But, consensus brings out a unity of spirit in the group that we just don't encounter, generally. I don't know how else to put it.

Okay, my name is Caroline Estes. I live in an intentional community called Alpha Farm. I helped found it 37 years ago... It seems impossible... It grew out of living in Philadelphia and looking around me and saying, "This is not sustainable". Thirty-seven years ago. And with a little help from whatever you call it, I call it God, who gave me a swift kick, I started figuring out how to start a community. And five of us took our vacation together to Oregon after we had taken a year to figure out where we wanted to be. Went up to Vermont, because we thought Vermont was a good place, but it has too short a growing season. So, I started this, or, I was one of the people who started this community and I've been there since, and I can't imagine living any place else, though, I did for many years. I am 81 years old and I figure I've got about another nineteen years so I think that at one hundred, I am about nearing "That is probably enough". But it has been an incredible trip.

There are three basic parts of consensus no matter who you are, what you are, how you teach it or anything else; you have to agree on the fact that there is blocking or standing in the way of. There is, I don't know what they call it, now, what we call "stepping aside, standing aside" and then there's consensus. Now, if you're a Quaker, in certain circles, you *never* use the word "consensus"; it's "a sense of the meeting". You will get yourself in hot water. I did, I did and still do. Consensus is the social word that we have now taken into the vocabulary. So these are three essentials. Blocking is when you, as an individual, as part of a group, have the right to stand in the way of anything moving forward. And, it means that it will not move. We have to work with your concerns, and why you are feeling so strongly that you have to stand in the way of whatever the decision is to move forward.

Now, there's something called, Consensus Minus One, Consensus Minus Two, Consensus Minus Three, Consensus Minus Ten Per Cent, etc, etc, etc. That's not okay, from my perspective, there are other people that teach consensus who say that's okay. I don't agree with that. So, that is what I call "aggrievance seeking". And it is great, because it gets people more on board with each other. But it is not consensus. If you come from a place of strongly different with whatever the decision is, you have the responsibility to hold the group until they meet or work with your concerns. You have some piece of the truth that needs to be paid attention to. That's fundamental, gotta be there.

The other is, if you have a difference of opinion, and it's not earth shaking, it's not going to be detrimental to the group, and, you're not going to be harmed by it, you can set aside or stand aside, and allow the group to move forward. However, you have to tell, you can'tjust sit there and bite your tongue, and let the thing go forward and then you walk outside the door and then you say, "Well, I really didn't agree with that". That's taking your little shovel and undermining whatever was the decision, that is not fair the the group. It's okay to stand aside, so long as you let people know. There's a whole process that you go through to do that. So that the second part.

And the third part is the consensus, that is, that you truly agree with what is being decided, you're not just letting it slip through, like, "Well, I don't want to rock the boat, I don't want to bring something, maybe it is not relevant, or, I'll just go along with it". Consensus means that you really are there with that decision, and you will help carry it out. It doesn't mean that you are physically going to have to implement it, but you have to put your energy behind it. Don't pull back. That does not give energy to the decision to be carried carried out efficiently and effectively and harmoniously. I did that in five minutes.

Okay, those are the basics, those you have to come with. From there we can go all sorts of places. Where would we like to go?

Two people stand aside, I stop the decision. Two out of 200, two out of 600, I have stopped the decision, and we reconsider it, and we lay it over, and we think about it. Because those are two pieces that we are not paying attention to enough. Now, most people think I am crazy, but I have had situations where it was really important that we take the time to consider those two.

Because we are notpaying attention. Those two people... Now, there's a requirement on the part of the two people that they have put in what it is that they are worrying about in the discussion. And what it usually is, we didn't pay attention when they put them in, and so they are still holding it. They are still holding on to what it was that they had to share with us, and we did not listen, and so we need to take the time. It doesn't mean it's permanently stopped, it means that you stop, and you really reconsider, and really pay attention to that. Now, there's a dynamic here that you have to be careful with. There are some of us who have a need to be listened to more than others, and so we'll wait until the end of a time when a decision's being made, and then we'll stand aside, right, and then two or three of us will stand aside, that's not fair. You have to put your issue in, in the discussion, so that we have a chance to work with it, and to try to mold our decision to include it. However, there are a lot of times when we don't listen real well, and this gives everyone a chance to really be heard.

