Consensus is a central concept in Why This Way. Although we use the word "consensus" similarly to widely accepted definitions, the word "consensus" can mean slightly different things in different contexts. This page explains our particular interpretation of consensus as it pertains to making decisions and agreeing on beliefs, practices, and polices.
Our notion of consensus is inspired by, and closely related to Wikipedia's consensus process and the Society of Friends (Quaker) consensus process.
Handling diversity of viewpoints
In Why This Way, we take a variety of approaches to diversity of viewpoints in discussions, decision-making, and in the creation of official stances. Some of the methods or approaches we use to reach consensus include:
- Discussing a topic until everyone on the group is in agreement.
- Accepting that people have different viewpoints on some issue, seeing this diversity as healthy and good, and making decisions or writing our material so as to accommodate the different viewpoints. This method is related to our core practice that participants in Why This Way are not expected to believe all our beliefs or follow all our practices. This can be implemented in different ways:
- We can make statements about what some of us believe, to communicate reasoning or beliefs that has been discussed in our group, but does not represent the views of everyone in the group.
- We can make conditional statements, such as our practice that "If we support punishment, we do so only for the purpose of preventing harmful actions." This sort of statement communicates that not all of us necessarily support the idea of punishment, but if we do, we have a certain belief about how or when we support it.
- Asking people why they hold certain views, and working towards deeper understanding of the reasons behind various viewpoints, and building consensus on deeper viewpoints or core values, or more abstract principles, while still having diversity of views on more specific points.
- Examining our use of language, especially in the case of words or phrases which seem to be at the focal point of a perceived disagreement. This can play out in several ways:
- Asking people what exactly they mean when they use certain words or phrases, and using this to improve comprehension.
- Avoiding or shying away from the use of certain words or concepts, if people seem to use them in very different ways which seems to cloud communication.
- Using more specific words or phrases for which there is greater agreement about what they mean, among people involved in a discussion.
- Examining not only how we intend statements to come across, but possible ways these statements are likely to be misinterpreted, so as to minimize the potential for misunderstanding.
- Coming up with creative solutions, such as novel ways of wording statements, structuring organizational policies, or acting as an organization, which satisfy everyone's concerns.
Resolving disagreements vs. tolerating a decision or stance for practical reasons
In some consensus-run organizations, people can be truly unhappy with certain actions or stances of the group, but withdraw their objections because they do not have the time, energy, or will to hash out the issue in continued discussion, or because they do not believe that it is possible to resolve the issue.
In Why This Way, we wish to pursue as complete a state of agreement as possible, one in which people are fully comfortable with the decisions and official stances of the group, and are not merely withdrawing objections because of practical constraints.
Responsibility to resolve objections and disagreements
Our consensus decision making process is somewhat more involved and subtly conditional than merely requiring unanimous agreement. In particular, it is based on ideas more than people being the method through which decisions are made. Our Organizational Policies specify that when modifying the core beliefs and practices, we make decisions on the basis of improving the system of beliefs and practices as a whole.
Our goal is to consider ideas on their own merit regardless of who (or how many people) presented them. For example, one person can change a policy through raising an objection (and this often happens in our group; an example was our decision to stop referring to the group unilaterally as a religion) but no amount of people objecting can change a policy if their reasons for objecting cannot be expressed without breaking the rules of communication.
Although we ultimately want to discuss ideas, we do not dismiss feelings or intuitions of individual participants; rather, we wish to explore these points to uncover the ideas behind them. We do not expect people to be able to immediately or easily articulate objections, nor to be fully comfortable discussing any sort of topic in the moment. It is common for people to have a negative gut reaction to a proposed change, and only later be able to articulate reasoning behind their objection, reasoning which in some cases changes the group's views on the material in question.
However, in the long run, a person merely objecting is not grounds to make a change. Each participant has a certain degree of responsibility to communicate with other participants in the group, in order to explain their objection and work to resolve it, if their objection is to be considered. This responsibility involves a certain degree of openness to communicating with other participants in the group, and a willingness to voice their objections within the rules of communication. For example, if a participant objects to a proposed change, but does not provide any reasoning, and does not make themselves available to communicate with other participants to explain or resolve their objection, and other participants are not able to think up any reasons to object to the change, we do not want to allow this one person to keep the group from making a change. Another example would be the case when someone brings up an objection, but upon discussion, we agree that the objection cannot be expressed without breaking the rules of communication; in this case the objection would not be considered valid. However, even in these cases, we want to take care to discuss and brainstorm any possible objections, because of the possibility that there is a concern that other participants would agree with if they understood it.