OFF-GRID HEALING CENTER, ORGANIC FARM,
YOGA RETREAT & INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY
On Conflict and Consensus
a handbook on Formal Consensus Decision making
by C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein
If war is the violent resolution of conflict,
then peace is not the absence of conflict,
the ability to resolve conflict
Consensus, as a decision making process, has been developing for centuries. Many people, in diverse
communities, have contributed to this development. From them, we have borrowed generously and adapted
1 The Advantages of Formal Consensus
Characteristics of Formal Consensus
2 On Decision making
The Structure of Formal Consensus
The Flow of Formal Consensus
The Rules of Formal Consensus
3 On Conflict and Consensus
Foundation Upon Which Consensus Is Built
Impediments To Consensus
On Degrees of Conflict
4 The Art of Evaluation
Purpose of Evaluation
Uses of Evaluation
Types of Evaluation Questions
Group Discussion Techniques
1 The Advantages of Formal Consensus
There are many ways to make decisions. Sometimes, the most efficient way to make decisions would be to just let
the manager (or CEO, or dictator) make them. However, efficiency is not the only criteria. When choosing a
decision making method, one needs to ask two questions. Is it a fair process? Does it produce good solutions?
To judge the process, consider the following: Does the meeting flow smoothly? Is the discussion kept to the point?
Does it take too long to make each decision? Does the leadership determine the outcome of the discussion? Are
some people overlooked?
To judge the quality of the end result, the decision, consider: Are the people making the decision, and all those
affected, satisfied with the result? To what degree is the intent of the original proposal accomplished? Are the
underlying issues addressed? Is there an appropriate use of resources? Would the group make the same
Autocracy can work, but the idea of a benevolent dictator is just a dream. We believe that it is inherently better to
involve every person who is affected by the decision in the decision making process. This is true for several
reasons. The decision would reflect the will of the entire group, not just the leadership. The people who carry out
the plans will be more satisfied with their work. And, as the old adage goes, two heads are better than one.
This book presents a particular model for decision making we call Formal Consensus. Formal Consensus has a
clearly defined structure. It requires a commitment to active cooperation, disciplined speaking and listening, and
respect for the contributions of every member. Likewise, every person has the responsibility to actively participate
as a creative individual within the structure.
Avoidance, denial, and repression of conflict is common during meetings. Therefore, using Formal Consensus
might not be easy at first. Unresolved conflict from previous experiences could come rushing forth and make the
process difficult, if not impossible. Practice and discipline, however, will smooth the process. The benefit of
everyone's participation and cooperation is worth the struggle it may initially take to ensure that all voices are
It is often said that consensus is time-consuming and difficult. Making complex, difficult decisions is time-
consuming, no matter what the process. Many different methods can be efficient, if every participant shares a
common understanding of the rules of the game. Like any process, Formal Consensus can be inefficient if a
group does not first assent to follow a particular structure.
This book codifies a formal structure for decision making. It is hoped that the relationship between this book and
Formal Consensus would be similar to the relationship between Robert's Rules of Order and Parliamentary
Methods of decision making can be seen on a continuum with one person having total authority on one end to
everyone sharing power and responsibility on the other.
The level of participation increases along this decision making continuum. Oligarchies and autocracies offer no
participation to many of those who are directly affected. Representative, majority rule, and consensus
democracies involve everybody, to different degrees.
A group, by definition, is a number of individuals having some unifying relationship. The group dynamic created
by consensus process is completely different from that of Parliamentary Procedure, from start to finish. It is based
on different values and uses a different language, a different structure, and many different techniques, although
some techniques are similar. It might be helpful to explain some broad concepts about group dynamics and
While decision making is as much about conflict as it is about agreement, Formal Consensus works best in an
atmosphere in which conflict is encouraged, supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, nonviolence, and
creativity. Conflict is desirable. It is not something to be avoided, dismissed, diminished, or denied.
Majority Rule and Competition
Generally speaking, when a group votes using majority rule or Parliamentary Procedure, a competitive dynamic is
created within the group because it is being asked to choose between two (or more) possibilities. It is just as
acceptable to attack and diminish another's point of view as it is to promote and endorse your own ideas. Often,
voting occurs before one side reveals anything about itself, but spends time solely attacking the opponent! In this
adversarial environment, one's ideas are owned and often defended in the face of improvements.
Consensus and Cooperation
Consensus process, on the other hand, creates a cooperative dynamic. Only one proposal is considered at a
time. Everyone works together to make it the best possible decision for the group. Any concerns are raised and
resolved, sometimes one by one, until all voices are heard. Since proposals are no longer the property of the
presenter, a solution can be created more cooperatively.
In the consensus process, only proposals which intend to accomplish the common purpose are considered.
During discussion of a proposal, everyone works to improve the proposal to make it the best decision for the
group. All proposals are adopted unless the group decides it is contrary to the best interests of the group.
Characteristics of Formal Consensus
Before a group decides to use Formal Consensus, it must honestly assess its ability to honor the principles
described in Chapter Three. If the principles described in this book are not already present or if the group is not
willing to work to create them, then Formal Consensus will not be possible. Any group which wants to adopt
Formal Consensus needs to give considerable attention to the underlying principles which support consensus
and help the process operate smoothly. This is not to say each and every one of the principles described herein
must be adopted by every group, or that each group cannot add its own principles specific to its goals, but rather,
each group must be very clear about the foundation of principles or common purposes they choose before they
attempt the Formal Consensus decision making process.
Formal Consensus is the least violent decision making process.
Traditional nonviolence theory holds that the use of power to dominate is violent and undesirable. Nonviolence
expects people to use their power to persuade without deception, coercion, or malice, using truth, creativity, logic,
respect, and love. Majority rule voting process and Parliamentary Procedure both accept, and even encourage,
the use of power to dominate others. The goal is the winning of the vote, often regardless of another choice which
might be in the best interest of the whole group. The will of the majority supersedes the concerns and desires of
the minority. This is inherently violent. Consensus strives to take into account everyone's concerns and resolve
them before any decision is made. Most importantly, this process encourages an environment in which everyone
is respected and all contributions are valued.
Formal Consensus is the most democratic decision making process.
Groups which desire to involve as many people as possible need to use an inclusive process. To attract and
involve large numbers, it is important that the process encourages participation, allows equal access to power,
develops cooperation, promotes empowerment, and creates a sense of individual responsibility for the group's
actions. All of these are cornerstones of Formal Consensus. The goal of consensus is not the selection of several
options, but the development of one decision which is the best for the whole group. It is synthesis and evolution,
not competition and attrition.
Formal Consensus is based on the principles of the group.
Although every individual must consent to a decision before it is adopted, if there are any objections, it is not the
choice of the individual alone to determine if an objection prevents the proposal from being adopted. Every
objection or concern must first be presented before the group and either resolved or validated. A valid objection
is one in keeping with all previous decisions of the group and based upon the commonly-held principles or
foundation adopted by the group. The objection must not only address the concerns of the individual, but it must
also be in the best interest of the group as a whole. If the objection is not based upon the foundation, or is in
contradiction with a prior decision, it is not valid for the group, and therefore, out of order.
Formal Consensus is desirable in larger groups.
If the structure is vague, decisions can be difficult to achieve. They will become increasingly more difficult in larger
groups. Formal Consensus is designed for large groups. It is a highly structured model. It has guidelines and
formats for managing meetings, facilitating discussions, resolving conflict, and reaching decisions. Smaller groups
may need less structure, so they may choose from the many techniques and roles suggested in this book.
Formal Consensus works better when more people participate.
Consensus is more than the sum total of ideas of the individuals in the group. During discussion, ideas build one
upon the next, generating new ideas, until the best decision emerges. This dynamic is called the creative interplay
of ideas. Creativity plays a major part as everyone strives to discover what is best for the group. The more people
involved in this cooperative process, the more ideas and possibilities are generated. Consensus works best with
everyone participating. (This assumes, of course, that everyone in the group is trained in Formal Consensus and
is actively using it.)
Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming.
Decisions are not an end in themselves. Decision making is a process which starts with an idea and ends with the
actual implementation of the decision. While it may be true in an autocratic process that decisions can be made
quickly, the actual implementation will take time. When one person or a small group of people makes a decision
for a larger group, the decision not only has to be communicated to the others, but it also has to be acceptable to
them or its implementation will need to be forced upon them. This will certainly take time, perhaps a considerable
amount of time. On the other hand, if everyone participates in the decision making, the decision does not need to
be communicated and its implementation does not need to be forced upon the participants. The decision may
take longer to make, but once it is made, implementation can happen in a timely manner. The amount of time a
decision takes to make from start to finish is not a factor of the process used; rather, it is a factor of the complexity
of the proposal itself. An easy decision takes less time than a difficult, complex decision, regardless of the process
used or the number of people involved. Of course, Formal Consensus works better if one practices patience, but
any process is improved with a generous amount of patience.
Formal Consensus cannot be secretly disrupted.
This may not be an issue for some groups, but many people know that the state actively surveilles, infiltrates, and
disrupts nonviolent domestic political and religious groups. To counteract anti-democratic tactics by the state, a
group would need to develop and encourage a decision making process which could not be covertly controlled or
manipulated. Formal Consensus, if practiced as described in this book, is just such a process. Since the
assumption is one of cooperation and good will, it is always appropriate to ask for an explanation of how and why
someone's actions are in the best interest of the group. Disruptive behavior must not be tolerated. While it is true
this process cannot prevent openly disruptive behavior, the point is to prevent covert disruption, hidden agenda,
and malicious manipulation of the process. Any group for which infiltration is a threat ought to consider the
process outlined in this book if it wishes to remain open, democratic, and productive.
2 On Decision making
Decisions are adopted when all participants consent to the result of discussion about the original proposal.
People who do not agree with a proposal are responsible for expressing their concerns. No decision is adopted
until there is resolution of every concern. When concerns remain after discussion, individuals can agree to
disagree by acknowledging that they have unresolved concerns, but consent to the proposal anyway and allow it
to be adopted. Therefore, reaching consensus does not assume that everyone must be in complete agreement, a
highly unlikely situation in a group of intelligent, creative individuals.
Consensus is becoming popular as a democratic form of decision making. It is a process which requires an
environment in which all contributions are valued and participation is encouraged. There are, however, few
organizations which use a model of consensus which is specific, consistent, and efficient. Often, the consensus
process is informal, vague, and very inconsistent. This happens when the consensus process is not based upon
a solid foundation and the structure is unknown or nonexistent. To develop a more formal type of consensus
process, any organization must define the commonly held principles which form the foundation of the group's work
and intentionally choose the type of structure within which the process is built.
This book contains the building materials for just such a process. Included is a description of the principles from
which a foundation is created, the flowchart and levels of structure which are the frame for the process, and the
other materials needed for designing a variety of processes which can be customized to fit the needs of the
The Structure of Formal Consensus
Many groups regularly use diverse discussion techniques learned from practitioners in the field of conflict
resolution. Although this book does include several techniques, the book is about a structure called Formal
Consensus. This structure creates a separation between the identification and the resolution of concerns.
Perhaps, if everybody in the group has no trouble saying what they think, they won't need this structure. This
predictable structure provides opportunities to those who don't feel empowered to participate.
Formal Consensus is presented in levels or cycles. In the first level, the idea is to allow everyone to express their
perspective, including concerns, but group time is not spent on resolving problems. In the second level the group
focuses its attention on identifying concerns, still not resolving them. This requires discipline. Reactive comments,
even funny ones, and resolutions, even good ones, can suppress the creative ideas of others. Not until the third
level does the structure allow for exploring resolutions.
Each level has a different scope and focus. At the first level, the scope is broad, allowing the discussion to
consider the philosophical and political implications as well as the general merits and drawbacks and other
relevant information. The only focus is on the proposal as a whole. Some decisions can be reached after
discussion at the first level. At the second level, the scope of the discussion is limited to the concerns. They are
identified and publicly listed, which enables everyone to get an overall picture of the concerns. The focus of
attention is on identifying the body of concerns and grouping similar ones. At the third level, the scope is very
narrow. The focus of discussion is limited to a single unresolved concern until it is resolved.
The Flow of the Formal Consensus Process
In an ideal situation, every proposal would be submitted in writing and briefly introduced the first time it appears
on the agenda. At the next meeting, after everyone has had enough time to read it and carefully consider any
concerns, the discussion would begin in earnest. Often, it would not be until the third meeting that a decision is
made. Of course, this depends upon how many proposals are on the table and the urgency of the decision.
Clarify the Process
The facilitator introduces the person presenting the proposal and gives a short update on any previous action on
it. It is very important for the facilitator to explain the process which brought this proposal to the meeting, and to
describe the process that will be followed to move the group through the proposal to consensus. It is the
facilitator's job to make sure that every participant clearly understands the structure and the discussion
techniques being employed while the meeting is in progress.
Present Proposal or Issue
When possible and appropriate, proposals ought to be prepared in writing and distributed well in advance of the
meeting in which a decision is required. This encourages prior discussion and consideration, helps the presenter
anticipate concerns, minimizes surprises, and involves everyone in creating the proposal. (If the necessary
groundwork has not been done, the wisest choice might be to send the proposal to committee. Proposal writing is
difficult to accomplish in a large group. The committee would develop the proposal for consideration at a later
time.) The presenter reads the written proposal aloud, provides background information, and states clearly its
benefits and reasons for adoption, including addressing any existing concerns.
