Consensus and Conflict Resolution

Practical Tools for Group Process

Consensus: An Introduction

This article is adapted from nonviolent direct action handbooks. See end of article for more info.

 

Consensus is a process in which no decision is finalized until everyone in the group feels comfortable with the decision and is able to implement it without resentment. Ideally, the consensus synthesizes the ideas of the entire group into one decision.

 

The skill of coming to genuine consensus decisions is a hard one. It involves willingness to change and openness to new ideas. People must be committed not only to expressing their own feelings, but also to helping others with opposite views to express those as well.

 

Because the ideal of consensus is to reach a decision that is not only acceptable to everyone, but is best for everyone, there must be a "bottom line" of shared beliefs about what is best for all concerned. These are the principles of unity. These basic agreements will undoubtedly not encompass all the beliefs of each individual in the group, but rather, will help define the working relationship of the members. This may vary from the specific goals of a coalition formed around a single action, to an in-depth, ongoing process of self-definition in a small collective.

 

Whatever their scope, without basic agreements and a willingness to work within them, consensus will not succeed.

 

Unlike voting, consensus is not an adversary, win/lose method. With consensus, we do not have to choose between two alternatives. Those who hold views different from ours do not become opponents; instead, their views are seen as giving us a fresh and valuable perspective. As we work to meet their concerns, our proposals are strengthened.

Consensus is not the same as a unanimous vote. It does not necessarily mean total agreement. Rather, it means that a proposal has gone through a synthesis process in which everyone has a chance to express feelings and concerns.

Blocking: Any member of the group may block consensus, but a block should be used very cautiously. A block is not just a "no" vote, or an expression of disfavor. A block is used only if the blocker believes that the proposal is harmful or unethical. When blocking is used for less serious reasons, it frustrates the consensus process, cutting off the chance to synthesizing new options.

 

Roles in a Consensus Meeting

 

Facilitator: Helps move the group through the decision-making stages. By calling on quiet people, soliciting opinions from those who hang back, and limiting those who tend to dominate, a skillful facilitator makes sure every person has a chance to participate fully. Helps the group resolve conflict and make decisions by summarizing, repeating, or rephrasing proposals as necessary. The facilitator should remain neutral on topics being discussed. When an issue arises about which the facilitator feels strongly, he or she should step aside and let someone else facilitate.

 

Vibeswatcher: Pays attention to the group’s process. Stays aware of the feelings people are not expressing. Reminds the group to relax and take breaks as needed. This role is especially important in large meetings.

Other roles: notetaker, timekeeper.

Consensus and Action

 

The goal of every decision-making process is not just to decide on a solution, but also to carry out that plan of action. It seems that a person’s commitment to any decision is in proportion to their sense of participation in that decision. Consensus attempts to involve all members of a group, not just the "leaders."

People sometimes complain that consensus is time-consuming. Especially when a group is learning to use the process, it may seem cumbersome. But this is compensated by the increased energy and enthusiasm with which people carry out a decision. There is no dissatisfied minority to undermine a decision. Because group members feel part of the decision-making process, they often take on responsibility in new areas.

 

Process Guidelines

 

One major contribution of the feminist movement to social change movements is awareness that effective group process and meaningful personal interactions are crucial factors in a successful movement. Nonviolence begins at home, in the ways we treat each other.

 

Relationships within the group cannot be separated from the accomplishment of political goals. Effective group process, in fact, means valuing cooperation over competition, recognizing the contributions of each individual, and decentralizing power through a non-hierarchical organizational structure.

 

Try these techniques in meetings

 

Use go-rounds. Equalize participation by going around and allowing each person to speak for a specified time.

 

Value feelings. Include time in meetings for expressing emotions and for personal interactions.

 

Meet separately. Allow women and men to meet separately to facilitate self-awareness and strengthen participation. This applies to other groups as well, such as people of color and whites.

 

Meet in small groups during larger meetings so that people who feel uncomfortable speaking in large groups can speak more freely. Small groups give each person more speaking time. A spoke from each small group can report back to the larger group.

