Learning how to make decisions together is a crucial element of getting along and getting things done with others. It’s wise for your group to learn how to steer your boat together with collective decision-making before you have a sinking ship on your hands. I’ve learned these skills through workshops, readings and from living and working in cooperatives and they have been incredibly valuable to the success of these projects.
Collective decision-making has innumerable rewards. If group members affected by the decision are involved, less conflict will result. If folks implementing the decision are involved, decisions are more likely to be implemented with hard work and enthusiasm, and empowered decision-makers are likely to stick around for the long haul. Team spirit is cultivated by collaborative problem-solving and listening to other's perspectives.
A strong example of collective decision-making is participatory budgeting which often leads to less contentious, more inclusive budgetary decisions – not an easy challenge. Residents, assisted by city administrators, create proposals through a collaborative process and present their projects. Everyone (including youth and immigrants) votes on their top choices using ballots or dotmocracy - a rank-choice voting system using dots as votes.
Collective decision-making isn't as much about how we vote on decisions as it is about the process of hearing and incorporating all sides. This process often involves:
- A well-facilitated discussion of the issue or problem
- Open brainstorming of proposed solutions
- Developing refined proposals
- Identifying concerns about proposals and checking for initial agreement
- Modifying and making amendments to proposals through compromise
- Voting to assess unity, concerns or to make further modifications
- Implementing and evaluating the success of the proposal
There are 3 key ingredients to effective collective decision-making:
1) The ability to trust the wisdom and consider the well-being of the group while setting aside personal agendas.
2) Selection of an appropriate process that your group agrees on and get training in the facilitation of the process.
3) A comfortable and accepting group environment, so that individuals freely share their ideas, thoughts, emotions and experiences without retribution or oppression. Participants should feel their contributions are fairly and equally considered, even though they might not be part of the final solution. Troubleshooting guides listed in the Resources section below encourage full, fair and safe participation.
A group should have some common ground to hold it together during conflict, such as values, vision and goals. Common ground serves as a reference for whether or not a good decision is being made. Knowing whether you like warm or cold weather will help you figure out whether to sail your boat North or South. If you don’t know your common ground, it’s good to find it before you set sail so you don’t have folks steering you in different directions. Large groups that have factions can form subgroups that come back together for discussion, like spokescouncils, as activist groups like Occupy have done. Diverse stakeholder decisions are an exception, where common ground may be naturally lacking, and consensus can be challenging though still worthwhile.
Cooperative attitude can be learned through cooperative experience and requires developing a sense of group unity, caring and respect amongst members. Have positive experiences together like group projects and shared meals to help create unity – the glue that gets the group through stormy meetings without unraveling. To a certain degree, participants must surrender forcing their own personal agenda in order to make decisions as a group, while still being clear about where they are coming from. Developing communication and listening skills and learning to make compromises comes with maturity and practice, though there are tools to help accelerate learning, like the Connection Action Project's guide below.
Get trained in a process -- research guidebooks or hire a consultant to teach the process to your group. Every new person who comes into your group should be trained, as one unskilled decision-maker could steer you off course. The larger your group, the more structured process you will likely need. A consultant can also help you pick your process and tailor it to your group's needs and culture. Consensus is often thought of as the ideal collective decision-making process, but other models are helpful for large, diverse groups: Dynamic Facilitation, Spokescouncils, Crowd-wise and Consensus-Oriented Decision-making.
Your boat will need a crew trained in all the key roles so that your meetings stay on course. Training in facilitation can be basic, like learning meeting roles such as note-taker, facilitator, vibe watcher and time keeper. Or it can be more elaborate training in conflict resolution, creating group agreements, techniques to break up mental gridlock, or anti-oppression tools. Take turns with facilitating and other roles for power balancing and group skill-building. Create group agreements/rules for every meeting. Look out for hidden power dynamics, which can sabotage authentic collective process.
Listening and Communication
These are essential, yet often overlooked, elements of effective group process - participants must be able to voice themselves and be heard. There are many communication styles, some more emotional or nonverbal, and some people are able to speak their mind more than others due to conditioning or personality. Nonviolent communication is popular, but be careful about imposing one tool on unwilling participants; have varied tools available for different folks and contexts. Cues such as "step up" and "step back" direct members who are over- or under- participating. Take a break (use a "T" hand sign) to move through emotions in the middle of a heated discussion and calm the energy for clearer communication. "Safe space" is one of my favorites to incorporate into a meeting - it's where anyone can voice any concerns without response. Personal development practices like meditation or counseling may help members come to the table with a clearer mind that less is attached or triggered and more open to hearing others.
Negotiating serious conflict and wide differences can be a treacherous terrain that may necessitate higher-level skills. The key to working through difference is participants let go of preconceived solutions and, instead, focus on deeply assessing the issue's context, listening to multiple perspectives, exposing real needs and non-negotiables, and setting aside personal agendas for a potentially better group outcome. Then have an open brainstorm of all possible solutions, especially divergent ones, to open previously unimagined doors.
If your group’s decision-making, facilitation and communication processes aren't working for all the individuals in the group, get more training or try another. Don't wait until your group is in the middle of conflict and your boat is about to sink to choose a new process; it could create even more conflict. If personal or interpersonal baggage is getting in the way, take time to work through it before proceeding. You may want to play with different models for different types of decisions--like high-stakes vs. low stakes and urgent vs. nonurgent. Let committees or individuals make minor or executive decisions to save collective decision-making time for more important group decisions.
We're in this Together
If we're in the same boat together, we'd be keen to start making more decisions together. Taking the time to learn these tools now can help you be more effective at making better decisions for a better world and building better relationships in the process. This "how to" just scratches the surface so check out the helpful guides and consultants below before jumping in head first.
- The Co-intelligence Institute compares three decision-making styles (Robert's Rules, Consensus, and Dynamic Facilitation) here.
- The Rhizome Coop has handouts on meeting facilitation and facilitation roles, and the “Rhizome Guide to Consensus Decision-Making.”
- Trouble-shooting guides: “Collective Book on Collective Process," “On Conflict and Consensus: A handbook on Formal Consensus Decision-making.”
The Empowerment Manual, a comprehensive guidebook by Starhawk - group dynamics, communication and collective decision-making, and dealing effectively with difficult people.
- Other handouts for meeting facilitation at Training for Change and Sassy Communication which teaches collective decision-making to coops.
- The Aorta Collective teaches communication, group process, and anti-oppressive facilitation from a social justice perspective.
- The Connection Action Project has a PDF booklet about applying nonviolent communication - “Simple Practices for Complex Times”.
- "Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making", a book by Sam Kaner of Community at Work Consultants.