Community Building With Intention

I write here about some key parts to making our community of landowners (hah) thrive. In particular, these are valuable pieces that could be used in building (or repairing) rapport in a business setting, or any community gathering where trust is needed.

I'll get the self-sorting factors out of the way: as we chose co-living as a philosophy, our politics are already similar; and to be able to afford market housing in Vancouver, we have to have a good base of material wealth. We are the sort who is willing and able to put our money where our mouth is—pretty uniformly upper-middle-class progressives.

To build on our shared values, we conduct business in a way that encourages strong member-to-member and member-to-group connections.

Check-in and Check-out

Each of our meetings begins and ends with a section that gives each member an opportunity to state their feelings in turn. It doesn't have to be a deeply emotive thing—many members simply say, "great meeting, thanks" and move on. Other members can choose to respond in private later, if they feel the need, but the point is simply to go in a round and hear everyone's message.

The first few months it felt awkward, pausing now and then to ask "what should I say again?" But now it's such a natural part of the fabric of how we conduct business that we no longer need reminders or prompts.

The ritual of giving each person air time is the key part. Much of the resentment about meetings, and often on life in general, is felt because we didn't get to speak our minds. Here, we speak, then we shut up and hear each other, without the need to pass judgement or take action.

Consensus Building

Consensus often makes people think of compromise—meaning, you settle for something less, and the parties who disagreed with you also settle for something less. And yet, judging by the group happiness with where we are at so far, it doesn't seem that way at all.

In fact, in my experience, consensus doesn't happen until everyone's happy. And once consensus is reached, they agree to it just as much as everyone else. It's in how we vote too: explicit acceptance is given to a decision by raising a green card; a yellow card means dissent, but the member will agree to step aside and allow the group to form consensus anyway (the dissenting opinion is recorded). If member believes the decision is so contrary to the group's interests, s/he could raise a red card—a single red card means the entire decision is rejected. A red card is rarely used (and never yet in our group), but it gives each member a sort of equality in power.

In the more conventional Robert's Rules of Order, the majority opinion wins. It's an efficient and orderly way to conduct meetings and business. Under Robert's Rules, if a majority opinion has clearly emerged, a vote is called and the discussion cut off. Dissenters may ask to have their names noted as having objected to the motion, but the majority doesn't have to court their approval. They don't have to care about the happiness of the minority. In contrast, consensus building is messy and time-consuming. Our monthly business meetings are four hours long; our committee meetings (of which there are three per month) are at least 2.5 hous.

Consensus, really, is taking the time to maximise everyone's happiness. Further, the voting makes all agreements explicit affirmations. You can't abstain, and your opinion is always respected, even if it happens to be in the minority.

Sociocracy

We take this "equal air time consensus" business to the next level when we use sociocracy. In sociocracy, the session is conducted entirely in rounds. Each member makes a point—a single one, no more, no less—then the turn moves on to the next member. If a member has nothing more to add, s/he says "I am complete" and the turn similarly moves on. The round keeps going until every member is complete. A member may choose to respond to a point someone else made, but that counts as his/her point, and when s/he's done, the turn moves on. You may get a tiny bit of a longer turn if you are flowery in language, but for the most part, everyone gets an equal turn. Each point is immediately transcribed on large flip charts, so they're easy to reference as the session goes on.

The first notable effect of this is that the session gets really long. Like, really long. Everyone gets a chance to speak their minds, and so they do.

But then, something remarkable happens. When we aren't rushing to respond to what each other is saying, we find ourselves repeating the same points. And rather than actually repeating it, we can ask for a checkmark to be added to the existing point on the flip chart, or we simply say, "I am complete."

At the end, as we count all the checkmarks, we find that we are really quite similar to one another. We start to trust each other more when we make decisions. We assume the best of each other.

We also unearth elements that the speaker may have thought too small to bring up in a conventional discussion. The quiet voices are amplified so they can be heard just as loudly. The people who typically dominate conversations move aside and have a chance to hear those who aren't naturally inclined to speak.

There's more to sociocracy than this, and we don't use it all the time. But for topics where we want to ensure we are hearing every voice, it's useful to have a framework.

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