 

Share skills, rotate responsibilities.

 

Effective use off consensus depends on commitment to collective process.

 

More info: www.reclaimingquarterly.org/web/handbook

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In Search of Conflict Resolution

by Diane Baker

Are conflicts inevitable? I think so. Our faith does not attract people who are meek conformists.

If Seattle’s Reclaiming group had wanted constancy and stability, it might have picked a less fluid name than Turning Tide.

True to its description, the group does ebb and flow. It’s varied from high tides of large memberships, a busy teaching schedule, a central role in local activism and big public events to low tides of a small core group and closed rituals.

We are sitting in a living room on a quiet street in Seattle. The tide in our group has turned again from low ebb to renewed energy. Turning Tide is currently small, with about eight regularly participating. But the present members, some old, some new, feel lively and ready to rise.

I’m the newest member. I ask, “What kind of conflict resolution process have you used before?” The others glance around.

“We really haven’t had any,” one longtime members answers. “We try to work it out. If we can’t work out, usually somebody leaves.”

“Have a lot of people left?” I ask. The older members start naming different people. Several active members have moved away. Others left after losing interest or had no time. Some withdrew because they didn’t find the group congenial or they hadn’t shared priorities and direction. We talk about what we could do to get through problems and keep our group intact. Everything sounds cumbersome, unworkable. We agree to continue thinking and go on to other business.

Joining Turning Tide marks my return to the world of Reclaiming. Back in the eighties I took what I call my “long sabbatical.” In the old Reclaiming (when it was only a Bay Area group in the 1980s), we did have conflicts. But we were a small group who had known each other long before Reclaiming. We handled problems with short arguments and solved our differences on the spot.

During my away years I joined with two other women, calling ourselves “Witches who do too much.” For the nine years we worked together, I don’t remember a single quarrel. But we were not trying to accomplish anything besides spiritual sustenance for ourselves and each other.

I’ve been a contented member of many successful groups, but I am not exempt from conflict. I still believe that a former women’s group broke up because a couple of members didn’t like me. Rather than working out problems, it just dissolved.

Since returning to the Pagan community, what I’ve seen convinces me that resolving conflicts has become a huge issue. For example, in a recent issue of New Witch the editor’s letter urges Pagans to stop fighting with each other. This topic crops up repeatedly in the issue. An article on joining a coven speaks of “Witch wars” (a new phrase to me at the time, but not now), “these are nasty little spats that unfortunately happen every day and touch all covens.”

Our Turning Tide energy on this rainy evening is fresh and caring. We are ready to create community for the Goddess. Surely we can find some path that will take us together through the inevitable conflicts we will encounter.

Are conflicts inevitable? I think so. After all, our faith does not attract people who are meek conformists. Add that temperament to Reclaiming’s trademark dislike of hierarchy. We’re energetic types, full of opinions, frequently on fire about something very important to us. Let’s be real — we’re going to have conflicts.

Reclaiming, from the beginning, has sought to model groups functioning without leaders, or, at its best, a group where every member is a leader. While most of us are well seasoned in the consensus process, our natural urge is to avoid facing conflicts, especially personal conflicts. Why deal with them if we don’t have to?

Hierarchical groups have a built-in conflict resolution system: the person in charge makes a decision. When nobody is empowered to impose solutions and there are no barriers to starting a new group, leaving is often the easiest choice. With Goddess Tradition we add in yet another layer; we don’t regulate forming new covens or groups. We can just hive and hive again. We’re never forced to resolve conflicts.

The Turning Tide meeting has crept past our 10 o’clock ending time. We’ve not produced a conflict resolution process tonight, nor does it look like we will. There’s no disagreement here, just a lack of knowledge of what will work and what won’t. We’re keenly aware that if our process is too cumbersome, we’ll continue to resolve conflicts through somebody’s departure. The evening ends with accepting two points. One is that membership includes agreeing to use the conflict resolution process we adopt. If we decline, we may take a leave from the group. The other proposal we accept is to use the process whenever a conflict can’t be resolved during one meeting. These feel right, workable and comfortable.

