RE: DSM: Majority Rule vs. Consensus

Kenneth Winchenbach Walden (
Sun, 23 Jan 2000 13:44:14 -0500

A few notes...

>Yes, decision-making by traditional Parliamentary procedure is an
>"adversarial system" in which people argue for or against a particular
>proposal. However, individuals can express particular concerns -- and
>make motions to ammend or change the standing motion in such a way that it
>would answer those concerns. If the meeting is run by consensus as you
>describe, and a person in favor of the main motion feels that the
>ammendment would neuter it, s/he is stuck -- whereas in a Parliamentary
>system any individual can ask the group as a whole to consider ANY
>proposal unencumbered by a move towards the lowest common denomintaor (by
>making ammendments, or promising to make a new motion with a particular
>set of different features).

I don't think I expressed myself clearly. Anybody's concerns are valid in a
consensus decision. If someone feels that a change neuters the original
intent of the proposal, they are just as justified in that concern as anyone
else. They would certainly be free to raise their concerns, and step aside
if they felt strongly enough, and were not able to sway others with their
concern. Just as you describe majority-voting, in consensus any individual
can ask the group to consider any proposal. There is no distinction between
'majority' and 'minority' or 'original opinion' and 'new suggestion'. The
difference between my point of view, and what I see above, is that I don't
consider taking into account all members of the group to be moving towards
the lowest common denominator. The group is free to do what they feel to be
best - a group using consensus will probably wish to satisfy everybody in
the group, since everybody's opinion is being valued. Therefore, they will
tend to craft decisions that do take into account all the thoughts of all
the members. However, in practice, one will find that this does not create
large clunky decisions - either the group will find a decision that
satisfies everyone, or they will find that they have no consensus for the

>There is a reason that an adversarial system is better. Foremost, is that
>fact that sometimes people REALLY ARE DIVIDED as to their fundamental
>interests. Pretending that they all have the same goals is an INSULT to
>those who do not share the goals of the majority.

I'd like to point out that I don't feel either of these systems, or others,
are the best system. I think they all have different elements that would
cause some people or groups to prefer them. They all have their place. As
you point out, a group that has very different sets of interests might be
better suited to majority voting. That is why I suggest that a group must
have a common purpose to use consensus. However I feel that at least in
some cases, the desire to run a school that exhibits certain values would be
a significant common purpose and common values.

>> Of course there is no guarantee that such discussion and improvement will
>> ensure that everybody ends up liking the proposal. Consensus allows for
>> various means of dealing with that. Stepping Aside is the individual's
>> ability to voice their disapproval of the decision. When a person steps
>> aside, they not only are showing that they do not approve, but
>they are not
>> to take part in the implementation of the decision. It is a sign of the
>Why not call a spade a spade, and call that "objecting?" I, personally,
>find it valuable to have my objection noted when I am in the minority.
>From a legal standpoint, too, an organization is better able to defend a
>decision in court if it can be shown that there was debate and an honest
>attempt to explore the problems with a motion in an adversarial format.
>Imagine your legal position, if when called into court you are asked "were
>there any onjections to the proposal?" you are forced to answer "no, those
>oppopsed to it stepped aside and let it happen".

That is exactly the purpose of stepping aside. Your objection is noted in
the minutes of the meeting and the decision, so that it is plain in the
records what the objections were and who objected. Some newer version of
consensus also have a system of noting concerns but moving ahead on the

>If a person is being "ignored" in a Parliamentary meeting, s/he can make
>sure that her/his objections are heard. S/he is not put in a position in
>which s/he is expected to go along with a decision done in the name of the
>lowest common denominator.

All right, then the two forms are on equal footing in that status. Once
again, I must object to the description of a consensus decision as being for
the 'lowest common denominator'. The purpose of consensus is as a process
for people who do not believe in a lowest common denominator amongst people.
Who hold the belief that the thoughts and feelings of all the members are of
note. The point of discussing these concerns is to determine if they are
something that needs to be reflected in the decision. They are not
automatically pandered to. But they are also not automatically overruled.
It suggests that anybody can have a valid concern about a decision, no
matter how many people have supported the proposal.

