Coordinated Decision Making

Coordinated Decision Making:
The Alexander Technique and the Art of Group Direction

By Catherine Kettrick, Ph.D. and Diana Bradley, M.Ed.

“If war is the violent resolution of conflict, then peace is not the absence of conflict, but rather, the ability to resolve conflict without violence.” C.T. Lawrence Butler [1]


The idea for this workshop came from our ten years of experience using a dynamic consensus based decision making system in the business meetings of Alexander Technique International (ATI). ATI originally used Robert’s Rules of Order to make decisions. Robert’s Rules is a voting-based decision making system, popular in the United States. In fact, ATI never used the full Robert’s Rules system: we simply talked about motions and then voted. This unstructured way of deciding can work well when decisions are simple and uncontroversial. However, as ATI found out, when the group is deeply divided on an issue, voting splits the group into separate sides, and one side—the one with the most votes—wins, leaving the minority silenced.

ATI faced a crisis: how could we make decisions in a way that is both inclusive and works with Alexander Technique principles? Indeed, one part of our Vision-Mission statement asks us to do precisely that: “To embody the principles of the F.M. Alexander Technique in ATI’s structure and means of operation.” We all know, as Alexander Technique teachers, that the quality of the means we use determines the quality of end we get. What qualities do we want our end—our decisions—to have? And what means of making decisions in a group has the qualities of those ends?

Qualities of Decision Making: A Contrast

Different ways of making decisions have different structures, and those structures reflect the values that are embodied in them. Consensus and voting are both democratic means of making decisions, but the values underlying them are very different.

A fundamental value of consensus is cooperation: people working together to make a decision that is best for the entire group. Closely tied to cooperation is the value of inclusiveness: that everyone is consulted and is able to voice their concerns and opinions, and that the proposal does not move forward until everyone has given their consent. To be inclusive, a decision making system must also be egalitarian: everyone must have equal access to the agenda (so anyone can bring a proposal to the group); to the floor (so all have the opportunity to speak); to information (so everyone knows what is happening); and to participation (so everyone can join committees, facilitate meetings, and be a full member of the group). In addition, consensus values being open to trusting and respecting all group members—that although one may strongly disagree with another group member, we assume that everyone is acting from good will and in the best interests of the group as they see them. Lastly, patience is very important: difficult decisions take more time than easy decisions, in any decision making system. Patience is particularly important for consensus-based systems because we want to take the time to hear and include all members of the group.

In contrast, voting systems value competition over cooperation. When you ask a group to make a “yes/no” decision on a motion, you have already divided the group into two sides, those opposed and those in support of the motion, with others perhaps as yet undecided. The two sides of the group then compete to persuade each other, and to convince any undecided members, to vote their way. While discussion and debate about a motion does not have to be competitive, the structure of the system—yes/no voting—encourages competition. In this way, voting systems are also exclusive—the minority that votes “no” on a motion is excluded and their concerns are lost when a decision has been made.

In organizations that use voting it is usually the chair or the board that makes the agenda, and usually the chair who runs the meeting. Under the board are committees, and the chair of each committee also usually sets the agenda and runs committee meetings. In this way, general members, who are not on a committee or the board, have little or no access to power. During the meeting they may or may not have access to the floor to speak. In a voting system, it is often difficult to be open to trusting or respecting the people in power—unless you happen to agree with them. Finally, patience can be in short supply in any decision making system, but with voting the structure itself does not make patience easy: as soon as one side has enough votes, there is no systematic reason for them to continue debate. In fact, it is to their advantage to close discussion as quickly as possible, so that people don’t have a chance to change their mind and vote the other way.

Consensus: A Different Definition

If you look in a dictionary, one definition of consensus is “unanimous agreement.” Unfortunately, this definition is one that is most commonly used. Hearing that some group has “reached consensus” we interpret that to mean that the group has “reached agreement.” But clearly unanimous agreement in a group of creative, intelligent people on any difficult issue is virtually impossible—in fact, many people criticize consensus as a way to make decisions because it “takes too long.” But of course if you expect consensus to result in unanimous agreement, you will be discussing important issues for a very long time.

Consensus is not about agreement. Consensus is the group working as a whole to make the best decision for the group, even if some members disagree with that decision. Consider this example: you are a parent whose child comes running home, very excited, and tells you about something he wants to do: go camping with his neighbors. As a parent you think “This is a very bad idea. He hates cold and bugs, he will be miserable going camping.” But you also think: “He won’t be hurt, and he will probably learn something from making this decision.” So you let him do what he wants: you do not agree with his choice, but you consent to it. You allow it to happen.

On Conflict

Conflict is an issue for any group, and how we handle conflict (and how a decision making system handles conflict) is very important. In general, people respond to conflict in one of three ways:

· we avoid it;
· we try to dominate, which we can do if our part of the group has power and uses it to get our way; or
· we try to resolve the conflict through discussion and debate.

So the question is: how can we make a decision when there is conflict, so that we don’t avoid conflict, and no one person or part of the group can dominate the decision making process? In addition, what decision making system best embodies principles of the Alexander Technique in its structure?

