Most of us join a cohousing community with little experience of consensus. We find the ideas of shared decision-making quite appealing, but we don’t really know how to do it. So we read books and blogs and attend conferences and workshops and we try to find our way. Somewhere along the line most groups write down some cohousing rules. They may call them bylaws or community agreements or some other name. At their core consensus rules tend to be best practices, things we agree to do together because we believe they will make our consensus process work for us.
I’m generally in support of cohousing rules. Communities need to be clear about what does and does not constitute consensus or consent in their community. Clear, written agreements about things like quorum and blocking and what happens if someone is absent create a level of structure, consistency and safety that is essential in community. In Imago Relationships, we call this a “container” in which relationships can be explored and growth can occur.
It’s also good to think about what we expect of ourselves as individuals in a consensus community. Often these pieces also get included in consensus rules. Things like “You can only block if it is for the good of the community and not for your own self interest.” or “You must give a reason for an objection, block or standaside.” These are good practices and the more that the individuals in the community follow them, the more likely the community will have a successful and enriching experience of consensus.
At the same time, these rules about individual behavior can go south in a hurry. As a general rule of thumb, I encourage communities to talk about these best practices, to understand why they matter and to work toward alignment in terms of valuing these practices. I also recommend that each person apply these rules to themselves and not to others. Things get messy when we try to insist that others behave in a particular way as we can easily find ourselves in a power over dynamic.
It is generally not helpful in community for anyone to say “Your objection only counts if you give a reason based on the values of our community.” or quotes some other rule for behavior. At that point, you have entered into territory where you are using the power you have in the group to compel another person to do something they would not otherwise do. This is the antithesis of consensus culture which is shared power.
I will pause to mention here than gentle invitations or reminders can work, provided they are genuinely suggestions, meaning it is honestly OK for the person receiving them not to do what is suggested. Certainly a facilitator or friendly neighbor could, for example, say in a gentle voice, “Could you give a reason for your standaside?” It is the tone, energy and expectation attached to the words that will matter most.
If someone is not participating with best consensus practices, attempting to force them to do so is unlikely to solve the underlying problem. Odds are that in that moment, the person in question isn’t able to do what others might wish. This may be because they haven’t yet developed the skills that all of us build over a lifetime of community living. It may be that something else is going on in the room that has them triggered or distressed. It may be that the process is moving too fast and they don’t know how to say that they need time to catch up. Whatever the case, the more curious you become about the underlying problem, the more positive your outcome is likely to be.
Communities that are committed to exploring, discovering and addressing the causes of distress, have fewer problems with consensus rules, and better and better experiences over time. For most communities frequent support from process professionals, especially in the first 10 years of community life, is an essential part of learning to use consensus well.