Beyond the Utopian World of Consensus

Synergy is a word that means a great deal to me. But there are times when it just can’t be achieved by goodwill alone.

Three years ago my husband and I moved into a co-housing community. Co-housing communities are typically run by consensus agreement. They’re usually about peacefully co-existing in a viable, sustainable, harmonious setting, with a minimal footprint. Since I’m someone who loves to collaborate as a co-facilitator, a co-teacher, and a cooperative learner with my students, the idea of living in community without hierarchy, with a shared value of cooperation, appealed to me immensely. I thought: “Just imagine what can be accomplished when a group of people put their hearts and minds together for the good of the whole group!”

But collaboration and consensus only works if everyone wants it.

There was a bully in the community. Before we’d even unpacked, we’d been warned about not rocking the boat! Being exhausted after our move from Canada, we asked our new neighbors to give us a little space. But immediately there began a campaign to get us to ‘tow the line’. It became clear that this man was a master-manipulator, and not interested in anyone’s happiness. Not even his own.

My husband and I decided to get a group of people together to discuss this bully and how to deal with him. When we met, the stories of intimidation came out of the woodwork. People had been afraid to share their experiences with others. For over ten years he’d blocked major proposals by others to improve the community, largely because people were not speaking up. So in their isolation, they believed they were the only ones experiencing this fear. For many, without the give and take that naturally propels groups forward, it had become too much work to keep trying to reach consensus.

Attendance at Meetings was at an all time low, and there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for taking on projects. Many neighbors had withdrawn their participation in cooperative projects and given up on most group activities.

The status quo of the culture was kept in place with unspoken rules such as “Don’t speak your truth”, “Don’t set boundaries”, “Just ignore”, etc.

After gathering a dozen or so neighbors in our home to go about finding and hiring a skilled outside facilitator, one such woman was located. But by the time she came, my husband and I had decided to move on. It was too little too late.

In the three years since moving here, I’ve lost my rose colored glasses about collaboration.  Sometimes the only way to heal a system is to heal your self.

We stepped back and did not re-enter the conversation. Perhaps our decision to disengage was an intervention on the whole group. Perhaps it was the healthiest move for all concerned.

At the weekend workshop that we did not attend, several people spoke up about perceived power differences, and how they felt about them. Now with a critical mass of people being brave enough to speak up and tell the truth about what they see happening, I feel more hope for this community. For us, in this case, the direction that propels us towards a vibrant future is one of saying ‘good bye. I’ll miss many of my neighbors, especially the kids.

Catriona O’Curry is a consultant based in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, Bob. They like to travel to Seattle, B.C. and Europe in the summers when Arizona becomes a furnace!