Questions Which Clarify the Presentation
Questions are strictly limited by the facilitator to those which seek greater comprehension of the proposal as
presented. Everyone deserves the opportunity to fully understand what is being asked of the group before
discussion begins. This is not a time for comments or concerns. If there are only a few questions, they can be
answered one at a time by the person presenting the proposal. If there are many, a useful technique is hearing all
the questions first, then answering them together. After answering all clarifying questions, the group begins
Level One: Broad Open Discussion
Discussion at this level ought to be the broadest in scope. Try to encourage comments which take the whole
proposal into account; i.e., why it is a good idea, or general problems which need to be addressed. Discussion at
this level often has a philosophical or principled tone, purposely addressing how this proposal might affect the
group in the long run or what kind of precedent it might create, etc. It helps every proposal to be discussed in this
way, before the group engages in resolving particular concerns. Do not allow one concern to become the focus of
the discussion. When particular concerns are raised, make note of them but encourage the discussion to move
back to the proposal as a whole. Encourage the creative interplay of comments and ideas. Allow for the addition
of any relevant factual information. For those who might at first feel opposed to the proposal, this discussion is
consideration of why it might be good for the group in the broadest sense. Their initial concerns might, in fact, be
of general concern to the whole group. And, for those who initially support the proposal, this is a time to think
about the proposal broadly and some of the general problems. If there seems to be general approval of the
proposal, the facilitator, or someone recognized to speak, can request a call for consensus.
Call for Consensus
The facilitator asks, "Are there any unresolved concerns?" or "Are there any concerns remaining?" After a period
of silence, if no additional concerns are raised, the facilitator declares that consensus is reached and the
proposal is read for the record. The length of silence ought to be directly related to the degree of difficulty in
reaching consensus; an easy decision requires a short silence, a difficult decision requires a longer silence. This
encourages everyone to be at peace in accepting the consensus before moving on to other business. At this
point, the facilitator assigns task responsibilities or sends the decision to a committee for implementation. It is
important to note that the question is not "Is there consensus?" or "Does everyone agree?". These questions do
not encourage an environment in which all concerns can be expressed. If some people have a concern, but are
shy or intimidated by a strong showing of support for a proposal, the question "Are there any unresolved
concerns?" speaks directly to them and provides an opportunity for them to speak. Any concerns for which
someone stands aside are listed with the proposal and become a part of it.
Level Two: Identify Concerns
List All Concerns
At the beginning of the next level, a discussion technique called brainstorming (see page 55) is used so that
concerns can be identified and written down publicly by the scribe and for the record by the notetaker. Be sure
the scribe is as accurate as possible by checking with the person who voiced the concern before moving on. This
is not a time to attempt to resolve concerns or determine their validity. That would stifle free expression of
concerns. At this point, only concerns are to be expressed, reasonable or unreasonable, well thought out or
vague feelings. The facilitator wants to interrupt any comments which attempt to defend the proposal, resolve the
concerns, judge the value of the concerns, or in any way deny or dismiss another's feelings of doubt or concern.
Sometimes simply allowing a concern to be expressed and written down helps resolve it. After all concerns have
been listed, allow the group a moment to reflect on them as a whole.
Group Related Concerns
At this point, the focus is on identifying patterns and relationships between concerns. This short exercise must not
be allowed to focus upon or resolve any particular concern.
Level Three: Resolve Concerns
Resolve Groups of Related Concerns
Often, related concerns can be resolved as a group.
Call for Consensus
If most of the concerns seem to have been resolved, call for consensus in the manner described earlier. If some
concerns have not been resolved at this time, then a more focused discussion is needed.
Restate Remaining Concerns (One at a Time)
Return to the list. The facilitator checks each one with the group and removes ones which have been resolved or
are, for any reason, no longer of concern. Each remaining concern is restated clearly and concisely and
addressed one at a time. Sometimes new concerns are raised which need to be added to the list. However, every
individual is responsible for honestly expressing concerns as they think of them. It is not appropriate to hold back
a concern and spring it upon the group late in the process. This undermines trust and limits the group's ability to
adequately discuss the concern in its relation to other concerns.
Questions Which Clarify the Concern
The facilitator asks for any questions or comments which would further clarify the concern so everyone clearly
understands it before discussion starts.
Discussion Limited to Resolving One Concern
Use as many creative group discussion techniques as needed to facilitate a resolution for each concern. Keep the
discussion focused upon the particular concern until every suggestion has been offered. If no new ideas are
coming forward and the concern cannot be resolved, or if the time allotted for this item has been entirely used,
move to one of the closing options described below.
Call for Consensus
Repeat this process until all concerns have been resolved. At this point, the group should be at consensus, but it
would be appropriate to call for consensus anyway just to be sure no concern has been overlooked.
Send to Committee
If a decision on the proposal can wait until the whole group meets again, then send the proposal to a committee
which can clarify the concerns and bring new, creative resolutions for consideration by the group. It is a good idea
to include on the committee representatives of all the major concerns, as well as those most supportive of the
proposal so they can work out solutions in a less formal setting. Sometimes, if the decision is needed before the
next meeting, a smaller group can be empowered to make the decision for the larger group, but again, this
committee should include all points of view. Choose this option only if it is absolutely necessary and the whole
Stand Aside (Decision Adopted with Unresolved Concerns Listed)
When a concern has been fully discussed and cannot be resolved, it is appropriate for the facilitator to ask those
persons with this concern if they are willing to stand aside; that is, acknowledge that the concern still exists, but
allow the proposal to be adopted. It is very important for the whole group to understand that this unresolved
concern is then written down with the proposal in the record and, in essence, becomes a part of the decision. This
concern can be raised again and deserves more discussion time as it has not yet been resolved. In contrast, a
concern which has been resolved in past discussion does not deserve additional discussion, unless something
new has developed. Filibustering is not appropriate in Formal Consensus.
After having spent the allotted agenda time moving through the three levels of discussion trying to achieve
consensus and concerns remain which are unresolved, the facilitator is obligated to declare that consensus
cannot be reached at this meeting, that the proposal is blocked, and move on to the next agenda item. The Rules
of Formal Consensus The guidelines and techniques in this book are flexible and meant to be modified. Some of
the guidelines, however, seem almost always to be true. These are the Rules of Formal Consensus: 1. Once a
decision has been adopted by consensus, it cannot be changed without reaching a new consensus. If a new
consensus cannot be reached, the old decision stands. 2. In general, only one person has permission to speak at
any moment. The person with permission to speak is determined by the group discussion technique in use and/or
the facilitator. (The role of Peacekeeper is exempt from this rule.) 3. All structural decisions (i.e., which roles to
use, who fills each role, and which facilitation technique and/or group discussion technique to use) are adopted
by consensus without debate. Any objection automatically causes a new selection to be made. If a role cannot be
filled without objection, the group proceeds without that role being filled. If much time is spent trying to fill roles or
find acceptable techniques, then the group needs a discussion about the unity of purpose of this group and why it
is having this problem, a discussion which must be put on the agenda for the next meeting, if not held immediately.
4. All content decisions (i.e., the agenda contract, committee reports, proposals, etc.) are adopted by consensus
after discussion. Every content decision must be openly discussed before it can be tested for consensus. 5. A
concern must be based upon the principles of the group to justify a block to consensus. 6. Every meeting which
uses Formal Consensus must have an evaluation.
3 On Conflict and Consensus
Conflict is usually viewed as an impediment to reaching agreements and disruptive to peaceful relationships.
However, it is the underlying thesis of Formal Consensus that nonviolent conflict is necessary and desirable. It
provides the motivations for improvement. The challenge is the creation of an understanding in all who participate
that conflict, or differing opinions about proposals, is to be expected and acceptable. Do not avoid or repress
conflict. Create an environment in which disagreement can be expressed without fear. Objections and criticisms
can be heard not as attacks, not as attempts to defeat a proposal, but as a concern which, when resolved, will
make the proposal stronger.
This understanding of conflict may not be easily accepted by the members of a group. Our training by society
undermines this concept. Therefore, it will not be easy to create the kind of environment where differences can be
expressed without fear or resentment. But it can be done. It will require tolerance and a willingness to experiment.
Additionally, the values and principles which form the basis of commitment to work together to resolve conflict
need to be clearly defined, and accepted by all involved.
If a group desires to adopt Formal Consensus as its decisionmaking process, the first step is the creation of a
Statement of Purpose or Constitution. This document would describe not only the common purpose, but would
also include the definition of the group's principles and values. If the group discusses and writes down its
foundation of principles at the start, it is much easier to determine group versus individual concerns later on.
The following are principles which form the foundation of Formal Consensus. A commitment to these principles
and/or a willingness to develop them is necessary. In addition to the ones listed herein, the group might add
principles and values which are specific to its purpose.
Foundation Upon Which Consensus Is Built
For consensus to work well, the process must be conducted in an environment which promotes trust, respect, and
skill sharing. The following are principles which, when valued and respected, encourage and build consensus.
Foremost is the need for trust. Without some amount of trust, there will be no cooperation or nonviolent resolution
to conflict. For trust to flourish, it is desirable for individuals to be willing to examine their attitudes and be open to
new ideas. Acknowledgement and appreciation of personal and cultural differences promote trust. Neither
approval nor friendship are necessary for a good working relationship. By developing trust, the process of
consensus encourages the intellectual and emotional development of the individuals within a group.
It is everyone's responsibility to show respect to one another. People feel respected when everyone listens, when
they are not interrupted, when their ideas are taken seriously. Respect for emotional as well as logical concerns
promotes the kind of environment necessary for developing consensus. To promote respect, it is important to
distinguish between an action which causes a problem and the person who did the action, between the deed and
the doer. We must criticize the act, not the person. Even if you think the person is the problem, responding that
way never resolves anything. (See pages 7- 8.)
Unity of Purpose
Unity of purpose is a basic understanding about the goals and purpose of the group. Of course, there will be
varying opinions on the best way to accomplish these goals. However, there must be a unifying base, a common
starting point, which is recognized and accepted by all.
Nonviolent decisionmakers use their power to achieve goals while respecting differences and cooperating with
others. In this environment, it is considered violent to use power to dominate or control the group process. It is
understood that the power of revealing your truth is the maximum force allowed to persuade others to your point
It is easy for people to unquestioningly rely on authorities and experts to do their thinking and decisionmaking for
them. If members of a group delegate their authority, intentionally or not, they fail to accept responsibility for the
group's decisions. Consensus promotes and depends upon self empowerment. Anyone can express concerns.
Everyone seeks creative solutions and is responsible for every decision. When all are encouraged to participate,
the democratic nature of the process increases.
Unfortunately, Western society is saturated in competition. When winning arguments becomes more important
than achieving the group's goals, cooperation is difficult, if not impossible. Adversarial attitudes toward proposals
or people focus attention on weakness rather than strength. An attitude of helpfulness and support builds
cooperation. Cooperation is a shared responsibility in finding solutions to all concerns. Ideas offered in the spirit
of cooperation help resolve conflict. The best decisions arise through an open and creative interplay of ideas.
The free flow of ideas, even among friends, inevitably leads to conflict. In this context, conflict is simply the
expression of disagreement. Disagreement itself is neither good nor bad. Diverse viewpoints bring into focus and
explore the strengths and weaknesses of attitudes, assumptions, and plans. Without conflict, one is less likely to
think about and evaluate one's views and prejudices. There is no right decision, only the best one for the whole
group. The task is to work together to discover which choice is most acceptable to all members.
Avoid blaming anyone for conflict. Blame is inherently violent. It attacks dignity and empowerment. It encourages
people to feel guilty, defensive, and alienated. The group will lose its ability to resolve conflict. People will hide
their true feelings to avoid being blamed for the conflict.
Avoidance of conflicting ideas impedes resolution for failure to explore and develop the feelings that gave rise to
the conflict. The presence of conflict can create an occasion for growth. Learn to use it as a catalyst for
discovering creative resolutions and for developing a better understanding of each other. With patience, anyone
can learn to resolve conflict creatively, without defensiveness or guilt. Groups can learn to nurture and support
their members in this effort by allowing creativity and experimentation. This process necessitates that the group
continually evaluate and improve these skills.
Commitment to the Group
In joining a group, one accepts a personal responsibility to behave with respect, good will, and honesty. Each one
is expected to recognize that the group's needs have a certain priority over the desires of the individual. Many
people participate in group work in a very egocentric way. It is important to accept the shared responsibility for
helping to find solutions to other's concerns.
We all have an inalienable right to express our own best thoughts. We decide for ourselves what is right and
wrong. Since consensus is a process of synthesis, not competition, all sincere comments are important and
valuable. If ideas are put forth as the speaker's property and individuals are strongly attached to their opinions,
consensus will be extremely difficult. Stubbornness, closedmindedness, and possessiveness lead to defensive
and argumentative behavior that disrupts the process. For active participation to occur, it is necessary to promote
trust by creating an atmosphere in which every contribution is considered valuable. With encouragement, each
person can develop knowledge and experience, a sense of responsibility and competency, and the ability to
Equal Access to Power
Because of personal differences (experience, assertiveness, social conditioning, access to information, etc.) and
political disparities, some people inevitably have more effective power than others. To balance this inequity,
everyone needs to consciously attempt to creatively share power, skills, and information. Avoid hierarchical
structures that allow some individuals to assume undemocratic power over others. Egalitarian and accountable
structures promote universal access to power.
Consensus cannot be rushed. Often, it functions smoothly, producing effective, stable results. Sometimes, when
difficult situations arise, consensus requires more time to allow for the creative interplay of ideas. During these
times, patience is more advantageous than tense, urgent, or aggressive behavior. Consensus is possible as long
as each individual acts patiently and respectfully.
Impediments To Consensus Lack of Training
It is necessary to train people in the theory and practice of consensus. Until consensus is a common form of
decisionmaking in our society, new members will need some way of learning about the process. It is important to
offer regular opportunities for training. If learning about Formal Consensus is not made easily accessible, it will
limit full participation and create inequities which undermine this process. Also, training provides opportunities for
people to improve their skills, particularly facilitation skills, in a setting where experimentation and role-plays can
External Hierarchical Structures
It can be difficult for a group to reach consensus internally when it is part of a larger group which does not
recognize or participate in the consensus process. It can be extremely frustrating if those external to the group
can disrupt the decisionmaking by interfering with the process by pulling rank. Therefore, it is desirable for
individuals and groups to recognize that they can be autonomous in relation to external power if they are willing to
take responsibility for their actions.
