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What Does Consensus Really Mean?

Consensus decision making has a bad reputation for being process-heavy, confusing, inefficient, and frustrating. It’s a very idealistic notion, rarely attainable. Perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to it! Haha. I joined a cohousing community that makes decisions by consensus. I chaired a Waldorf school board that makes decisions by consensus. I’m often hired by groups to help them achieve consensus.

When it happens it’s wonderful! For one thing, when a decision is made by true consensus there’s no minority out there trying to undermine it. For another thing, everyone understands the decision and why it’s needed; there’s real buy-in. And lastly, each person feels respected; that their opinion was heard and considered.

In my opinion there are three steadfast hallmarks of consensus decision making. 1. Everyone has a chance to raise concerns. 2. The group tries to understand and accommodate all concerns, at least within reason. 3. Each person is thinking about what’s best for the group, rather than just what’s best for them. When we do consensus decision making we do shared problem solving. It’s like this: If it’s a problem for you, it’s a problem for us. Let’s work on all our problems together.

People often confuse consensus with “casual;” meaning there are no real votes and few formalities. Not true. If you want to do consensus decision making right there are indeed formal calls for consensus, three specific ways to answer the call, specific steps leading up to calls for consensus, written proposals, documented decisions, and neutral facilitation. And there are specific attitudes and values that, if not present among your group, you have no hope of achieving consensus.

I have written quite a lot about consensus in my book Together We Decide, An Essential Guide for Making Good Group Decisions. And I have posted a lot about consensus. You might search the word consensus at my website. The Search Box is at the bottom of every page. For one thing, here’s a Good Group Tip I wrote called Consensus Doesn’t Mean Casual.

Like all things of high value, consensus decision making requires practice. Yet if you are making big decisions that will affect a large number of people over a long time, I hope you believe that it’s worth the effort.

If you have critiques of consensus decision making, or praises, let’s hear them! I hope you will tell me about YOUR experiences in the comments below.

What Adults Don’t Get

I recently ran a meeting specifically for people age 16-24 to ask them their views of the world and what they wish adults better understood about their generation. The few adults in the room were sworn to silence; there to listen. The young people in the room said some things that broke my heart.

Here’s what I heard.

Old solutions don’t work for today’s problems
Older folks see “problem behaviors” among younger people and think they know the causes and therefore the solutions. They don’t. The causes are different today and a solution like kicking a kid off a team because of substance use disorder is entirely unhelpful for the kid and utterly ineffective at preventing substance use disorder.

These things (cell phone in hand) are robbing us of the life we could be having
The stuff on our cell phones is addictive and everyone knows it and greedy corporations are taking advantage of us. Not only are cell phones a huge distraction from “real life,” they enable isolation and cause us to fear actual human interactions. Sure, cell phones have some positive attributes, but only some.

Artificial processed food is adversely affecting us physically and mentally
We are a generation raised on highly synthetic food and there have been warnings for years about the harmful effects of too many chemicals in our diets. Is it any wonder that our mental and physical health seems to be in decline? Duh.

We are afraid of strangers and of institutions
We are a generation whose parents put fear into us. Someone might try to abduct you. Anyone could have a gun. Stranger danger. We avoid confrontation. Not only that, we have witnessed blatant injustices and double standards in our legal system and don’t trust that institutions will protect us.

We need realistic images of what we could become
Body images portrayed in the media, including social media, are crippling to those with most types of bodies. Most role models have unrealistic and idealistic lifestyles. Show me a path that I can take to success, given my body, my gender, and where I live. Young people in Sagadahoc County want Sagadahoc County role models; who look like them.

The world is crumbling
I asked, “What do you mean by that?” Here’s the list: 24 hour news cycle, trans genocide, climate change, retirement age moving up (“we’re going to be working until we die”), inflation, cost of rent,  the US is going bankrupt, politics, COVID was SO isolating. “There’s an expectation on us to participate and be a young adult out there in a world that’s literally crumbling.” “We don’t have a bright future to look forward to.”

Labels and stigmas are so dated, and unhelpful
Young people don’t care about labels. Drop ‘em. We are developing a culture of no labels. No stigmas. Acceptance of all. It’s much better that way.

We are in a state of youth mental health crisis
Mental healthcare should be normalized. Getting therapy is a good thing. There’s no reason to look down on it. Mental health therapy should be available in the schools and after school and in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places. Just like an annual check-up with your medical provider, we should ALL have an annual check-up with a mental health provider.

These are the things that hit me. These things are not representative of all those who were present, or of all the things that were said. The point is, I tried to listen. I did not minimize or discount or deny what I heard. I let these things into my head and into my heart. I can’t instantly fix the world for young people, but I can listen to what it’s like for them and do what I can to be helpful. Or at least stay out of their way.

By the way, the meeting was convened by the Midcoast Youth Center on behalf of the Sagadahoc County Working Communities Challenge, a project to decrease rates of hopelessness among youth and young adults. A week after the meeting just for youth, we had another meeting for the general public at which we reported what we had heard. I was hired to facilitate the two meetings. It was an honor and a privilege.

The photograph is not from one of the recent meetings but from another meeting I facilitated years ago.

Peace Is An Inside Job

World peace is a nice idea, but when news of conflicts from around the world are so abundant on my screens I can find myself drowning in despair.

I’ve learned some simple tricks to help me foster peace in a battle-torn world. First of all, the world is not my responsibility. Of course people are suffering, yet just because I know about it doesn’t mean I should do something about it. I have choices.

Someone once told me, “detachment is the key to peace.” When I read a headline about homeless people in the cold I have two choices: do something about it or let it go. Fretting about “what needs be done” or lashing out at someone else with blame are generally not good choices; they just foster, well, fretting and blame.

The trick is to foster peace in my head rather than in the world. What can I do to foster peace at home, peace with myself? My trick: I draw a line between what I can change and what I can’t. I can’t change you, for instance. And I can’t change Congress. But I can be nice to you. And I can write to Congress.

Another trick? I read historical novels and learn about the struggles of those who have gone before me. I get see that right now, it’s not so bad. It could be worse. I develop gratitude for the current plight when I see it in the context of historical plights.

Here’s a third trick: I try to help someone else. If you want to feel good about yourself, do good things. Not think good things or post good things, but actually do good things. It brings me peace to look back on my day and take stock of what I gave, not what I got. When I try to make a ledger of what I received, it often turns into a list of “what I should have received.” For some crazy reason – maybe because I’m human – I tend to focus on the deficits. Gotta fix that. Gotta remember: I am owed nothing.

I’m not good at these tricks. Actually, right now, I’m writing this to myself. I’m reminding myself of what works to bring me peace. I’m vowing to do better.

There is no truer statement than “peace begins at home.” Doing things to make yourself more peaceful is not selfish, it’s practical. Because here’s the thing, when I’m at peace with myself it’s contagious and people nearby might catch it.

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