Articles on Consensus
and Group Facilitation:

The Videos and Articles about consensus listed below are intended to represent a variety of different perspectives. To submit an article for posting, please contact the curator:

The Theology of Consensus
by L.A. Kaufman
This article reviews the history of the use of consensus by activist groups, highlighting how consensus ideology has undermined effective activism.

Reaching Consensus on Consensus
Sandor P. Schuman
This explores how the word consensus is commonly used to describe both the process and the outcome of collaborative group decision making.

The Basics of Consensus Decision-making
by Tim Hartnett, PhD
This article offers an overview of the process, including the principles, goals, variations, and helpful flow charts.

Consensus Basics
Tree Bressen
This article offers a good synopses on facilitating a consensus process that includes consensus blocking.

Using Modified Consensus in Occupy Groups
An article exploring the use of modified consensus in the Occupy Movement

Consensus or Alignment?
Beatrice Briggs, International Institute for Facilitation and Change

Superheroes Do Consensus (Video)
created by Tim Hartnett
An amusing and informative video on helping people understand the difference between a consensus process and the options for finalizing decision.

A Short Guide to Building Consensus
by The Public Disputes Program. Part of the Inter-university
Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

Consensus is Not Unanimity
Adapted by Starhawk from an article by Randy Schott
This article views the process of consensus decisionmaking as much more involved than just employing a decision rule that requires everyone to agree.

The Different Approaches to Consensus
Tim Hartnett, PhD
This article articulates some of the different ways people think about consensus. It can help you identify what is important to you about consensus and how you might understand the ways others use the word or view the principles behind it.

The Special Place of Blocking in Consensus
Tree Bressen
This article explores several different perspectives on consensus blocking and guidelines for its use.

Consensus Simple Steps
by Craig Freshley
A brief handout on using a consensus process with a 75% decision rule.

What if You Needed a Town Planning Decision Supported by (Almost) Everyone?
by Rick Lent, PhD
This article describes how a consensus decisionmaking process can be applied to a large public discussion.

Spectrum of Public Participation
International Association for Public Participation
This one page graphic shows the varying degrees to which the public may be included in a decision making process. The range is from “We will keep you informed,” to “We will implement what you decide.” Techniques for facilitators are listed according to the level of invovlement the technique offers.

Checklist and Roles for Consensus Process Facilitation
by Randy Schott
This is a general checklist of tips for group facilitators and members in consensus groups.

Why Bother with Consensus Building?
by Hal Movius
The case for using a consensus process in business settings.

The Theology of Consensus

L.A. Kauffman
from the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, May 26, 2015

Consensus decision-making’s little-known religious origins shed light on why this activist practice has persisted so long despite being unwieldy, off-putting, and ineffective. L.A. Kauffman traces its troubled history and calls for its demise.

Consensus decision-making, a process in which groups come to agreement without voting, has been a central feature of direct action movements for nearly 40 years, from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s to the turn-of-the-millennium global justice movement to 2011’s Occupy Wall Street. Instead of voting a controversial plan up or down, groups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable.

A primer on the NYC General Assembly website, the structural expression of the Occupy movement, explained, “Consensus is a creative thinking process: When we vote, we decide between two alternatives. With consensus, we take an issue, hear the range of enthusiasm, ideas and concerns about it, and synthesize a proposal that best serves everybody’s vision.”

Proponents make broad claims for consensus process. They argue that it is intrinsically more democratic than other methods, and that it fosters radical transformation, both within movements and in their relations with the wider world. As described in the action handbook of an Earth Day 1990 action to shut down Wall Street, which included a blockade of the entrances to the Stock Exchange and led to some 200 arrests, “Consensus at its best offers a cooperative model of reaching group unity, an essential step in creating a culture that values cooperation over competition.”

Few, though, know the origins of the process, which shed an interesting and surprising light on its troubled real-world workings. Consensus decision-making first entered the world of grassroots activism in the summer of 1976, when a group of activists calling themselves the Clamshell Alliance began a direct-action campaign against the planned Seabrook Nuclear Plant.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Many activists of the time were well aware of what feminist writer Jo Freeman famously called “the tyranny of structurelessness.” The tendency in some early 1970s movements to abandon all structure in the name of spontaneity and informality had proven to be not just unworkable but undemocratic. Decisions still happened, but without an agreed-upon process, there was no accountability.
The organizers of “the Clam,” as it was often called, were eager to find a process that could prevent the pitfalls of structurelessness, without resorting to hierarchy. Two staffpeople from the American Friends Service Committee, the longstanding and widely admired peace and justice organization affiliated with the Society of Friends, or Quakers, suggested consensus.