Before we depart, I wonder out loud about whether other Reclaiming groups have adopted procedures. I’m as curious to discover what doesn’t work as I am about what’s been successful. Nobody knows the answer to my questions, so I offer to survey the other Reclaiming groups and Goddess Tradition people to find out how others have solved this common problem. Why reinvent the wheel? Maybe we can skip the discussions and adopt somebody else’s excellent, successful system.

Over the next few days I send out numerous emails, and George from the Quarterly sends out more. No groups reply with a whole procedure that Turning Tide can slip on like a cloak, but some offer excellent experience and advice. Others are similarly seeking and want to share my search’s results.

Several respondents believe the best approach is proactively heading off conflicts. Irish, from Georgia, wrote, “The tack we take is for each person to do their own inner work — you can have all the processes you want, but if people aren’t doing their inner work, the conflict processes aren’t going to get you very far.” She advises checking out T. Thorn Coyle’s posts for daily practice on Reclaiming’s Spider list (for information on the Spider discussion listserve, contact quarterly@reclaiming.org).

As I read Irish’s email, I pause to reflect on whether my own inner work does anything that helps me pass up conflicts. In some respects, yes, there is my personal rule to not criticize other’s efforts unless I am willing to put my own time to work into an alternative. This helps me to keep me in touch with my priorities and allows me silence without feeling resentment. But I also feel open to other work that would enable me to diffuse what either creates or runs from conflict. Yes, personal work seems like a part of this picture.

Marsh, from Mystic Grove, says his coven is careful in bringing in new members who are able to be part of the consensus process. Because of their consensus skills, their conflicts consequently get resolved through everyone being open about their feelings. Star, also of Mystic Grove, urges direct communication with the relevant person, not the whole group. Star points out that when people choose sides, they’ll bond over that, deepening conflict rather than resolving it. Taking sides gets tempting in a group because, “that’s a big hook, feeling close and connected to someone, especially during a difficult time.”

Several Reclaiming members wrote about working out conflicts within a sacred circle. In the circle they hold a talking stick and use the form of “I” messages, a way of choosing words that speak to the speaker’s feelings without slipping into “you” sentences that imply blame. The differences are subtle but critical: “I felt angry when you started accusing...” is a “you” sentence, imposing the speaker’s perceptions onto the other. Contrast this with a true “I” message: “I felt angry when you were talking about what happened last week.” This refrains from labeling the other’s intention

Other groups who replied felt they had benefited from the release and resolution that comes with listening. Baruch, in Vermont, wrote, “I believe more and more that having all parties sit in a sacred circle and take turns speaking and listening is a powerful approach. When no one reacts or responds, but comes committed to listening with an open mind, to speaking with emphasis on ‘I’ statements and owning their own part regardless of how wronged they feel, then things can shift.”

Peoria Iron Pentacle has the most formulated agreements, beautifully thought out and deeply consistent (see below). Their positive approach encompasses respect for others’ opinions, and also the charge to not hide them. Perhaps this transparency can prevent hidden resentments that will mature into conflicts. Their agreements take into account completion and closure by making space for processing hurt feelings and holding rituals for members who leave. They commit to taking responsibility for their own self-care and asking for help when needed. Consistently positive, they conclude with the agreed-upon intention to think well of the group and themselves.

Witch Wars

Why are some conflicts easily resolved while others become Witch wars? Selene Vega, longtime friend of Reclaiming and a practicing therapist who divides her time between Santa Cruz and Seattle, says these more difficult conflicts are actually not concerning the topic ostensibly being discussed, but are really about what is happening inside of people. Something about the interaction triggers an identity issue within.

