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How to deal with objections

Dealing with objections is one of the core pieces of sociocracy. If you know how to deal with objections in a constructive and skillful way, you will turn every concern into something better for your organization. This can be on the interpersonal level, on the level of the organization’s culture, or on the content level of your operations. You will also be more curious to hear your coworkers’ objections, which will increase their input, their sense of ownership and ultimately increase productivity and happiness.

We have seen that objections are what people are not able or willing to work with. That means that in objecting, they are giving the circle an important message: I cannot work with this. (Take note of what they are saying yes to: they wan tto work and be productive.) Given that we want every circle member to do their work without making it harder for them to carry out the circle’s aim, it is crucial to hear their concern. In an autocratic mindset, objections (and objectors) might be sand in the clockwork of the organization. In a sociocratic organization, objections are appreciated and welcomed because every circle member has an intrinsic interest in doing their work, and the circle has a vivid interest in supporting them to do their work. A circle member saying “if we do what this proposal says, I won’t be able to do my work” — which is what an objection is — is very valuable information which will bring your organization forward instead of slowing circle members down. 

If your organization has a culture in which objections are welcome and respected as valuable information, not as blockage, you will win in many ways:

  • The organization deals with objections and makes changes so that the proposal is safe and there is no interference with the circle’s aim
  • The organization’s culture invites other people’s objections, leading to more members speaking up when there is room for improvement.
  • The contributions of members (both in form of work, and in form of feedback) are welcomed and valued, and members know that. 
  • Commitment, buy-in and sense of belonging with the whole organization increase. 

Dealing with objections can take time. Listening takes time. Given that, it is fair to say that sociocracy has a pragmatic and valuable way of dealing with objections. It will make it doable for an organization to take the time to address objections. Even more than that, sociocracy’s way of addressing objections will increase mutual understanding of people and will let circle members bond more as they get to know each other more and work together as peers and with empathy. 

You can get all the benefits at once: 

  •     hear valuable information (in the form of an objection)
  •     figure out a way to overcome the objection by changing the proposal
  •     help the circle members know and appreciate each other more
  •     reassure every circle member that they as a person and their ideas and concerns are welcome. 


a. Push for consent early

In general, the idea of dealing with objections in sociocracy is “how can we make it safe without stopping the process?” We don’t want to prevent progress. If there is substantial disagreement on a subject, instead of dropping an issue altogether, we want to stay connected and move the topic along by finding out which parts are controversial and which ones are not. 

As a group, it is very easy to spend a lot of time discussing preferences and alternative approach and to lose track of what we set out to do. If we push for consent, we will hear objections early, and we will focus on finding a solution that addresses the objection. We get to the meat of things right away, without circling on topics that might turn out to be irrelevant. Push for consent and create an organizational culture in which people are comfortable in raising their objections. You will get the benefit of productivity with maximal relevant information on the table. 


b. Options for dealing with objections

So if there is an objection, what do we do? The important thig here is to understand that just having options puts us into a completely different mental space. If we have options, we do not have to get into a place of fear or power-asymmetry. We can stay in a place of trust and choice. Just agreeing on and get training on way of moving forward will be beneficial for the quality of collaboration and connection in any team.


Seek understanding

We always start with curiosity in trying to understand what the concern is. Not every objection will be clearly stated at first by the objector, and it is the group’s responsibility to find out what is underlying the concern without making too many assumptions. We want to get full understanding, and in doing so, we will also find out whether the concern points to a real objection or a personal preference. As shown earlier in this chapter, objections are defined by a concern that carrying out the proposal will interfere with the circle’s aim

When describing their concern, an objector may not be aware whether he or she is having a personal preference or an objection. Asking questions is a good way to find out more. How is your work or our organization going to be affected by the proposal? What do you think might happen?

The following example shows how a group can seek understanding collectively. Remember that another circle member’s need might be a need you all share even if this need (for instance for being safe) does not reach as high of a priority for everyone. However, everyone can get behind the need for safety and accept lack of safety as a valid concern.

The circle members are now ready to move on. There are several options to address the concern. We can revise the content, shorten the term for the proposal and/or measure the concern. Also, one can refer an issue to a different circle (more focused or more broad) and get feedback that informs the decision. We will see an examples for all those options.


Revise content

This is the most obvious way of dealing with an objection. What can we change or add to improve the proposal? Here are examples of changes that could be made for a proposal on membership fees. 

The options for revisions of content are countless and very specific to your content. This article cannot possibly cover all the ways you might be changing your proposals. Since changing a proposal is a very obvious strategy, we will focus on options that organizations might not be aware of. 