Formal Consensus

Formal Consensus, developed by C.T. Butler, [2] is a consensus-based decision making system that welcomes and encourages conflict. It has a specific structure that leads a group through a clear process for reaching a decision (see fig. 1). Its structure supports the consensus based values of cooperation, inclusiveness, equal access, trust, respect and patience, and also encourages inhibition, analyzing the conditions of use present, reasoning out the best means whereby to gain our end, and provides a way of putting those means into effect. It has rules (see appendix) and certain roles (see appendix) that aid its smooth functioning.

The Formal Consensus Flow Chart—the Basic Structure

The structure of Formal Consensus is divided into four parts:

· Presentation of a proposal with clarifying questions
· Level 1 Discussion—a broad philosophical discussion intended to relate the proposal to the group’s vision, mission, tradition, precedents and values
· Level 2 Discussion—an opportunity to gather all concerns about the proposal
· Level 3 Discussion—when the group works to resolve all concerns.

Presentation of a Proposal

A member of the group, perhaps from a committee, presents a proposal. After the group hears the proposal, they ask any questions they may have. Ideally a proposal will include as much detail as possible, because more detail makes it easier for the group to both understand the proposal and discuss it. Also, the group will have fewer questions if the proposal has more detail. As a group member, what is important when hearing a proposal is that you understand what the proposal says—in other words, what the proposal is asking the group to do. You do not have to like it or agree with it, but you do have to understand it. Also, with Formal Consensus, once the proposal has been presented, it no longer “belongs” to the person presenting it; it now belongs to the group. Thus unlike voting systems, we do not work to change the person (persuade them to vote our way); instead we work to change the proposal, to make it the best for our group.

Level 1 Discussion

A Level 1 Discussion is a broad, philosophical discussion about how the proposal fits with the group’s values, vision, mission, traditions, precedents and founding documents (e.g. bylaws). In Alexander Technique terms we are “analyzing the conditions of use present.” We are looking at the proposal and asking “If we do what the proposal is suggesting, how does that fit with who we are?” What are our current conditions of use, both personally and as a group?

A Level 1 Discussion is seldom done in typical meetings, but it is vital to a thorough understanding of the proposal, and to resolving conflicts later during the process. In doing a Level 1 Discussion, people will usually start with “surface” comments about the proposal and the group’s vision or mission. Suppose the proposal is to provide interpreters for plenary sessions for the Congress—the actual proposal we used to role play a meeting later in our workshop (see appendix for complete text). A typical comment might be “The proposal fits because we are an international organization, and it is important to include all members as much as possible.” But it is important to go beyond that surface statement and find out what values underlie it. In our experience, the most heated conflicts happen because two or more people have differing opinions about something, and those opinions are based on their core values. In this example, two values this person might have are those of inclusiveness: it is important to include all AT teachers in our Congresses, and that means making information available to them in their language, so they can fully participate; and fairness: it isn’t fair that everything is in English. People who know English well get more out of the Congress than people who don’t, even though we all pay the same Congress fee.

Level 2 Discussion

During a Level 2 Discussion, we are continuing to “analyze the conditions of use present,” only this time we are looking for specific concerns. People might mention concerns about cost (for the group or individuals); personnel (not enough people to do it); date of the event (no one will come on a weekend). In our role play about providing interpreters people mentioned cost, and also mentioned, for example, concerns about ensuring the quality of the interpreting, that only four languages were included, and that people who had to use interpreters might feel “different” and less part of the group.

During both the Level 1 and Level 2 discussions, inhibition is crucial. It is fairly easy for most people to inhibit making comments during a Level 1 Discussion; the comments are broad and more philosophical in nature and it is easy to miss how they might relate to the group’s final decision. However, during Level 2, because the concerns are specific, people often think of solutions, especially when the solution seems easy (“We can establish a fund to help pay for the costs.”). There is a strong desire to offer the solution now, because it seems simpler to just take care of the concern at the time it is raised, than to wait and resolve it later.

Jumping in and offering a solution, however, derails the process in three important ways. First, it starts the discussion down another road, toward ends and solutions, rather than just listing concerns. Resolutions to one concern can lead to concerns about the resolution, that can lead to an attempt to resolve those concerns and before we know it we have lost all meeting structure (our means) and gone directly to our end. Secondly, we want to hear all concerns. If we start talking about solutions now, we will probably miss some concerns. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, one goal of a consensus-based decision making system is to provide a safe place where all voices can be heard. Just listening to people’s concerns, without commenting on them, allows people to feel more safe, especially people who are new to meetings, or who are shy about speaking in a group.

Level 3 Discussion

During the Level 3 Discussion, we try to resolve all the concerns. Here is the point in the process where we try to “reason out the best means whereby a more satisfactory use can be brought about.”

We first try to resolve groups of related concerns, for example concerns about money, time or personnel. Then we look at any concerns that may be left, that didn’t fit into the groupings we made. The Level 3 Discussion is when we can be most creative, brainstorming ideas and changing them on the spot to resolve our concerns. During a Level 3 Discussion we may need to re-state concerns; we may need to ask questions to be sure we understand the concern; and we may have to go back to a Level 1 Discussion, especially if the concerns seem strongly rooted in a person’s values.

