The Consensus Decision Process in Cohousing

The Group Process

A Cohousing community is a community of equals – no matter how diverse its members may be in age, background, education or ability. The more we learn about making decisions as equals, the better we are able to make those decisions. Each group refines the decision-making process to suit their needs.

The following is a sample list of guidelines that some groups may follow:

  • A good decision is made when everyone agrees to it. First we will seek consensus.
  • Making decisions by consensus does not necessarily mean that everyone is in complete agreement – but rather that a solution is found that all participants can live with or are at least willing to try.
  • The process used in making a decision is very important in reaching agreement.
  • Consensus comes only after open expression of any differences and a look at all alternatives.
  • We will give an opportunity for quiet participants to speak and we will discourage monopolizing.
  • We will strive to stay focused on the specific task at hand by following the process steps.
  • We will pay attention to strong disagreements, since these often lead to creative solutions.
  • We will strive to hear and understand what everyone is saying and to make ourselves fully understood.
  • We will take notice when agreements are reached too easily and ask if everyone has really participated.
  • We will acknowledge each other’s contributions and the group’s progress.
  • We will state tentative consensus in concrete question form, assure that we have agreement, and not take silence for an answer.

If we reach a Stalemate…

  • We will each stick with “What can I live with?” and a compromise approach.
  • We will state points of agreement along the way: this helps group morale and may lead to agreement on principle.
  • We will ask those who disagree to come up with alternatives.
  • We will try to get unstuck by using humor, taking a break, sitting in silence, changing seats, screaming together, stretching, etc.
  • We may postpone the decision or send the proposal back to committee for more study. In the meantime, more information can be gathered and tempers can cool. Everyone will have time to reflect on options.
  • We can resort to voting when consensus can not be reached and a decision is needed immediately. This option should be considered as a last resort. If people feel forced into decisions they do not agree with, they are less likely to stick with the group.

Using Colored Cards to Achieve Consensus

Groups have successfully used the following system of colored cards to facilitate the consensus process. There are two contexts in which to use the cards: Procedural and Decision Making.

Procedural uses occur during preliminary discussions of an issue. Participants hold up a card before speaking. The facilitator recognizes them in the following order:

(1) Red (2) Yellow (3) Green

In the procedural context, the cards have the following meanings:

Red means “Stop the Process” (time out) and indicates a breach in agreed upon procedures. Examples include; discussing topics not on the agenda, going overtime, and suggesting that a member of the group is being inconsiderate of the group process. It can also be used when a member feels uncomfortable with the way that the process is proceeding or if they believe that a break would be appropriate. The red card may be raised at any time during discussion.

Yellow indicates a member’s ability to clarify some part of the discussion.

Green indicates a member’s desire to make a comment or ask a question.

More than one card may be raised at a time by a single member, but the order of priority listed above is still observed. When there is more than one card of the same color raised, the facilitator ensures that the individuals are heard in the order that the cards have been raised

In the decision-making context the cards have the following meanings:

Green indicates agreement with the proposal under discussion.

Yellow indicates that the member has reservations but is unwilling to block group consensus because of those reservations.

Red indicates the member’s opposition to the proposal at hand and their willingness to block group consensus because of that opposition. When a member/or members use a red card, it becomes his or her responsibility to work with the proposing committee to come up with a solution that will work for everyone.

It is incumbent upon group members to use red cards judiciously within the procedural context, remembering that green cards permit questions and comments. Similarly, in the decision-making context, members should be conscious of the seriousness of blocking consensus and use the red cards only for principled objections. However, when a member strongly believes that the fundamental interests of the group are not being served by a particular decision, the red card should be used as a vote of conscience, even if unpopular.

Results of Consensus

Once all yellow cards have been responded to (assuming there are no red cards displayed) consensus is presumed to have been reached.

However if yellow cards are predominant, it is worthwhile to reconsider the decision. A primary benefit of the colored card system versus majority rule is the opportunity for a more accurate reading of members’ positions regarding a particular matter. The shades of “for” and “against” responses using the card system can serve as notice that a proposal needs refining.