Creating a Climate for Consensual Living
By Anna M. Brown
Consensual living is a process, a philosophy, a mindset by which we seek
to live in harmony with our families and community. It involves finding
mutually agreed upon solutions, where the needs of both parties are not
only considered but addressed. Everyone’s wants and needs are equally
valid, regardless of age. Conflicting wants or needs are discussed and mutually
agreeable solutions are created or negotiated which meet the underlying
needs of all parties.
There are several key factors that help create an environment where consensual
living can thrive. First, there needs to be a climate of respect and trust.
Trust in a child’s ability to know their body and know their mind.
Respect for their feelings as true, valid and important. If a child feels
safe and comfortable they can explore their feelings and are more interested
in understanding the feelings of those around them. There is no room for
punishments or rewards in this environment. Punishments and rewards are
really just tools of manipulation and when you are working together as a
team for shared solutions there is no need to manipulate.
It is critical to have the belief that there really are solutions. In fact,
the reality is that there are often many solutions. It is just a matter
of hitting on the one that works for everyone. That process can be broken
down into a few steps but will become more fluid and simple the more it
The first step is to identify the underlying needs. Often there is a stated
need or desire. When in conflict, it helps to go deeper. It may just be
that the two stated needs are in conflict on the surface. When you get to
the underlying needs, typically there are several ways they can be met.
When you have the underlying needs on the table then new alternative solutions
are more apparent.
For children and adults both, understanding how biological needs play
into problem solving is critical as well. The short cut for this is the
much talked about HALT theory – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. When
we are hungry or tired it is hard to see beyond our immediate needs, our
head is not clear to be creative, this goes for kids too. When we are angry
about something, that anger can become misdirected and interfere with communication.
The same for loneliness, our behavior can really be a call for attention,
which is often a need for engagement. So when we keep in mind that the underlying
need may be biological it helps us find solutions more quickly. Sometimes
stopping to address the biological need is all that is required to get us
back on track.
At times, conflicts can be heated. There can be a lot of emotion behind
requests. In those situations, it is often helpful to begin with some basic
communication skills like validation and reflective listening. Both of these
tools help us to explore the underlying needs. Validation is the simple
process of acknowledging what someone is saying with no judgment, “you
really wish that ...”, with no “buts” attached. Often
times after a few minutes of validation the person feels free to move forward
to more in depth communication, but sometimes validation is all that is
required to resolve a situation. Reflective listening is similar but it
used more for clarification, “what I hear you saying is that you don’t
want to be here now”. This allows the person to hear how what they
are saying is being received. At that point, they can agree and feel validated/heard
or can restate to make their point more clear.
Once everyone feels heard and validated you can move to “I” messages
to state your own needs for a given situation. That gives the person you
are talking to a chance to hear your feelings. Sometimes it is easy to fall
into “you” mode. “you make me. . .” but if you can
stay with the “I” statements the lines of communication remain
Another helpful tool is to assign positive intent. When we look at someone
with whom we are in conflict, sometimes we feel they are deliberately trying
to thwart us. If you can shift that paradigm and begin to apply positive
intent it, again, leads to more open communication. This involves believing
that everyone is doing the best they can right now, that they want to be
a part of a solution and that they aren’t attempting to stop your
needs from being met. Everyone wants harmony to return.
After everyone involved is feeling heard and understood, you can move on
to the creative problem solving step. This can look different each time.
Often it is a series of ideas being thrown out by each party. Each idea
is accepted, rejected or modified to fit the underlying needs which have
been communicated. This often requires “thinking outside the box” always
keeping in mind the underlying needs. At times, we enter this step with
preconceived notions about how it should turn out. When we can release this,
we are able to access the full range of possible solutions. Children have
an amazing gift for problem solving and tend not to fall into that trap.
Let them lead the way when you are feeling stumped.
While, on paper, the process seems a bit laborious, once a commitment is
made to live consensually, the fun begins. When your energy is
used to work together as a team to meet everyone’s needs, you create
an environment of mutual respect, consideration and joy. The skills
gained by daily practice transfers to all kinds of situations where people
come together and reach an impasse. Each time, it becomes easier and easier,
the tools become habit and over time for 99% of situations solutions
will be found quickly. For the 1% of occasions where it takes a while, the
time will be spent in positive connection with the other person, not locked
in a negative, adversarial exchange. As everyone becomes secure in the fact
that their needs will indeed be met and honored, they are able
to branch out and enjoy engaging in the process of helping others meet their
needs. It becomes a fluid partnership, a beautiful dance of connection.