Everyone has been exposed to biases, assumptions, and prejudices which interfere with the spirit of cooperation
and equal participation. All people are influenced by these attitudes, even though they may deplore them. People
are not generally encouraged to confront these prejudices in themselves or others. Members of a group often
reflect social biases without realizing or attempting to confront and change them. If the group views a prejudicial
attitude as just one individual's problem, then the group will not address the underlying social attitudes which
create such problems. It is appropriate to expose, confront, acknowledge, and attempt to resolve socially
prejudicial attitudes, but only in the spirit of mutual respect and trust. Members are responsible for acknowledging
when their attitudes are influenced by disruptive social training and for changing them. When a supportive
atmosphere for recognizing and changing undesirable attitudes exists, the group as a whole benefits.
On Degrees of Conflict
Consensus is a process of nonviolent confict resolution. The expression of concerns and conficting ideas is
considered desirable and important. When a group creates an atmosphere which nurtures and supports
disagreement without hostility and fear, it builds a foundation for stronger, more creative decisions.
Each individual is responsible for expressing one's own concerns. It is best if each concern is expressed as if it will
be resolved. The group then responds by trying to resolve the concern through group discussion. If the concern
remains unresolved after a full and open discussion, then the facilitator asks how the concern is based upon the
foundation of the group. If it is, then the group accepts that the proposal is blocked.
From this perspective, it is not decided by the individual alone if a particular concern is blocking consensus; it is
determined in cooperation with the whole group. The group determines a concern's legitimacy. A concern is
legitimate if it is based upon the principles of the group and therefore relevant to the group as a whole. If the
concern is determined to be unprincipled or not of consequence, the group can decide the concern is
inappropriate and drop it from discussion. If a reasonable solution offered is not accepted by the individual, the
group may decide the concern has been resolved and the individual is out of order for failure to recognize it.
Herein lies a subtle pitfall. For consensus to work well, it is helpful for individuals to recognize the group's
involvement in determining which concerns are able to be resolved, which need more attention, and, ultimately,
which are blocking consensus. The pitfall is failure to accept the limit on an individual's power to determine which
concerns are principled or based upon the foundation of the group and which ones are resolved. After
discussion, if the concern is valid and unresolved, it again falls upon the individual to choose whether to stand
aside or block consensus.
The individual is responsible for expressing concerns; the group is responsible for resolving them. The group
decides whether a concern is legitimate; the individual decides whether to block or stand aside.
All concerns are important and need to be resolved. It is not appropriate for a person to come to a meeting
planning to block a proposal or, during discussion, to express their concerns as major objections or blocking
concerns. Often, during discussion, the person learns additional information which resolves the concern.
Sometimes, after expressing the concern, someone is able to creatively resolve it by thinking of something new. It
often happens that a concern which seems to be extremely problematic when it is frst mentioned turns out to be
easily resolved. Sometimes the reverse happens and a seemingly minor concern brings forth much larger
The following is a description of different types of concerns and how they affect individuals and the group.
Concerns which can be addressed and resolved by making small changes in the proposal can be called minor
concerns. The person supports the proposal, but has an idea for improvement.
When a person disagrees with the proposal in part, but consents to the overall idea, the person has a
reservation. The person is not completely satisfed with the proposal, but is generally supportive. This kind of
concern can usually be resolved through discussion. Sometimes, it is enough for the person to express the
concern and feel that it was heard, without any actual resolution.
When a person does not agree with the proposal, the group allows that person to try and persuade it to see the
wisdom of the disagreement. If the group is not persuaded or the disagreement cannot be resolved, the person
might choose to stand aside and allow the group to go forward. The person and the group are agreeing to
disagree, regarding each point of view with mutual respect. Occasionally, it is a concern which has no resolution;
the person does not feel the need to block the decision, but wants to express the concern and lack of support for
A blocking concern must be based on a generally recognized principle, not personal preference, or it must be
essential to the entire group's well-being. Before a concern is considered to be blocking, the group must have
already accepted the validity of the concern and a reasonable attempt must have been made to resolve it. If
legitimate concerns remain unresolved and the person has not agreed to stand aside, consensus is blocked.
4 The Art of Evaluation
Meetings can often be a time when some people experience feelings of frustration or confusion. There is always
room for improvement in the structure of the process and/or in the dynamics of the group. Often, there is no time
to talk directly about group interaction during the meeting. Reserve time at the end of the meeting to allow some
of these issues and feelings to be expressed.
Evaluation is very useful when using consensus. It is worth the time. Evaluations need not take long, five to ten
minutes is often enough. It is not a discussion, nor is it an opportunity to comment on each other's statements. Do
not reopen discussion on an agenda item. Evaluation is a special time to listen to each other and learn about
each other. Think about how the group interacts and how to improve the process.
Be sure to include the evaluation comments in the notes of the meeting. This is important for two reasons. Over
time, if the same evaluation comments are made again and again, this is an indication that the issue behind the
comments needs to be addressed. This can be accomplished by placing this issue on the agenda for the next
meeting. Also, when looking back at notes from meetings long ago, evaluation comments can often reveal a great
deal about what actually happened, beyond what decisions were made and reports given. They give a glimpse
into complex interpersonal dynamics.
Purpose of Evaluation
Evaluation provides a forum to address procedural flaws, inappropriate behavior, facilitation problems, logistical
difficulties, overall tone, etc. Evaluation is not a time to reopen discussion, make decisions or attempt to resolve
problems, but rather, to make statements, express feelings, highlight problems, and suggest solutions in a spirit of
cooperation and trust. To help foster communication, it is better if each criticism is coupled with a specific
suggestion for improvement. Also, always speak for oneself. Do not attempt to represent anyone else.
Encourage everyone who participated in the meeting to take part in the evaluation. Make comments on what
worked and what did not. Expect differing opinions. It is generally not useful to repeat other's comments.
Evaluations prepare the group for better future meetings. When the process works well, the group responds
supportively in a difficult situation, or the facilitator does an especially good job, note it, and appreciate work well
Do not attempt to force evaluation. This will cause superficial or irrelevant comments. On the other hand, do not
allow evaluations to run on. Be sure to take each comment seriously and make an attempt, at a later time, to
resolve or implement them. Individuals who feel their suggestions are ignored or disrespected will lose trust and
interest in the group.
For gatherings, conferences, conventions or large meetings, the group might consider having short evaluations
after each section, in addition to the one at the end of the event. Distinct aspects on which the group might focus
include: the process itself, a specific role, a particular technique, fears and feelings, group dynamics, etc.
At large meetings, written evaluations provide a means for everyone to respond and record comments and
suggestions which might otherwise be lost. Some people feel more comfortable writing their evaluations rather
than saying them. Plan the questions well, stressing what was learned, what was valuable, and what could have
been better and how. An evaluation committee allows an opportunity for the presenters, facilitators, and/or
coordinators to get together after the meeting to review evaluation comments, consider suggestions for
improvement, and possibly prepare an evaluation report.
Review and evaluation bring a sense of completion to the meeting. A good evaluation will pull the experience
together, remind everyone of the group's unity of purpose, and provide an opportunity for closing comments.
Uses of Evaluation
There are at least ten ways in which evaluation helps improve meetings. Evaluations:
• Improve the process by analysis of what happened, why it happened, and how it might be improved
• Examine how certain attitudes and statements might have caused various problems and encourage special
care to prevent them from recurring
• Foster a greater understanding of group dynamics and encourage a method of group learning or learning
from each other
• Allow the free expression of feelings
• Expose unconscious behavior or attitudes which interfere with the process
• Encourage the sharing of observations and acknowledge associations with society
• Check the usefulness and effectiveness of techniques and procedures
• Acknowledge good work and give appreciation to each other
• Reflect on the goals set for the meeting and whether they were attained
• Examine various roles, suggest ways to improve them, and create new ones as needed
• Provide an overall sense of completion and closure to the meeting
Types of Evaluation Questions
It is necessary to be aware of the way in which questions are asked during evaluation. The specific wording can
control the scope and focus of consideration and affect the level of participation. It can cause responses which
focus on what was good and bad, or right and wrong, rather than on what worked and what needed improvement.
Focus on learning and growing. Avoid blaming. Encourage diverse opinions.
Some sample questions for an evaluation:
• Were members uninterested or bored with the agenda, reports, or discussion?
• Did members withdraw or feel isolated?
• Is attendance low? If so, why?
• Are people arriving late or leaving early? If so, why?
• How was the overall tone or atmosphere?
• Was there an appropriate use of resources?
• Were the logistics (such as date, time, or location) acceptable?
• What was the most important experience of the event?
• What was the least important experience of the event?
• What was the high point? What was the low point?
• What did you learn?
• What expectations did you have at the beginning and to what degree were they met? How did they change?
• What goals did you have and to what degree were they accomplished?
• What worked well? Why?
• What did not work so well? How could it have been improved?
• What else would you suggest be changed or improved, and how?
• What was overlooked or left out?
A role is a function of process, not content. Roles are used during a meeting according to the needs of the
situation. Not all roles are useful at every meeting, nor does each role have to be filled by a separate person.
Formal Consensus functions more smoothly if the person filling a role has some experience, therefore is desirable
to rotate roles. Furthermore, one who has experienced a role is more likely to be supportive of whomever
currently has that role. Experience in each role also encourages confidence and participation. It is best, therefore,
for the group to encourage everyone to experience each role.
A well planned agenda is an important tool for a smooth meeting, although it does not guarantee it. Experience
has shown that there is a definite improvement in the flow and pace of a meeting if several people get together
prior to the start of the meeting and propose an agenda. In smaller groups, the facilitator often proposes an
agenda. The agenda planning committee has six tasks:
• collect agenda items
• arrange them
• assign presenters
• brainstorm discussion techniques
• assign time limits
• write up the proposed agenda
There are at least four sources of agenda items:
• suggestions from members
• reports or proposals from committees
• business from the last meeting
• standard agenda items, including:
o agenda review
o review notes
o decision review
Once all the agenda items have been collected, they are listed in an order which seems efficient and appropriate.
Planners need to be cautious that items at the top of the agenda tend to use more than their share of time,
thereby limiting the time available for the rest. Each group has different needs. Some groups work best taking
care of business first, then addressing the difficult items. Other groups might find it useful to take on the most
difficult work first and strictly limit the time or let it take all it needs. The following are recommendations for keeping
the focus of attention on the agenda:
• alternate long and short, heavy and light items
• place reports before their related proposals
• take care of old business before addressing new items
• consider placing items which might generate a sense of accomplishment early in the meeting
• alternate presenters
• be flexible
Usually, each item already has a presenter. If not, assign one. Generally, it is not wise for facilitators to present
reports or proposals. However, it is convenient for facilitators to present some of the standard agenda items.
For complex or especially controversial items, the agenda planners could suggest various options for group
discussion techniques. This may be helpful to the facilitator.
Next, assign time limits for each item. It is important to be realistic, being careful to give each item enough time to
be fully addressed without being unfair to other items. Generally, it is not desirable to propose an agenda which
exceeds the desired overall meeting time limit.
The last task is the writing of the proposed agenda so all can see it and refer to it during the meeting. Each item is
listed in order, along with its presenter and time limit.
The following agenda is an example of how an agenda is structured and what information is included in it. It shows
the standard agenda items, the presenters, the time limits and the order in which they will be considered. It also
shows one way in which reports and proposals can be presented, but each group can structure this part of the
meeting in whatever way suits its needs. This model does not show the choices of techniques for group
discussion which the agenda planners might have considered.
Agenda Item Presenter Time
INTRODUCTION Facilitator 5 min
AGENDA REVIEW Facilitator 5 min
REVIEW NOTES Notetaker 5 min
REPORTS 20 min
PROPOSALS 15 min
BREAK 5 min
REPORTS 10 min
PROPOSALS 30 min
ANNOUNCEMENTS 5 min
REVIEW DECISIONS Notetaker 5 min
EVALUATION 10 min
CLOSING Facilitator 5 min
TOTAL 2 hours
The word facilitate means to make easy. A facilitator conducts group business and guides the Formal Consensus
process so that it flows smoothly. Rotating facilitation from meeting to meeting shares important skills among the
members. If everyone has firsthand knowledge about facilitation, it will help the flow of all meetings. Co-facilitation,
or having two (or more) people facilitate a meeting, is recommended. Having a woman and a man share the
responsibilities encourages a more balanced meeting. Also, an inexperienced facilitator may apprentice with a
more experienced one. Try to use a variety of techniques throughout the meeting. And remember, a little bit of
humor can go a long way in easing tension during a long, difficult meeting.
Good facilitation is based upon the following principles:
Facilitators accept responsibility for moving through the agenda in the allotted time, guiding the process, and
suggesting alternate or additional techniques. In this sense, they do lead the group. However, they do not give
their personal opinions nor do they attempt to direct the content of the discussion. If they want to participate, they
must clearly relinquish the role and speak as an individual. During a meeting, individuals are responsible for
expressing their own concerns and thoughts. Facilitators, on the other hand, are responsible for addressing the
needs of the group. They need to be aware of the group dynamics and constantly evaluate whether the
discussion is flowing well. There may be a need for a change in the discussion technique. They need to be
diligent about the fair distribution of attention, being sure to limit those who are speaking often and offering
opportunities to those who are not speaking much or at all. It follows that one person cannot simultaneously give
attention to the needs of the group and think about a personal response to a given situation. Also, it is not
appropriate for the facilitator to give a particular point of view or dominate the discussion. This does not build
trust, especially in those who do not agree with the facilitator.
Clarity of Process
The facilitator is responsible for leading the meeting openly so that everyone present is aware of the process and
how to participate. This means it is important to constantly review what just happened, what is about to happen,
and how it will happen. Every time a new discussion technique is introduced, explain how it will work and what is to
be accomplished. This is both educational and helps new members participate more fully.
