Every year I attend Friends General Conference, an annual gathering that attracts liberal Quakers from around the country. Young adult friends (18-35) share our own dorm space and facilitate our own programs, largely independent of the wider gathering. We also have our own meetings for business; a few shy of one hundred young adult Quakers sitting in a room attempting to come to consensus about solutions to whatever issues are current. A few years ago, the focus of the meeting was an issue close to many of the attenders hearts. The issue was contentious and the meeting went on for multiple hours. Most people seemed to be leaning towards one side of the issue, but a small vocal minority were strongly opposed to the majority opinion.
I was frustrated with the discussion and it also happened to be my birthday. I decided that there were probably better things to do with my time, so I grabbed a few friends and left.
We all crammed into my friend’s sedan and went to the only drive-in theatre I’ve ever been to. For shits and giggles I hid in the trunk as we drove through the gate and got in for free. We had a great time watching the movie, drove back to the gathering, and went to check on the meeting. They were still debating the same issue.
As a Quaker, I was trained in the art of finding consensus from a young age. I’ve also worked with a number of non-profit organizations that use consensus as their primary decision-making process. I’ve sat through (and led) a LOT of meetings, and lately I’ve noticed something. Most of the time when I leave these meetings, I’m somewhere between a four and a ten on the annoyance scale. Sometimes I’m feeling angry, other times I’m burnt out. Very rarely do I feel satisfied.
The theory of consensus-based decision-making is a fairly simple one. Include everyone in the decision-making process, and everyone will be happy with the results. Also, including everyone will ensure that all ideas are given a chance, and improve the overall quality of our decisions.
In practice, neither of those benefits is fully realized by most consensus meetings.
Parkinson’s law states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Most people who’ve been to meetings run by consensus can relate to this. I’d like to propose a second law: “The subjective importance of a decision expands for anyone who is allowed to take part in it.” That is, it’s natural to want to give your feedback when you’ve been asked to participate in a discussion about something, even if you have no relevant experience or knowledge.
Suddenly, people feel attached to issues they had no previous stance on. These meetings can become contentious; leaving everyone feeling exhausted and unsatisfied. When compromise is eventually reached, often all sides feel they’ve given something up. At its most absurd; consensus can become a war of attrition between multiple sides, none of which had any stance on the issue yesterday.
Of course, sometimes there are multiple groups of people who are all genuinely passionate about a particular issue. Sometimes groups reach an impasse, and a direct discussion can help create clarity and vision. But how long should these discussions last? What if there are only a few holdouts that are unwilling to budge?
Consensus is designed to protect the group from bad decision-making or oppression from the majority. In accomplishing this, it allows a tiny minority to prevent the entire group from making progress.
I’m not saying the consensus is never a good way to make decisions. There is value in not shrugging off dissenting opinions. Engaging with well-informed people who disagree about important issues is an excellent strategy for personal growth, and a powerful tool for creative thought.
Consensus as a process is golden. Why wouldn’t you want to strive to include everyone’s input? Why wouldn’t you want to come to satisfactory arrangements for everyone in your group/business/community?
The problem is the actually coming to consensus part. What happens if one person stands in the way? How many ideas are squashed because the proposer already knows a certain group or single person will stand in the way? What if people are giving up on or leaving the community/organization because nothing is getting done even though the vast majority wants to make changes?
In many of the organizations I’ve been a part of (including Quakers) there is a bit of fine print that’s meant to deal with these situations. Usually it’s the ability to revert to a two-thirds majority, or the ability of the moderator or clerk to declare that ‘a sense of the meeting has been reached’. Unfortunately in practice these are almost never used, or the rules for their use are so unclear that it’s impossible to tell when they would be appropriate.
To me, coming to complete agreement is less important than being a part of an organization that is capable of growth and change. I’m glad that I’m part of organizations like Not Back to School Camp and Unschool Adventures that allow me to speak my mind, but have clear leaders whose decisions are final. I think from now on, I’ll be skipping Quaker business meetings.