“Real differences of opinion become hard to resolve when our personal understandings of who we are and how we make our intentions meaningful get challenged and obscure the content of the issue,” Selene explains. “When someone’s way of approaching the disagreement unintentionally triggers something that comes from our past, probably from our families, then we have difficulty focusing on the content of the issue at hand. Our unconscious process takes us back to another time, an old way of interacting. We can no longer even clearly hear what’s being said. We’re back to another time, an old way of interacting. When this happens, right and wrong is irrelevant. Resolution depends on comprehending feelings. Focusing on right and wrong becomes counterproductive; it just gets people more dug into their positions.”

Selene suggests that when the group perceives that those in conflict are stuck, it’s time to call in a mediator. “It’s good to find someone everyone agrees upon, who’s not connected to the group. Most important, though, is to seek someone who can comprehend what the dynamics are and help the group see through them so people can feel authentically heard.”

Constructive Critique

Reclaiming teachers Starhawk and Oak recently shared their success with mediated conflict resolution. They endorse “constructive critique” as a workable way to get past being stuck in conflict. Constructive critique contains the following elements: 1) the intention to improve the work, the shared goal; 2) it stays specific to the issue; 3) it’s timely; 4) it’s limited to what can be changed; and 5) it is first given privately (unless the process is part of a feedback meeting) before being made public.

Oak and Starhawk urge people to head off future conflicts through observing some self-imposed practices, particularly when using email. They suggest maintaining affirmative attitudes that presume that other members’ intentions are positive and not meant as accusations or attacks. If a post might be perceived as personally hurtful, the poster can head off conflict by contacting the potential hurt party privately, before posting. If a posting does feels hurtful or confusing, Starhawk and Oak suggest checking it out directly with the writer before posting back. When making posts about issues involving the community, be sure to stay focused on the issues, not on people.

They suggest introducing new topics by using open, neutral invitations to discussion, checking carefully for loaded terms and not presuming others’ opinions. Finally, they ask our Reclaiming community to keep our eyes on our dreams, waging peace and creating “beauty, balance and delight in all the worlds.”

Despite the volume of email we’ve all sent, we’re still internet babies compared to our shared ancient knowledge of how to talk to each other. My editing experience taught me that we often don’t understand the tone of our written words. To be certain you’re not creating unintended pain with a posting, ask someone to review it or read it aloud to yourself. This helps you be sure that you’re really communicating what you’re thinking.

Oak and Starhawk suggest that our community is especially vulnerable to conflict. We are a far-flung group of people who frequently communicate through emails and web postings. This has built-in hazards. Without the softening effect of human interaction, listserves and emails become the easiest to misconstrue. Our distance from each other and time limitations don’t allow us to share the kinds of moments where misunderstandings and disagreements can naturally resolve.

Instant Answers

 

I’ve collected a lot of good thoughts for Turning Tide to ponder along our way to conflict resolution. While I’d hoped for an instant answer to our question, I’ve given up that idea. But I see how everyone else’s pieces can be snipped and stitched to make up our special, custom fit, Turning Tide Conflicts Resolution process, with a few new additions of our own. What if we had a “time out” meditation period for every disagreement we couldn’t resolve in five minutes? Would we find a new view? What if we asked every person to say sincerely what they think about an argument, instead of letting the conflict-adverse find shelter under silence? That would mix things up in a new way. I can see creating hand signals to indicate that a speaker has slipped from an “I” message to a “you” message, or maybe using kazoos to complete this training more quickly.

Aside from group processes, I will ask Turning Tide members to be more aware of our individual processes. We need to do practical inner work that will help us be more successful with conflicts — and I don’t mean winning them. Some of this feels to me like it might be painful. How can I see my own blind spots, or help someone else see theirs? Do I really, truly want to know?

What I’ve learned comes down to this: keeping a group together that doesn’t have hierarchy or authority takes work just like love. But, just like love, when we make it through conflicts, we end up knowing and caring about each other more. We bond instead of split. This is Turning Tide’s intention. We’re willing to work. And it might hurt. Growing usually does. (Darn it!)

I’ve been away from Reclaiming for almost 20 years, and while there has been a lot of growth, there’s also a lot of loss. Our Reclaiming community has wasted a lot of time and energy in conflict. We’ve weakened ourselves by fragmenting. It’s worth our time to become really good at conflict resolution. We need to save our energy for our goals, not wasting it on Witch wars.

