The Different Approaches to Consensus
by Tim Hartnett, PhD
There are many models of consensus decision making. And new groups continue to create custom versions that meet their particular needs. The models vary in both their outline of the process and in their decision rule (degree of agreement necessary to finalize a decision). The process differences are not usually controversial. Some models have more steps or more detail. Some are basic and easy to comprehend at a glance.
The decision rule a group uses, however, may be representative of more substantial differences. Some people may claim that their model is the "true" version of consensus. But ironically, there is not full agreement on what consensus really means. The principles on the home page of this website offer some of the commonly held tenents. This article attempts to articulate some of the differences.
Camp One: Consensus is about Full Agreement
For some people consensus is a word that describes both the requirement that everyone must agree to any decision passed, and the process of generating that agreement. Unanimity (full agreement) is an integral component. The requirement of unanimity is valued as the way to ensure that a group deals fully with each person's concerns.
This perspective values the sense of unity generated by the commitment the group makes to finding full agreement. While all models of consensus process have the goal of full agreement, this camp is willing to insist upon it as a priority. Fall back options or decision rules that lower the bar from full agreement (unanimity minus one or two, or supermajorities) may be accepted in certain conditions, but requiring unanimity is the perferred option.
Proponents of this perspective are usually willing to acknowledge that their version of consensus decision making is not appropriate for all situations. But they believe that the requirement of full agreement provides a profound sense of unity, equality, mutual respect and cooperation that more flexible decision rules risk abandoning.
Camp Two: Consensus is about Consent
For some people the primary issue in consensus decision making is understanding what it means to "consent." This camp strongly values the practice of individuals thinking about the good of the whole group. It is not so important that each person individually supports a proposal. But it is very important that all group members are willing to understand and cooperate with the direction of the group. While consensus blocking may be an option, its occurance is considerred to indicate a failure in the process, requiring renewed efforts at mutual understanding, even if agreement is not possible.
The goal is for the group to function in a way that fosters in all participants a willingness to authentically consent to an evolving group decision. When this does not occur, either the group must function more collaboratively or individuals must consider broadening their perspective. This shift is mandated not so much by the requirement that everyone consent for a decision to be made, but by the ethics of responsible functioning by both the group and its members. The need for firm clarity about a decision rule is less important than the need for the value of finding consent to be manifest.
Camp Three: Consensus is about the Process, not the Outcome
For some people consensus refers to the process of generating widespread agreement. When the principles of inclusion, open-mindedness, deep understanding, collaboration, and whole group thinking are all present, the group is practicing consensus decision making. This process is likely to lead to widespread agreement. But this camp acknowledges that groups sometimes have to make decisions even when they do not have full agreement. Otherwise, there may be widespread discontent with the group's inability to make a decision.
In order to apply the process of consensus decision making to a wide variety of settings, this camp encourages groups to use a consensus process in conjunction with any existing decision rule (including majority votes or hierarchical authority). The goal is for the consensus process to provide the benefits of generating widespread agreement without restricting a group from being able to make decisions efficiently.
When this camp talks about consensus, it is talking about the process, not the decision rule. If they are talking to someone who considers unanimity to be an essential component of consensus, then there may be considerable confusion of terms.
While it can be helpful to articulate the differences outlined above, the camps are not always so distinct. The primary values behind consensus decision making are shared by all. And many individuals identify with the main points of more than one camp. By understanding the value of each viewpoint we can all broaden our own perspectives. In other words, it is a good idea to practice consensus when discussing consensus.