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FALL, 2002: Volume 7, Issue 3

Working Together in the Light
Lessons along the way—By Val Liveoak

Consensus decision-making is often used by groups working for peace and justice, with varying success. My understanding of the consensus process has been enriched by my deepening understanding of how the Quaker “sense of the Meeting” compares and contrasts to it.

The most important benefit of consensus decision- making process for peace team work is how it actively involves each team member in the decision, helping the group comes to a decision that is enriched, rather than weakened, by concerns raised by those who at first do not agree with the proposed action. In both Quaker Meeting and secular consensus process, the process of refining a decision by incorporating dissenters’ concerns and input is essential to achieving the goal of a decision that will be carried out whole-heartedly by the entire group. (As I understand it, Quaker process adds to the secular process the dimension of seeking a spiritual leading to propose an action or to dissent from it.)

I have learned more about these processes by being a dissenter than when I have been in agreement with proposed actions. It has been hard for me to go against what I assumed to be a group’s direction. When the process works and my concerns have been respectfully received and effectively incorporated into the final decision, it is with great joy and relief that I can join in accepting it. Respectful listening to those who disagree is essential for the consensus process, and also for any type of peacemaking work. (We get to practice on our F/friends!) The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) adds some other aspects to the mix, and although it is not an exclusively Quaker program, it comes from deep Quaker roots.

AVP’s two central values, “Respect for Self” and “Caring for Others” are well demonstrated in a carefully Clerked or Facilitated process. Setting a tone of respect for those with hesitations or dissent by calling for careful listening can be done in a secular setting. In Quaker settings this tone can be enhanced by listening in expectant waiting on the Spirit. When everyone can expect to be listened to with respect and care, participants in the process can speak their own truth, which can enrich and refine the proposal.

“Expect the Best” is another part of AVP’s teaching. I have come to understand that expecting the best is not only in terms of the outcome of the decision- making process, but also in regard to my perception of the motives of those who differ with me. In my case, when I’ve dissented from a proposal, I’ve done so for reasons which seem good to me. If my concerns are dismissed or categorized as wrong, bad or frivolous, then I feel less a part of the group and less interested in working toward the group’s goal when the proposed action is undertaken.

A third AVP principle is “Think before Reacting”. When I facilitate an AVP workshop, I always say, “This means not only stopping to think before acting, but also preparing myself to react in the way that is best.” I have had to practice responding in a calm, respectful and loving way to those who oppose me, both in decision-making processes and in other conflicts, and I still have a long way to go to consistently doing that. At my best, I try to center down and listen deeply to those who oppose or criticize me. In a group decision-making process (either secular or Quaker), some people who are already in agreement with the proposal may feel impatient with those who aren’t quite there. It is up to the Clerk or Facilitator to help them remember to listen to and value the concerns of those who have hesitations.

Finally, “Ask for a Nonviolent Path” is a principle of AVP that can be applied by the Clerk or Facilitator or any of the participants. I think that in terms of the Quaker process, “Ask for God’s Path” might better express what we aspire to do. Seeking such a path helps us to leave aside personal issues, ego needs, and animosities that naturally arise in group work. If we can learn to unite, rather than divide ourselves as we work together, we will indeed be walking a nonviolent path.

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