You're not blocking when you're standing aside. If the facilitator is paying enough attention to the fact that we haven't listened to these two, so they may only allow three or four minutes, or five minutes. Or, you may lay something over. Or, you may send them out, try and work on it. But if generally means, if someone is still standing aside after they have put their two cents in, that the group hasn't worked. It also means the facilitator has not worked with it, it is not just the group, the facilitator has not included that this goes into the whole training of facilitators.If someone is still standing aside after what, twenty minutes of a discussion, you haven't paid attention.

Is it okay if we move ahead? Now, someone having heard this stand aside again may say, "No, we didn't consider that and they bring it back in for another round, and you'll see eyes rolling and the whole bit. However, generally one person standing aside does not disrupt the flow towards a decision. You get two or three people standing aside, then there is something that is not working.

Okay, there's been considerable movement on this question you are raising, over the last, in my experience, forty years. I sat in meeting for worship, for business, where an individual would stop a meeting from moving forward, from what I would consider, a petty personal point of view. And so when I started teaching, this many years ago, I basically taught from that point, over the years. This has changed consensus considerably. To the point that now in facilitation training, the facilitator actually has the right to disallow a block. You better be sure of your grounds if you do it! The group can call you on it. However, this was unheard of when I started in this whole work. This now is not unusual, and I think a lot of it evolved because we moved into the social realm of so many groups that haven't a basic understanding of what mission is, and what the base of the group is, and all of that. And we are a fairly egotistical society, so we sometimes have trouble separating our own desire from what's best for the group, and I think that's why that change -- and I would never have taught that in facilitation training thirty years ago. And yet, now I do. When I am teaching facilitation, I teach that as a very cautious use that a facilitator can do. It's changed. There's no Quaker that I know of, who's from the old school, that would ever use that. But in consensus which is used in the larger society, it's now being trained.

The facilitator's the servant of the group and so as such, you serve the whole group not just the majority of the group, which is not how a lot of facilitators are trained. So, it is important to know that word... I wish we could find another word, because people who are trained in universities and such, are trained to achieve a goal. People who are trained in consensus are trained in process, in how you get there. You don't know what the decision is going to be down the line, and most trained facilitators out of university are trained how to move people, groupsto a goal, a pre-set goal, and that is not consensus, that is not how consensus works. What the facilitator is doing is helping the group decide what it wants... very different. I've been in groups that have been trained the other way, and they have been at war with the facilitators and when you come in from the other approach, they hardly know what to do with you, because they're so riled that they're being told where to go, not a good idea.

The way when I teach, I teach that every person in the group has a piece of the truth, every person. And so if you're gonna make the best decision you could make in the group -- that doesn't mean the best decision ever, but in that group -- is you want everyone of those pieces in that decision. So it isn't a question of the majority, the puzzle is not going to be complete unless you've got every piece in. So it takes a little work. It's not like you vote and 60% of you want to go one way, and that's the way you go, it's not that. And, the power you've got behind a group agreeing is immeasurable, as opposed to voting on something. I worked in Robert's rules of order for years, so I know how you do that, and I was pretty good at that, too, and it's just no comparison. The power, the power is behind the decision. This is assuming that you want a good decision!

Give them a time limit, have them practice it. If you meet once a month, let's say, or once a week and you want to see if the group would be open at all to consensus: "Would you be okay if we do, like, a half an hour of training, a little bit on what this means and then we try it for three months". And at the end of which, it is as though it never happened, so you don't have the consensus continuing, but you give a deadline to it. I've never known a group to go back.

If you're making decisions of some importance to your group, it's well to divide them into those that are policy decisions and those that are miscellaneous, on-going, everyday decisions. Those are two different kinds. One, you can take up, usually, with a proposal that has been put forward at one time. If you're going to do a policy decision, I recommend you do it over three meetings, minimum. The first time it's introduced, the second time it's discussed in depth, and the third time you make the decision and or continue the discussions on and on and on. But it's important to recognize that there is a big difference in a policy decision, you are going to have to live with it for awhile. Now remember, consensus is a very conservative process, once you consense, in order to change it, you have to consent. This is no lightweight thing, this is giving to you the time that you are taking to discuss something, some real weight. So if you are going to change that decision, you need consensus to change it. So, if you're just making a decision when to have a picnic, that's one thing. But if you're making a decision on whether or not you're going to move and build a building, you're gonna live with that for a long time, so be sure that you take enough time to make the right decision, as right as you can make it at that point.

