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Janet Smith Consensus

We use consensus as our house decision making process.  We use this as opposed to a simple voting procedure because consensus decision making is a creative process that actively includes all persons making the decision.  All participants in the process have a direct voice and veto power: everyone has the opportunity to voice their opinion or to prevent the proposal from passing if they feel strongly enough about a decision.  This makes consensus highly compatible with co-operative living because everyone in a co-operative has an equal voice and all members in a co-operative respect the voices of their fellow members.

Because everyone is encouraged to express their concerns and the group to amend proposals to something everyone can agree upon, consensus is a lengthier decision making process than simple voting.  Group meetings can take a significant amount of time and some proposals might take more than a week to decide.  On the other side, since some proposals may be quickly shot down without hope of compromise, consensus can favor the status quo.

How Does Consensus Work?

  • Presentation of Proposal
The proposal is presented as clearly as possibly by its author.  The author explains why they perceives a need for this proposal, what exactly the proposal will accomplish, and what resources it will take to execute the proposal.  In order to be clearly presented, the author must usually do a significant amount of research on the matter, even for a relatively simple proposal.

Real Life Example:  The house's automatic rice cooker breaks, and a housemate would like to author a proposal to replace the rice cooker.  To do this, the author would first describe why the rice cooker would need to be replaced instead of repaired.  Then the author would need to ascertain why alternative methods of cooking rice using implements already on hand would be less-than-satisfactory.  Next, the author would need to find an exact model of rice cooker of which to propose purchase and be able to give reasoning for why this model should be purchased.  Finally, the author would need to find a venue selling it for the most reasonable price.  Additionally, the author should prepare a list of alternate models for consideration and tell the house which budget the money for the rice cooker should come from.  The completed proposal would look something like:

After four years of nearly daily use, our Zojirushi NS-PC18 10 cup automatic rice cooker broke.  It appears that the heat sensor finally gave up.  This rice cooker is now out of warranty, and local appliance repair shops do not service Zojirushi products.  It would cost about $200 to ship the rice cooker to Japan and have it repaired.  We could replace this exact machine through Amazon for $99.95 and with free shipping.  However, I would like to see us replace it with a Zojirushi NS-TGC18 10 cup automatic rice cooker. 

The Zojirushi NS-TGC18 is a little more expensive than our previous rice cooker at $152.97 through Amazon.  However, unlike our current machine, it has settings for many types of rice and grains, has a timer function, uses the more improved "fuzzy logic" cooking system, and has an easier-to-clean internal system.  Moreover, its buttons are internal and cannot be broken or dislodged as our previous rice cooker's external controls were.  More superficially, unlike our current stained, plastic rice cooker the NS-TGC18 has a stainless steeI exterior.  It also plays different tunes when the rice begins and ends cooking, and has a retractable cord. 

I think it is important to get a new rice cooker instead of relying upon a covered pot on the stove top because--as silly as it sounds--even the best cook can have problems steaming rice.  As we all know, a rice cooker takes a great deal of worry out of this basic task, and cooking for 20 people is stressful enough without worrying if your rice will be too crunchy or too mushy.  Moreover, few of us will consume leftover rice if it is poorly cooked, so we are less likely to waste food money if we have a rice cooker. 

If we do not get the Zojirushi NS-TGC18, I definitely think we should stay with the Zojirushi brand because they are the industry leaders for rice cookers.  According to many Amazon reviews, Zojirushi models have a longer life expectancy than other brands.  Alternate models we could consider that have similar cooking capacity and features to the NS-TGC18 are the Zojirushi NP-HTC18, which uses induction cooking and retails for $420 and the Zojirushi NP-HBC18 which also uses induction cooking and retails for $320.  In the 'fuzzy logic' line, Zojirushi also has the NS-ZCC18 which retails for $180.  We could also replace our current model, the NS-PC18 at $100. 

I also propose that we use money from the house maintenance budget to purchase the rice cooker.  Alternately, we could use money from the house discretionary budget.
  • Clarifying Questions
Questions are asked by anyone about the proposal to make sure that everyone understands it before the proposal is open for group discussion.