Closing Options

There are three possible closing options with Formal Consensus.

1. Sending to Committee

It may become clear in our discussion that the proposal needs more work. We have raised too many questions we can’t answer, or the concerns are so complex that we don’t have time to resolve them all at this meeting. In this case, we can send the proposal back to committee for more work, to get answers to our questions, and bring back a revised proposal that tries to resolve some of the concerns people have raised. In our role play about providing interpreters, we ran out of time, but we also realized that we needed more information: How many languages are used by Congress attendees? What proportion of attendees use what languages? Would people even like to have an interpreter? How can we guarantee the quality of the interpretation?

2. Standing Aside

Standing Aside is one of the most powerful statements a person can make about a proposal. When you stand aside you give your consent, meaning you allow the proposal to go forward, but you are able to state in public that you do not fully agree with the proposal and you still have concerns. In Formal Consensus, concerns are not lost, but are kept with the text of the proposal, and may always be brought up again for discussion at a later meeting. In the minutes of the meeting the proposal will read: “The proposal to…….was consented to with the following unresolved concerns…….”.

3. Declaring a Block

Unlike other forms of consensus, in Formal Consensus one person cannot block a proposal by refusing to stand aside. If at the end of a Level 3 Discussion, when we have explored all ways to resolve a concern, have answered all questions about the concern, and made sure (Level 1) we understand the values underlying a concern, and the person with the concern still cannot stand aside, then the group decides if the proposal is blocked. To block a proposal, a concern must be based on the group’s values, vision, mission, traditions, precedents or founding documents, not a personal preference or personal value held by one person—which is why, to use Formal Consensus, a group must have a vision and mission statement, and more importantly, each group member must understand and share the values underlying those statements. In our experience, blocking is rare; people typically stand aside, because it allows them to continue discussing their concerns at a later meeting. However, it can happen that through discussion the group realizes that the proposal is in fact not in line with who the group is; the group (through the facilitator) will then declare the proposal blocked. It is also possible that one group may in fact be two groups. If there are people who feel strongly that the group should not consent to the proposal, a close examination of their values may reveal that they have values that are not shared by the larger group. In other words, the larger group, with its set of values is not their group. While this may seem unfortunate, in reality it is good to find out that a group you thought shared your values in fact does not, and that joining or forming a different group that does share your values is the better choice.

Calling for Consensus

The facilitator can call for consensus at any of the three levels; in practice the group often can’t come to consensus until Level 3. When calling for consensus, the facilitator always asks in the negative: “Are there any unresolved concerns that need to be resolved before we reach consensus?” It is vital that this form be used: “Are there any unresolved concerns?” rather than the more common “Do we have consensus?” If the facilitator asks “Do we have consensus?” she is really asking for agreement: a yes or no answer. Essentially it is asking for a vote. And, more importantly, for the person who may have an unresolved concern, there is a tacit pressure to be silent. If instead the facilitator asks “Are there any unresolved concerns?”—and also leaves enough time for people to fully consider if they still have unresolved concerns—it is much easier for someone to speak up.

Meeting Evaluation

Every meeting that uses Formal Consensus must have an evaluation. The evaluation is the time when people can talk about what worked well for them during the meeting, and what did not work well. For example, a person might comment that she felt more comfortable speaking during the meeting because the group divided into small groups during a Level 2 discussion, and she felt safer speaking in a smaller group. Or a person might comment that using power point helped a lot during the Level 3 discussion, because he could easily see the changes that the group made in the proposal up on the screen. Or perhaps a person might say that she needed longer breaks because she used that time to talk to people about the proposal.

All of these comments need to go to the group’s Agenda Planning Committee so they can use them to improve the process of the meeting. In Alexander Technique terms it is an opportunity to observe the results of using our means whereby, and use those results to guide us in our next experiment.


Formal Consensus, like the Alexander Technique, is a simple process. It is an indirect procedure that asks us to inhibit the habitual responses we make at meetings and explore a new way to make decisions. It asks that we pay attention to the quality of the means we use as we discuss a proposal, and look at how we make decisions, regardless of the final decision we make. Like the Alexander Technique it asks us to make a disciplined examination of the principles we use to act.

[1] Butler, C.T., and Amy Rothstein. (1987, 207). On Conflict and Consensus, a handbook on Formal Consensus Decisionmaking. Food Not Bombs: Takoma Park, MD

[2] C.T. Butler developed Formal Consensus in the 1970s. He was a member of Pledge of Resistance, a group with 3500 signers and 150 affinity groups. Monthly meetings involved at least 70 people; often they involved over 100. However, although the Pledge used consensus-based decision-making, their means for making decisions was neither written nor formally defined. Newcomers to the group had no handbook or other written material to help them. Formal Consensus, as described in the book On Conflict and Consensus, emerged from the need for a formally defined system, as well as C.T.’s research into consensus-based decision-making and the process used by the Pledge. We thank C.T. Butler for his teaching and support of our work.

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