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West Cork Sudbury School: Our Processes - Part 2

Decision Making

by John Baker


With two important referenda coming up this week in Ireland to decide on changes to the constitution it is a good time to think about how we make decisions in our country, our communities, our work, our families and our schools. In my last blog post, I wrote about the democratic principles and practices of WCSS and the challenges and value they bring to our school. Today, I go into more detail as to how these work and why we think they are of such value to our students and the wider community.

Here are two definitions that are useful to know when considering group decision-making:

  • Consent decision-making aims for the absence of objections.

  • Consensus decision-making reflects mutual understanding, agreement to support a decision and commitment to take actionful steps for the benefit of the group.

We fall somewhere in the middle by using a process outlined below known as Systemic Consensing (SC)

Systemic Consensing

Interestingly, and encouragingly, when googling links for this article, I discovered that an earlier blog by one of our founders on the topic came up 12th on the first page along with several more hits further down.

These links give some of the history and techniques behind this process:

Systemic Consensing (SC) is a process that allows any party impacted by a decision to express their views, expertise and feelings on the matter and come up with a proposal to address it. It aims to reach a decision that everyone can live with. This maintains the forward momentum of the group and avoids both the creation of a disgruntled minority who may well undermine a decision they are unhappy with and, at the other extreme, getting bogged down in endless discussion trying to reach the holy grail of something everyone loves.

Does that sound familiar to anyone? Maintaining forward momentum in the right direction is an achievable goal - making everyone ecstatically happy with every decision is (usually) not.

As someone who has spent many thousands of hours in meetings, SC is the most effective method of decision-making I have come across so far.

“Resistance is fertile!”

SC is interesting because it turns conventional methods of voting on their head. It accounts for and values people's resistance to a proposal rather than their liking of it. Rather than being an obstacle to progress, resistance is used as a resource to point the way to choices that can work for everyone.

Ethically, allowing people to express resistance is seen as fundamental to their human dignity. Making a collective decision that a person opposes, when an option exists which no one opposes, is seen as an unnecessary dismissal of personal will that can't be justified by a majority preference. from Wikipedia on Systemic Consensing

There are psychological reasons as to why this works that are touched on in this YouTube Video:

We now offer in-person and online training in Systemic Consensing to groups. Please reach out to if you are interested or have questions!

We have found that usually students and staff come out of such a process feeling that their expertise, feelings and views have been taken into account by the whole group and that decisions made have significantly more buy-in, or at least less obstruction than decisions made by other means.

Have a think back over the referenda, elections and various decisions that have been made by governance bodies over your lifetime that have affected you. Do you feel that you have been listened to? Do the processes make you feel as if you matter? How easy do you find it to make your views known or influence decision-making? Do you feel bound by decisions you had no part in making?

The parliamentary democracy that Ireland and other Western states use does not welcome resistance to its decisions. We regularly see states using coercion and violence against their own citizens to force decisions through rather than take this resistance into account. This has a huge cost, both economically and socially. We can see in many countries at this time a breakdown in trust between governments and the governed. Some of the possible consequences of this are, frankly terrifying but crises also bring opportunities and there is usually some kind of breakdown before something new emerges.

Here is a short video from a small community in Austria on a citizen participation project and SC - make sure to turn on English subtitles!

After three years in operation backed up by the decades of combined experience of our staffing body, we like to think that we are practising, on a tiny scale, a diverse set of solutions - and that we are giving our students the tools to go out into the world and be part of this.

We now offer in-person and online training in Systemic Consensing to groups. If you haven't watched the video above, here is a basic explanation of SC: YouTube

If this interests you or you would like more information please contact us at  

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