Micro-Managing Other People's Behavior

In a well-intentioned attempt to establish guidelines to prevent disrespect of one another and abuse of process, some collectives fall into the authoritarian trap of dictating which specific, often minute, behaviors collective members may or may not display. Those who do not strictly adhere to the regulations, perhaps even unwittingly, may be frowned upon, smarmily chastised, or rendered into undesirables.

Self-appointed leaders who are adept at working the consensus system can use strict adherence to nit-picking rules as a way to put themselves up as role models (since they always follow the letter, though not the spirit, of the rules). Then, they can paint those who may not be so versed in the minutia of the guidelines, or so slick about appearing to follow them, as saboteurs of consensus. The hapless or gauche, who might commit blunders like using inappropriate terminology or speaking out of turn, thus become easy victims for the ďprocess tyrants.Ē

Behavioral guidelines cannot substitute for basic respect, decency, common sense, or an honest attempt to listen, understand, and strive for fairness. Any attempt to codify and restrict normal human interactions can create a tightly wound atmosphere of coercion and disapproval.


A lot has been made in activist circles about the inappropriateness of interrupting someone when he or she is talking. Interrupting is almost always obnoxious and can be used, sometimes intentionally, to dominate, but it is also a common human fallacy. Some people are chronic interrupters: they may be so brimming with exciting ideas or information that they just canít contain themselves. Such individuals can usually be handled with joking, light-handed rebukes or by simply interrupting them in return. Others are long-winded droners. While everyone should be given their space to speak, itís not necessarily wrong to gently interrupt those who have been boring the collective with endless, repetitive speeches. They should not be silenced, of course, but they can be made aware of the effects of their verbosity.

Not everybody has the same skill at navigating interpersonal exchanges. Some people are not good at recognizing that split second when someone has finished talking and itís okay to jump in. They are the ones who are most likely to interrupt, and be reprimanded for it, while they also, ironically, are the least likely to get a word out and have their opinions heard. While facilitation and hand-raising should prevent this, there will always be circumstances when people are engaging in informal conversations, whether in or out of meetings.

Itís also fairly normal, in everyday speech, to interrupt someone to nip a misunderstanding in the bud: ďOh, no, no. Iím sorry I made it sound that way. What I meant wasÖ.Ē Collective process needs to take ordinary interaction into account, not try to dictate actions that are awkward and artificial, then frown on people who donít immediately take to them.


Prohibiting any and all interruptions can become a problem at meetings when added to the strict stipulation that members can only speak in the order in which they raise their hands. Hand-raising is a good idea, since it stops people from merely shouting over each other to be heard, as is making a list, or stack, that determines whose fair turn it is to talk. Yet, these practices, if applied too rigidly, can easily stifle discussion or facilitate abuses.

For instance, someone may intentionally make grossly untrue and damaging statements about a project in an attempt to denigrate it. The person who made the original proposal may be desperate to say something, but he mustnít interrupt, and there are others in line to speak. If the proposal-maker speaks up for himself out of order he will, in all likelihood, be looked at with opprobrium, only adding to the denigratorís case that his project is suspect. If he waits until itís his rightful turn to talk, it may be too late to undo other membersí already-solidifying, inaccurate perceptions. It makes no sense to use hand-raising merely to make a list without allowing for the fact that discussions require an exchange. When questions go unanswered or falsehoods unchallenged, there can be no discourse.

What often happens is that someone will raise his hand to respond to something that has just been said; by the time it is his turn to speak there may have been another ten comments made on other matters, and what the person had raised his hand to say is no longer on point. Since it will be his only chance to talk, however, he will still take his turn. Multiply this by the number of people in the meeting, and you have a random list of utterances on various topics and no semblance of a discussion.

The door is opened to speech-making by the self-important while the meek or shy may only get a few words out and not receive another opportunity to explain themselves more fully.

There has to be some way for people to be allowed to clear the air when necessary without exposing themselves to outraged censure.


Many collectives have made rules that require facilitators to give priority to members of traditionally oppressed groups. While the intention is commendable, in practice itís not an easy task to determine which individuals in a particular group are more or less likely to be overlooked or silenced. Power inequities within a small group of human beings can stem from a great many factors that are not easily reduced to race, class, or gender. Thus, anyone who attempts to combat injustice by applying overly simplistic criteria might actually perpetuate even more injustice. And many collectives, from what we have seen, need to be more conscious about avoiding that kind of mistake.

It is important to make sure that those who have been quiet get a chance to be heard. But, once again, the rule must not be applied in the absence of common sense. Everyone should feel free to say, ďI have no comment,Ē without being made out to be a deferrer to oppressors. In addition, people who are directly involved in a given issue, or are themselves raising a matter for the group to consider, are likely to have more to say when it comes up for discussion and may even be questioned by the group to elucidate and clarify relevant points. They should not be silenced because someone else has not said as much on the topic. It makes no sense for someone who brings up a concern to be prohibited from participating in the ensuing discussion simply because he or she has used up the allotted speaking time.

Please send your comments and suggestions to: collectivebook@yahoo.com.

"Is This What Consensus Looks Like?"

"Is This the Just Society We Want to Model?


[Why This Booklet?]
[Introduction to Consensus]
[The Particular Vulnera-
bility of Collectives
[Power Sharing]
[Red Flags to Guard Against]
[Ploys To Subvert Consensus]
[The Problem With Politeness]
[The Need For Kindness]
[Creating Pariahs]
[Respect for Differences]
[Personal vs. Group Issues]
[Micro-Managing Behaviors]
[Skepticism is Healthy]
[There's Hope]

[A Model for Justice?]
[The Dearth of Due Process]
[What About Free Speech?]

[Codifying the Collective Process]
[Relinquishing Control of Projects and People]
[Staying True to the Mission]
[Whatís a Lone Person to Do?]







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