By this, they did not mean an informal process of building broad internal agreement of the sort used, for instance, by the pathbreaking civil rights group SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the early 1960s. The consensus process adopted by the Clam was much more formal, and grew directly out of Quaker religious practice. As historian A. Paul Hare explained it, “For over 300 years the members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) have been making group decisions without voting.

Their method is to find a ‘sense of the meeting’ which represents a consensus of those involved. Ideally this consensus is not simply ‘unanimity,’ or an opinion on which all members happen to agree, but a ‘unity’: a higher truth which grows from the consideration of divergent opinions and unites them all.”[1] Consensus process will eventually yield a decision … because discussing, listening, and waiting will ultimately reveal God’s will.

That unity, they believe, has a spiritual source: Within Quaker theology, the process is in effect a manifestation of the divine. A 1943 “Guide to Quaker Practice” explained, “The principle of corporate guidance, according to which the Spirit can inspire the group as a whole, is central. Since there is but one Truth, its Spirit, if followed will produce unity.”[2] Consensus process will eventually yield a decision, in other words, because discussing, listening, and waiting will ultimately reveal God’s will. Patience will lead to Truth.

Secular Activism

This religious core was left unmentioned when consensus decision-making came to the world of secular activism. Quakers do not, as a rule, proselytize their faith, and the two AFSC organizers working on the Seabrook anti-nuclear campaign — Sukie Rice and Elizabeth Boardman — were no exception. They were emphatically not looking to impose their religion on the group. They introduced the decision-making method because it seemed to them a good fit with the larger movement yearning for inclusive and truly democratic forms of decision-making, as well as with the philosophy of nonviolence, in which one tries to understand the heart and motivation of one’s opponent. “Under consensus, the group takes no action that is not consented to by all group members,” explained a Clamshell action manual, using italics to underscore the point: Everyone’s voice would matter.[3]

The process quickly spread among those segments of the activist left that embraced direct action as central to their strategy. Some called it “feminist process,” for it seemed to embody feminist ideals of participation, inclusion, and egalitarianism. Rice recalled, “[People] had no idea that Clamshell would be the prototype for all the other groups that took off from there, they had no inkling of that.” But by the end of the 1980s, the Clamshell model — fusing consensus decision-making, affinity groups, and a coordinating spokecouncil — was firmly established as the prevailing structure for grassroots direct action organizing in the United States.[4]
The conviction that consensus would produce more democratic outcomes than any other method was repeated like a catechism.

But while Rice and Boardman were careful to exclude any explicit theology from their trainings on consensus, something of its religious origin adhered to the process nonetheless — including a deep faith in its rightness, a certain piety in its implementation, and a tendency to treat claims about consensus as foundational truths.

A 1987 handbook produced by two founding members of Food Not Bombs, C.T. Lawrence Butler and Amy Rothstein, On Conflict and Consensus, codified the many assertions made on its behalf, central among which was the declaration that “Formal Consensus is the most democratic decisionmaking process.” This statement of faith, presented as a statement of fact, could be heard in nearly every movement that adopted the process over the ensuing years. The conviction that consensus would produce more democratic outcomes than any other method was repeated like a catechism. “The goal of consensus,” the handbook continued, “is not the selection of several options, but the development of one decision which is the best for the whole group. It is synthesis and evolution, not competition and attrition.”[5]
In practice, the process often worked well in small-group settings, including within the affinity groups that often formed the building blocks for large actions. At the scale of a significant mobilization, though, the process was fraught with difficulty from the start. At the 1977 Seabrook blockade, where consensus was first employed in a large-scale action setting, the spokescouncil spent nearly all the time before being ordered to leave the site bogged down in lengthy discussions of minor issues.

A similar dynamic played out in Occupy Wall Street almost a quarter century later, where the general assembly proved ill-equipped to address the day-to-day needs of the encampment. Though On Conflict and Consensus assured organizers that “Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming,” experience suggested otherwise. The process favored those with the most time, as meetings tended to drag out for hours; in theory, consensus might include everyone in all deliberations, but in practice, the process greatly favored those who could devote limitless time to the movement — and made full participation difficult for those with ordinary life commitments outside of their activism.