Shorten the term

In sociocracy, every policy comes with a term date. The term date does not mean that the policy needs to be changed. It is very easy to just consent to a new term date. The advantage of putting a term date is to remind ourselves of our policy, keep them current, and of the fact that we can change and adjust things if new information comes up. 

If there is an objection to a policy proposal, one option to move forward is to shorten the term. If a circle member objects to a proposal, would he or she be willing to consent to trying it out for 3 months? Oftentimes, this makes it easier for circle members to consent. 

Shortening the term of a proposal naturally comes with the intention to revisit the policy after the term is up. We will then see whether the policy brought the negative changes that one or more circle members were predicting which will enable us to make changes — either back to the original plan or to another option. 

Shortening the term of a policy is what increases the organization’s willingness to experiment and innovate. It works best in combination with the next strategy, measure the concern.


Measure the concern

Every concern might potentially be valid. Oftentimes, in non-sociocratic organizations, a proposal gets dropped if one committee member has concerns. In sociocracy, we widen our view using another option: measure the concern. What does that mean? It means that we go ahead and try something (with everyone’s consent) but we put a measurement in place so that we don’t just hope for the best but actually know what the impact of our policy is. 

For instance, picture a non-profit that is debating reducing costs by sending out the non-profit newsletter only once a month instead of every other week to save money, and someone objects. What is the concern? That the click rate on the website might go down? That donations might decrease? How could we find out? We can ask the objector: if we closely monitor the click rates and donations coming in, how long are you willing to try this for? We might include in our policy that click-rates and donations are tracked, for 3 months, and if they fall under a certain threshold, the policy needs to be reviewed immediately. If there are only minor changes in click-rate and donations, the policy will be looked at after 3 months. We might find out that reducing the costs for producing a newsletter was a good idea financially because people’s generosity does not go up with the additional newsletter – or we might find out that it was not a good idea. Whatever happens, after 3 months we will have more information. Not trying anything would not have given us any new information. Since we are measuring the concern, we are taking risks but we keep the risks as small as possible for our given context. 

In the same way as we are counting clicks and donations, we can also count complaints, count clients, evaluate feedback forms, monitor sales. Everything that cannot be counted can still be surveyed: members, staff members, workshop participants, hosts, customers. 


Preconditions of consent

Consent decision-making can easily be used in any kind of group, in any non-sociocratic organization. However, there are preconditions of consent, and we strongly encourage organizations that plan to only implement parts of sociocracy in their organization to be aware of these preconditions. 

These preconditions were formulated by Gerard Endenburg, the founder of sociocracy . He defined three requirements for a group to be able to use consent: 

  • The group is able and willing to discuss together long enough to resolve objections.
    We cannot decide by consent without being willing to work through objections. In taking short cuts, we will create imbalance in equivalence which will easily lead to frustration in circle members. It is crucial to train every group in making decisions in an efficient way. If they know how to deal with objections (as described in this chapter), the task of “discussing long enough to resolve objections” will be doable and might actually be an enjoyable and connecting experience and will strengthen the team.
  • The group shares a common aim.
    Consent decision-making in an organization that does not have a shared and defined aim will run into issues. We saw that objections are defined by concerns that carrying out a proposal will interfere with the circle’s aim. If we don’t know what our aim is, how will we know what an objection is? If the aim is not defined, we have no ground to stand on, and the disagreement in the aims will be the backdrop for every dissent on the policy level. 
  • The group can choose its membership. 
    If a group has open membership or has no way of removing a member from the circle, consent will be hard to do. (So will any other way of decision-making!) If you don’t know who has consent rights, how do you know when you have reached consent? Defined membership is essential for consent because consent means consent by everyone in the group, not only the people present in the room.
  • Just as importantly, a circle has to be able to choose its members. Sociocracy is about balancing group interests and individual interests. The group has to choose an individual for being a group member, and the individual has to choose being member of a group. When an individual expresses interest in joining a circle, that is a proposal of him/herself joining this circle. To accept this proposal, we do a (typically quick) consent process to embrace the new member in the circle. (This can be a sweet ritual and very affirmative for the incoming member of the circle.)

On the other extreme, there is also the option of removing a member from a circle. This, again, is a proposal that is being made, of removing this circle member from the circle. Why is this so important that Gerard Endenburg named it as a precondition of consent? It is crucial because working together only works if all the circle members are productive in the sense and on the level that the circle requires. If a circle member is not able to work with the others — for whatever reason — a consent decision is too hard on the group. If a circle member keeps a circle from being functional, that is a clear example of “we cannot work with this”, hence an objection to a circle member’s circle membership. Sociocracy, while strengthening individual power, also protects groups, and for consent decision-making to be possible, groups have to be protected.  