Isn’t it time to use the energy we spend in Witch wars learning how to become excellent at resolving conflicts? We’re good at teaching students skills with a wand and athame. Now it’s time to learn how to be skillful with listening. We practice courage for initiations, for demonstrations and protests. Let’s practice courage by seeing conflicts through.

 

Diane Baker is a original member of Reclaiming. She recently moved to Seattle, where she is working with the Reclaiming group, Turning Tide. Contact sea.turningtide.comcast.net

Resources

Witchvox.com (the Witch wars series)

Books

The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution, by Dudley Weeks

Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen (of the Harvard Negotiation Project)

Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher & William Ury (of the Harvard Negotiation Project)

Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg, Arun Gandhi, and Lucy Leu

Sitting in the Fire, by Arnold Mindell

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Peoria Iron Pentacle Agreements

 

See Diane Baker's article above for context

•          We agree to respect other’s opinions, even when they are different than ours. We also agree not to hide our opinions from each other.

 

•          We agree to compassionate honesty, knowing that conflicts will not get resolved unless they are spoken about. If we do feel hurt, we will allow ourselves to feel it and process it.

 

•          We agree to a safe space where we will give support when needed and ask for support when we need it.

 

•          We agree that each individual is equally important to the group, and everyone is dedicated to doing the work.

 

•          We agree that we are doing sacred work in sacred space.

 

•          We agree that as we do this serious work and expose vulnerable parts of ourselves we will respect each others’ confidentiality.

 

•          We agree that humor is the best medicine and should be taken often.

 

•          We also agree that if for some reason a member needs to leave, we will acknowledge that and do a parting ritual.

 

•          We agree that we will do what we need to take care of ourselves, ask for help when needed, think well of the group, and think well of ourselves.

 

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Are you a Conflict Causer?

 

Take this self-test to find out!

 

We should all check ourselves periodically to learn whether we are habitual conflict causers. Of course, nobody thinks this of themselves, but try out these questions just to be sure!

 

Do you feel unhappy often?

 

Do you often feel dissatisfied with the groups of which you’re a member?

 

Do groups you’re a member of frequently have conflicts?

 

How many groups have you left because you were not comfortable?

 

How many of your groups have dissolved while you were in them?

 

How often are you irritated by, or angry with, another member of your group? Seldom? Often?

 

Do you complain about or criticize your group and/or its members to your nearest and dearest?

 

If you see a pattern answering these questions that indicates that you have a history of conflict, it’s time to check out how others see you.

 

Ask someone whom you like very much whether you contribute to conflicts. Next, ask someone you don’t like at all the same question. If they both give you the same answer, believe them.

 

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Some Thoughts on a “Listening Circle”

By Seed

For some time, it has seemed to me that my local Reclaiming community (San Francisco Bay Area) is like a body that is missing a vital organ. It’s as if we are missing a liver or kidneys — the organs that help to move toxicity.

When conflicts arise, the community has no mechanism to help resolve them. Conflicts have a tendency to persist, to fester. Over time, as conflict persists, it begins to affect others who surround the aggrieved parties. As is common when dysfunction persists in a family or community, people find their roles narrowing — scapegoat, rebel, peacemaker, hermit. People around such conflicts can become exhausted, eventually retreating from the community. This dynamic can become like a chronic low-level infection, affecting the whole.

It is exciting to hear that we are, as a community, beginning to envision way to support people who are in conflict. It’s as if we are beginning to figure out how to grow the missing organ. Several forms are being considered, in which people who need support can hear and be heard.

What will such a group be called? Some have used the term “Grievance Council.” The Bay Area Wheel has decided to instead use the term “Listening Circle.”

 

This might seem like just a matter of terminology, but it is really much more. When working magic, it is important to name what we seek. Younger self listens to the words we choose. Her language is imagery. If we tell her we’re doing “grievances,” then she’ll work on those. It seems like “listening” is a good place to start.

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