The facilitator is responsible for honoring the agenda contract. The facilitator keeps the questions and discussion
focused on the agenda item. Be gentle, but firm, because fairness dictates that each agenda item gets only the
time allotted. The agenda contract is made when the agenda is reviewed and accepted. This agreement includes
the items on the agenda, the order in which they are considered, and the time allotted to each. Unless the whole
group agrees to change the agenda, the facilitator is obligated to keep the contract. The decision to change the
agenda must be a consensus, with little or no discussion.
At the beginning of the meeting, the agenda is presented to the whole group and reviewed, item by item. Any
member can add an item if it has been omitted. While every agenda suggestion must be included in the agenda, it
does not necessarily get as much time as the presenter wants. Time ought to be divided fairly, with individuals
recognizing the fairness of old items generally getting more time than new items and urgent items getting more
time than items which can wait until the next meeting, etc. Also, review the suggested presenters and time limits. If
anything seems inappropriate or unreasonable, adjustments may be made. Once the whole agenda has been
reviewed and consented to, the agenda becomes a contract. The facilitator is obligated to follow the order and
time limits. This encourages members to be on time to meetings.
Always try to assume good will. Assume every statement and action is sincerely intended to benefit the group.
Assume that each member understands the group's purpose and accepts the agenda as a contract.
Often, when we project our feelings and expectations onto others, we influence their actions. If we treat others as
though they are trying to get attention, disrupt meetings, or pick fights, they will often fulfill our expectations. A
resolution to conflict is more likely to occur if we act as though there will be one. This is especially true if someone
is intentionally trying to cause trouble or who is emotionally unhealthy. Do not attack the person, but rather,
assume good will and ask the person to explain to the group how that person's statements or actions are in the
best interest of the group. It is also helpful to remember to separate the actor from the action. While the behavior
may be unacceptable, the person is not bad. Avoid accusing the person of being the way they behave.
Remember, no one has the answer. The group's work is the search for the best and most creative process, one
which fosters a mutually satisfying resolution to any concern which may arise.
The role of peacekeeper is most useful in large groups or when very touchy, controversial topics are being
discussed. A person who is willing to remain somewhat aloof and is not personally invested in the content of the
discussion would be a good candidate for peacekeeper. This person is selected without discussion by all present
at the beginning of the meeting. If no one wants this role, or if no one can be selected without objection, proceed
without one, recognizing that the facilitator's job will most likely be more difficult.
This task entails paying attention to the overall mood or tone of the meeting. When tensions increase dramatically
and angers flare out of control, the peacekeeper interrupts briefly to remind the group of its common goals and
commitment to cooperation. The most common way to accomplish this is a call for a few moments of silence.
The peacekeeper is the only person with prior permission to interrupt a speaker or speak without first being
recognized by the facilitator. Also, it is important to note that the peacekeeper's comments are always directed at
the whole group, never at one individual or small group within the larger group. Keep comments short and to the
The peacekeeper may always, of course, point out when the group did something well. People always like to be
acknowledged for positive behavior.
Like the peacekeeper, advocates are selected without discussion at the beginning of the meeting. If, because of
strong emotions, someone is unable to be understood, the advocate is called upon to help. The advocate would
interrupt the meeting, and invite the individual to literally step outside the meeting for some one-on-one
discussion. An upset person can talk to someone with whom they feel comfortable. This often helps them make
clear what the concern is and how it relates to the best interest of the group. Assume the individual is acting in
good faith. Assume the concern is in the best interest of the group. While they are doing this, everyone else might
take a short break, or continue with other agenda items. When they return, the meeting (after completing the
current agenda item) hears from the advocate. The intent here is the presentation of the concern by the advocate
rather than the upset person so the other group members might hear it without the emotional charge. This
procedure is a last resort, to be used only when emotions are out of control and the person feels unable to
successfully express an idea.
The role of timekeeper is very useful in almost all meetings. One is selected at the beginning of the meeting to
assist the facilitator in keeping within the time limits set in the agenda contract. The skill in keeping time is the
prevention of an unnecessary time pressure which might interfere with the process. This can be accomplished by
keeping everyone aware of the status of time remaining during the discussion. Be sure to give ample warning
towards the end of the time limit so the group can start to bring the discussion to a close or decide to rearrange
the agenda to allow more time for the current topic. There is nothing inherently wrong with going over time as long
as everyone consents.
The role of public scribe is simply the writing, on paper or blackboard, of information for the whole group to see.
This person primarily assists the facilitator by taking a task which might otherwise distract the facilitator and
interfere with the overall flow of the meeting. This role is particularly useful during brainstorms, reportbacks from
small groups, or whenever it would help the group for all to see written information.
The importance of a written record of the meetings cannot be overstated. The written record, sometimes called
notes or minutes, can help settle disputes of memory or verify past decisions. Accessible notes allow absent
members to participate in ongoing work. Useful items to include in the notes are:
• date and attendance
o brief notes (highlights, statistics...)
• verbatim notes
o proposals (with revisions)
o decisions (with concerns listed)
o next meeting time and place
o evaluation comments
After each decision is made, it is useful to have the notetaker read the notes aloud to ensure accuracy. At the
end of the meeting, it is also helpful to have the notetaker present to the group a review of all decisions. In larger
groups, it is often useful to have two notetakers simultaneously, because everyone, no matter how skilled, hears
information and expresses it differently. Notetakers are responsible for making sure the notes are recorded
accurately, and are reproduced and distributed according to the desires of the group (e.g., mailed to everyone,
handed out at the next meeting, filed, etc.).
Doorkeepers are selected in advance of the meeting and need to arrive early enough to familiarize themselves
with the physical layout of the space and to receive any last minute instructions from the facilitator. They need to
be prepared to miss the first half hour of the meeting. Prior to the start of the meeting, the doorkeeper welcomes
people, distributes any literature connected to the business of the meeting, and informs them of any pertinent
information (the meeting will start fifteen minutes late, the bathrooms are not wheelchair accessible, etc.).
A doorkeeper is useful, especially if people tend to be late. When the meeting begins, they continue to be
available for latecomers. They might briefly explain what has happened so far and where the meeting is currently
on the agenda. The doorkeeper might suggest to the latecomers that they refrain from participating in the current
agenda item and wait until the next item before participating. This avoids wasting time, repeating discussion, or
addressing already resolved concerns. Of course, this is not a rigid rule. Use discretion and be respectful of the
Experience has shown this role to be far more useful than it might at first appear, so experiment with it and
discover if meetings can become more pleasant and productive because of the friendship and care which is
expressed through the simple act of greeting people as they arrive at the meeting.
There are a great many techniques to assist the facilitator in managing the agenda and group dynamics. The
following are just a few of the more common and frequently used techniques available to the facilitator. Be
creative and adaptive. Different situations require different techniques. With experience will come an
understanding of how they affect group dynamics and when is the best time to use them.
The facilitator is responsible for the fair distribution of attention during meetings. Facilitators call the attention of
the group to one speaker at a time. The grammar school method is the most common technique for choosing the
next speaker. The facilitator recognizes each person in the order in which hands are raised. Often, inequities
occur because the attention is dominated by an individual or class of individuals. This can occur because of
socialized behavioral problems such as racism, sexism, or the like, or internal dynamics such as experience,
seniority, fear, shyness, disrespect, ignorance of the process, etc. Inequities can be corrected in many creative
ways. For example, if men are speaking more often than women, the facilitator can suggest a pause after each
speaker, the women counting to five before speaking, the men counting to ten. In controversial situations, the
facilitator can request that three speakers speak for the proposal, and three speak against it. If the group would
like to avoid having the facilitator select who speaks next, the group can self-select by asking the last speaker to
pass an object, a talking stick, to the next. Even more challenging, have each speaker stand before speaking,
and begin when there is only one person standing. These are only a handful of the many possible problems and
solutions that exist. Be creative. Invent your own.
To help the discussion flow more smoothly, those who want to speak can silently signal the facilitator, who would
add the person's name to a list of those wishing to speak, and call on them in that order.
If many people want to speak at the same time, it is useful to ask all those who would like to speak to raise their
hands. Have them count off, and then have them speak in that order. At the end of the stack, the facilitator might
call for another stack or try another technique.
The pace or flow of the meeting is the responsibility of the facilitator. If the atmosphere starts to become tense,
choose techniques which encourage balance and cooperation. If the meeting is going slowly and people are
becoming restless, suggest a stretch or rearrange the agenda.
Checking the Process
If the flow of the meeting is breaking down or if one person or small group seems to be dominating, anyone can
call into question the technique being used and suggest an alternative.
If the pace is too fast, if energies and tensions are high, if people are speaking out of turn or interrupting one
another, it is appropriate for anyone to suggest a moment of silence to calm and refocus energy.
Taking a Break
In the heat of discussion, people are usually resistant to interrupting the flow to take a break, but a wise facilitator
knows, more often than not, that a five minute break will save a frustrating half hour or more of circular discussion
and fruitless debate.
Call For Consensus
The facilitator, or any member recognized to speak by the facilitator, can call for a test for consensus. To do this,
the facilitator asks if there are any unresolved concerns which remain unaddressed. (See page 13.)
The facilitator might choose to focus what has been said by summarizing. The summary might be made by the
facilitator, the notetaker, or anyone else appropriate. This preempts a common problem, in which the discussion
becomes circular, and one after another, speakers repeat each other.
Reformulating the Proposal
After a long discussion, it sometimes happens that the proposal becomes modified without any formal decision.
The facilitator needs to recognize this and take time to reformulate the proposal with the new information,
modifications, or deletions. Then the proposal is presented to the group so that everyone can be clear about what
is being considered. Again, this might be done by the facilitator, the notetaker, or anyone else.
Stepping out of Role
If the facilitator wants to become involved in the discussion or has strong feelings about a particular agenda item,
the facilitator can step out of the role and participate in the discussion, allowing another member to facilitate
during that time.
Passing the Clipboard
Sometimes information needs to be collected during the meeting. To save time, circulate a clipboard to collect this
information. Once collected, it can be entered into the written record and/or presented to the group by the
Polling (Straw Polls)
The usefulness of polling within consensus is primarily clarification of the relative importance of several issues. It
is an especially useful technique when the facilitator is confused or uncertain about the status of a proposal and
wants some clarity to be able to suggest what might be the next process technique. Polls are not decisions, they
are non-binding referenda. All too often, straw polls are used when the issues are completely clear and the
majority wants to intimidate the minority into submission by showing overwhelming support rather than to discuss
the issues and resolve the concerns. Clear and simple questions are best. Polls that involve three or more
choices can be especially manipulative. Use with discretion.
(This technique and the next are somewhat different from the others. They may not be appropriate for some
groups.) If someone speaks out of turn consistently, the facilitator warns the individual at least twice that if the
interruptions do not stop, the facilitator will declare that person censored. This means the person will not be
permitted to speak for the rest of this agenda item. If the interrupting behavior has been exhibited over several
agenda items, then the censoring could be for a longer period of time. This technique is meant to be used at the
discretion of the facilitator. If the facilitator censors someone and others in the meeting voice disapproval, it is
better for the facilitator to step down from the role and let someone else facilitate, rather than get into a
discussion about the ability and judgement of the facilitator. The rationale is the disruptive behavior makes
facilitation very difficult, is disrespectful and, since it is assumed that everyone observed the behavior, the voicing
of disapproval about a censoring indicates lack of confidence in the facilitation rather than support for the
If an individual still acts very disruptively, the facilitator may confront the behavior. Ask the person to explain the
reasons for this behavior, how it is in the best interest of the group, how it relates to the group's purpose, and how
it is in keeping with the goals and principles. If the person is unable to answer these questions or if the answers
indicate disagreement with the common purpose, then the facilitator can ask the individual to withdraw from the
Group Discussion Techniques
It is often assumed that the best form of group discussion is that which has one person at a time speak to the
whole group. This is true for some discussions. But, sometimes, other techniques of group discussion can be
more productive and efficient than whole group discussion. The following are some of the more common and
frequently used techniques. These could be suggested by anyone at the meeting. Therefore, it is a good idea if
everyone is familiar with these techniques. Again, be creative and adaptive. Different situations require different
techniques. Only experience reveals how each one affects group dynamics or the best time to use it.
It is good to address each other by name. One way to learn names is to draw a seating plan, and as people go
around and introduce themselves, write their names on it. Later, refer to the plan and address people by their
names. In large groups, name tags can be helpful. Also, when people speak, it is useful for them to identify
themselves so all can gradually learn each others' names.
The value of whole group discussion is the evolution of a group idea. A group idea is not simply the sum of
individual ideas, but the result of the interaction of ideas during discussion. Whole group discussion can be
unstructured and productive. It can also be very structured, using various facilitation techniques to focus it. Often,
whole group discussion does not produce maximum participation or a diversity of ideas. During whole group
discussion, fewer people get to speak, and, at times, the attitude of the group can be dominated by an idea, a
mood, or a handful of people.
Breaking into smaller groups can be very useful. These small groups can be diads or triads or even larger. They
can be selected randomly or self-selected. If used well, in a relatively short amount of time all participants have
the opportunity to share their own point of view. Be sure to set clear time limits and select a notetaker for each
group. When the larger group reconvenes, the notetakers relate the major points and concerns of their group.
Sometimes, notetakers can be requested to add only new ideas or concerns and not repeat something already
covered in another report. It is also helpful for the scribe to write these reports so all can see the cumulative result
and be sure every idea and concern gets on the list.
This is a very useful technique when ideas need to be solicited from the whole group. The normal rule of waiting
to speak until the facilitator recognizes you is suspended and everyone is encouraged to call out ideas to be
written by the scribe for all to see. It is helpful if the atmosphere created is one in which all ideas, no matter how
unusual or incomplete, are appropriate and welcomed. This is a situation in which suggestions can be used as
catalysts, with ideas building one upon the next, generating very creative possibilities. Avoid evaluating each
other's ideas during this time.