What to do when you don’t know what to do

There are many moments when a group is unclear about their own process. The best way to deal with that is to call for a round, especially in a group that is still learning sociocracy. (In an established, experienced group, a circle member or the facilitator might choose to make a proposal on process.)

Calling for a process round is a good idea in a variety of situations:

  • The meeting starts and only half (or less) of the circle members are present
    “I notice only half of our circle members are present. Let us do a round on how that is affecting our agenda, and how we could deal with that.”
  • A key member (key member for a specific agenda item) is not present.
    “I am noticing that NN is not present, and we had planned to talk about this agenda item where she has been very involved. Let’s do a round on what to do with that today.”
  • The process feels muddy. “I am losing track of what we’re doing right now. Can we do a round on process please?”
  • The group is going off on a tangent that was not on the agenda but seems important (or turns out to be time-sensitive). “I am noticing that we’re not discussing our agenda items right now but that we’re on this tangent that seems important to people and needs to be dealt with now. Can we do a round to hear if people are ok about talking more about this now? I just want to make sure we’re intentional about the process.”
  • The meeting is running out of time.  “I am noticing that we’re unlikely to make it through our agenda given the time now. Can we do a very quick round to hear where people’s priorities are, and whether people could stay longer?”
  • The circle is unprepared (did not read a proposal or a supporting document, for whatever reason). “I get the sense that not everyone got a chance to read the document. Let’s do a round on where people are at and what you think can be done in this meeting.”
  • Someone has an objection but does not state it properly (uses blame or judgement, or is just generally unclear). “I am not sure I understand where you are coming from. I would love to do a round on what people heard, and what you think is behind the objection.”
  • You are the facilitator and you don’t know what to do.
    “I find myself a little lost here right now and I am not even sure why. I feel a little anxious here. Can we do a round and people just say where they see us in the process right now and what you would suggest?” 

Most of these situations might also benefit from a process proposal (from facilitator or any circle member). The facilitator will ask for consent on the process proposal by asking for objections.

  • Two circle members get into a heated debate. “Ok, I can see that there are a lot of feelings here. I’d like to propose that we do a minute of silence, then hear both of them and then do a round so everyone can be heard on this.”
  • The meeting is running out of time. “I am noticing that we’re unlikely to make it through our agenda given the time now. I’d like to propose that we all stay 15min longer/we table the last two agenda items/…”
  • You are the facilitator, but as a circle member you feel very emotional about a topic.
    “I feel really emotional about this and I find it really hard to be facilitator and so much part of the discussion right now. I would like to ask Nabhi to facilitate this agenda item. Everyone ok with that?”

In general, if you as the facilitator or a circle member are able to catch a situation early enough that would have benefitted from a round or a process proposal, you will see that the inclusion, transparency and integrity you are showing will lead to a much more gentle and trusting process. Even though calling for an extra round (especially in the example of running out on time) seems counterintuitive, there is nothing more courageous and healing than playing the ball into the group’s court. You can tap into group wisdom, and the group is reminded that both content and process are being held by the entire group. Everyone is 100% responsible of what happens in a circle meeting. If you run into issues on the content level, bump it one level up and talk about the process. If you run into issues on the process level, bump it up and process the process in a shared process. You are never victim of the circumstances, but always agents with choices.  

“Informal consent rounds”

Let us add a few pointers about “informal” consent rounds. Not every consent decision needs to go through the entire consent process. The goal is to balance time and equivalence of voices. Deciding to take a 5min break does not justify a 3 minute process of “present proposal, clarifying questions, quick reactions, consent”. However, we do want to make group decisions by consent. Therefore, everyone in the room but especially the facilitator, needs to be aware of the group dynamics. To stay in this above example, there might be clarifying questions that are pressing enough that people cannot give consent because they do not have enough information. For instance, “do we all have to leave the room, or is it ok for the wrote circle members doing some work if I stay here and read my emails?” 

As for quick reactions, people will probably mumble affirmative phrases (“good idea”). After making your proposal, you have to expect clarifying questions and/or quick reactions by taking in the energy in the room. Then give it 5 seconds to look every circle member in the eyes and see if they consent. They might nod, show their thumbs up, say “consent” or “ok with me”. But even in a minor decision that allows for informal consent it is important to get consent from everyone by making an effort to connect with them even if it is in a nonverbal way. You don’t want to slip back into autocratic ways, even in the smallest details. Shared power relies on trust, and trust cannot be compromised. The reward for staying in an egalitarian frame all of the times will be a harmonious and effective group dynamics and a healthy culture in your organization that you can rely on for harder decisions.