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Decision Making in Cohousing

Posted by Anthony Kidd | 12 March 2011

All cohousing communities need a decision making policy and process and the earlier you start the better. Consensus decision making is almost universal in cohousing in the US although other processes are possible if your group agrees to them. 

Systems such as sociocracy greatly increase the efficiency of the decision making process. However you set up your system it is important that it is clearly defined, everyone understands it and that decisions are accurately recorded. 

The decision making policy formulated at this stage will eventually become the policy for the community after the development is completed. Therefore it is worth investing time g and effort into getting it right. 

Consensus Decision Making

Many existing cohousing communities make decisions by consensus. There is a belief amoungst cohousers generally that consensus makes the best decisions and that it satisfies the participants better than any other method. Consensus may take longer but it produces more robust decisions which are more likely to be carried out. It also produces decisions which participants are less likely to regret later.

Consensus decision making is often misunderstood. Although there is a common belief that a consensus decision is one where everyone agrees, this is not necessarily so. A consensus decision making process which relies on everybody agreeing to everything would be a recipe for disaster. Consensus simply means that nobody disagrees with the decision enough to block consensus. It may be that somebody does not like the decision but is willing to go along with it because the others want to and it doesn’t really affect them very much.

Most procedures have some sort of fallback, usually a vote or a “consensus minus” procedure for when not everybody. “Consensus minus” means that it is not necessary to obtain consensus form every member of the group. Consensus minus one means that one person can disagree without the decision being blocked. In other words it takes at least two people to block consensus. Consensus minus two means it takes 3 to block consensus and so on.

The other fall back procedure commonly in use is to resort to a vote if consensus cannot be reached. In some cases it might a simple majority, in other cases a super majority may be required. A super majority may be 75% or more of the members of the group. A super majority is really just the consensus minus procedure expressed as a percentage rather than an absolute number. Consensus minus could be expressed as consensus minus 10% of the members which would be the same as a 90% super majority.

The other possibility for a fallback procedure is to refer the decision to a third party if consensus cannot be reached. This is not a very attractive procedure as it takes the decision out of the hands of the group. The resulting decision may not be acceptable to all members of the group and there is a possibility that nobody will be happy with it. Proponents of this procedure claim that it has the benefit of referring the decision to a disinterested objective decision maker. This is true. However a similar result could be achieved by referring the decision to a third party for independent advice. This advice can be considered in making the decision, and is often very influential. However, advisors are not necessarily the best people to make decisions.

It is worth noting that fallback procedures are not commonly used in cohousing. Most cohousing communities use it less than once a year. When groups are trained in decision making they are able to make decisions by consensus. Therefore, whilst it is necessary to have a fallback procedure it is not something which will be used on a regular basis.

Another important issue when defining a fallback procedure is to define when it will be used. Possibilities include:

  • If an issue is not settled after 3 meetings
  • If there is a consensus amoungst the group that the fallback procedure should be used
  • If a super majority of the members wants to use the procedure
  • If a third party advisor recommends the procedure
  • If the greater good of the community is not an issue
  • When an urgent decision must be made.

Blocking Consensus

When using consensus decision making a person or small number of people are able to hold up decisions. It is important that participants agree not to block consensus unless absolutely necessary. As a general principle consensus should only be blocked where the interests of the group or critical interests of an individual are at stake. Consensus should not be blocked simply to get one’s own way.

Standing Aside

If a person does not agree with a decision he/she can stand aside and let the decision go through. In doing so the person is not agreeing with the decision. They are saying that they disagree but they do not want to block consensus.

There are many reasons for standing aside including:

  • The decision is not important enough to block
  • Urgent action needs to be taken and there is not enough time to explore all options
  • They have a conflict of interest
  • The decision is not of wide application

Members must not be coerced or pressured to stand aside as this undermines the consensus decision making process and may lead to ill feeling in the group. Whilst conflict is inevitable it is important that this conflict does not become destructive to the group. Decision making must encourage, or a least not destroy, cohesion in the group. 

Working Groups

In sociocratic systems decisions are made by double linked working groups where members are appointed by consensus. Double linking means that there are two members of each group who are members of the central committee. One of these people is a member of the central committee who sits on the working group. The other is a member of the working group who sits on the committee.

There are two aspects to appointing members by consensus. The first is that each member of the working group consents to be on that working group. This is important as a person who does not want to be part of a working group will not perform effectively. People may agree to be members of the working group for different reasons. Some may have an interest in the subject matter, some may be experts in the area and others may want to ensure proper decisions are made. Whilst people’s reasons for joining a working group are not terribly important to whether or not they are accepted on to the committee, the group should recognise and acknowledge these differing motivations. At certain times it will be of great assistance to the working group to recognise the motivations of a particular member.

The other aspect to appointing members by consensus is that the group must consent to the person being appointed. Again, the group must reach consensus on this issue. In other words no member of the group can object strongly to any other member of the group. To put it another way, each person in the group has a veto over each of the others.

Group Training

There are professionals who can help with your group processes and they are often well worth the investment. A weekend spent learning groups processes can save many hours of meetings and these skills will serve the community long after your neighbourhood is built.