When my sangha in Boston had a big decision to make, we tried something different. Rather than taking a majority vote, we went for the challenge of a finding a group consensus. In other words, we talked through a process where everyone contributed to envisioning a solution that all could support. And what a ride that was.
The decision to be made was this. Our basement level rented room got flooded with last spring’s heavy rains, and became unusable. Do we attempt to fix it back up, or do we move on? Although it was cold, damp, and dark, that basement had one big redeeming feature — it was affordable. Or should we rally our forces and look for a nicer street-level location, at potentially three or four times the rent? This latter choice would require a higher commitment from everyone. More time, money, energy, cooperation – really, more of just about everything. Were we ready for this?
I saw our crossroads as an opportunity, in so many ways. For one, it was a chance to put our commitment to Right Speech (i.e. truthful and harmonious communication) into practice in a real-life situation. In my tradition, the Triratna Buddhist Community, we hold sangha communication as central to practice. Each member is explicitly encouraged to grow into and express their own unique individuality. But at the same time, we commit to open and honest communication that builds community and cooperation toward a common good. As you can imagine, these two ideals can rub up against each other in practice and create some challenging learning situations.
In a consensus process, everyone’s views are taken into account. The idea is to openly listen to each other to look for common ground. It’s a long and messy process. To make this work, everyone needs to speak up – especially around disagreements. And working through conflict is a key part of the process. The goal is to reach a decision that everyone is willing support, even though it’s likely to be with differing levels of enthusiasm.
When we started, everyone had different ideas of what our options were, and how much risk we should take. And there were just as many different visions of what our future as a sangha looked like, and what sort of home would suit that vision.
There was much more to this experience than I can cover in this one post. For one, I won’t go into the specifics of how we managed the decision-making process. What I do want to share though, is what I personally took away, having been both a participant and facilitator.
- Don’t go in with strong views. It’s important for each of us to go into a discussion having sorted through the facts and considered our own perspectives. But it’s also really important to be willing to hear out other views nonjudmentally. Not just new information, but also other people’s preferences and emotions. (And that’s the difficult part!) This process can work only if everyone is willing to listen to everyone else, completely.
- Distinguish between facts and opinions. I did have a personal bottom line. I wasn’t willing to stay in a basement that had mold. Obviously that was a health hazard – and a fact-based objection. But I also didn’t find the basement very inspiring, and felt it dampened the energy of the sangha. That was an opinion. Don’t go down the rathole of arguing over opinions.
- It’s more important to listen than to speak. It’s really challenging to listen openly when someone is expressing an opinion we disagree with. Even if we’re staying quiet, it’s all too easy to be arguing against them in our minds, coming up with retorts, pulling up evidence to the contrary. I made it a practice to put myself in the other person’s shoes while they were speaking. I tried to hear what he was implying underneath his words, what assumptions were there, and so forth. It was really valuable in helping me to empathize with his needs and wants, spoken and otherwise.
- Don’t leave things hidden under rugs. Apologize quickly. Ask for clarification of anything that sounds like a judgment, criticism, or tightly-held opinion. Encourage quieter people to speak up (even if it means private conversations before or after meetings to get things out).
- Ask for clarification instead of arguing. It’s incredibly delicate to engage in conflict constructively. Even asking a simple question like “what do you mean by that?” can come across as argumentative if spoken with a strong tone of voice. I tried really hard to watch my mind and mouth. If I couldn’t find a place in my heart that was willing to hear the other person’s point of view without judgment, I tried to keep quiet. I didn’t always succeed, but I made a sincere effort.
- Leave space for everyone to express their feelings. After laying out the objective facts and options, there needs to be plenty of space for each person to say how he feels about it all. And to be allowed to do so without argument from anybody else. Although everyone wants to rely on facts to make the decision, often a difficult choice in the end has to be based on a gut feeling. And there needs to be room for the group to find its collective gut feeling.
- Trust the process. I was pleasantly surprised at how toward the end, we started to converge on an accord. As the facilitator, I didn’t make that happen. It happened naturally, because we had all listened to each other honestly and respectfully.
So what did we decide? We’re still mulling things over, so I can’t say yet. We still have a few things to check out, and we wanted to give everyone time to think about it. In the end, I think another order member and I will need to make the decision on behalf of the group. There was no one clear cut choice – not because of disagreements, but because the choice is so difficult. For everyone. But as one person said, he trusts us to keep everyone’s wishes in mind as we decide.
So it seems our experiment with consensus has worked well. And I feel as though our collective energy has grown a little stronger because of it. As hard as it was, I think it’ll be a great way to build sangha if we approach all our decisions this way in the future.