One of the keys that I try to give people - and I have to tell you that this is one of the hardest things for people who practice consensus to do. And that is, offer your truth, and take your imaginary scissors, and cut it away from you. It's no longer yours, it's the group, you have offered it to the group.Now it means the group has to take it.So, it is a two-way street. But when you're talking, you don't just say, "As so and so said",because all you're doing is re-attaching it to them. So instead, you'll say, "As this is", and you name it, talk about the issue and the parts of the issue that are being illuminated at the time, and it changes the whole dynamic when you're not talking about. and you don't have to worry about, just because this person is more articulate, or this person is a little richer, or this person is a little more knowledgeable or... It eliminates that, and it just makes the ideas that are coming out, is what you're working with, not the personalities.

There's an assumption that there is a form of some kind. If there is, then there should be a mission statement or something that's underneath you that draws you all together. You have a common purpose, something is drawing you together, there's a common purpose. That's important, now that's what we talk about, mission statements and all, and it's helpful if it's written, so you have a common purpose. During that, you come to that agreement, that's why we are together. Whether it's a city council or it's a local neighborhood group to take care of garbage collection, you have a common purpose. Now, you are going to come together, you need to have a common time of when you are going to meet, a place, everybody knows where it is. There's a very interesting thing, in some groups, it used to be, if you were some groups you would change the place so that some people would not get there. That does happen, not in a consensus group. So you have to have a time, a place, who's going to be there. That is, you have to let everyone that is supposed to be there get notified. There has to be an agenda.The agenda has to be pretty specific, that means someone was responsible for getting the agenda together. It didn't just appear, it didn't just come out of the floor, someone had to be appointed, selected to bring an agenda together that is shared with the people who are going to come to the meeting. Hopefully, more than hour beforehand, now I am not a computer person, this hasgotten all messed up with computers. I am telling you what I know without computers, that means that they need to have at least several days notice of when the meeting is going to be.

So, you send out your agenda, you have the time and the place, you have a facilitator, someone who's been appointed ahead of time; it's so helpful to know who your facilitator is before the meeting. And you all arrive.

Now when you all arrive, as a facilitator, what is the most thing that you have to do? As a facilitator, now this is not a participant, you're going to come as a participant. As a facilitator, what is the first thing that you have to do?

You have to get in the door. Now maybe none of you have been in the position of where you have arrived and the caretaker of the building has not unlocked the building and you're going to have eighty people arrive in another half hour. It seems so elemental, and yet we very seldom remember that is the first job as a facilitator. The first job. Okay, I always throw that in every time because I arrived one time and the building was not open. Took me half an hour to even find the person to open who's I was gonna have to get the key from, to come down to unlock the building. Hair raising.

Oh good, you're in the building, you're the facilitator, you've set up the place, it's all cool, you're greeting people, everyone is there and you're sitting around and you're ready to go. We won't go through the whole, coffee, tea and me thing. It's important at that point that everybody agrees on the agenda. Now, you've all had the agenda ahead of time, right? But two people who are going to do presentations on the agenda, their car break down, so you're not going to be able to do the agenda the way you put it out. So, the group has to agree to change the agenda. It's your agenda, once it is approved, that's your contract between the facilitator and the group, and the group with each other. That's your contract, that's why you are there, that's what you're gonna do.

Okay, so usually, if you're meeting-wise, you know that the first item on your agenda is going to be simple, because you want something that you're going to come to a decision with easily, and everybody's energy is going to go up. Meetings have a bell curve. Everybody knows what a bell curve is? Your energy starts here, it builds, it goes up, and then it falls off. Now, take your heaviest item at that top point, don't take it over here, where the energy is going like this, or before you built your energy up; take it at the top point. You've got two really serious questions that you have to deal with, take them on each side of a break, take a break, take them on each side of that break. So that you are going to moving the group consensually in their highest point of energy, you're not going to make them work when they are tired, or before they've really gotten into the swing of things.