This is a simple technique that encourages participation. The facilitator states a question and then goes around
the room inviting everyone to answer briefly. This is not an open discussion. This is an opportunity to individually
respond to specific questions, not to comment on each other's responses or make unrelated remarks.
The fishbowl is a special form of small group discussion. Several members representing differing points of view
meet in an inner circle to discuss the issue while everyone else forms an outer circle and listens. At the end of a
predetermined time, the whole group reconvenes and evaluates the fishbowl discussion. An interesting variation:
first, put all the men in the fishbowl, then all the women, and they discuss the same topics.
If the group is having a hard time understanding a point of view, someone might help by active listening. Listen to
the speaker, then repeat back what was heard and ask the speaker if this accurately reflects what was meant.
A caucus might be useful to help a multifaceted conflict become clearer by unifying similar perspectives or
defining specific points of departure without the focus of the whole group. It might be that only some people attend
a caucus, or it might be that all are expected to participate in a caucus. The difference between caucuses and
small groups is that caucuses are composed of people with similar viewpoints, whereas small group discussions
are more useful if they are made up of people with diverse viewpoints or even a random selection of people.
The agenda contract is made when the agenda is reviewed and accepted. This agreement includes the items on
the agenda, the order in which they are considered, and the time allotted to each. Unless the whole group agrees
to change the agenda, the facilitator is obligated to keep to the contract. The decision to change the agenda must
be a consensus, with little or no discussion.
Complete agreement, with no unresolved concerns.
If the allotted agenda time has been spent trying to achieve consensus, and unresolved legitimate concerns
remain, the proposal may be considered blocked, or not able to be adopted at this meeting.
A point of departure or disagreement with a proposal.
The expression of disagreement, which brings into focus diverse viewpoints, and provides the opportunity to
explore their strengths and weaknesses.
A decisionmaking process whereby decisions are reached when all members present consent to a proposal. This
process does not assume everyone must be in complete agreement. When differences remain after discussion,
individuals can agree to disagree, that is, give their consent by standing aside, and allow the proposal to be
accepted by the group.
Acceptance of the proposal, not necessarily agreement. Individuals are responsible for expressing their ideas,
concerns and objections. Silence, in response to a call for consensus, signifies consent. Silence is not complete
agreement; it is acceptance of the proposal.
The end product of an idea that started as a proposal and evolved to become a plan of action accepted by the
A group analysis at the end of a meeting about interpersonal dynamics during decisionmaking. This is a time to
allow feelings to be expressed, with the goal of improving the functioning of future meetings. It is not a discussion
or debate, nor should anyone comment on another's evaluation.
An occasion in which people come together and, in an orderly way, make decisions.
methods of decisionmaking
one person makes the decisions for everyone
a few people make the decisions for everyone
a few people are elected to make the decisions for everyone majority rule democracy the majority makes the
decisions for everyone
everyone makes the decisions for everyone
A written plan that some members of a group present to the whole group for discussion and acceptance.
To agree to disagree, to be willing to let a proposal be adopted despite unresolved concerns.
a manual for group facilitators
Brian Auvine, Betsy Densmore, Mary Extrom,
Scott Poole, Michel Shanklin
The Center for Confict Resolution: 1977
731 State Street, Madison, WI 53703
A Manual on Nonviolence and Children
Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends
Peace Committee, Philadelphia
New Society Publishers: 1977
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
Beyond Majority Rule
Michael J. Sheeran
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the
Religious Society of Friends: 1983
1515 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102
Building United Judgment
A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making
Brian Auvine, Michel Avery,
Barbara Streibel, Lonnie Weiss
The Center for Confict Resolution: 1981
731 State Street, Madison, WI 53703
Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice
Hugo A. Bedau
New York, NY
Clearness: Processes for Supporting Individuals &
Groups in Decision-Making
New Society Publishers: 1977, 1984
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
In Place of War
American Friends Service Committee
Grossman, NY: 1967
Meeting Facilitation: The No Magic Method
New Society Publishers
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
More Power Than We Know
The People's Movement Toward Democracy
Anchor Press/Doubleday: 1976
Garden City, NY
No Bosses Here!
a manual on working
collectively and cooperatively (2nd ed.)
Karen Brandow, Jim McDonnell, and
Vocations for Social Change
Alyson Publications 1981
P.O. Box 2783 Boston, MA 02208
Vocations for Social Change
PO Box 211, Essex Station, Boston, MA 02112
Nonviolence In America
A Documentary History
Staughton Lynd, ed.
Bobbs-Merrill, NY: 1966
Nonviolent Direct Action
A. Paul Hare and Herbert H. Blumberg
Corpus, Washington: 1968
New York, NY
Peace & Power
Charlene Eldridge Wheeler, Peggy L. Chinn
Buffalo, NY, 1984
People With People
A Compendium of Group Process Theories
John D. Swanson, ed.
PO Box 196, Jamestown, RI 02835
Resource Manual for a Living Revolution
A Handbook of Skills and Tools for Social Change Activists
Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon,
Charles Esser, Christopher Moore
New Society Publishers: 1985
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
The Politics of Nonviolent Action
Porter Sargent: 1973
War Resisters League Organizer's Manual
Edited by Ed Hedemann
War Resisters League: 1981
339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012
We Cannot Live Without Our Lives
New York, NY
(these numbers refer to pages in the printed version of On Conflict and Consensus)
active listening 56
active participation 25
agenda 11, 17, 19, 31, 34, 37-39, 40, 42, 45-47, 49, 52-53
agenda contract 17, 20, 42-43, 45
agenda planner 37, 39
block 17, 20, 28-30
blocking concern 29, 30
brainstorming 14, 55
break 38, 40, 45, 51
checking the process 51
clarifying questions 12, 15
clarity of process 42
commitment 2, 21-22, 25, 44
cooperation 2, 5, 8, 22, 24, 27-28, 32, 44, 50
decisionmaking 1-3, 5, 7-9, 21, 23, 26-27, 41
disrespect 32, 49, 53
empowerment 5, 23-24
equal access to power 5, 26
equalizing participation 49
evaluation 20, 31-34, 38, 40, 46
facilitator 11-17, 19, 28, 32-33, 37, 39-41-47, 49-56
facilitation techniques 49
good will 8, 25, 43
group discussion techniques 10, 15, 19, 39, 54
introduction 10-11, 38, 40
meeting 2, 6, 11, 17, 19-20, 29, 31-56
non-directive leadership 41
notetaker 14, 40, 46
participation 2-3, 5, 9, 25, 27, 34, 37, 49, 55-56
passing the clipboard 52
patience 7, 25-26
power 2, 5, 17, 23, 26, 29
public scribe 46
reformulating the proposal 52
respect 3, 5, 22, 23, 25-27, 30, 32, 46, 49, 53
role 6, 19, 27, 32, 34, 37-48, 52-53
silence 13, 44, 51
small group 7, 44, 46, 51, 55
social prejudice 27
standard agenda 40
stand aside 16, 29-30,
stepping out of role 52
structure 2-3, 6, 9-10-11, 26-27, 31, 39, 55
taking a break 51
techniques 3, 6, 10-11, 15, 19, 34, 38-39, 41, 49-56
unity of purpose 19, 23
whole group 5-6, 13, 16-17, 24, 28, 42, 44, 46, 54-56
Front Matter from the Printed Book
C.T. wrote the first edition of this book for the Pledge of Resistance in Boston when it had over 3500 signers and
150 affnity groups. All policy decisions for the organization were made at monthly spokesmeetings, involving at
least one spokesperson from each affnity group. Members from the coordinating committee were charged with
managing daily affairs. Spokesmeetings were often attended by over one hundred people; they were usually
seventy strong. For almost two years the process of consensus worked well for the Pledge, empowering very
large numbers of people to engage confdently in nonviolent direct action. The forerunner of the model of
consensus outlined in this book was used throughout this period at spokesmeetings and, particularly well, at the
weekly coordinators meetings. However, it was never systematically defned and written down or formally adopted.
For over two years, C.T. attended monthly spokesmeetings, weekly coordinating meetings, and uncounted
committee meetings. He saw the need to develop a consistent way to introduce new members to consensus. At
frst, he looked for existing literature to aid in conducting workshops on the consensus process. He was unable to
fnd any suitable material, so he set out to develop his own.
The frst edition of this book is the result of a year of research into consensus in general and the Pledge process
in particular. It was mostly distributed to individuals who belonged to various groups already struggling to use
some form of consensus process. The fourth printing included an introduction which added the concept of secular
consensus. The secular label distinguishes this model of consensus from both the more traditional model found in
faith-based communities and the rather informal consensus commonly found in progressive groups.
Unfortunately, the label of secular consensus gave the impression that we were denying any connection with
spirituality. We wanted to clearly indicate that the model of consensus we were proposing was distinct, but we did
not want to exclude the valuable work of faith-based communities.
Therefore, since the sixth printing we have used the name Formal Consensus because it adequately defnes this
distinction. We hope that Formal Consensus will continue to be an important contribution to the search for an
effective, more unifying, democratic decisionmaking process.
Formal Consensus is a specifc kind of decisionmaking. It must be defned by the group using it. It provides a
foundation, structure, and collection of techniques for effcient and productive group discussions. The foundation
is the commonly-held principles and decisions which created the group originally. The structure is predetermined,
although fexible. The agenda is formal and extremely important. The roles, techniques, and skills necessary for
smooth operation must be accessible to and developed in all members. Evaluation of the process must happen
on a consistent and frequent basis, as a tool for self-education and self-management. Above all, Formal
Consensus must be taught. It is unreasonable to expect people to be familiar with this process already. In general,
cooperative nonviolent confict resolution does not exist in modern North American society. These skills must be
developed in what is primarily a competitive environment. Only time will tell if, in fact, this model will fourish and
prove itself effective and worthwhile.
We are now convinced more than ever that the model presented in this book is profoundly signifcant for the future
of our species. We must learn to live together cooperatively, resolving our conficts nonviolently and making our
decisions consensually. We must learn to value diversity and respect all life, not just on a physical level, but
emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. We are all in this together.
-- C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein
-- August 1991
Food Not Bombs Publishing
295 Forest Avenue #314
Portland, ME 04101
(c) C.T. Butler, 1987.
This internet version is free. You may copy it to other computers, and you may print it.
If you'd prefer a pretty printed book with a binding that lays flat for use during meetings, or if you'd like to arrange
a workshop or consultation, contact C.T. The book costs $15 US, including postage.
If you need a freelance typographer and page production artist, contact Amy.
C.T. Butler's email: email@example.com
Amy Rothstein's email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Communication, Process, and Dealing with Conflict: The Heart of Healthy Community
WHEN LARRY KAPLOWITZ and his wife Karin moved to Lost Valley in 1994, they arrived a few weeks after more
than half the members had moved away for various personal reasons unrelated to the community. The remaining
four members had desperately needed help for the community’s conference center business and put out the call
for new people. Larry and Karin were part of ten newcomers who joined in response. The rapid turnover was
difficult for everyone.“Here, suddenly, were ten of us; enthusiastic, full of our own hopes and ideas, hurts and
defenses, and relatively short on the kind of experience it takes to make community living work,” Larry recalls.
“Lost Valley’s community culture, delicately woven over the previous years, couldn’t survive the onslaught. We
began to sink in misunderstandings, resentment, and conflict.”“Within a year, conflict had practically paralyzed us.
In our weekly business meetings, where we make decisions by consensus, almost every new idea or initiative, if
not rejected outright, was resisted or undermined. Some people had become so uncomfortable with each other
that they would go out of their way to avoid crossing paths. Resentments simmered but were rarely expressed
directly, except in occasional outbursts of anger. At times the tension was so thick we felt like we were choking on
it.”Eventually the people who were most at odds with each other left the community, and things improved a bit. But
the experience had left people feeling hurt, discouraged, and cautious. For the next year, Lost Valley accepted no
new members. People did their own thing and tried to stay out of each other’s way.“By the summer of ’96 every
one of us was frustrated, dissatisfied, and considering leaving,” Larry says. “We agreed that if we were going to
survive as a community we needed major change, which meant we would have to face our difficult issues directly.”
Serendipitously, they learned about the Naka-Ima training. A Japanese phrase meaning “here now,” Naka-Ima is
an interpersonal healing method designed to help people reveal themselves honestly and connect with each
other deeply. So the Lost Valley folks signed themselves up.“By the end of the weekend training,” Larry recalls,
“the obstacles we all had in the way of being clear, compassionate, and honest with each other seemed to have
dissolved, leaving a room full of radiant beings. We knew that the ‘glow’ would come and go, and that our
obstacles, defenses, and wounds would continue to play havoc with us. But they no longer had the same power
over us. As we integrated what we’d experienced over the next few weeks and months, we became increasingly
honest with each other. We began taking the time to stop and address issues, conflicts, and hurts. We began
making space for each other to express our feelings.”To save their community from continued stalemate and
decline, Lost Valley members embraced what I call “good process” — communication skills and other techniques
that help people feel connected and stay connected. Like great community property and a healthy internal
economy, “good process” is another foundation for sustainable community. Learning good process skills
nourishes the soil of healthy community. Not learning them is another set-up for structural conflict.