Consensus consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works…

Movement after movement found, moreover, that the process tended to give great attention and weight to the concerns of a few dissenters. In the purest form of consensus, a block by one or two individuals could bring the whole group to a screeching halt. Sometimes, that forced groups to reckon with important issues that the majority might otherwise ignore, which could indeed be powerful and transformative. But it also consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works, even when groups adopted modifications to strict consensus that allowed super-majorities to override blocks.

Consensus can easily be derailed by those acting in bad faith. But it’s also a process that is ill-equipped to deal with disagreements that arise from competing interests rather than simple differences of opinion. The rosy idea embedded in the process that unity and agreement can always be found if a group is willing to discuss and modify a proposal sufficiently is magical thinking, divorced from the real-world rough-and-tumble of political negotiation.

Groups hold on to ingrained practices in part because they help reinforce their sense of identity. The complex liturgy of consensus process — from the specialized language and roles (“facilitators,” “vibes watchers,” “progressive stack,” and more) to the elaborate hand signals (“up-twinkles,” “down-twinkles,” and the like) — has functioned as much to signal and consolidate a sense of belonging to a certain tradition as it has to move decisions forward. And because consensus process was marked from the start not just by its religious origins but also by its cultural ones, that tradition has been imbued with whiteness. The Clamshell Alliance was, after all, an overwhelmingly white organization, bringing together white residents of the New Hampshire seacoast with white Quakers and an array of mostly white radicals from Boston and beyond for action in a white rural region.

Few of the groups that would adopt consensus in the decades to come would be quite as starkly monochromatic as the Clam, and the use of the process is hardly sufficient to explain the reasons for racial divisions within activist communities. But time and again, activists of color found the use of consensus in majority-white direct action circles to be alienating and off-putting, and white activists’ reverent insistence on the necessity and superiority of the process has exacerbated difficulties in multiracial collaboration and alliance-building.

Using Consensus in Diverse Groups

During the campus anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s, for instance, the use of consensus drove a major wedge at UC-Berkeley between the mostly white Campaign Against Apartheid and United People of Color, a multiracial student group. UPC organizer Patricia Vattuone explained at the time, “We felt it was undemocratic to have these long meetings — four hours, eight hours — when, I have things to do, other students are not only active in their own organizations, but can’t spend hours and hours and hours on Sproul, and that was the only way you could have input or provide leadership.”[6]

UPC proposed shifting to a representative decision-making method — but CAA, believing consensus to be intrinsically better and more radical, refused. Two other UPC activists, Sumi Cho and Robert Westley, later wrote, “As a result, planning meetings and political actions … became virtually devoid of student-of-color participation in the name of radical hyperdemocratic (consensus-only) decision-making.”[7]

Two decades later, similar though less acute tensions arose when white activists streamed to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to participate in the Common Ground relief effort “with a preconceived notion that collectives use consensus as the decision-making process,” according to participants Sue Hilderbrand, Scott Crow, and Lisa Fithian. Local black activists preferred a different course of action, in which “the group defines itself and establishes the decision-making process collectively,” particularly since “the consensus process brought in by white activists confused many community members, who were often unfamiliar with the ‘rules’ of participation.”[8]

The irony here, of course, is that activists have adopted consensus as part of a larger aspiration to prefigure the world they hope to create — presumably not one as racially bounded as the practice of consensus process has been. There’s long been a deep yearning at the heart of that prefigurative project for a kind of community and connection otherwise missing from many movement participants’ lives. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, where consensus process played out with such dysfunction, Jonathan M. Smucker considered what role this yearning might have played in skewing movement practice:

I began to wonder if the heightened sense of an integrated identity was “the utopia” that many of my fellow participants were seeking. What if the thing we were missing, the thing we were lacking — the thing we longed for most — was a sense of an integrated existence in a cohesive community, i.e., an intact lifeworld? What if this longing was so potent that it could eclipse the drive to affect larger political outcomes?

Is it Really more Democratic?

The prime appeal of consensus process for 40 years has been its promise to be more profoundly democratic than other methods. This promise has been repeated again and again like dogma. But let’s face it: the real-world evidence is shaky at best. Perhaps the reason why it has endured so long in activist circles despite its evident practical shortcomings has something to do with the theological character it carried over from Quaker religious practice, the way it addresses a deep desire for transcendent group unity and “higher truth.”