If you want to, most meetings should not be in chunks of more than an hour and a half, do not ask people to sit longer than a hour and a half. I can tell you when a hour and a half comes, literally, people start to just glaze over. If you can't take a long break, at an hour and a half, at least take a stand-up, turn-around, speak-to-your-neighbour break. There is no such thing as a ten minute break, by the way, if you move, it doesn't exist. The minimum that you can do is fifteen minutes, and usually you are looking at twenty. But if you want to take a break, and you realize that people are starting to glaze over, turn up, turn around, say hello to your neighbour, do not go to the bathroom, don't go have a smoke, nothing else, or you break the rhythm, it breaks. Now, remember you are doing all this stuff in order to build the mood, to make your decision, this is all important stuff. So you may think this is miscellaneous, but it's not miscellaneous.

Okay, so you've got your first item, and you have a presenter. Every item on your agenda has a presenter, someone who is going to offer the item, hopefully in writing, ahead of time. However, that's asking for too much usually. So if you're in a circle, always keep this chair empty. If you are the facilitator here, have the presenter come here.

Why? The energy all comes one place, it's all focused. The facilitator is not trying to facilitate the person over here who's the presenter, it's all right here. It can go very smoothly, very quickly. The presenter doesn't have to be the one who's facilitating. The facilitator can facilitate. The presenter is the one with the information.

Okay, so here you are, you have your presenter, they've laid it out, and there's a question, you've asked a question, do you want a decision on it, maybe you've even offered a decision, and then you start. And you have it very clear, you ask for any clarifying questions, so that the presenter has made it very clear what you're talking about, and then you start the discussion. Now, discussion can take several forms. One is, that you can ask for just general input. Second, you can go around and say, "We need word from everyone, at least once so is it okay if we start with you", and we go around, and you give your first up or down, or your piece of the truth. The facilitator after aboutfour will summarize what's been said, and then you'll go another four and you'll take those four and put it together with what this four was, and then you'll go another four, and take those four and put it together with these eight, and you get over here.

Now if it's a simple question, you may be at the decision right there. You've had everybody speak, you've given a form, you've summarized as you've gone around, and it is all starting to come together. And when they get back here, you say, "It seems to me, this is where we are on this question... are we at a decision? I suggest that that will take probably eight minutes. That's one way. The other way is, just throw it all in. You have to do the same thing, though! You and you and you and you all, then facilitator must facilitate, must gather those four people together, what they've done. Then you and you and you, gather them together, put them together, and you may have pieces that are not fitting. So when you are summarizing, you're summarizing not just agreements, but where people are differing. And as that's happening, people have to be paying attention, where are we still not in agreement, as we go? The purpose is that you are building the consensus during that whole time that you're talking, the facilitator is helping you, is serving you, by building that consensus and putting it together. With a trained facilitator you'll cut your time in half.

No, what you usually do is, you'd say, "So, where are we in our decision?" And the minute taker would read where they have, in their opinion, moved us along, where we've moved along, and it doesn't mean that we're there yet, but that's where they've got us. And at the end, you have to ask the minute taker to read the minute of the decision, because that's what we've decided. And if it isn't written down, and we don't agree to it exactly as it's written, we haven't got the decision yet, because that is what we are going to live with next week, next month, next year, next decade, is what's written down. Not what we all remember, what we remember, no, what's written down.

Scribe, a scribe is a wonderful thing, is wonderful. I'm a facilitator, I am not a scribe. I ask someone else to scribe, and they do exactly what you are talking about, so that it is visual for people to see, and then you don't have to keep repeating the same thing over and over again. A good facilitator will repeat what someone said and usually you don't get it repeated again. One of the things that happens in groups, that's most frustrating, is where one person states something, and then three minutes later they state it again, and five minutes later they state it again. If a facilitator will say what that person said, usually they don't have to do that. The reason that they do that is that they think they have not been heard. I mean that's the reason why people keep repeating. So if you are in a group where you don't have a facilitator, and you have someone who does that, you do it. You say, "Oh, I heard you say...", you will basically shut the person up, so they don't have to keep repeating. It's really helpful, because generally the reason people repeat is that they don't think they've been heard. And it may be true that they haven't been heard!

