Six years of experience at Aprovecho has taught us some valuable lessons about consensus. Let me describe why we practice consensus-minus-one.
Initially, coming from conservative backgrounds and fearing the inability to all agree, the one agreement we made was to ratify decisions without the agreement of one person present. We saw it as a way to get business done without some obdurant individual holding up the whole show. Our bylaws say something like "with one member dissenting."
In fact, we seldom get a dissenter. What it means is that if two people oppose something, they can block it, but an individual can’t. So we’re guarded against unaccountable insanity or temporary bouts of grumpiness. Neither has ever been an issue, but we’ve found that if ever one person strongly opposes something, we usually try to discuss it to a point where they at least feel OK about it going ahead. Then they can say, "Well, I still dissent but I don’t feel unsupported in my views."
Effectively, this gives everyone a vote, as of course they have with total consensus, but there’s a difference. In total consensus, one individual can gradually take control of an organization by cumulatively swaying what doesn’t get done in a direction s/he wants to see it go. By refusing to agree to black, the group is left only with white to dark grey. Later the options can be narrowed further by refusing to support darker shades of grey. Over a period, and sometimes going unnoticed, your single subversive can push the whole group to accepting only white.
My turn. At one level, the differences between these two approaches are slight – in practice probably hardly noticeable. Yet there is a difference in spirit that harkens back to the difference between unitary and adversary democracy. Total consensus assumes and requires a high level of trust and maturity. If these qualities can be developed in the group, then its use is well rewarded by a bonding that goes deeper than the reserve implied in consensus-minus-one. A good facilitator can do wonders with the most unpromising groups.
On the other hand, there are many groups – especially with loosely defined memberships – where it would be naive to assume that every member will act in "unitary good faith," especially since our society trains us to act as adversaries. Consensus-minus-one can permit these groups to gain many of the benefits of consensus without risking the subversion that Ianto describes. The lesson, it seems to me, is to have lots of tools in your toolbox, and use each where it fits.
- Robert Gilman