If the forty-year persistence of consensus has been a matter of faith, surely the time has now come for apostasy. Piety and habit are bad reasons to keep using a process whose benefits are more notional than real. Outside of small-group settings, consensus process is unwieldy, off-putting, tiresome, and ineffective. Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically. If we want to change the world, let’s pick ones that work.
1


L.A. Kauffman has been a grassroots strategist and movement journalist for more than 30 years. Her history of direct-action protest in the United States will be published by Verso Books in 2016. Follow L.A. Kauffman on Twitter.


References and Footnotes

  1. A. Paul Hare, “Group Decision by Consensus: Reaching Unity in the Society of Friends,” Sociological Inquiry Vol. 43, No. 1 (1973), pp. 75-84. On the adoption of consensus by the Clamshell Alliance, see Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 63-68. On the complex history of the informal consensus process used within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, see Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 55-119.
  2. Quoted in Hare, p.75.
  3. Seabrook ’78: A Handbook for the Occupation/Restoration Beginning June 24, p.13.
  4. Telephone interview with Sukie Rice, May 2, 2002.
  5. C.T. Lawrence Butler and Amy Rothstein, On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decisionmaking (Food Not Bombs Publishing, 1987, second edition, 1991), p.5.
  6. Patricia Vattuone quoted in Richard C. Bock’s 1988 documentary film, From Soweto to Berkeley.
  7. Sumi Cho and Robert Westley, “Historicizing Critical Race Theory’s Cutting Edge: Key Movements That Performed the Theory,” in Francisco Valdes, Jerome McCristal Culp, and Angela P. Harris, eds., Crossroads, Directions, and a New Critical Race Theory (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), p. 37.
  8. Sue Hilderbrand, Scott Crow, and Lisa Fithian, “Common Ground Relief,” in South End Press Collective, ed., What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation (Boston: South End Press, 2007).

Reaching Consensus on Consensus

Sandor P. Schuman

“Have we reached consensus?” is a question asked by leaders striving to get everyone involved, while still trying to get everyone to act. Often asked with a tone of frustration, it obscures another question: What do we mean by consensus? Consensus can mean many things: that every group member had an opportunity to influence the final decision; that all legitimate concerns were addressed; that the decision was one everyone can live with; substantial agreement; some specified degree of agreement; or unanimity. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we could reach consensus on what we mean by consensus? To do so, let’s disentangle consensus as a process from consensus as an outcome.

Consensus as an outcome

As an outcome, consensus describes the result of decision making, rather than the process or means of decision making. For example, “Consensus means that everyone in the group freely agrees with the decision and will support it. If even one person cannot agree with a proposed decision, then the group does not have consensus” (Schwarz 1989, 29). This definition of consensus describes the decision reached by the group as an outcome of its activity. A number of definitions (or descriptions) of consensus focus on outcomes, with some significant variations. Several definitions are shown below to illustrate a range of views regarding consensus as an outcome.

A decision-making process in which all parties involved explicitly agree to the final decision. Consensus decision making does not mean that all parties are completelysatisfied with the final outcome, but that the decision is acceptable to all because no one feels that his or her vital interests or values are violated by it. (Auvine et al. 1978, xii).

Consensus is achieved when each of the stakeholders agrees they can live with a proposed solution, even though it may not be their most preferred solution. (Gray 1989, 25).

Consensus is a state of mutual agreement among members of a group where all legitimate concerns of individuals have been addressed to the satisfaction of the group. (Saint and Lawson 1994, xii).

Straw-poll consensus. … After the board has had sufficient time for discussion about a particular topic, the chair asks each member to hold up fingers showing where s/he is on the levels of the scale shown below. …

    1. I can say an unqualified “yes” to the decision. I am satisfied that the decision is an expression of the wisdom of the group.
    2. I find the decision perfectly acceptable.
    3. I can live with the decision; I’m not especially enthusiastic about it.
    4. I do not fully agree with the decision and need to register my view about it. However, I do not choose to block the decision. I am willing to support the decision because I trust the wisdom of the group.
    5. I do not agree with the decision and feel the need to stand in the way of this decision being accepted.
    6. I feel that we have no clear sense of unity in the group. We need to do more work before consensus can be reached. (Kelsey 1991).

All of the above descriptions of consensus have in common that they focus on an outcome; they describe the nature, circumstances and level of agreement regarding the decision that is the result of the group’s activity. The following description of consensus differs from those above in that it seamlessly integrates concern for both process and outcome. A careful reading shows that while some statements focus on outcomes, most emphasize processes.