The “Rock Polisher” Effect
Most people drawn to intentional community are seeking a more harmonious and connected way of life than that
of mainstream society. But we can’t just wish it into existence. If we want to live better lives in community, we’ve got
to do things differently there. Most of us don’t realize that our wider society is dysfunctional because it’s just
ourselves, doing what we habitually do, but multiplied and magnified by millions of people. When we see
governments or corporations using manipulative, controlling, or punishing behaviors —through threats, terrorist
attacks, or outright war— it frightens and disgusts us. But when we do the small-scale versions of these same
ploys our-selves, we don’t see it. We may revile “terrorists,” but what about our own choice of words and tone of
voice this morning with our partner or child? Those of us who think we do these behaviors the least are often the
ones who do them the most. The more spiritual we imagine we are, the harder it is to see it. This is why good
process is so important to community. For life in community to be better than it was before, we’ve got to be better
than we were before. In fact, we need good process skills more when we’re involved in community, since the
community process tends to trigger faster-than-normal spiritual and emotional growth. The “crucible of
community” tends to magnify and reflect back to us our own most destructive or alienating attitudes and
behaviors. We become magnifying mirrors for each other. The more intensely we dislike these attitudes and
behaviors in other community members the more likely we have them in ourselves (or used to have them),
although we may be unaware of it. The more we criticize other people for them, the more likely that we’re
unconsciously condemning ourselves for doing the same. The close and frequent interactions with other
community members about how we’ll live and work together tends to evoke some of our worst and most
destructive behaviors. And potentially, it can heal them. I call this the “rock polisher” effect. Rocks in a rock
tumbler first abrade and then polish each other. In forming-community groups and communities our rough edges
are often brought up and then worn smoother by frequent contact with everyone else’s. But the rock-polisher
effect can be so painful it ejects some people right out of the group, or the group becomes so fraught with conflict
that it breaks up. Through good community process we can make the rock-polisher effect more conscious. Rather
than suffer helplessly, we can use com-munity as a powerful opportunity for personal growth. The process of
sharing resources and making decisions cooperatively in community— and no longer being able to get away with
our usual behaviors — is a wake-up call to the soul. Community offers us the chance to finally grow up.
Nourishing Sustainable Relationships
“At Lost Valley we learned that sustainable community must be based on sustainable relationships —
relationships that give more than they take — that nourish, enliven, and inspire us,” says Larry Kaplowitz. “Such
relationships are a continual source of energy. They support us in becoming fully ourselves.”As you’d expect, the
same kinds of communication and process skills that enhance love relationships do the same in community —
sharing from the heart, listening to each other deeply, telling difficult truths without making each other wrong. This
includes speaking to and perceiving others in ways that allow us to stay in beneficial relationships with them while
discussing even the most sensitive subjects. Here are some “good process skills” communities often use to create
sustainable relationships: Speaking more consciously. This involves speaking to one another in ways that tend to
increase, rather than decrease, the level of harmony and well-being between people. When communication is
“clean” enough, people feel confident they can talk to each other about anything, including disagreements or
sensitive issues, and still feel goodwill and connection. These include using “I” rather than “you” messages,
checking assumptions, describing feelings with real feeling words(“angry,” “worried”) instead of blame-words
(“criticized,” “manipulated”), and using neutral language to describe behaviors rather than characterizing people
negatively. The most effective communication skills I’ve found are those of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent
Communication process, which help people speak to each other in ways that tell the deepest truths while
enhancing goodwill and deepening their connection. Many resources are available for learning these and other
basic good communication skills (see Resources).It takes time, energy, and willingness to change the ways we
habitually talk with people, so that our conversations enhance, rather than diminish, our relationships. At first
these methods may feel “unnatural.” It helps to remember that all communication skills, including those we use
now, are learned behaviors, and we can learn new ones. Creating communication agreements. Conflict can arise
because of the widely differing communication styles and behavioral norms that people bring to community from
different regions, sub-cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds. So some groups agree on and write down
explicit communication and behavioral agreements. For example, is jumping in before someone has finished
speaking considered a disrespectful interruption, or normal lively conversation? Is coming directly to the point
considered respectful of each other’s time, or brusque and preemptory? Are using swear words or explicitly sexual
expressions of anger considered no big deal, or way out of line? Is inquiring about each other’s romantic, sexual,
financial, or health matters seen as friendly and intimacy-creating, or an invasion of privacy? Check-ins: Check-
ins can occur before decision-making meetings, or in separate meetings. Everyone around the circle tells what’s
going on in their lives at that time, their feelings about it, and perhaps their hopes and dreams about it. No one
interrupts or responds — there’s no sympathizing, criticizing, or offering advice. Usually there’s a time limit, such
as five or ten minutes per person. Abundant Dawn allows 15 to 30 minutes of check-in time at the beginning of
business meetings for members to let each other know what’s going on that may affect how they communicate in
the meeting, as well as any events that may affect community business itself. “If we just learned that someone’s
father died that week, for example,” says member Joy Legendre, “then we’ll all know why he hasn’t been his
normal self lately.”Sharing circles: Sharing circles are also some-times wisdom circles, the talking stick process,
listening circles, heart shares, or the council process. These are sessions in which people share what’s true for
them and listen to each other deeply. Inspired by the Native American talking stick process, the purpose is not to
solve problems or make decisions, but to explore issues and learn together, share personal stories and become
closer to each other, or hear everyone’s truth, pain, or joy about community issues. People usually sit in a circle.
Candles and ritual objects, including a small object such as a talking stick or a stone, are placed in the center.
One person at a time picks up the talking stick or object and speaks from the heart. This means being honest and
real, and allowing any emotions that might come up. It involves taking the risk to speak your truth without knowing
how it will be received. Speaking from the heart often opens the door for others to do the same. As in the check-in
process, everyone listens respectfully, and no one comments (although in groups that follow Native American
traditions, people often say “ho!” if the speaker’s words have touched them deeply). When the speaker is
finished, the talking stick or ritual object is returned to the center, and there a short period of silence. The next
person moved to speak does so, and then others, until everyone who wishes to speak has had a turn. Not every
person needs to speak. In some sharing circles no one speaks twice; other groups encourage individuals to
speak two or three times. In another version of this process, when each speaker finishes, the ritual object is
passed to the person on the left, who speaks next, and so on around the circle. Some groups go around at least
three or four times, with each person taking one to three minutes each.
The Roots of Conflict: Emotionally-charged Needs
“Most of the time we no longer resist conflict, or ignore it, or try to tiptoe around it,” says Larry Kaplowitz .“We’ve
come to see it as an opportunity to identify our patterns, to uncover and heal our old wounds and distress. We’re
usually willing to stop what we’re doing and address conflict, get to the root of it, and clear it.“But we’ve accepted
that it’s not an instant process, nor a tidy one. Lifelong patterns don’t give up the ghost without a fight. Sometimes
we fall back on our denial and avoidance for days and weeks until it gets unbearable, but eventually someone
always musters up enough courage or annoyance to shout ‘Enough!’”Community process consultant Laird
Schaub defines conflict as at least two people having different viewpoints about something, with at least one of
them having an emotional charge on the matter. Conflict also seems to be a multi-layered process. On the
surface it may seem to be about differences in ideologies, priorities, and values, especially about such
controversial community issues as children, food, labor requirements, and pets. But below that layer, it seems to
be about fear, guilt, or resentment, and below that, deep longings from early child hood for certain basic human
needs — for acceptance, approval, control, love, and so on. Psychologists recognize that besides physical needs
for food, water, warmth, and so on, certain emotional needs must be met for infants and children to develop into
emotionally healthy adults— including nurturing, affection, love, acceptance, empathy, connection, being valued,
and being respected, to name a few. When an infant or child doesn’t experience nurturing and affection
inadequate amounts, for example, these needs can become highly charged because they’re associated with the
pain of loss, which creates the unconscious fear that the person will never get enough nurturing or affection.
Hence, buried pain from long-ago unmet emotional needs can trigger conflict in community 20, 30, and 40 years
later. Having deeply-buried emotionally charged needs is not the problem. The problem is believing that at some
level that community will some-how meet these needs. The secret, silent demand that community or other
community members must provide what seems to be missing adds a cutting edge to conflict. This is why
arguments about what on the surface seem like ideologies, priorities, or values, can be so intense. I may assume
that community means valuing inclusion(because I desperately needed acceptance as a child and didn’t get it);
you may assume community means freedom for each of us to do our own thing (because you desperately needed
autonomy as a child and didn’t get it). So we end up having fierce fights about what “community” means. What
can we do about it? We can develop good communication and process skills, learn to accept and welcome
feedback and do course-correction when necessary, find ways to heal our individual issues, and deal
constructively with conflict when it arises.
High Woundedness, High Willingness
“We’ve learned that it’s the little things — the minor hurts, the small resentments, the petty judgments about each
other — that subtly yet pervasively undermine and limit the degree of well-being in our relationships,” says Larry
Kaplowitz.“Even a small degree of mistrust can prevent us from really being open with each other. Uncleared, this
can quickly spiral downward into disconnection, avoidance, more resentment, and conflict.”Clearing these issues
often involves offering feedback, by which I mean telling someone about something they did or said and how it
affected you negatively. Many people attracted to community have so many highly charged unmet needs that they
are easily triggered into hurt, anger, and defensiveness. They give feedback in brusque, unskilled ways and
resist any feedback that others try to offer them. They have what I call “high woundedness.” Yet others attracted
to community, equally wounded, are also willing to do what it takes to heal themselves and learn good process
skills. Such people have what I see as “high willingness and high woundedness.” Even though dealing with critical
feedback is difficult, they often learn good communication skills well enough to give feedback compassionately,
and develop enough self-esteem to hear and thought-fully consider any negative feedback offered by others.
They often become community’s best facilitators, counselors, and mediators. Before dealing with the art of giving
and receiving feedback, however, let’s examine some common kinds, as well as some common sources, of
Seven Kinds of Community Conflict We Wish We’d Left Behind
Here are how certain habitual “old paradigm,”“dominator culture” behaviors and attitudes are often expressed
when transplanted to intention-al community. We can begin to dismantle these behaviors in ourselves by first
realizing that if we want to live more sustainably and harmoniously in community than we did in mainstream culture
we’ve got to change ourselves too!
1. Founder’s Syndrome (I).Unconsciously assigning parent and authority figure roles to founders and acting out
adolescent rebellion and self-identity issues by resenting, undermining, and/or challenging the community
founders’ wisdom or experience, and/or the validity or relevance of the community’s values, vision, or purpose.
2. Founder’s Syndrome (II).Founders’ clinging to an unconscious self-image as parents or authority figures;
assuming a wiser, superior, or more privileged status than other members; and resenting, undermining, or
challenging any efforts to question the founders’ authority or otherwise offer the community innovation, new
perspectives, or change.
3. Visionary Abuse. When dynamic, energetic, visionary founders, burning with a spiritual, environmental, or
social-justice mission, work grueling hours in primitive, cramped, uncomfortable, or health-risking conditions, and
happily expect all members, interns, and apprentices to do the same. Related to eco-macho, sustainabler than
thou, campground macho (“We all lived in tents for three years with no heat, electricity, or running water, and you
should too”), and community macho (“Community is not for wimps: we can take it, can you?”).
4. Violating community agreements. The resentment and erosion of community trust that occur when a few people
don’t follow the community’s agreements and policies consistently, while others follow and uphold them.
5. Letting people get away with violating com-munity agreements. The further resentment, erosion of trust, and
breakdown of community well-being that results when a member isn’t called on disregarding agreements and so
continues disregarding them. By default the person becomes a kind of community aristocrat with the privilege of
living outside the normal rules. Often perpetuated by interpersonal power imbalances.
6. Interpersonal (as compared to “structural”) power imbalances. Conflict, resentment, and the breakdown of trust
in community when some members have more power than others because of behaviors that others are reluctant
to or afraid to deal with. These can include:
•Intimidation power: Habitually emanating anger, suppressed rage, “panic-anger,” and burning intensity; speaking
sharply or harshly, bossing people around, criticizing people frequently, and sometimes name-calling and
shouting people down. The person with intimidation power wields power over other members because it’s difficult
to muster the courage or energy to disagree with their opinions or ask them to change their demeanor. People
may have tried many times to ask for change and have given up, or the per-son is now less aggressive as a result
of past feedback and others are too worn down to ask for further change, or the person also offers such
beneficial qualities that others resign themselves to having a mixed blessing and let it go.
•Undermining power: “Bad-mouthing,” discrediting, and undermining another person’s behavior and/or character
to other community members; assuming the worst about the targeted person’s motives and then criticizing those
motives to others (“He’s just trying to rip us off,” “She’s just trying to control everyone”); not distinguishing
between one’s own fears about the person and objective reality; not talking about these concerns with the
targeted person or setting up a third-party mediation. The undermining person wields power over others in the
community because s/he operates behind people’s backs, and others are reluctant to voice concerns about this
behavior for fear they’ll be targeted next.
•Hypersensitive power: Reacting to even mildly worded feedback or requests for change as though it were an
intolerable personal attack; becoming visibly upset when others disagree with one’s views or beliefs; responding
with such defensiveness and self-justification so that people give up: “You can’t tell Reginald anything.”This wields
power over other community members because no one has the energy or patience to deal with this person’s high
level of fear and drama. People with hypersensitive power, like those with intimidating or undermining power,
maintain their power over others because they rarely receive feedback.
7. Assuming the worst about other people’s motives. Resenting and criticizing someone not only for what they may
have done, but also for the assumed “worst-case scenario” motives for their actions (He’s trying to cheat us,”
“She just wants to bully everyone,” “He’s always trying to show off ”) and using these assumptions as proof of the
person’s malfeasance or character flaws without (1) realizing these are assumptions, not facts, and (2) not asking
the person if the assumptions are true.
Twenty-four Common Sources of Community Conflict
“Structural Conflict” Set-ups
1. Vision and values differences. Arguments over how money should be spent, or how time and labor should be
allocated, based on differing values or visions about the community.
2. “Structural” power imbalances. Resentment and blame arising from real or perceived power differences in
terms of how decisions are made and who makes them, or who has more influence than others in the group,
either because of persuasive influence, expertise, or seniority in the community. (See “Interpersonal power
3. Exhausting, divisive, or unproductive meetings. Resentment and anger from too-frequent, overlong, or
dragging meetings that accomplish little and go nowhere, or meetings characterized by resentment or hostility.
