Do objections have to be “valid”?
Discussions around consent decision-making often revolve around the question What is an objection?
Some people hope that governance can become like a machine — you plug in the objection, calculate its validity and you’re done!
And that makes sense. We do need a way to rein in the nay-sayers so decisions can be made and we don’t waste time following personal agendas that don’t add value to our decisions.
In the hope to reach a perfect decision-making system, some people hold on to a narrow definition of consent/objections that I’ve seen do more harm than good.
In this brief article, I’ll show the pros and cons of the definition of consent and objections, and I’ll argue that the definition matters much less than one would think if we have appropriate skills.
What makes an objection valid?
The basic definition of consent is straight-forward and useful:
- Every circle (aka team) has a shared aim, a description of what they are trying to accomplish.
- If someone makes a proposal, that proposal can’t contradict the shared aim.
- If there is a contradiction, any team member can object and stop the decision.
- Resolving a reasoned objection will improve the proposal and make better decisions.
The strength of this definition is that only real harm will stop a decision. The team member who didn’t “feel” like saying yes won’t stop the group. A decision-making system where people can say yes or no without giving reasons and bring a whole project to a halt is unsustainable.
We have to establish rules so we can make timely decisions. Since teams come together in support of a shared aim, using that aim as the guidepost for making decisions makes perfect sense.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this definition. But it’s frequently used in the wrong way.
Why this definition is too narrow
Sometimes things aren’t so cut-and-dry.
- Let’s imagine a circle with the aim of producing sneakers. Someone proposes a new way to manufacture sneakers. That new process doesn’t harm (but even furthers) our capacity to make sneakers. But it has the downside of poisoning the rivers forever. If we only allow objections in relation to the aim, then we can’t object to the poisoned river because there is no negative impact on our capacity to fulfill our aim. Do you want to have a governance system that forces you to say yes to harmful decisions just because you have no formally ‘valid’ reason to say no? I don’t. That means the definition of objections is too narrow.
- And it gets even more complicated. Let’s say we’re trying to approve a proposal that would not bring any disadvantages for our aim but for whatever reason really rubs one of our coworkers the wrong way. Let’s say we stand our ground and tell that co-worker that they can’t object. What’s the long-term effect of that on our group dynamics? If our internal trust deteriorates, how does that serve our shared aim?
Sometimes, it’s more like we win the battle but lose the war. Not worth it.
- Ultimately, any definition of what makes an objection valid will re-introduce power struggles. Who decides validity? If the facilitator fails to see the value of an objection, it might be dismissed and an opportunity lost. Then who decides what’s ‘valid’? Once the question of validity is under debate, the team as a whole has already lost. After all, I’ve rarely ever seen people respond to “your objection isn’t valid” with “Oh yeah, you’re right, ok, I’ll withdraw it.” A more common reaction is arguing, defensiveness, disconnect, disenfranchisement. On both sides, prioritizing being right is not wise.
No definition on the planet will provide a foolproof categorization of “valid” vs. “invalid.” The answer is not in the definition. The answer is in our quality of process.
Skills, skills, skills
We can’t control all the factors playing into a decision moment. But we can provide our teams with the necessary skills:
- Objection skills. Every circle member needs to understand what an objection is and how it’s different from just trying to get your own way.
- Facilitator skills. The facilitator will be able to ask for clarification about the objection. I often ask, “sorry, can you help me see how your objection relates to the circle’s aim?” Most of the time, when we probe respectfully, objectors will retract their objection or explain themselves. In addition, at least facilitators need to know how to integrate objections swiftly, so decision-making is considerate and fast.
- Team skills. The best facilitators can’t be effective if the rest of the team openly rolls their eyes. But if enough people on the team manage to listen constructively and with curiosity, they help create an environment where people know that they matter.
I’ve even seen countless objections resolved just by some good listening. In those cases, we score a triple-win:
- We understand the objector’s viewpoint and learn something new.
- We get an opportunity to show that we actually mean it when we say that we care about each other’s viewpoints.
- We don’t even have to change the proposal because having been heard well already did the trick.
As a facilitator, I’ve integrated objections that I could relate to and others that I couldn’t relate to — even some objections that I found a little awkward!
And yet, it doesn’t matter that much. It takes a few minutes, and we’re back to doing work and solving new problems. With appropriate skills, integrating an integration is much faster and less painful than debating what’s valid and what isn’t. The answer to better decision-making is not in finding the perfect definition of what an objection is but in acquiring solid meeting skills.
Objections are almost always easy to solve once we understand them. What’s hard is the poking around in the dark to integrate an objection we don’t understand, and even hard to restore trust and harmony after getting lost in right and wrong judgments.
Ask, listen, integrate, move on. Save the power battles for when there’s no other way.
Ted Rau is an advocate, trainer and consultant for self-governance with sociocracy. He is co-founder of Sociocracy For All, a nonprofit with a mission to equip people with the skills and knowledge to self-govern and self-organize.
Ted has published many articles and two books on self-governance, Many Voices One Song. Sharing power with sociocracy (2018) and Who Decides Who Decides? How to start a group so everyone can have a voice (2021).
Download the free ebook on sociocracy on SoFA’s resource page.
Contact Ted: firstname.lastname@example.org