Thinking about ‘Festina Lente’

Festina lente” read the text during a recent longer Zoom workshop. I had to look it up. My fellow cohouser often sends me messages that require a learning moment on my part. I love the way she challenges me.

Oh yes, that’s it! Like “Eile mit Weile” or “Make Haste Slowly”. I try to relax, leave my old self behind — again — and clumsily ease into a new way of collaborating.

Working on our cohousing project during the COVID era has immersed me in a world I’ve only read about until now. The group operates — or rather, is learning how to operate — by consensus principles.

Starting assumptions.

From the outside looking in, I had assumed the end product would simply be decisions that everyone “could live with“. That would be it. This would be achieved through some mysterious process, as long as we have enough good will and reasonable people. The benefit was reported to be that decisions “stick” better and are less likely to be revisited. Ok, I can get behind that.

I had heard some stories about it going a bit slower sometimes, and other buyer-beware warnings, so I was on alert. Our highly developed survival instincts make sure we remember these red flags.

So imagine my surprise as I start to get glimpses into something very different unfolding. Something much richer and broader.

What it looks like.

It’s a way that doesn’t require me to fight for air time. The process assures my voice gets equal and sufficient time — not just an after-thought, polite “what did you think” if I don’t wedge into the fray.

It’s a way that doesn’t favor the most persuasive orator. The process trains us on deeper listening, so your contribution is accessible even if it’s sometimes jumbled. The ‘receiver’ works hard to compensate for your ‘sending’ flubs.

It’s a way that pauses to make sure no person or idea is left behind.

What it feels like.

It’s a place where “I” am not pressured to win to feel good about the outcome. The work is focused on getting the “We” to win — moving us to a place where there are no losers.

I’m experiencing interactions that demonstrate how a deeper understanding of your position contains the seeds of the bridge between us. Me unpacking your side of things and you fully soaking in mine, strips away the clutter of our differences and opens up a new path forward.

How is it changing my approach to the meetings?

In a former life, performance and time pressures conditioned me to “bring solutions”, “demonstrate initiative”, and pile up “individual accomplishments” to pad out annual performance reviews. Meetings were arenas, where you went to perform and win.

With consensus, I don’t have to arrive with all the answers and be ready to fight to get them recognized and adopted. It’s understood that the final outcome will be a “best of breed” of our collective input, rather than a vote on an individual’s proposal. Now I am working on starting meetings with a more “open” stance. I’m not going in attached to a specific solution I’m bringing — well, mostly anyway! I’m working on it …

The mental workload is shared. Stress levels drop. You don’t have to be “on” and ready to lead the charge. You just need to show up, listen, contribute, do your best and stick with the process.

It’s obvious that I’m very much a ‘work in progress’, and easily revert to my standard MO. It’s hard to switch styles after so many decades, but it’s an exhilarating challenge.

I’m thinking of an old African saying, that reminds me of the prize:

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”


Afterthought: Maybe our national approach to the current crisis could learn something from an alternative universe like this. Just maybe …