I’ve told a number of stories through Shedders and in the course of this blog about how we regulate ourselves and how decisions get made here in Shedder-land. We carved out our own path, through much discussion. So you can imagine how startled I was to stumble upon a system of self-governance that seems to have pipped us at the post by almost two hundred years.
Sociocracy, it’s called. I learned about it from Meg, a Sydney friend who is intent on establishing a co-housing community and is exceptionally well-read on anything to do with communal living. My first reaction to the word was the same scepticism I bring to any reference to “ocracies” – autocracy, democracy, meritocracy, plutocracy, not to mention rogue-ocracies like monarchies and dictatorships. But by the time I had finished reading Meg’s material about sociocracy (plus exhaustive Wikipedia coverage), I was rapt.
Although the term sociocracy has a long and respectable history, I can’t remember having encountered it (or its pioneers, including Auguste Compte in 1851, Lester Frank Ward in 1881, Kees Boeke in mid-1900s). However, its core principles are air-I-breathe familiar. I have applied them to family life and to my teams in business. And here in the Shedders community we operate by them.
For the purpose of a small group like ours, I could sum up the action as follows:
- Much discussion about issues
- Arrival at consensus.
Many years ago, as the Shedders began looking at properties, we had a long conversation about how decisions would be made. Well, we said, important decisions, like what property we buy and what kind of a house we design for ourselves, must be agreed to by everyone. Anyone could have the power of veto.
We contemplated “majority rules”. Would there ever be a situation where we would just take a vote and slam down the gavel?
Rick trained us in “straw polls”, which means that at any point during a discussion, you can take a quick vote to give an indication of whether people are anywhere near consensus. A straw poll vote can make someone’s point of view visible, or open up a new avenue of discussion.
But, we agreed, voting doesn’t work for arriving at a decision. You and I have often experienced being out-voted on something. Myself, I don’t like it, and sometimes find it hard to be generous afterward. I might find myself colluding with someone else who was voted down; the words “I told you so” are close at hand. There’s a completely different atmosphere when a group has stayed with an issue long enough to arrive at consensus.
I’m not especially patient. Once I’ve figured something out, I want it to happen right now. It’s not easy to sit on my hands while talk-talk-talk goes on and people get their heads around the issues and likely consequences. It’s also not easy to allow myself to absorb somebody else’s ideas and see that it might be smart to abandon a position I’ve held strongly.
But I know from a thousand occasions that talk-talk-talk works. Something magical happens when we take time to really see an issue through. It’s been the core of our Shedder successes (and the core of our failures when we neglect it).
There was a time when some of us wanted hundreds of acres for our communal property and others wanted a no-hassle little plot; when some of us wanted to be deep in the hills and others on the ocean; when some of us wanted custom-built and others to adapt something that already existed. Big differences. But after hours and hours and hours of discussion, of being willing to listen, of being willing to talk when we felt our idea wasn’t going to be popular, we somehow arrived at this particular house in this particular location with this particular ambiance.
All the other ideas, positions, notions went away somewhere – they just dissolved as we flowed toward decisions that worked for this thing that was larger than the sum of us. Over and over I was awed to find us in agreement about something that had seemed impossible at one time. As the other’s values, reasons and longings became transparent to me, I could let go of my own small point of view.
Sociocracy makes this key point: there might be a decision that you like, that feels right for you, but you have to be able to step back and look at what is right for the group. The group is something else, something more than you. That takes a lot of letting go.
After all the talk comes consent.
Here’s an example of what I mean: If you’ve been reading Shedders, you’ll know that I’ve had a long struggle coming to terms with removing the hoard of pines that live on our four acres here. Hundreds of them had to come down to create a safety zone for the house, and hundreds of others to provide us with view. The problem is that I like pines; any self-respecting Canadian would like pines. But here in my adopted country, they are an invasive species. They spread like wildfire and they can de-Australianise a landscape over the course of a couple of decades. So we kept removing them.
Nonetheless, some 30 or so at the bottom of our hill survived the purges.
Until the recent one.
I was uneasy about losing these remaining pines, in particular four or five old-timers, each with a 10 metre span of sweeping branches. But because I could see it was important to the others that this lower area be restored to its natural Australian bush state, I agreed the pines could go. I consented.
On the day the last massive tree fell, my true colours emerged.
I looked down the hill in profound shock. My oasis of green and shade and healthy growth and forest floor was GONE – never to return. I was devastated. When I went down the hill I would burst into tears; I couldn’t sit even on the side of the table where I might accidently glance in that direction.
It took me a couple of weeks of suffering before I started sharing about it with my housemates, acknowledging my deep-seated emotions and ‘fessing up to bad thoughts I’d had.
Sociocracy focuses on transparency and trust. Had I been transparent and trusting a few weeks earlier, I could have saved myself considerable misery. As sociocracy advises, I am looking to give my full consent, wholeheartedly and after luxuriant consideration – to understand what is good for our community beyond what feels good for myself. To say “I do” and mean it.
The three philosophers I mentioned earlier, who propelled the notion of sociocracy into existence, had big dreams for it: the emergence of “a new spirit breaking through” among humankind. “May it be,” Kees Boekes said, “that after the many centuries of fear, suspicion and hate, more and more a spirit of reconciliation and mutual trust will spread abroad…practice and education will provide the real solution to all world problems.”
Well, that might be a while coming. But meantime, we’ll continue giving it an informal workout at Mitchells Island.