  • Discussion
The proposal is discussion and debated. Possible amendments to the proposal are made at this time. The author(s) always reserves the right to alter the proposal as they see fit.

  • Take general feelings on the proposal
These can be done vocally or registered through a sparkle poll (sparkle fingers up means 'in favor', sparkle fingers down means 'not in favor').  The results of the sparkle poll can be used to modify the original proposal, consider going forth with a vote, or scrapping it altogether.

If discussion seems to be going on forever without the possibility of resolution, the group can:

  1. Decide to drop the proposal, or;
  2. Move on to approval voting of specific options within the proposal, or;
  3. Send the proposal to a committee of interested parties for rewriting to work out the objections, or; 
  4. Table the discussion for another house meeting
If discussion appears to be heading towards resolution, the facilitator can call the group to consensus.

  • Call for Consensus
After it appears that a proposal could be consented upon, the group facilitator calls for consensus.  At this point, individual members can express one of four opinions:
  1. A consent (thumbs up) means that the member can live with a proposal if it passes and believes that it is ultimately the best decision for the group.
  2. A stand aside (thumbs out to the side) means that the member has a strong concern about the passing of the proposal.  Stand asides are typically chosen if a member believes that the passing of the proposal would negatively impact them personally or the group. It acts primarily as a public statement that there is a strong concern about the passing of the proposal, but does not in itself block the passing of the proposal. However, if three members stand aside on a proposal, the proposal is actively blocked.
  3. A block (thumbs down) means that a member has a major objection to the proposal and could not live with it if it was passed.  A single block prevents a proposal from passing.
  4. An abstention aka non-violent fist (closed fist) can mean a few things: they either have no opinion on the passing of the proposal whatsoever, they feel as though they do not have the information or history necessary to participate in making a decision, or may have a conflict of interest and would rather abstain from voting. Either way, an abstention does not prevent a proposal from passing.
Guidelines for Reaching Consensus
  1. Present your position as lucidly and logically as possible, but listen to other members' reactions and consider them carefully before you press your point. Avoid arguing solely for your own ideas.

  2. Do not assume that someone must win and someone must lose when discussion reaches stalemate. Instead look for the next-most-acceptable alternative for all parties.

  3. Distinguish between major objections and discomfiture or amendments. A major objection is a fundamental disagreement with the core  of the proposal.

  4. Do not change your mind simply to avoid conflict and to reach agreement and harmony. When agreement seems to come too quickly and easily, be suspicious, explore the reasons and be sure that everyone accepts the solution for basically similar or complementary reasons. Yield only to the positions that have objective and logically sound foundations.

  5. Avoid conflict-reducing techniques such as majority vote, averages, and bargaining. When a dissenting member finally agrees, don't feel that they must be rewarded by having his/her own way on some later point.

  6. Differences of opinion are natural and expected. Seek them out and try to involve everyone in the decision process. Disagreements can help the group's decision because with a wide range of information and opinions, there is a greater chance the group will hit on more adequate solutions.

  7. Decision making through consensus involves discussion and accountability of view points as opposed to power struggles. Postponement of decisions to give time to reconsider and recognize that all people participating are able to accept and work with the decision is vital to the consensus process.

  8. Remember that the ideal present behind consensus is empowering versus overpowering, agreement versus majorities/minorities. The process of consensus is what you put into it as an individual and a part of the group.

  9. Finally, use your minds.  Think before you speak; listen before you object. Through participating in the consensus process, one can gain insight into not only others but also oneself.

The Format of a Janet Smith Consensus Meeting

House President: agenda
Facilitator: call to meeting

Check-ins (personal/job)

How to add an item to the meeting agenda
  • The house president will send out an email to the listserv calling for agenda items. Reply all to the email with your agenda item. Reply all is important, so everyone sees the information, not just the house president. 

    Remember to include:
    • Title of Item (a short description. Example: Replace Rice Cooker)
    • Identify whether it is a discussion or a proposal.
    • In depth description of the item. This allows any members who must proxy-attend the meeting to fully understand and respond to the proposal at hand.
    • Estimated time allowance. How long do you think it will take to get to consensus or to fully discuss the topic? 
Jeff Scroggin,
Mar 25, 2010, 4:16 PM