Conflict is usually viewed as an impediment to reaching agreements anddisruptive to peaceful relationships. However, it is the underlying thesisof Formal Consensus that nonviolent conflict is necessary and desirable.It provides the motivations for improvement. The challenge is thecreation of an understanding in all who participate that conflict, or differingopinions about proposals, is to be expected and acceptable. Do not avoidor repress conflict. Create an environment in which disagreement can beexpressed 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 membersof a group. Our training by society undermines this concept. Therefore,it will not be easy to create the kind of environment where differencescan be expressed without fear or resentment. But it can be done. It willrequire tolerance and a willingness to experiment. Additionally, the valuesand principles which form the basis of commitment to work together to resolveconflict 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 alsoinclude the definition of the group's principles and values. If the groupdiscusses and writes down its foundation of principles at the start, itis 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 isnecessary. In addition to the ones listed herein, the group might add principlesand values which are specific to its purpose.
Foundation Upon Which Consensus Is BuiltFor consensus to work well, the process must be conducted in an environmentwhich promotes trust, respect, and skill sharing. The following are principleswhich, when valued and respected, encourage and build consensus.
TrustForemost is the need for trust. Without some amount of trust, there willbe no cooperation or nonviolent resolution to conflict. For trust to flourish,it is desirable for individuals to be willing to examine their attitudesand be open to new ideas. Acknowledgement and appreciation of personaland cultural differences promote trust. Neither approval nor friendshipare necessary for a good working relationship. By developing trust, theprocess of consensus encourages the intellectual and emotional developmentof the individuals within a group.
RespectIt is everyone's responsibility to show respect to one another. Peoplefeel respected when everyone listens, when they are not interrupted, whentheir ideas are taken seriously. Respect for emotional as well as logicalconcerns promotes the kind of environment necessary for developing consensus.To promote respect, it is important to distinguish between an action whichcauses a problem and the person who did the action, between the deed andthe doer. We must criticize the act, not the person. Even if you thinkthe person is the problem, responding that way never resolves anything.(See pages 7- 8.)
Unity of PurposeUnity of purpose is a basic understanding about the goals and purpose ofthe group. Of course, there will be varying opinions on the best way toaccomplish these goals. However, there must be a unifying base, a commonstarting point, which is recognized and accepted by all.
NonviolenceNonviolent decisionmakers use their power to achieve goals while respectingdifferences and cooperating with others. In this environment, it is consideredviolent to use power to dominate or control the group process. It is understoodthat the power of revealing your truth is the maximum force allowed topersuade others to your point of view.
Self EmpowermentIt is easy for people to unquestioningly rely on authorities and expertsto do their thinking and decisionmaking for them. If members of a groupdelegate their authority, intentionally or not, they fail to accept responsibilityfor the group's decisions. Consensus promotes and depends upon self empowerment.Anyone can express concerns. Everyone seeks creative solutions and is responsiblefor every decision. When all are encouraged to participate, the democraticnature of the process increases.
CooperationUnfortunately, Western society is saturated in competition. When winningarguments becomes more important than achieving the group's goals, cooperationis difficult, if not impossible. Adversarial attitudes toward proposalsor people focus attention on weakness rather than strength. An attitudeof helpfulness and support builds cooperation. Cooperation is a sharedresponsibility in finding solutions to all concerns. Ideas offered in thespirit of cooperation help resolve conflict. The best decisions arise throughan open and creative interplay of ideas.
Conflict ResolutionThe free flow of ideas, even among friends, inevitably leads to conflict.In this context, conflict is simply the expression of disagreement. Disagreementitself is neither good nor bad. Diverse viewpoints bring into focus andexplore the strengths and weaknesses of attitudes, assumptions, and plans.Without conflict, one is less likely to think about and evaluate one'sviews and prejudices. There is no right decision, only the bestone for the whole group. The task is to work together to discover whichchoice is most acceptable to all members.
Avoid blaming anyone for conflict. Blame is inherently violent. It attacksdignity and empowerment. It encourages people to feel guilty, defensive,and alienated. The group will lose its ability to resolve conflict. Peoplewill hide their true feelings to avoid being blamed for the conflict.
Avoidance of conflicting ideas impedes resolution for failure to exploreand develop the feelings that gave rise to the conflict. The presence ofconflict can create an occasion for growth. Learn to use it as a catalystfor discovering creative resolutions and for developing a better understandingof each other. With patience, anyone can learn to resolve conflict creatively,without defensiveness or guilt. Groups can learn to nurture and supporttheir members in this effort by allowing creativity and experimentation.This process necessitates that the group continually evaluate and improvethese skills.
Commitment to the GroupIn joining a group, one accepts a personal responsibility to behave withrespect, good will, and honesty. Each one is expected to recognize thatthe 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 importantto accept the shared responsibility for helping to find solutions to other'sconcerns.
Active ParticipationWe all have an inalienable right to express our own best thoughts. We decidefor ourselves what is right and wrong. Since consensus is a process ofsynthesis, not competition, all sincere comments are important and valuable.If ideas are put forth as the speaker's property and individuals are stronglyattached to their opinions, consensus will be extremely difficult. Stubbornness,closedmindedness, and possessiveness lead to defensive and argumentativebehavior that disrupts the process. For active participation to occur,it is necessary to promote trust by creating an atmosphere in which everycontribution is considered valuable. With encouragement, each person candevelop knowledge and experience, a sense of responsibility and competency,and the ability to participate.
