Martha's Rules
A Basic Adaptation of an effective Alternative Decision-Making Process

These rules were developed at Martha's Co-op in Madison WI, when the members became dissatisfied with Robert's Rules of Order as a method for making decisions. Martha's Rules are a five step procedure for discussing issues and making decisions in fairly large group meetings.

The guiding principle was:
"Every decision we make is something we have to work with, and so it seems essential to us that we understand and have a commitment to the things we decide. We recognize that consensus decision-making, while it generates high-quality decisions, takes a lot of time and energy. Some decisions are simply not worth the effort. So, we developed a way to test whether an issue was important enough to warrant taking the extra time to develop consensus while the decision was being discussed."

There are certain skills the participants must share for the process to be most effective.
. The participants must be willing and able to listen carefully to what others are saying.
. The participants must be trusting and brave enough to speak their minds.
. The participants must care about the group's welfare as well as their own
. The participants must, when necessary, be willing to shed personal attachments to pet ideas.

The five steps are a framework and need not be followed to the letter. They have proven to be helpful in focusing discussion and in giving first time facilitators some suggestions.

1. Preparation
2. Generating proposals
3. Making proposals concrete
4. Voting: a) "sense vote"
b) "vote vote"
5. Implementation and review.

All participants should be familiar with the topic, but if not, the facilitator can plan an agenda, and estimate time limits for discussion. When participants have agreed about these, they can continue to:

When there is not a specific proposal, this step allows open discussion of issues and generation of alternatives, including possible effects and implications of various actions.

Take ideas and create one or more proposals. Find how group feels about budget, resources, division of labor, goals, assumptions, etc. Distinguish questions of principle from those of practical details. See who is willing to work if proposal is accepted.

A) the "sense" vote. To discover how the group feels about the proposal.
1) the facilitator states the proposal
2) the facilitator takes a hand count on the following:
Who likes the proposal?
Who can live with the proposal?
Who is uncomfortable with the proposal?
3) this is repeated with all the proposals on the particular topic.
Interpretation of the results includes looking for a balance. If most are 'uncomfortable' or 'can live with it', the proposal should probably be scratched. More favorable or uncertain should go to the "vote vote". Discussion is encouraged.

B) the "vote vote". Find out what the "uncomfortables" are uncomfortable about, and see if the group is willing to decide by majority rule.
1) those who are uncomfortable are asked to state their reasons why
2) vote on the question: "Should we implement this decision over the stated objection of the minority, when a majority of us think that it is workable?" "Yes" means one favors majority rule, "no" means postponing the decision.

If the "yes" votes win, the proposal passes. If the "no" votes win, the proposal is defeated, and the group is faced with several options:
a) generate a new proposal, taking into account the objections of the "uncomfortables"
b) continue discussing until enough people change their minds.
c) accept that the issue can't be decided at this time.


The sense vote identifies those who are willing to support and work on a proposal, and who is apathetic or willing to go along. A person may vote "uncomfortable" if they want to say more about the topic. The proposal with the most positive votes is usually the one most likely to be implemented.


Be sure everyone is clear on precisely what was decided. Then answer the questions:
. What is to be done?
. Who is to do it?
. What criteria will be used to determine when the job is done?
. Will the decision need to be reviewed?

An excellent resource for Consensus is
BUILDING UNITED JUDGMENT: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making Published by the Center for Conflict Resolution © 1981.

available from:
The Center for Conflict Resolution
731 State Street, Madison, WI 53703

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