4. Lack of crucial information. Arguments about whose fault it is that we’re suddenly stopped in our tracks, or must
raise unexpected funds because we didn’t adequately research something earlier; for example, not knowing that
our local zoning regulations don’t permit our planned population density or clustered housing, or not knowing
composting toilets are illegal in our county.
5. Remembering verbal agreements differently. Eruptions of resentment, blame, or hostility because some
community members appear to be dishonest or trying to cheat others, because we all remember our financial or
other agreements differently. We can’t just look up the agreements because we didn’t write them down.
6. No communication or behavioral agreements. Misunderstandings and resentments because group members
have widely divergent communication styles or behavioral norms. What are our norms for how people talk to each
other, or express disagreement and strong emotion?
7. No processes for accountability. Resentment, blame, and flying accusations because some of us didn’t do what
we said we’d do, and certain projects can’t move forward because some earlier tasks are unfinished, causing us
to lose money or miss important opportunities.
8. No membership criteria or new-member screening process. Resentment and mistrust arising because new
people enter who don’t share our values and vision, don’t align with our com-munity culture, or can’t meet our
financial and labor requirements.
9. Being swamped with too many new members at once. Disorientation, overwhelm, depression, loss, or panic
because the “container” of our shared history, values, and culture is threatened or damaged by the sudden influx
of more people than we can assimilate easily. (Forming community groups and communities do better to add new
10. High turnover. Disorientation, overwhelm, depression, and associated emotions because too high a
percentage of members are continually coming and going for the community to establish a sense of itself. The
center does not hold; there’s no “there” there.
Differences in Work and Planning Styles
11. Processors vs. Doers. Conflict between group members who want to process emotions or clear up points of
meeting procedure, and those who want to focus on facts, strategies, and “real” things, but who sometimes
override other people’s feelings or ignore agreed-upon procedures.
12. Planners vs. Doers. Tension between those who want to gather facts and data and make long-term plans
before taking action, and those who want to leap in and get started.
13. Spiritual vs. physical manifesters. Annoyance and impatience between those who want to use visualization,
affirmation, or prayer as the primary means to manifest community, but may not feel comfortable with budgets,
mortgages, shovels, or power tools, and those who want to use strategic plans, cash flow projections, and work
parties as the primarily means to manifest community, but are leery of “invisible stuff.”
14. Differences in information processing. Disrespecting, dismissing or devaluing people who may process
information differently (visually rather than aurally, in wholes rather than step by step), or at a different pace than
15. Differences in communication style. Socio-liguistic differences based on region, ethnicity, subculture, socio-
economic background, gender, or whether a member has lived in communities for decades or just arrived from
16. Work imbalances, or perceived imbalances. Resentment toward those who work less often or less rigorously
on community projects than we do, or than they’ve previously agreed to.
17. Financial issues. Arguments over who’s expected to pay for what, and if and when money can be reimbursed.
Resentment and tension over the relationship between financial contribution and the amount of influence in
18. Time-crunch issues. Disagreements about the amount of time spent in meetings and on community tasks
versus. time with one’s family or household. Conflict over the best times to schedule meetings or community
projects so they’re convenient for everyone. Arguments over how consistently community members should
contribute to the group and whether it’s OK to take periodic breaks.
19. Gender imbalance and power-over issues. Power imbalances and resentments if there are considerably more
members of one gender than another, or one gender dominating some areas, or one gender consistently teasing,
behaving suggestively towards, or dominating the other.
20. Behavioral norms. Conflict over what’s considered acceptable behavior in community; for example, to what
degree people might intervene in or restrain potentially unacceptable, unsafe, or destructive behavior of other
people, their children, or their animals. Can community members request changes in parents’ child-raising style,
or request that others restrain, train, or fence their animals? What are standards of acceptable behavior outside
the community, where someone’s behavior might reflect on the community?
21. Boundary issues. Tension about what com-munity members do on their home sites, in their adjacent homes,
or shared common spaces, that can be seen or heard by others, including what noises may too loud or disruptive
to others during certain hours or what physical objects might be an eyesore to others. What behaviors — such as
disciplining children, having loud arguments, butchering livestock, drinking, taking drugs, nudity, displays of
affection, or sexual expression are fine for some to overhear or view are fine and which are “over the line.” To
what degree can fellow community members borrow each other’s personal items without asking? What degree of
playful, affectionate, or sensual physical touch is welcome to some and unwelcome to others?
22. Care and maintenance issues. Conflict about standards for taking care of and maintaining jointly owned
equipment or tools, and who’s responsible.
23. Cleanliness and order issues. Tension over standards for cleanliness in common rooms, and cleanliness of
jointly used items and how they’re stored, particularly in kitchens and bathrooms, and who’s responsible.
24. Lifestyle issues. Conflict arising from items some members may own or activities they may enjoy privately —
smoking, liquor, drugs, guns, pesticides, and meat eating — which may be no big deal for some but disturbing to
others. Conflict over the degree to which relationships between families, couples, or households may be the
business of other members, such as parents’ discipline or lack of discipline with children, open marriages,
polyfidelitous relationships, or gay or bisexual relationships. To what degree is how people treat each other in
their love relation-ships the business of other community members? Every one of these conflicts can be reduced
or prevented by well-crafted agreements and procedures, good training in group process, or both.
The Fine Art of Offering Feedback
Offering feedback is not an attempt to assess or guess or criticize the person’s intentions or motives. If you do
that, it’ll probably trigger defensiveness and escalate the problem. And although you can also request that the
person do things differently in the future, this can also make things worse, if wanting the person to change is the
only reason you’re giving the feed-back.“Get in touch with your motives for offering feedback,” advises process
consultant Paul DeLapa. “If your intention is to offer information about how the person’s actions or behavior
affected you, there’s a good chance the person can hear and accept it. But if your motive is to change them, it
probably won’t work.”Don’t try to convince or coerce them. “People don’t resist change itself as much as they
resist ‘being changed’,” says Paul. So offering feedback can support someone’s own willingness to change
something if the feedback is offered in a way that doesn’t register as a demand or as an implication that they’re
somehow bad or wrong. How you say it has everything to do with how feedback will be received. It requires all the
best communication skills we can muster — using neutral language, describing what the person actually did rather
than assessing his or her character or motives, and using real feeling words rather than blame-words. Again, the
best process I know of for offering feedback constructively comes from the Nonviolent Communication process.
Receiving Feedback — Listening for Kernels of Truth
Even if you learn to offer feedback skillfully, much of the critical feedback you may hear about yourself could be
delivered in a graceless manner. Even people committed to good process can still speak awkwardly or harshly
when they’re trying to deliver a difficult message. You could get feedback that implies or outright states that you're
wrong, bad, or defective in some way. You can hear guesses and presumptions about your motives stated as
facts. You can be told you “always” do such-and-such or “never” do such-and-such. You can be armchair-
psychoanalyzed as to what childhood factors cause your malfeasance. This can be so painful it completely
obscures the important information the person is trying to give you. Hearing critical feedback can hurt. Not only
because of any harshness in the delivery, but also because of the possibility that, to whatever extent, it may be
true. It helps to keep some principles in mind:
1. Just because feedback is delivered in a critical, exaggerated, or hostile manner doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain
a kernel of truth — or maybe a lot of truth.
2. On the other hand, it could be a projection of the person’s own issues onto you, with nothing to do with your
own actions or behaviors.
3. And even when delivered skillfully, feedback might still be exaggerated, or partially or wholly invalid. Hearing
critical feedback requires at least two skills: the ability to respond to the person in a way that doesn’t make things
worse — for you, for them, and for the whole community; and listening for the kernel of truth in what they say and
finding ways to check it out objectively. Suppose Jason says:“I’m annoyed and frustrated by the mess in the
kitchen after you’ve used it. I’ve been cleaning up after you and I’m getting tired of it. I wish you’d clean up after
you’re done.”Constructive responses could include(depending on how accurate you think Jason’s observation
may be): “Thanks for telling me,” or “Thanks, I’ll consider that,” or “Thanks, I’ll do something about it,” or just
“Thanks.”But what if he’d said: “You’re a slob who leaves a mess every time you use the kitchen! We always have
to clean up after you!” With a message like this, it can take a great deal of patience and tolerance not to retaliate
in kind. If you do, you, Jason, and the whole community will probably feel worse. If you respond more neutrally as
suggested above, you’ll have helped the community’s well-being by not adding to the burden of ill will Jason has
just dumped into it. How do you know when feedback is true? Introspection, self-observation, and any manner of
self-awareness techniques, including asking for inner guidance, can help you assess its degree of truth. Even
better, you can ask other community members directly. I recommend doing this in relatively straightforward way,
for example:“Excuse me, Sally, do I sometimes leave a mess in the kitchen?” Sally could say, “You sure do. I’ve
been meaning to tell you about it. Would you please take more time to clean up after you’re done?”Or she could
say, “Hmmm, let me see. Well, maybe once or twice, but not all the time.”Asking various people and getting a
consistent response one way or the other is one way to gauge the accuracy of someone’s feedback. Asking
questions in a straightforward way gives you a better chance of getting neutral, accurate information. But suppose
you felt so hurt or angry by how Jason criticized you that you exaggerated and “horriblized” what he said when
you tried to verify it: “Jason says I’m a horrible slob who always leaves a mess in the kitchen and everywhere I go.
He says everyone always has to clean up after me! Is that true?”This defeats your chances of getting accurate
feedback, because Sally would probably say something like: “Of course not! You don’t leave messes
everywhere!” And you’ll have missed the kernel of truth that you do, in fact, sometimes leave a messy kitchen. We
can help create sustainable relationships by giving feedback as skillfully as we can, without expecting or
demanding that other people are any good at it. We can sift through any graceless or harsh criticism for whatever
helpful truths about ourselves we can glean. This is a lot to ask. Yet it’s the rock polisher in action, and it’s one of
the best ways we can use community to grow and heal ourselves and strengthen our relationships there.
“The amount of time and energy conflict can suck out of a community can endanger its viability,” says Dave
Henson of Sowing Circle/OAEC. He’s right — and it’s everyone’s business to resolve small conflicts before they
become com-munity-wide conflagrations. Most communities profiled in this book have regular meetings to unearth
small conflicts before they escalate to larger ones. Threshing meetings are like safety valves that periodically let
off pres-sure, and can include giving appreciative as well as critical feedback, venting frustration or anger, asking
people for specific changes in behavior, or simply exploring controversial issues. Using processes like threshing
meetings to handle conflicts early, when they’re small, often prevents them from mushrooming into major
conflagrations later on. It’s also much easier for a group to resolve large conflicts once they’ve learned to handle
smaller ones. Abundant Dawn members set aside an hour and a half twice monthly for what they call
“personal/interpersonal time.” People describe what’s going on in their lives, says Joy Legendre, as well as delve
into any conflicts. “Just knowing that space is there for us to bring these issues up helps defuse the little tensions
and problems. It’s easier to let them go and not get bothered by them, just knowing that we can always discuss
them at the meeting.”But they’re not called “threshing” meetings for nothing. “Public feedback sessions can be
risky,” cautions process consultant Paul DeLapa, “because it risks undermining trust between people instead of
building trust.” Many people aren’t willing to offer feedback one-on-one, and will criticize people behind their backs
rather than speak to them directly. In public feedback sessions such as threshing meetings these are usually the
people who suddenly feel free to unleash the floodgates of pent-up frustration and resentment. For the person
receiving the feedback it can feel as though they’re being ganged up on. If everyone in a group plans to give one
member feedback, Paul recommends that the person sets up some boundaries, such as what kind of feedback
they’d be willing to hear, and how they’d prefer it be delivered. Establishing some boundaries first empowers the
person and helps them feel less vulnerable. But in some circumstances feedback offered in a group setting can
be easier to take than one-on-one. If Vaughan gives Sally critical feed-back, and other group members say they’
ve never had that experience themselves, it could offer Sally a wider perspective and lessen the sting. And if
Vaughan were to offer feedback in a harsh way, other, more skilled communicators could intervene, and remind
him to alter his language. The public/private scale exercise, first suggested for the visioning process can help
people in a threshing meeting (or any meeting)break the ice in discussing an issue that they’re reluctant to talk
about publicly. Let’s say it’s believed that someone repeatedly breaks com-munity agreements or has seriously
breached behavioral norms, or some members cannot meet their financial obligations to the community, or it’s
rumored that someone may be harming a child — and no one wants to bring it up. Using the public/private scale
and framing the issue as a series of questions makes public the range of members’ opinions about the issue,
which can help induce people to speak up and address the matter directly.
Creating Specific Conflict Resolution Agreements
Some groups create a set of agreements about how community members will handle conflict when it comes up.
Here are the agreements Sowing Circle made, excerpted from their “Conflict Resolution Policy.”
Sowing Circle Community: Conflict Resolution Policy
When confronted with conflict of any kind, the community agrees to adhere to the conflict resolution principles and
steps outlined below:
I. Problem-Solving Ground Rules. All members agree to attempt to solve problems by first dealing directly with the
person or persons with whom he/she is experiencing problems. Implicit in this agreement is a commitment to
honest, direct problem-solving. All members will agree to the following ground rules when involved in conflict
1. A commitment to mutual respect.
2. A commitment to solve the problem.
3. No put-downs.
4. No intimidation, implied or direct.
5. No physical contact.
6. No interrupting.
7. Agreement to use the conflict resolution protocol, below.
II. Conflict Resolution Protocols. Community members in conflict will:
•Make a good faith effort to resolve the problem between/among themselves. If this does not work, the members
in conflict will:
•Ask a mutually agreed-upon member to help mediate and solve the problem with those having the conflict. If this
does not work, the members in conflict will: •Formally request assistance from the community in solving the
•If the community is unable to assist in resolving the conflict, and all avenues of conflict resolution have been
exhausted, then the community may choose to engage in outside mediation to solve the problem.