Equal Access to PowerBecause of personal differences (experience, assertiveness, social conditioning,access to information, etc.) and political disparities, some people inevitablyhave more effective power than others. To balance this inequity, everyoneneeds to consciously attempt to creatively share power, skills, and information.Avoid hierarchical structures that allow some individuals to assume undemocraticpower over others. Egalitarian and accountable structures promote universalaccess to power.
PatienceConsensus cannot be rushed. Often, it functions smoothly, producing effective,stable results. Sometimes, when difficult situations arise, consensus requiresmore 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 TrainingIt is necessary to train people in the theory and practice of consensus.Until consensus is a common form of decisionmaking in our society, newmembers will need some way of learning about the process. It is importantto offer regular opportunities for training. If learning about Formal Consensusis not made easily accessible, it will limit full participation and createinequities which undermine this process. Also, training provides opportunitiesfor people to improve their skills, particularly facilitation skills, ina setting where experimentation and role-plays can occur.
External Hierarchical StructuresIt can be difficult for a group to reach consensus internally when it ispart of a larger group which does not recognize or participate in the consensusprocess. It can be extremely frustrating if those external to the groupcan disrupt the decisionmaking by interfering with the process by pullingrank. Therefore, it is desirable for individuals and groups to recognizethat they can be autonomous in relation to external power if they are willingto take responsibility for their actions.
Social PrejudiceEveryone has been exposed to biases, assumptions, and prejudices whichinterfere with the spirit of cooperation and equal participation. All peopleare influenced by these attitudes, even though they may deplore them. Peopleare not generally encouraged to confront these prejudices in themselvesor others. Members of a group often reflect social biases without realizingor attempting to confront and change them. If the group views a prejudicialattitude as just one individual's problem, then the group will not addressthe underlying social attitudes which create such problems. It is appropriateto expose, confront, acknowledge, and attempt to resolve socially prejudicialattitudes, but only in the spirit of mutual respect and trust. Membersare responsible for acknowledging when their attitudes are influenced bydisruptive social training and for changing them. When a supportive atmospherefor recognizing and changing undesirable attitudes exists, the group asa whole benefits.
On Degrees of Conflict
Each individual is responsible for expressing one's own concerns. It isbest if each concern is expressed as if it will be resolved. The groupthen responds by trying to resolve the concern through group discussion.If the concern remains unresolved after a full and open discussion, thenthe facilitator asks how the concern is based upon the foundation of thegroup. If it is, then the group accepts that the proposal is blocked.
- Consensus is a process of nonviolent confict resolution. The expressionof concerns and conficting ideas is considered desirable and important.When a group creates an atmosphere which nurtures and supports disagreementwithout hostility and fear, it builds a foundation for stronger, more creativedecisions.
Herein lies a subtle pitfall. For consensus to work well, it is helpfulfor individuals to recognize the group's involvement in determining whichconcerns are able to be resolved, which need more attention, and, ultimately,which are blocking consensus. The pitfall is failure to accept the limiton an individual's power to determine which concerns are principled orbased upon the foundation of the group and which ones are resolved. Afterdiscussion, if the concern is valid and unresolved, it again falls uponthe individual to choose whether to stand aside or block consensus.
- From this perspective, it is not decided by the individual alone if a particularconcern is blocking consensus; it is determined in cooperation with thewhole group. The group determines a concern's legitimacy. A concern islegitimate if it is based upon the principles of the group and thereforerelevant to the group as a whole. If the concern is determined to be unprincipledor not of consequence, the group can decide the concern is inappropriateand drop it from discussion. If a reasonable solution offered is not acceptedby the individual, the group may decide the concern has been resolved andthe individual is out of order for failure to recognize it.
All concerns are important and need to be resolved. It is not appropriatefor a person to come to a meeting planning to block a proposal or, duringdiscussion, to express their concerns as major objections or blocking concerns.Often, during discussion, the person learns additional information whichresolves the concern. Sometimes, after expressing the concern, someoneis able to creatively resolve it by thinking of something new. It oftenhappens that a concern which seems to be extremely problematic when itis frst mentioned turns out to be easily resolved. Sometimes the reversehappens and a seemingly minor concern brings forth much larger concerns.
- The individual is responsible for expressing concerns; the group is responsiblefor resolving them. The group decides whether a concern is legitimate;the individual decides whether to block or stand aside.
The following is a description of different types of concerns and howthey affect individuals and the group.
When a person disagrees with the proposal in part, but consents to theoverall idea, the person has a reservation. The person is not completelysatisfed with the proposal, but is generally supportive. This kind of concerncan usually be resolved through discussion. Sometimes, it is enough forthe person to express the concern and feel that it was heard, without anyactual resolution.
- Concerns which can be addressed and resolved by making small changes inthe proposal can be called minor concerns. The person supports the proposal,but has an idea for improvement.
A blocking concern must be based on a generally recognized principle, notpersonal 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 alreadyaccepted the validity of the concern and a reasonable attempt must havebeen made to resolve it. If legitimate concerns remain unresolved and theperson has not agreed to stand aside, consensus is blocked.
- When a person does not agree with the proposal, the group allows that personto try and persuade it to see the wisdom of the disagreement. If the groupis not persuaded or the disagreement cannot be resolved, the person mightchoose to stand aside and allow the group to go forward. The person andthe group are agreeing to disagree, regarding each point of view with mutualrespect. Occasionally, it is a concern which has no resolution; the persondoes not feel the need to block the decision, but wants to express theconcern and lack of support for the proposal.
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