Enthusiastic consensus

This post is a follow-up from yesterday’s discussion about consensus decision making, groupthink and inclusion. It might not make sense on its own.

In the comments, it transpired that good facilitation can go a long way towards addressing some of the concerns I have with consensus meetings, and so it may well be that what I talk about here is also “good practice” which I have not witnessed.

A tiny fraction of a thoroughly brilliant comment from .j inspired a conversation with some friends yesterday. .j said:

Of the problems you list, I suspect that the illusion of unanimity is the most pervasive and hardest to combat. Encouraging portions of a meeting to brainstorm on devil’s advocate positions can help allow some unspoken reservations to emerge, but it’s certainly not a perfect method.

The illusion of unanimity certainly is a problem, and one which is exacerbated by people feeling unable to express opinions. Silence is generally taken for agreement.

A parallel can be drawn here, and that parallel is with sexual consent.

Sexual consent is traditionally constructed as “no means no”, that is, it is a person’s responsibility to say “no” to unwanted contact. Under this model of consent, silence can be viewed as an implicit nod. Silence, however, does not mean “yes”. One particularly horrifying example of this is a rape case involving a celebrity where the woman said:

The young woman did not push Tweed off or tell him to stop because she was “frozen with fear”, the court heard.

“I wasn’t able to physically move or say anything, or even function about what was going on,” she said.

The rapist was acquitted, because the woman never said “no”.

In many cases, silence is not a “yes”. Silence may be an expression of fear, of powerlessness, of being unsure, of years of socialisation that means not blindly submitting will make you a frigid bitch or a mean bitch or a crazy bitch.

There is an alternative: enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent means that “yes means yes”. Enthusiastic consent means that an enthusiastic “fuck yeah!” is what passes for consent, not an absence of a “no”. Enthusiastic consent means that if enthusiasm is not shown, it is best to check whether the other person is comfortable and consenting.

Thinking back to consensus decision making, many marginalised people do not feel empowered or comfortable in speaking up. I have seen decisions made where many people do not show their jazz hands of agreement, yet a decision is still taken to be “the mood of the room”.

What if we reverse this? What if we take silence as not assent, but dissent? What if, in the face of silence, we checked for enthusiastic consensus rather than implicit agreement?

Consensus meetings would take longer, that’s for sure, but how can that be a bad thing if we are ensuring that all present are comfortable with the decisions being made?

Could enthusiastic consensus help empower marginalised groups to participate in group decision making? On its own, of course not. But, as with enthusiastic consent’s role in building a world without rape, it is a tool that we should, and must, use to bring ourselves baby steps closer to optimising our decision-making.

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5 responses to “Enthusiastic consensus

  • Jed

    I think you’ve hit upon a crucial point here. It may seem like a tenuous link to make but (as we discussed yesterday) there are some solid parallels. The consensus model, as described to me at the start of meetings, is supposed to require explicit approval from everyone present before a proposal can be carried. Now, putting the question of those who are not or can not be there to the side for a moment, this has not been my experience at any meeting. Those who feel unable to speak up and challenge points in the first place are likely to also feel uncomfortable blocking a proposal outright, instead staying quiet. Instead of absolute consensus, a lack of overt objections is the threshold at which decisions are taken. Making greater efforts to ensure this ceases to be the case would be a significant step forward.

  • alex

    my comment is: I agree with Jed. I am fairly sure that i have unanimous personal consensus on that issue.

  • The trouble with the consensus model « Another angry woman

    [...] Edit: I followed up on some of these thoughts and some things which emerged from the comments here. [...]

  • We still need to talk about consensus « Another angry woman

    [...] brilliant discussion in the comments, a partial solution was happened upon: applying the principles of enthusiastic sexual consent to the consensus process. This solution, though, mostly solves the problem of groupthink. The first [...]

  • apeaceofconflict

    Great set of posts!

    Just doing an essay on consensus and came across your articles that I found quite useful. I was recently reading about the “squeaky wheel fallacy” (based on the old adage of the squeaky wheel gets the grease, or the loudest person is the one who’s concerns get addressed) by Sreenivasan that suggests that the assumption that “squeaking” only occurs if something is wrong with a proposal misses those who have concerns but don’t, for whatever reason (shyness, fear, insecurities, group pressures, systematic inequalities, etc.), voice them. To overcome this fallacy, the group urged to reach “conclusions based on the presence of positive supporting evidence rather than lack of contrary evidence”. Ie. more or less what you have described as “enthusiastic consent”. I like this suggestion of a cross-over term a lot. :) *enthusiastic jazz hands

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