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Empowering Communities: The Possibility of Decision Making as a Spiritual Experience

Consensus-decision-making is a process, which through experience, I have developed much faith in.  It’s a level of faith which not everyone carries, and indeed some people carry a degree of scepticism, while a few demonstrate a clear aversion to it! The latter, I have found is often due to a misunderstanding about what consensus is (not everything named ‘consensus’ is ‘consensus’!) coupled with an aversion to trying it out with the necessary commitment. 

A workshop I delivered a few days ago on consensus-decision-making at a monthly meeting of the Soteria network Brighton group – a group that I am a part of –  was attended by a range of people that held a variety of opinions about the extent to which consensus can work. Comments at the start revealed this, for instance, something like, “I expect it takes a painfully long time”, to “dictatorship is best” to ” I think it can have something positive to offer”. 
My challenge on this occasion was in a number of ways an uphill one. It seemed that nobody in the group of about fifteen had been through a formal consensus process before – and although I had managed to secure an-hour-and-a-half for the workshop, a realistic time-frame in which to take a group through consensus, is at least half a day. 
My co-facilitator for the first part of the workshop, which consisted of an ultra-fast outline of what consensus is, was fellow Soteria member, Yasmin, who I had taken through a more detailed exploration a week earlier. For the latter four-fifths, I was on my own.
After consensus was introduced by the two of us, I facilitated the group through an experience of the consensus process, with the aim of answering a purposeful question – an exercise in its own right – which the group was to make a decision on. The process went smoothly at times and was a struggle at other times – as would be expected particularly given that it was a first for the group – but the result was in some ways better than expected given the challenges.  
The group came close to reaching consensus – we nailed it down to several statements which would have needed time to prioritise and make minor amendments to. Consensus would have been the next natural step. The result from this angle, was a positive one (although at the time I was a little disappointed we didn’t quite get there). 
Although, almost all of the group had also given the process a good shot and no doubt gained something from it, whether they use consensus decision making or not will be a choice the group will soon make for itself. Either way, elements of the exercise point to underlying principles and attitudes that can be used to help equalise power and draw out deeper wisdom in a group, even if the formal process is not taken up.
For myself, with time to reflect, I have pinpointed potential ways of improving the workshop. Allowing more spaciousness and time to explore the issues along with a couple more breaks; A co-facilitator (for a group this size, it’s a task to capture all ideas onto a flip chart and being present at the same time); Some small group work; And perhaps inviting those who felt they could commit to the process to attempt the exercise, with others quietly observing, on this first occasion, as a way of gently breaking the ice. 
Consensus does take time. It requires of us patience (sabr) and a commitment to the process. “As along as it takes” was a refreshing comment I heard in a subgroup at Occupy LSX. My own experience is that, when combined with a quality of spaciousness and trust, even though consensus is not for all decisions, it is nonetheless a process that can empower a group beyond any other decision making process I have come across. Indeed, the experience can, I believe, be a spiritual one, as we move out of “I”-ness into something more whole.
In the Islamic tradition, decision making through mutual consultation is given its due importance:
“Far better and more lasting is what God will give to those who believe and trust in their Lord; who shun great sins and gross indecencies…..; conduct their affairs by mutual consultation…” (Qur’ an: 42:19)
Within many communities, including Muslim ones, there is effort to be made in developing our capacities to engage more fully, more compassionately, in deciding on things that affect us, together – letting go of the “I”, and building real communities. I too have a need to nurture this capacity within myself. I am also aware and grateful, that in our present day context, there are movements and people I can learn from. Indeed we have one another, and within a reality of a Higher Presence. In our present day context thus, whilst we might sense dis-ease, we may through contemplative engagement also discover the remedy. 
© Muzammal Hussain
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  1. muzammal hussain

    Thanks Thom. And I agree. What I have seen and understand of the Quakers is impressive. They are very good embodiments of patience and commitment to process. I did not mention it in this particular post, but it is worth sharing that I found it refreshing when told by a Quaker friend that they consider decision making to be like worship. A really nice way to view it. It gives it value in itself.

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