“Consensus means that every group member has an opportunity to influence the final decision. Members of the group reach substantial agreement, not necessarily unanimity. Consensus cannot be achieved by majority rule, ‘horse-trading,’ or averaging. A good process frees the group from either/or thinking and emphasizes the possibilities of both/and thinking by focusing attention on needs and goals. In consensus seeking it is possible to achieve a solution that all members can regard as fair. When members strive for what is best for all, rather than trying to triumph over opponents, they fulfill the highest expectations of the democratic tradition.” (Bradford 1976)

Consensus as a process

As a process, consensus addresses how individuals behave toward each other (their interpersonal interactions) as well as how they think about the issues or problems at hand (their analysis and intuition). Thus, it is both a social and a cognitive process. In practice, the social and cognitive aspects of consensus processes are inextricable. Nonetheless, it might be useful to examine consensus processes to see if both social and cognitive aspects are evident. One way to do this is to examine the ground rules that are sometimes used by groups. Ground rules are often introduced by facilitators to make explicit their expectations regarding how a meeting should be conducted. Some would argue that ground rules, when used, should be formally adopted by the group, even if initially proposed by the facilitator. As such, these ground rules represent the group’s consensus on consensus. Ground rules may address the outcomes of the group’s work, but typically most relate to the processes.

Moore and Feldt (1993) propose several ground rules to help individuals work together effectively. Below, some of the rules are categorized to show that some regulate predominantly cognitive processes, while others regulate predominantly social processes.

Ground rules that regulate predominantly
cognitive processes

Ground rules that regulate predominantly social processes

  • Actively listen to each other
  • Respect what others say and their points of view – recognize that no one has a monopoly on truth
  • Be specific and ensure meaningfulness
  • No side conversations – share your thoughts
  • Focus on the doable
  • Actively participate
  • Focus on what can be done to remedy things – after the problem definition step, stop the complaining and blaming and get to what you can do.
  • If you get stuck, move on – don’t allow yourselves to get bogged down.
  • Maintain an outcome orientation
  • Personal attacks of any kind are not allowed
  • Stay resourceful – think creatively
  • Enforcing rules is everyone’s responsibility
  • Accept that this meeting is just the start
  • No booze until the work is done
  • Look for common ground

 

Following is one more example, based on ground rules developed by Schwarz (1989), that illustrates how ground rules can be viewed as addressing both cognitive and social processes.

Ground rules that regulate predominantly
cognitive processes

Ground rules that regulate predominantly
social processes

  • Be specific: Use examples.
  • Share all relevant information.
  • Explain the reasons behind your statements, questions, and actions.
  • Don’t take cheap shots or otherwise distract the group.
  • Focus on interests, not positions.
  • All members are expected to participate in all phases of the process.
  • Keep the discussion focused.
  • It is all right to disagree openly with any member of the group.
  • It is all right to discuss undiscussable issues.
  • Make statements; then invite comments about the statements.
  • Share appropriate information with nongroup members.
  • Jointly design ways of testing disagreements and solutions.
  • Test assumptions and inferences.
  • Do self-critiques.
  • Agree on what important words mean.

 

These ground rules focus on processes (Schwarz included one more rule, “make decisions by consensus,” which focuses on outcomes). Other sets of ground rules could be cited that incorporate more extensive rules for how decision outcomes are to be achieved (see, for example, Adminstrative Conference of the United States 1995).

Attention to consensus as an outcome is important. It makes explicit what participants must achieve to reach decisions. It sets a standard that is higher, and yet more flexible, than majority vote. However, by itself, it provides little aid regarding how the group should conduct itself. Attention to consensus as a process is also important. It makes clear how meetings will be conducted and what kinds of behaviors are to be mutually expected. However, by itself, it leaves to question what will be required to reach decisions.

Consensus in society

In a world where social values and factual knowledge change rapidly and are influenced by diverse sources, tradition and science are insufficient means for establishing truth or providing a basis for organizational or societal action. The democratic virtue of consensus (“truth by agreement,” “action by commitment”) is appealing, if not compelling. Consensus requires explicit attention to process as well as outcome, and sets high standards for both. Being aware of the range of process and outcome ground rules that are tenable, and working with a group to reach consensus on consensus, provides a valuable foundation for working on factious problems.

… what effects consensus and makes it convincing is not the agreement itself, but participation by those who arrived at it. (Moscovici and Doise 1994, 2).

In a democracy, the means are the ends.

References

Adminstrative Conference of the United States (1995). Negotiated Rulemaking Sourcebook. Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office.

