by Tree Bressen
When a block arises the situation is typically
frustrating and scary for everyone involved. While the received wisdom
says that blocking should only happen extremely rarely (doyenne
Caroline Estes says that in 45 years of facilitating hundreds of groups
she's only seen a correct block less than a dozen times), less skilled
groups often struggle with more frequent blocks than this. Blocking
based on personal preference or values rather than group well-being and
values is the most common mistake in attempts at consensus process and
causes so much frustration that it gives the whole process a bad rap.
If you are participating in a group and someone blocks inappropriately,
what are you to do? Here are suggestions for how to address this
situation, presented in chronological order.
(1) Nurture solid friendships in
your group. The more y'all like each other, the
stronger your web of relationships will be for dealing with challenges
that come up.
(2) Train all the group members
in consensus so that everyone understands when it
is and is not appropriate to block. Blocks are not to get your way.
Blocks are not because you would have to leave the group if this happened. Blocks are not
because a proposal doesn't fit your values or how you want to live.
Blocks are not to prevent the group from taking a risk. The reason that
blocking power exists in the consensus process is to prevent the group
from crossing its own stated values or from doing something truly
disastrous. All these other things are appropriate and important to
raise as concerns, and to modify a proposal in response to—you just
can't block a decision over them, or else the whole process breaks down.
People also need to be informed about the option
to Stand Aside, and when to invoke it. Groups must treat Stand Asides
seriously so that people will have an outlet to express major concern
at the decision point without resorting to blocking.
(3) Clarify the group's common
values to provide criteria for blocking that transcend personal
preferences. If the common values are not yet
explicit, the next best option is to rely on a general sense of what is
in the group's best interest.
(4) Establish a clear procedure
for handling blocks. I recommend creating an
expectation that dissenters are responsible for helping seek solutions
to the issue under consideration. For example, at N Street Cohousing in
Davis, California, anyone who blocks is required to sit down every two
weeks for up to three months with representatives of the consensus
position in an effort to work out an acceptable alternative. Resident
Kevin Wolf says, "If after the six meetings, consensus hasn't been
reached, the community will vote with a 75% supermajority winning. In
18 years of having this process, we have yet to get past two blocked
consensus meetings before consensus is reached. We have never voted."
The Quakers are often thought of as the most
seasoned practitioners of consensus. Pacific Yearly Meeting's Faith and
Practice book (2001) says that the facilitator can overrule a block if
it comes from someone(s) who objects too frequently. Here is the quote:
"Meetings may occasionally act even over the objections of one or more
Friends. Due weight should be given to the insights of any Friend, long
experienced in Friends meetings, whose judgment and service have been
proven over considerable time. A 'stop' in such a member's mind should
be heeded. If, on the other hand, the one who is withholding support is
known for persistently objecting, then the Clerk [facilitator] may call
for a period of silent worship and, if so led, announce that the weight
of the Meeting seems decidedly to favor the action, and the proposal is
approved. The same principle applies even on occasions when there is
more than one objector."
In a communitarian context, operating in this way
would likely offend egalitarian sensibilities and put too much burden
on the facilitator—if the facilitator overrules someone's block, that
person (or their friends) are likely to get upset at whoever happened
to be facilitating that day. At the national cohousing conference in
summer 2006, Annie Russell of Wonderland Hill suggested referring
unresolved blocks to a community's steering council instead, who could
then render a ruling on the validity of the block.
There are various other expectations in use to
decide what constitutes an appropriate block. Laird Schaub of Sandhill
Farm in Missouri applies the standard of, "Can you convince at least
one other person in the group [presumably not one's spouse] that the
block is legitimate?" CT Butler (author of the Formal Consensus method)
says that the group must agree a block is principled, or else it
doesn't count. And so on. Your group needs to get some clarity on what
your standards and procedures will be before a
particular block comes up; otherwise you run the risk of actual or
perceived biased action based on the personalities or content involved.
Cohousing groups have voting fallbacks written into their bylaws to
satisfy lenders; you need to know under what circumstances and how you
will invoke such a fallback.
(5) Work with the substance of
- Assume goodwill.
- Often a dissenter will be inarticulate, and
need support. Don't isolate that person—instead, find them one or more
- Do major reflective listening. Make an effort
to fully understand the blocker's concerns and then check to be sure
that their point of view has been grasped by the rest of the group.
- Ask questions to draw them out.
- Listen for the "piece of the truth" the
dissenter is holding.
- Engage the people with concerns in solving the
problem—ask them what would work for them that would also address the
other needs that are present.
- Look for common ground, search out how their
concern can be integrated.
(6) If it seems that someone is
blocking based on personal preference, others in the group need to
speak up. Consider starting gently, by having one
person approach the blocker outside of meeting. If that doesn't work,
multiple people will need to speak up to get through the resistance and
avoid having one person take all the heat. Talk with the person
respectfully, honestly, and as kindly as you can. If the group has made
a substantial effort to understand the blocker's point of view, yet the
person still insists that she or he is not being heard, someone might
say, "I'd like to know how you would tell the difference between not
being heard vs. being heard and disagreed with." Or, "I think we do
hear you and are just disagreeing with you. But I could be wrong. Can
you tell me what I can do to help you have a sense of being heard?"
Again, usually what is needed is some really excellent reflective
listening. Occasionally someone needs to be reminded of the Stand Aside
option and what it's there for.
(7) Invoke whatever procedures
were agreed to in Step 4, and/or a voting fallback.
While traditionally consensus groups have not had voting fallbacks, Rob
Sandelin of Sharingwood Cohousing (Snohomish, Washington) points out
that they prevent a tyranny of the minority. If someone knows they can
potentially be outvoted, they are more likely to act cooperatively with
The Quakers say that one should only block after a
sleepless night and the shedding of tears, and at most a few times in
lifetime. However, sometimes it really is appropriate. While this
article has addressed how to reduce blocks, there is a whole other
piece on the importance of nurturing dissent and the open, honest
expression of concerns. Living in community, and in consensus, is about
finding the balance.
For more information, see also:
Dissent in a Consensus Process
The Special Place
of Blocking in Consensus