III. Third Party Confidentiality. We recognize the importance of the conflict resolution protocol outlined above, and
agree to abide by it in principle and practice. As non-involved parties, we will encourage conflicting parties to deal
directly with one another. However, we also recognize the need, at times, to discuss, seek advice, or seek comfort
from others while in the midst of conflict. Such a situation requires confidentiality. As “third parties” who are
approached for solace, advice, etc., we agree to provide these things in the spirit of helping to improve the
situation. We do not wish to contribute to rumors, gossip, “bad-mouthing,” or the perpetuation of problems. If a
person who is experiencing a conflict with one or more people on the property approaches a neutral “third party” it
is under-stood that the person is responsible for keeping the health and well being of the community in mind. That
is, while maintaining confidentiality, the third party should remind the conflicted person of the conflict resolution
protocol, if necessary. In addition, by virtue of being privy to the conflict at hand, the third party is also responsible
for monitoring the situation. If the feelings, issues, etc., are leading to greater conflict or to a weakening of the
community, then the third party should take steps toward facilitating resolution, even if this means exposing the
fact (not details) of the problem at hand to others in the community.
IV. Confidentiality with Regard to Internal Community Conflict. In the spirit of protecting the privacy and rights of
members of the com-munity, we are committed to maintaining confidentiality regarding individual and community
issues of a sensitive nature when speaking with people outside the community.
Helping Each Other Stay Accountable to the Group
One of the most common sources of conflict in community occurs when people don’t do what they say they’ll do.
As in business, this often causes repercussions “downstream,” since some people count on others to finish
certain preliminary steps before they can take the next steps. But by putting a few simple processes in place,
community members can help each other stay accountable to one another in relatively painless, guilt-free ways.
One is to make agreements about tasks in meetings, and keep track of these tasks from meeting to meeting. This
involves assigning tasks to specific people and defining what they’re being asked to accomplish and by what time.
It also involves having a task review at the beginning of every meeting — the people or committees who agreed to
take on these tasks report whether they have been done, and if not, when they will be. It also helps to create a
wall chart of assigned tasks with expected completion dates and the person or committee responsible for each.
Assign someone the task of keeping the chart current and taping it on the wall at meetings. Community activist
Geoph Kozeny suggests creating a buddy system, where everyone is assigned another group member to call and
courteously inquire, “Did you call the county yet?” or “Have you found out about the health permit?” This is not
about guilt-tripping; it’s about helpful inquiry and mutual encouragement. These methods rely on the principle that
it’s more difficult to forget or ignore responsibilities if they’re publicly visible. Social pressure can often accomplish
what good intentions cannot. If not completing tasks becomes an ongoing problem with one or more people in the
group, you can add additional processes. For example, when anyone accomplishes a task, thank and
acknowledge the person at the next meeting. When someone doesn’t accomplish a task, the group as a whole
asks the person to try again. After awhile, the simple desire not to let others down usually becomes an
internalized motivator for more responsible behavior. If someone still frequently fails to do what they say they’ll do,
you can use a graduated series of consequences. (See below for a more detailed explanation of a graduated
series of consequences.) First, several people could talk with the person, for example,. describing the
repercussions to the group of failing to follow through. If that doesn’t resolve it, the matter could be taken up by a
committee convened for this purpose. Last, it could become a matter for the whole group. Why is this such a
common source of community conflict? I think it’s about developing the habit early in life of procrastinating or
agreeing to take on more than is possible, and not having enough motivation to change. When we live alone or
live with our families, it’s relatively easy to change our minds about whether or not, or when, we’ll do something we
said we’d do, or just plain let it go. But in a forming community group or community, this can have widespread
negative impacts on other people, and we’ll certainly hear about it. It can take time, energy, and commitment to
shift from “live-alone” or “single-family” mode to consistently considering how our actions will affect others. When
people repeatedly don’t do what they promise and others continue to hold them accountable, it usually results in
the person either changing their habits or eventually leaving the group.
A Graduated Series of Consequences
It’s especially painful for community groups when someone consistently violates agreements or behavioral norms,
or refuses to make changes repeatedly requested by other community members regarding behavior or
communication style. One remedy is to agree on and implement negative consequences for such offenses. In
order to protect a community, it’s possible to design a graduated series of fair, compassionate consequences,
from mild to increasingly serious, that treat people with respect while inducing them to make necessary changes.
Many communities have no consequences for such breaches, partly because most of us feel uncomfortable
considering such matters, and partly because having negative consequences seems no different than the fines
and jail sentences of mainstream society. It’s difficult for community members to propose or implement coercive
methods of governance when what they really want is a finer, kinder, more conscious society than the one they
grew up with. For the same reasons, the communities that do have con-sequences are often reluctant to enforce
them. Still other communities have consequences, but the consequences are too severe for the offense, so
people are loathe to employ them. For example, one large income-sharing community has just one consequence
for members who get too far in the “labor hole” (failing to do their share of labor) or the “money hole” (borrowing
too much against future stipends) — eviction from the com-munity. But this requires polling the members for 100
percent agreement to take this action. While many people in this community have gotten into the labor hole or
money hole over the years, this consequence is rarely proposed. And when it is, usually enough friends of the
member in question vote against it so he or she doesn’t have to leave. Everyone loses here. The community
continues to financially carry members who contribute less and take more, and the offending member continues to
get away with irresponsible behavior and has little motivation to change. Occasionally, community members need
a series of consequences to finally understand that they must make changes. When all else fails, coercion can
give a person a needed kick in the pants. Community Alternatives Society in Vancouver, Canada, had no real
“rules” until they were forced to create agreements about behavior, and more importantly, institute a graduated
series of consequences if anyone breached them. This community’s series of consequences treats members with
respect, yet has “teeth.” Here’s what they do if someone seriously violates behavioral norms or repeatedly breaks
1. One person talks with the member in question about the problem and asks him or her to make changes.
2. If this doesn’t work, four people meet about the problem — the first two and a trusted friend of each, again,
requesting that the per-son make changes.
3. If this doesn’t solve it, the person meets with the Accountability Committee to resolve the problem.
4. If this still doesn’t solve it, the Accountability Committee creates a five-month contract with the member that
outlines how he or she will make the necessary changes, and meets with the member monthly for updates. The
purpose of the contract and meetings is not to punish or humiliate the member, but to encourage and support
their making the changes.
5. If even this doesn’t work, the whole community meets specifically to decide what action to take, which may
include asking the person to live somewhere else for a while, and possibly also revoking his or her membership.
The member can participate in this meeting, but has no blocking power.
6. If most members want to take this action but one or more people block it, the committee meets with the member
in question and the those blocking the proposal to seek resolution together. The number of consequences a
group has, and how far it goes (a whole-group meeting? expulsion?) will depend on the size of the group and how
deeply connected people feel — often a function of how long they’ve been together. Isn’t it drastic to put a
member back on a provisional membership status, or ask them to live elsewhere for a while, or worse, to ask them
to permanently leave the community once you’re all living on the land? Yes, it is drastic. And some-times, when
the violation is severe enough or the conflict too wrenching, it’s the only way to protect your forming community
group or community from breaking up altogether. After they took the first Naka-Ima workshop, Lost Valley
members noticed two divergent trends developing in their community. Most members wanted to move in the
direction of more cooperative and shared resources, but felt frustrated because other members wanted more
independent lives. At that time, as a relatively small consensus-based group of ten members, it seemed that
without something changing nobody would be able to get what they really wanted — especially since using
consensus requires a common purpose.“To those of us who held the cooperative vision,” Larry recalls, “it seemed
necessary to break with precedent and ask the others to leave, freeing the energy to move forward. We didn’t feel
we had enough of a foundation to tolerate that kind of diversity. This was the first in a series of courageous and
risky choices that we believed we must take to restore our integrity as a community.” The people did leave, and
Larry reports that the community became more harmonious because of it. Asking someone to leave your group or
community is probably the most disruptive and painful way to deal with apparently irresolvable conflict. It is far
easier to address the likelihood of such conflict ahead of time by carefully choosing the people who join you.
IDEALISM AND DISILLUSIONMENT
Community founders and newcomers often assume that they won’t need conflict resolution methods, ways to help
each other stay accountable to the group, or consequences for violations agreements — since none of these
issues will ever come up in their community. They assume they won’t be living in the “old paradigm,” so why have
remedies for it? But a few months or a few years into the process they see that heir community does not at all
resemble the harmonious and deeply connected “new paradigm” family they envisioned, and disillusionment sets
in. Usually they blame the community itself (“We’re so screwed up!”) or particular members (“If only Ollie would
leave!”), rather than realizing they had unrealistic expectations to begin with, and they are having a typical(some
say, inevitable) community experience. Community life is more functional and satisfying than life in mainstream
culture — but often not as functional and satisfying as we’d hoped! Community is like crossing a bridge between
win-lose culture and the more harmonious and sustainable culture we aspire to and would like to leave to our
children. Community members are traversing the bridge, passing from one realm to the other, helping generate
that future as we keep learning better how to interact and communicate with each other in cooperative, win/win
ways, resolve conflicts successfully, and so on. Utilizing the processes described in this chapter isn’t evidence of
our community’s failure. These processes are like training wheels; they’re small, helpful, devices to help us travel
more easily from we’ve been to where we’re going — toward communities that are socially, ecologically, and
GETTING OUTSIDE HELP
Sometimes conflict gets so entrenched and seemingly irresolvable that communities call in process gurus,
consensus facilitators, or other communication consultants to help sort out the problem. These consultants are
skilled in process and conflict-resolution methods, and, since they’re often community veterans themselves, their
com-munity experience gives them a context for the unique challenges that arise when people attempt to live
more closely and interdependently.
HEALING OUR INDIVIDUAL ISSUES
If several people say give us the same feedback, maybe we should do something about it. But what? How can we
get along better with each other, and help our lives become happier, lighter, and more enjoyable? “Thought field
therapy” is a relatively new method for releasing hurts and wounds from the past that maybe influencing
perceptions and attitudes in the present. I’ve tried various therapies over the years, but never found anything so
effective, painless, cheap, and fast. It can take only three or four sessions, for example, to make a noticeable
difference. Thought field therapy doesn’t require re-experiencing or even understanding old upsets, or using
visualization or affirmations. It’s essentially a mechanical technique involving certain acupuncture points, but
without the needles, and one can do it at home, without a therapist. It seems to work by healing issues at the core
— for me it’s like pressing the “erase” button on a tape recorder, unbelievable though that sounds. I recommend
this healing tool for any community members seeking an exceptionally fast and simple way to peel away the
negative layers that can get in the way of sustainable relationships.
COHOUSING AND CONFLICT
Cohousing founders tend to excel at the logistics of forming a community — acquiring land and financing, and
dealing with development — but tend to stumble over interpersonal communication, often becoming embroiled in
intractable conflict once they move into their beautifully constructed buildings. Founders of non-cohousing
communities, however, often stumble over business and financial hurdles but seem to instinctively value good
process and communication skills. (Founders of more recently built cohousing communities, however, seem more
aware that the human connection is as important as the construction loan.) We certainly need both sets of skills!
Let’s hope members of cohousing and non-cohousing communities will learn from one another, and we’ll all
THE PROCESS TEAM
Some communities, such as Sharingwood Cohousing in Washington state, help maintain well-being in the com-
munity by establishing a team of consensus and process facilitators whose job it is to train meeting facilitators,
introduce process methods (sharing circles, threshing meetings, the public/private scale, and so on), and keep an
eye out for potential conflicts, intervene when necessary. “Get your best facilitators and the people most
interested in process,” says Sharingwood process facilitator Rob Sandelin. “Encourage them and give them funds
to get training in and bring back good process techniques back to the group. The investment of time and money
in good group process will more than pay for itself in community health and well being over the long run.”
FIVE WAYS TO RESPOND TO CONFLICT
1. Ignore and suppress it. Rarely a conscious choice, but rather a lifelong avoidance pattern, this response
erodes the quality of well-being in a group. Your members might not notice the buried resentments accumulating
over time, but visitors certainly will. “Why does this group feel so heavy?” And like trying to squash beach balls by
pushing them under the rug, ignored conflict always pops up somewhere.
2. Leave it. Leave the subject, leave the room, leave the group or the community. Another popular, mostly
unconscious choice, this is usually a lose/lose situation, for the person and for the group.
3. Leap into it aggressively. Some people thrive on conflict, and enjoy how emotionally alive they feel when
sparring with others. They may crave emotional intensity; or believe that aggressive criticism is equivalent to
“being honest.” They may unconsciously want to recreate a negative but familiar experience from early childhood.
Some people may not experience their feelings consciously, so yelling at others gets them in touch with
suppressed anger, and it feels great to let it out. Other people can only feel connected with someone once they’
ve had a fight — as if they’re testing someone’s solidity or strength before they can trust them. By leaping into
conflict people may meet their own needs for aliveness, authenticity, healing, connection, or trust, but their
strategy of fighting with people to meet these needs can drive others right out of the room and right out of the
4. Change how you feel about it. In this response to conflict, emotional upsets are considered opportunities for
personal growth and spiritual development. You don’t address issues that upset you, but rather go deeply into
any anger, fear, or sadness as a result of the problem in order to release these feelings and enter a state of
tranquility. This can empower individual members, and certainly prevents angry confrontations in the group, but it
doesn’t necessarily empower the whole community or help create sustainable relation-ships. Gary may continue
blasting his loud music at 3:00 am and annoy the hell out of everyone else, no matter that you’ve become
enlightened because of it.
5. Use the conflict to strengthen the community. Lastly, you can use conflict to generate more under-standing and
connection, and make changes in behavior to improve how everyone gets along — in other words, use it as part
of “good process.”Handled well, dealing with conflict can make a community stronger, more connected, and
lighthearted in the long run.