Okay, we are at the process, we've got the first decision made. We came to you, and it was all together, and I put out, "This is our decision, this is what I suggest our decision is, would you read it please?", and you'll read it off, because you are the minute-taker. And you will read what I have just said, hopefully. Now I have a minute taker that works with me who is a language expert, and she polishes everything that I say so that I can hardly recognize what I say, she is so fantastic! So by the time we are finished, and I am ready to state, she's got it all down, it is all done. And if you have a minute-taker who can that, they're gold; polish them all the time, because they're gold. If not, if you've got people that you need to work with, who are doing a good job but need help, let them practice, it's a practice. But it is a precious gift.

Okay, we are on our second item, and our second item is longer and we're gonna have to really boot it. So, you've left and the new presenter is up here. We have the presentation and hopefully it has been written. We now can start chewing on it. And what we need to do on this one is divided, it's a multiple issue. Don't try to take a multiple issue all at the same time, you'll just scramble everybody's brains. Divide it, agree, say, Is it ok if we take this in three sections? And we may not get to all three sections tonight, because we're limited to time, and we've assigned only half an hour to this, and it may take us longer. But, let's tackle the first one, so we concentrate on the first. Now, the problem will be, people wanting to go on to the second one while you're still on the first, so you have to hold a tight rein. Say, "Oh, that is a good idea for later", or, "You hold that, and we will pick that up when we've come to that section". You have to hold it. So you're gonna start accumulating a decision. Okay, you go around, you accumulate all of the discussion on this first section, and you've kind of done all that you can do, and you state, where you think that group is on that. Say, "Now can we hold that", because it's a hold decision.Let's go to the middle part, so then we call on the person who had already put in their two cents, to repeat on the second, and we go round and we come to a decision there, tentative. We put it with our tentative first decision. And let's say that we were really good, and it only took us twenty minutes on those two, and we still have ten minutes for the last, and we do thee same thing, and we put that together with the first.

Then you state the whole decision you've come to, the three parts.If you're lucky, they all set together. Because probably what's happened on the third one, is it changes the first part. Then you're in trouble, cause you're gonna have to change the first part. However, you've made enormous progress, so you've moved ahead on your decision and you're to the point now of seeing whether or not you've got a decision. Oh, dear. We've asked is this okay, this is our decision, you've read it, somebody says, "No, I don't think so, I am going to stand aside", someone else says they're going to stand aside, we haven't spent enough time on this, I can't go along with this. The third person says, "No, I don't think so"... So where are you? You're in a decision making place, it has a time limit on it, we need to make a decision today.

Things you can do when you have come to a stop, and you're not through your agenda yet: You can ask the group, Can we take more time? Can we put this at the end of the meeting in case we end early? Can we put it over, or is it so timely we have to do it today? And if so, we have to displace something on the agenda.

It's sticky, because somebody is gonna have to give up their place, and they've prepared for this. And yet, this is something timely, got to do it today, not tomorrow, not next week, not at the next meeting, but now. So, you browbeat somebody into giving up their space, and you go on, and you make your decision. These are all real, and this is where people say, "Consensus won't work, because you have to make a decision.You can make a decision, but you just have to make adjustments in your process. It isn't that the decision by consensus is wrong, or is inadequate, it's that you have to face the structural, the process structures within which consensus works. And if it means that you have to make it today, then you have to make it today.

Now I have to tell you in the years that I have been facilitating, I have never yet faced a situation where the decision had to made today. We think we have to make it today, and usually it's because we have procrastinated, and we haven't brought it up early enough. However, the world is not going to stop spinning because we haven't made any decision that I was told we had to make. It wasn't easy but we got through it.

Let's say we got through our agenda, and we are on to the ending of the agenda, the last item, and we can't make a decision. The group has to decide what it's going to do. Should we drop it? Should we lay it over? Shall we extend the time of the meeting, do any of those? In general, my suggestion to people is that you start on time, and that you end on time, and do not extend the meeting. And the reason is that people have babysitters at home, they have spouses who are waiting for them, they have rides.In Philadelphia, you have trains you have to catch.

So it's really important, I think, that you start the meeting on time. It means that people will come to the next meeting, and feel comfortable with if they are going to able to get home on time, otherwise you get really kinda antsy.