By Peter Lazar
Cohousing neighborhoods in the U.S. feature consensus for making decisions. You might think:
Example cohouser projects achieved by consensus include big things like deluxe game rooms, exercise rooms, workshops, and greenhouses. My neighbors successfully approving a pool is a great example:
The biggest problem with building a pool in an existing neighborhood is the cost. People happily bought their houses without a community pool. Some of them have no interest in a pool. Asking them to spend thousands of dollars for something they will never use seems hopeless.
I doubt that a regular 33 home neighborhood would attempt building a community pool. There probably wouldn’t be the social cohesion to embark on such a costly project for so few homes. But let's consider if such a neighborhood does try, and holds a regular majority-rules vote. Say it passes by majority but not unanimous approval. Without buy-in by all, this could lead to a disaster. There would be at least a few extremely unhappy homeowners angry at the other neighbors for being forced to pay a large assessment. That neighborhood might fracture and lose these people from community life.
But cohousers are a special breed. They are willing to take on big projects and invest the effort to make sure everyone is happy. Consensus helps get things done.
At Shadowlake, the people who wanted a pool started by hosting a series of “salons” on the topic. These are meetings, open to all, where neighbors discuss their ideas and thoughts on a topic. The point of a salon is for each person to be heard. For this reason, each person can freely speak their mind without rebuttal or argument. No one speaks twice until everyone has spoken. Salons are not a time for decision making - they're a time for hearing each others' perspectives. The pool proponents also sent out surveys.
Via surveys and salons, the Shadowlake pool proponents learned the details of why some opposed the pool. The anti-pool neighbors learned why others thought having a pool was so exciting and important.
The consensus process involves foundational upfront work absent from regular democratic processes. Counterintuitively, the desired or even typical outcome is not compromise. Rather, the upfront sharing of opinions and ideas helps people craft a better “third way”.
The “third way” for the Shadowlake proposal is a solution where everyone can use the pool, but not everyone has to pay for construction. Impressively, voluntary pledges covered the pool costs. But management of the pool would be via the regular governance structure.
Deeper understandings gained from the consensus process also build connections. We better understand our adversaries. Consequently, we are more willing to incorporate their viewpoints into a solution that satisfies everyone. In Shadowlake's pool example, the pool proponents and detractors all came out happier than where they started.
Now, do you still wonder how consensus doesn't continually end in stalemate? In the 11 years I have lived in Shadowlake Village, I have heard of only two cases where someone blocked a proposal and the community resorted to majority vote fallback. The upfront work prevented such situations. People don't usually go forward voting for items that would damage relations with their neighbors. Usually, they find ways to morph a proposal into something more acceptable and better.
How do you compare the results of Shadowlake's governance by consensus with the results of the US Congress? If we could all be forced to better understand each other, perhaps we could find better ways to get things done for the greater good.