This article has been submitted for possible
publication in Communities
magazine, available from Fellowship
for Intentional Community, RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge, MO 63563;
The Special Place
of Blocking in Consensus
by Tree Bressen
Funny as it may seem, people who teach consensus
process are not in consensus on what constitutes an appropriate block.
Standards vary widely, and i'd be willing to bet
it's a disagreement that goes back many years before the 1981
publication of the classic manual Building United Judgment.
That book describes how the collective producing it almost broke up
over their inability to come to agreement on how to address blocking.
In their case, the breakthrough came when the authors agreed to include
multiple viewpoints in the text, each set off in its own box.
That solution met the needs of that particular
situation. But what are practicing groups to do who need clarity in
order to move ahead? My aim here is to describe different standards in
use, explain roles and functions that blocking can serve, and leave it
up to you to decide.
* * *
First, let's be clear on the areas of agreement,
which are substantial. I have seen no source of information on
consensus that allows for blocking based on individual preference. That
is, all the trainers and books agree that blocks must be based on a
member's perception of group needs rather than on something they want
for themselves. This is a key point on blocking and the one most often
overlooked by newcomers to the process. Consensus is not extreme
voting—it's a genuinely different method that requires participants to
adopt a bigger perspective and focus on group needs.
Second, it's essential that any blocks which
emerge are fully understood as to what the blocker's concern is and why
they feel that way. Accessing that knowledge will assist a meeting in
discerning whether to continue further work on the proposal or to lay
Third, in a well-functioning group, blocks
shouldn't happen very often. Consensus guru Caroline Estes is known for
saying that a person should only block up to half a dozen times in
their lifetime, total, for all the groups they participate in. If
blocking is happening often, the group probably needs more training in
* * *
C.T. Butler, in his Formal Consensus
booklet, sets a high bar. He maintains that the entire group must agree
that a block is based in a group principle or the group's well-being in
order for the block to hold. This standard is a reasonable response to
the context that C.T.'s methodology was developed in: political groups
who had to deal with government infiltrators and provocateurs.
This is similar to the interpretation offered by one Quaker
elder at my local Friends' Meeting:
"When an individual cannot unite
with a decision, it is the group that allows the individual’s truth to stand in the way. The individual does not have
veto power. In other words, a person cannot stand in the way of the meeting. Rather, the
meeting allows that person’s truth to stand in its way. The meeting takes this action,
not the individual. Although it is done rarely, the meeting may decide to go forward even
though an individual is not in unity."
In contrast, communitarian Laird Schaub says
that the blocker only needs to be able to convince at least one other
member of the group that the block is based in an explicitly held group
value. (The other person doesn't need to feel the same way as the
blocker, they just need to admit the validity of the analysis.)
Using that model, blocks are most likely to
arise either when two different values that a group holds come into
conflict with each other (e.g., ecological sustainability vs.
affordability when constructing a community building) or when there are
different interpretations of an existing common value. As Laird puts
it: "I urge a community to not be dismayed by discovering that
different members have different spins on what a common value means.
You weren't really thinking you all thought the same way on everything,
were you? I didn't think so. So expect differences to arise."
The standard used by Quaker elder Caroline Estes
is that one can only block when the outcome for the group would be
otherwise catastrophic. Not just bad, but disastrously bad. She also
says that it's not okay for one person to prevent the group from taking
risks, so long as the group is making an informed choice.
As an example, she tells a story of Pacific
Yearly Meeting which, during the Vietnam War, wanted to send a ship
bearing humanitarian aid to the North Vietnamese. Such an act fell
under the official definition of treason, but the Quakers have long
been a determined, pacifist people, and energy was building in support.
Near the end of the meeting, one person stood to speak. This person
pointed out that technically such an act would put in a liable position
not only all the Friends in the room, but all the members of Pacific
Yearly Meeting, many of whom were not in attendance at the meeting that
day to give their assent to such a drastic risk. The person sat down,
and the clerk (facilitator) announced, "Friends, we will now adjourn
The correctness of the person's action was
clear, as there was widespread agreement that it wouldn't have been
fair to subject absent members to severe legal penalties. Over lunch,
the people in support of the proposal got together and went forward
with their plans to charter the ship—just not in the official name of
Pacific Yearly Meeting. Note that the strong desire to act did find an
outlet, and one that truly addressed the concern which had been raised.
* * *
However, the story above brings up an
interesting question. Why didn't the person object sooner? Could they
not get a turn to speak? Did the concern not occur to them until the
eleventh hour? It seems to me that if they'd spoken up earlier, the
rest of the group would have seen the wisdom of the statement, and
rather than ending at a block, the whole group would have shifted to a
search for new solutions.
In fact i've sometimes suggested this as a
filter to people who are wondering whether a block is appropriate; i
tell them that if there's not a sense of resonance from others who hear
the block, then it's probably based in self-interest rather than the
group's needs, and therefore the blocker should likely stand aside
instead. In that sense appropriate blocks cease to exist, because they
result in a shift in group insight which converts them from barriers
held by one person into concerns to be integrated by the whole.
However, blocks also serve as a safety valve in
the system. I once worked with a land trust that reported a high
frequency of blocks. As i inquired further, i discovered that in their
process blocking was the only way to say, "I need more time for
discussion on this item before we make a decision." I encouraged the
group not to rush so much, and to include an option in their
decision-making for "I have some concerns and would like to dialogue
more" that would feel different and more positive than blocking, thus
reserving blocking for catastrophic-level concerns that emerge after
While we all wish for good process with people
who listen fully to each other, there are a lot of real groups out
there that aren't operating that way. For those groups with weak
process, blocking is the way to ensure that if someone is being
railroaded, they have a way to stop the train.
On the other hand, the blocking option is much
more likely to be invoked by assertive personalities who can resist
peer pressure from the group, and sometimes these are the "problem"
members of the community.
That's why teacher Rob Sandelin advocates a
voting fallback, so that one member can't exercise a "tyranny of the
minority" over the group. If someone knows they can be outvoted, Rob
thinks they'll be more likely to act cooperatively. Other trainers,
however, raise the concern that groups with voting fallbacks may avoid
the hard work of coming to consensus. I've been happy to see that
cohousing communities, which all have voting fallbacks in their bylaws
due to requirements arising from conventional bank financing, rarely if
ever invoke them in practice.
N Street Cohousing in Davis, California has
another safety mechanism in place to protect the integrity of the
consensus process. Part of their standard for blocking is that the
person who blocks must meet multiple times with the people who made the
proposal in order to try to craft something that will meet all the
needs and concerns. If this requirement is not met, then the block
doesn't count and the decision can proceed. That policy is a way of
codifying the need for anyone who is considering blocking a decision to
work constructively on ways to resolve their concerns, which is an
essential part of making consensus work.
When teaching consensus i tend to de-emphasize
blocking, focusing on the process as "the power to listen" rather than
"the power to block." However, as a key feature that distinguishes
consensus from majority voting, it's critical to recognize the place of
blocking in the system.
Tree Bressen, facilitator and teacher,
has been assisting intentional communities, nonprofits, and other
organizations with group process since 1994. Pages from her website are
available for copying and distribution free of charge as long as you
continue to include these credit lines and contact information.