The Consent Principle
We receive a lot of questions about consent-based decision-making, and sometimes hear confusion from people when they practice it. A very basic misunderstanding is that consent is a particular kind of process that looks like everyone sitting in a circle making group decisions. And, a lot of people are not in consent with every decision being a group decision!
So, they ask us, “Does every decision have to be a consent decision?”
We say not every decision has to be a group decision.
But as far as consent, well, we ask,
When do you want to use your power to force people to do something against their will? How effective (or ethical) is it for someone more powerful than you to act in a way that ignores your concerns?
After more than a decade of practicing consent, we offer our learning here.
Consent is a Principle, Not a Process
Consent is a principle, not a process. Like informed consent when practiced in the physician-patient relationship; it’s grounded in respect for autonomy, transparency, and the right to self-determination.
A legal definition of consent is: When a person voluntarily and willfully agrees to undertake an action that another person suggests.
This is the spirit of true collaboration. It’s why practicing consent as a principle for decision-making can be such a game-changer for organizations and networks seeking justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Our Consent Protocol is designed with the wisdom of legions of community organizers, who take time up front to build relationships and trust.
This protocol can be used in different ways at different times. Some decisions are far-reaching and can benefit from a range of processes for engagement. Other times, decisions have much lower impact, and the steps can be more informal.
Creating the Conditions for Consent-Based Governance
The traumatic effects of the dominant culture in schools, workplaces, policy arenas, and other decision-making spaces, is that many of us are conditioned to not expect consent.
The Consent Principle in practice starts with an assumption: that the most wise and effective action addresses what is meaningful to the people most impacted. The movement for people with disabilities said it simply: “Nothing about us without us.”
And, no one person or entity has the full picture. Everyone has gaps in awareness or understanding. So, living in consent is a practice in humility, communication, and listening – among those who are responsible for decisions and carrying them out; those with the power to impact them; and those who are affected by the results.
However, consent does not necessarily require “getting everyone around a table,” which is often impractical. It does require people responsible for decisions to take time to identify, and be transparent about, who is included in the process and how.
To overcome gaps in understanding, and develop systems leadership, we need to become more aware of all the different viewpoints in a system. Sometimes that might take the form of an advice process, as described by LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations. When community members-at-large are impacted, there may be a range of engagement tools and processes.
Just hearing each other is not enough, though.
In order to take action together, we need buy-in and support from all those who are responsible for carrying out decisions, as well as those who are impacted by decisions. People who were not bought into the decision can withhold their support and actively (or passively) resist it. Problems that were ignored in the beginning can be costly to fix later. Future opportunities can be lost when trust or relationships are sacrificed.
Practicing consent requires flexibility and adaptation. It takes an ability to hold multiple and contradictory viewpoints, and to be open to more than one way of addressing a problem. Consent is found in actions that are good enough to try, safe enough to fail.
Efficiencies develop over time as people learn what works; clarify BART (Boundaries, Authority, Roles, and Tasks); openly address conflicts; and build trust. When people trust their important concerns will be addressed as best as possible, they tend to delegate more authority and autonomy to individuals day-to-day.
Research has found that trust reduces the amount of communication time and effort. As Stephen Covey famously said, work moves “at the speed of trust.” The practice of finding consent for action builds trust, and trust eases the practices of finding consent.
The Consent Principle means that a decision is made when no one impacted by the decision has any significant objections to it.
By objection, we mean no one can identify a risk that the group cannot afford to take.
Those risks typically involve conflicts with the stated purpose or strategies. Or there is a condition that would make it very difficult for a member to perform their role. Under those conditions, the group or person would be out of their range of tolerance.
An objection is valued in consent-based culture, because it reveals blind spots that might lead to unintended consequences. The shared intent is to listen to understand the risk a participant is sensing, so as to adapt and find solutions that address the objection, to get the benefit of our diversity, and to bring the group back within its range of tolerance — all while sustaining forward momentum.
An objection is supported by reasons that can be understood by other members. The intent is to understand those reasons and to find solutions that address the objection and bring the group back within its range of tolerance.
Eco-system of Consent
You can think of the range of tolerance like a trout in a mountain stream.
A trout can live and thrive with some variation in conditions. But, if the water gets too warm or too cold, for example, the trout will not survive or reproduce. We say, “The trout cannot tolerate the conditions in the stream.”
At the same time, the trees that shade the stream and keep the temperature acceptable for the trout, also have a range of tolerance in which they thrive and reproduce; as do the host of insects, other fish, crustaceans, leeches, and worms that the trout feeds on; as well as the water plants that give it shelter.
To have something as glorious as a mountain stream full of trout requires that conditions meet the range of tolerance of all the interdependent parts of the system.
Our organizations and networks are systems. To thrive, we need conditions that meet the range of tolerance of all parts of the system. We also need governance and decision-making that integrates diversity and operationalizes equity. If we want the kind of elegant coordination we see in natural ecosystems, we can use use the framework of the Range of Tolerance as a tool. Applying the Consent Principle we can inquire together, and identify the ways forward, that are within the range of tolerance of all the parts of our systems.