When is a stand aside not a stand aside?

Acorn had a long and difficult membership meeting on Sunday.  All manner of assumptions were tested and after 30 years of practicing consensus i found myself learning some important new things.

in theory it looks like this

in theory it looks like this

We had several tricky membership decisions and membership is one of the hardest in community because it is basically binary.  You are either accepting the person or you are rejecting them.  In some cases we ask people to visit again, because the community did not get to know them much (perhaps they are quiet) or because there was something else extraordinary going on (perhaps a building caught on fire).  We did decided to restart our visitor program, with some more structure.  In the aftermath of the arson, we decided to create a mental health team (MHT).  Twin Oaks has an MHT, which was founded after a member took their own life almost 20 years ago.

But the thing which really took me back was when we did not come to consensus despite there being no blocks to the process.  We did a non-binding go-around about how people felt about this visitor becoming a provisional member.  Some concerns were expressed but there were no strong objections or blocks, several people stood aside.  The facilitator took this as the group not being in consensus.

what is the best way?

what is the best way?

When we investigated the several stand asides, some of them were because the people were leaving the community and felt it was inappropriate for them to have their opinions bind the group, especially considering the group is somewhat divided.  At least one stand aside was a protest of the 5 hour long meeting we had not yet completed.   But at least a couple had strong concerns about this member joining and felt like they could not give their full consent.  In this case a stand aside became at least temporarily a block. We tabled the decision for the upcoming meeting.  And i have been mulling this over in my head searching for a better way to approach it next time.

We need to dissect the stand aside status which has gotten terribly muddied, for these two interpretations of it (defer to the group versus concerns not strong enough to block) obfuscate the process, rather than enlighten and inform it.  So what i am proposing is that people who want to drop out of or not influence the process, but still wanted to be recognized instead of saying they stand aside should say they “defer”.

we are all in this together

we are all in this together

We also need to set a threshold for too many stand asides to be in full consensus.  One number which was proposed for this limit was 10% or in our case 3 people.  So in answer to the question posed in the title of this blog post.  A stand aside is not a stand aside when 1) it is really deferring to the group and perhaps 2) when it is 1/3 of a block.

This long and difficult meeting was not bad in my thinking.  i feel like we did an admirable job of balancing the long term needs of the group with those of the candidates.  i thought Thomas did a fine job facilitating in territory where there was not yet a  clear map out.  i felt like despite emotions being high, the group held together and listened to our many divergent views and often found common ground.  We need to get our communication and process agreements a little tighter and we can return to this vexing decision and hopefully make a decision we are all at least at peace with, if not all happy about.

Indeed, we are in for some bumpy sledding

Indeed, we are in for some bumpy sledding

[Edited by Judy Youngquest]

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

3 responses to “When is a stand aside not a stand aside?”

  1. danceeternal says :

    I like the way I was first trained on formal consensus: each of the 3 positions (Consent, Stand Aside, and Block) has one of several things it can mean. These are the ONLY things it can legitimately mean.

    Consent positions:
    1) I am wildly excited about this proposal because I believe that as a group, this is the best proposal we can come up with.
    2) Although I personally think we could do better, I recognize that as a group, this is the best plan we’re currently going to be able to consent to and implement.
    3) I dislike this plan, but I know that it fits with our mission, we have the resources to accomplish it, and so we can deal with it.

    Stand aside:
    1) I have personal objections to this proposal, but they are personal. I do not believe enacting this would be damaging to the mission of the group or to the group itself.
    2) I have a conflict of interest that requires me to recuse myself from this decision.

    1) This proposal is in conflict with the mission and values of the group.
    2) This proposal will be damaging to the group’s ability to function in the future.
    3) We do not have the unity, as a group, to move forward with this proposal.

    It is important to remember in consensus decision making that we are not voting. In a consensus decision making process though, the goal isn’t to fight for and win your favorite option, it’s to find the best option. The best option may not be the best because it’s your personal favorite, it may be the best because it’s the option that has enough support to enact successfully. That means there are consent positions you can take for proposals that you don’t particularly like, or that you may even find distasteful. The “defer” position you describe above is one that I would describe as a consent position, it sounds like the 3rd consent position to me.

    In the specific case you described above, there was a blocking concern. It was (appropriately) raised by your facilitator. It is the 3rd blocking position.

    I sometimes hear a guideline that a block is a very serious thing and something an individual should probably only do a few times in their life. I disagree with that guideline because it discourages people from noticing and pointing out when a group does not have the unity to implement a decision. In a consensus based organization, a policy decision that is made that nobody is behind will quickly get ignored and ignored policies cause group stress.

  2. leavergirl says :

    Got one word for ya: sociocracy. 🙂

  3. Tree Bressen says :

    You are right that Stand Asides need to be differentiated from non-participation in a decision. I usually use the term “abstain” for the latter.

    I agree that it can be useful to have a threshold for # of Stand Asides that prevent a proposal from passing. According to guru Caroline Estes, that # is 1–her rationale being that any more than that starts to feel like voting, not consensus. (She believes this even for a group much larger than Acorn.) It is also relevant to note that Alpha Farm, Caroline’s home community, has long had a policy regarding membership decisions specifically that even 1 Stand Aside is too many, the theory being that you are going to have to live with this person and participate very cooperatively with them, so starting in on that relationship from a Stand Aside position creates disharmony from the beginning. Both of these choices arise from a sense that a Stand Aside is fairly serious. The advantage to making Stand Asides serious is that it gives people with major concerns a place to go other than Blocking.

    My own personal approach at this point might be something more nuanced. I’m not convinced every decision needs the same threshold of agreement. For example, a policy change that can only succeed in its implementation if everyone actively participates in it needs more positive energy to carry forward than a project one or two people want to undertake that just needs the group to say OK and get out of the way. So i might apply Caroline’s standard in the former case, and a looser one in the latter.

    A further complicating factor is that sometimes someone feels moved to Block but avoids doing so for fear of censure and/or lack of sufficient social capital in the group.

    It sounds to me like Thomas did the right thing in holding over the decision. Of all community decisions, membership applications are extremely serious, and i’ve been through an awful lot of them over the years. It’s easy for people to fall into pressuring the hesitant to accept someone, and my experience says if that happens, you’ll likely regret it down the road. Given that “at least a couple had strong concerns about this member joining and felt like they could not give their full consent,” the right answer for the community may well be No–even though the applicant seems wonderful to others and/or likely has some sorely desired skills or qualities. As you mentioned, sometimes extending a visitor period is sufficient to resolve concerns.

    Good luck!


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