>"Stepping aside" is CERTAINLY not an oppropriate course to insist that the
>minority take, if you really want those issues to go away. If I step
>aside on an issue of importance, it is a sign that I either don't care
>about the issue, or that I have become disgusted with the majority. It
>makes those issues fester, and it takes away the ONE PLACE in which those
>real adversarial and divisive issues can be confronted in a formal and
>polite manner.

Perhaps the language 'stepping aside' does not sound suitable to you.
Stepping aside is not a submissive move of rolling over. It is equivalent
to voting against a proposition in a voting situation. I don't see how it
is any less powerful than voting. It is more likely to be effective than
voting, because as I said if there are people stepping aside, the group is
obligated to reflect on this, and is likely to go back and look to see if
there is a problem with the action they are taking. It is not a sign of not
caring, it is exactly the opposite. It is a chance for non-coercion - it
empowers the individual to stand up against an action, and displays that the
group believes an individual should not be overruled simply because they are
overnumbered. That is why I believe it is a good choice for a democratic

>Of course they are easier to implement; this is because the minority has
>either given up OR (and this is worse) has been effectively brain-washed
>into feeling that their job as individuals is to agree on the fundamental
>aims that the group should work towards.

You can state it that way, but I would hate to be involved in the group you
describe. If an individual feels the way you state above, then there is a
severe problem with the way the group is running meetings, or with that
individual themselves. YOu are not asked to give up in a consensus process,
you are asked to listen fully to other opinions and consider them. That
runs counter to how most decision processes are run in our society, but it
does not mean there is brainwashing or surrender involved. It simply
suggests that sometimes other people have better ideas than we do, and that
it is possible to realize that. In a *properly run* consensus process, the
group members are genuinely interested in creating a decision that everyone
is willing to go forward with - they are not interested in getting their
fellow members to give up or to brain wash their fellow members. That
sounds to me like a dysfunctional group, not a dysfunctional process.

>The minority that finds something FUNDAMENTALLY WRONG with the proposal
>(rather than in the details) is put in a position where they must either
>nickle-and-dime the proposal ("how about we do it this way instead") or
>"stand aside" (give up their voice).

Once again, that is not the purpose of standing aside. It is using your
voice, just as much as voting is using your voice.

>> However, consensus is not for every group. If your group does not have a
>> common purpose, and some common values, you will not be able to
>run a proper
>> consensus meeting. A group that has no shared basis for making
>This is the point. A proper Parliamentary system is not put in place to
>deal with the everyday motions that people agree with. It is put in place
>to deal with those times when the group does NOT have common purpose or
>common values. The Parliamentary system ALLOWS a person to feel free to
>say "my values ARE different than theirs." Again, while consensus
>protects the MAJORITY a Parliamentary system protects the MINORITY.

I agree. That is why it is not for every group. However, once again, I
feel the running of a school is a sufficient common purpose in most cases.

>I've looked through it. My initial reaction to it (though it will require
>a more careful study) is that it requires more "expert knowledge" by
>participants than a meeting run by Robert's Rules.

I agree with you.

>I guess the fundamental different between our positions is this: I
>believe that meetings are important becase it is a place where REAL
>DIFFERENCES are aired in a polite forum, and business gets done quickly.
>Those who favor consensus really view the point of a meeting as not only a
>place for making decisions, but as a rally designed to make the entire
>group feel good about the group -- and that sounds like a formal sort of
>brainwashing to me.

I don't agree that at all. Most important decisions that I have
participated in, in a consensus driven group, have been very tense and
filled with some real differences of opinions. Our purpose was not to make
the group feel good, but to work with these differences of opinions and see
if we could learn anything from them. In some cases we were able to
determine exactly what our concerns were and alter our course to avoid those
concerns. In others we were able to determine that our concerns were
significant enough to not take that action. As I see it, the difference
with consensus is that the existence of a sense of group or community.
Participants are not concerned with 'their' ideas, or 'their' well-being
exclusively. They are concerned with the group for which the decisions are
being made, in our examples, a school. Therefore people are willing to
recognize the validity of the concerns of the other group members. And
therefore, although I may come into the meeting suggesting a proposal, I
think enough of my fellow school members to listen to their concerns,
discuss them, and do what is best for *all* of us, not just me.

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