Our every week experience – consensus decision-making, Patrick Upton

EVERY group that holds meetings, and has decisions to make, needs to find a way to organise themselves.

At Laurieston Hall, here in Dumfries and Galloway – founded almost 50 years ago as a commune, but which has since become a ‘fully mutual housing co-operative’ – we decided fairly early on to run our affairs by consensus, where decisions require to be unanimous.

Full co-op meetings are set for the same time and place each week, currently 1.30pm on a Tuesday, and the expectation is that, as far as possible, people with outside work commitments keep Tuesday afternoons free.

There is a guide that folk here give half the working week to the co-op to do all that’s required  – gardening, maintenance, administration, etc – without payment in return for a low rent and for a share of the produce from our smallholding.

We operate a conference and events centre, the People Centre, which is constituted as a ‘worker co-operative’ within the community and which pays members for their time.

There are currently 22 adult residents at Laurieston and each is expected to attend, plus – more at people’s discretion – take an active part in any of several sub-committees that regularly feed into our weekly agendas. 

Meetings can be joined by ‘observers’, such as long-stay guests and prospective members (it can take as long as a year for a person to come, live with us, before they are conferred full membership – only with 100 per cent approval from members).

Details of our meetings are physically posted on the community noticeboard. Items for the agenda are added by individuals or committees, with accompanying notes explaining the issues. These have to be there at least three days before the meeting takes place. We also use emails and texts to back notices up, where necessary.

We rotate facilitation, there is no single convener who might dominate a meeting from one gathering to the next. That means that, currently, each of us have to facilitate a meeting about twice a year.

It’s a skill, facilitating a meeting – just like it is a skill to cook or garden – and not everyone has the confidence to do it. But there are always enough of us to provide support for anyone who might be a bit anxious.

Facilitators require to be absolutely neutral, and develop an ability to read the room (which they will have set up, as a welcoming space, in good time before the meeting’s start). It is important that they are able to ‘keep an eye’ on who might be the main protagonists in a discussion, in terms of their behaviour and how long they want to speak. Facilitation also requires people to be detached from the issues being discussed, focussing instead on the procedure of the discussions.

Preparing for facilitation can require seeking out, in the lead-up to the meeting, the proposers of agenda items, to clarify points raised. At the meeting itself, the proposers check everybody has read and understands the issues and then takes questions before a discussion ensues.

I would even go so far as to suggest that a different mood exists in a room when it’s an always different facilitator. There’s almost a palpable sense of the room actively willing the facilitator to succeed, especially if they are a little nervous, as opposed to the much more compliant, slightly oppressed and depressed mood you might find when you have the same, single person convening every meeting, every time.

The facilitator for the next meeting is agreed at the end of a meeting, so they know to prepare.

When it comes to decisions, there is a facility for them to be re-visited at the next meeting or being hived off to a specific sub-committee to help find a solution. Very much, the expectation is that anyone struggling with a decision comes back to the meeting with a possible solution, not just a complaint or criticism. 

We keep a minutes book and a decisions book, in an unbroken sequence dating back to 1972 when a group of us moved into what had recently been a hospital, with facilities such as a large, commune-sized kitchen and dining room already in-situ.

A minutes taker is asked for at the beginning of each meeting. As only a core of folk feel confident to take good minutes this is not a rotated item.

Only details of those decisions likely to have a lasting impact on the group go into our separate ‘decisions’ book. More run-of-the-mill agreements are just recorded in the minutes.

Of course, not everyone is going to be happy with all the decisions that we make, but it’s vital that everyone feels they have been fully heard. Periodically, every single person taking part in a meeting will be asked whether they have anything to say, about what we are talking about or deciding. 

And we are as likely as not to do a ‘go-around’ two or three times, so everyone is able to fully articulate their thoughts, even after a stuttering start.

When people know they are going to be invited – not just once, but perhaps two or three times – for their thoughts, they are less inclined to interrupt, and the etiquette of meetings relies heavily on hand gestures to signal support, a point of information or disagreement.

People have the option of ‘standing aside’ in a decision and having their stance minuted.

Sometimes, though rarely in my long experience, we need to remind ourselves that we are all in it to genuinely want to co-operate with each other.

Not every meeting will go quite as smoothly as one might wish and we are where we are through a steady process of evolution, trial and error. 

And I am unable to say that, on every occasion, our decisions avoid being a ‘dog’s dinner’ of different people’s ideas. Consensus decision-making can tend to favour those who are uncertain about something; it can favour the risk-averse and those with endurance for the processes required. It can be down to the skill of the facilitator to sum up the consensus view, wording a decision in a way that is fairly clear and unambiguous.

In the first instance, we ran ourselves as an Industrial Common Ownership Movement organisation. More recently, we discovered the model rules offered by Radical Routes – which describes itself as ‘a network of housing and worker co-operatives working for radical social change’ – which have proven very helpful, not least how to protect against the risk of ‘carpet bagging’: someone trying to inherit a place by becoming, effectively, the last person standing.

As I mentioned, we are a ‘fully mutual housing co-operative’, operating – in terms of our legal structure – as an Industrial and Provident Society.

There is no doubt that consensus decision-making can be a drawn-out affair. In extemis, we do now recognise the possible use of super-majority voting to resolve conflict, but only after recourse to every other technique available to achieve consensus has been exhausted. We are yet to use this tool.

We are a co-op that lives and works together in a way that relies on flexibility, trust and tolerance as being more important than any adherence to a mission statement. Put simply, the only rule we might agree to is that we aim to co-operate.  Voting implies ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. At Laurieston Hall, the key thing is that decisions are designed to unite us, not potentially divide us.

Patrick Upton is a long-standing member of Laurieston Hall, an ‘intentional community’ based near Castle Douglas, in Dumfries and Galloway. He serves on several of Laurieston Hall’s sub-committees, including wood-gathering (wood being the principal fuel used at the Hall).

Picture credit: the author

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