Auvine, B., Densmore, B., Extrom, M., Scott Poole, M., and Shankhn, M. (1978). A Manual for Group Facilitators. Madison, WI: Center for Conflict Resolution.

Bradford, L. P. (1976). Making Meetings Work: A Guide for Leaders and Group Members. San Diego: University Associates.

Gray, B. (1989). Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hanson, M. P. (1996). Golden Groundrules. Minneapolis MN: Meeting Needs.

Moore, A. B. and Feldt, J. A. (1993). Facilitating Community and Decision-Making Groups. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company.

Moscovici, S. and Doise, W. (1994). Conflict and Consensus: A General Theory of Collective Decisions. London: Sage Publications.

Saint, S. and Lawson, J. R. (1994). Rules for Reaching Consensus: A Modern Approach to Decision Making. San Diego: Pfeiffer and Company.

Schwarz, R. M. (1989). Ground rules for effective groups. Popular Government, 54, 25-30. Reprinted in M. S. Herrman (ed.), Resolving Conflict: Strategies for Local Government. Washington, DC: International City/County Management Association.

Webler, Thomas (1994). “Right” discourse in citizen participation: An evaluative yardstick. In Renn, O., Webler, T., and Wiedemann, P., eds., Fairness and Competence in Citizen Participation: Evaluating models for Environmental Discourse. Boston: Kluwer Academic Press.

PDF Version

Consensus Basics

by Tree Bressen

Consensus process is a powerful tool for bringing groups together to move forward with decisions that are inspired and effective. However, like many tools, using consensus requires learning a particular set of skills. Groups who try to apply it without learning those skills often end up frustrated, when what’s really needed is more training, knowledge and practice.

Cooperation is the basis of community. Consensus is a thoroughly cooperative form of decision-making. While not appropriate for all situations—it’s not generally recommended for a quick fix to a crisis or deciding what color to paint the barn—for groups that have a shared purpose, explicit values, some level of trust and openness to each other, and enough time to work with material in depth, the consensus process can be immensely rewarding. In contrast with the separations of majority voting, consensus bonds people together.

The search for consensus agreement relies on every person in the circle bringing their best self forward to seek unity. The group need not all think the same, have the same opinion, or support the same proposal in a unanimous vote. Rather, what is being earnestly sought is a “sense of the meeting.” This is the essence of what the group agrees on, the common ground, the shared understanding or desire.

* * *

Steps of the Process

Typically, a member brings forward a topic for discussion. It may be in the form of a question, a statement of a problem, or an idea for implementation. Once the item is framed by the presenter, there is time for clarifying questions. Often people in a meeting start to evaluate and form responses to an idea before the sponsor is even half finished stating it; setting aside explicit time for questions first allows everyone to understand the idea and its context before jumping into the fray.

The next phase is usually open discussion. The facilitator keeps track of time and calls on people in turn. Participants may ask more questions, pose hypothetical examples, list concerns, say why they like an idea, make suggestions, etc. A natural, free-flowing discussion can build energy, but if the pace gets too fast then less assertive members will likely feel excluded. The facilitator may suggest varying general discussion with other methods such as brainstorms or small groups. People need to monitor their pace and pay attention to each other’s needs. Finding the balance comes with practice and feedback.

As participants’ comments are integrated by the facilitator, some sense of the group’s direction emerges. As the facilitator attempts to name this and reflect it back to the group, it also becomes clear where there is not yet alignment with that direction. This is where the main challenge in using consensus lies. If an environment where everyone’s piece of the truth is welcome can be created, the inherent wisdom and creativity of the group comes through. Once substantial airing of the issues has taken place and every member has made a good faith effort to find solutions and common ground, there are three structural responses available to each participant: agreement, standing aside, or standing in the way (blocking).

Agreement does not necessarily indicate high enthusiasm or that the proposal fulfills one’s personal preference. It means that maybe you love it or maybe you just think it’s okay, but you see how it benefits the group and you can live with it.
The second possibility is standing aside. One may choose to stand aside due to personal conscience or strongly differing individual opinion; either way, one owes it to the group to explain one’s reasons.

In the Quaker tradition, standing aside means that you would not be called upon to be an active implementer of a decision, though you would still be bound by it. Even though you may vehemently disagree, you honor the group’s need or desire to move in that direction. If more than one or two people are standing aside, it is a signal that the group is not yet in alignment.

The third option is standing in the way of a decision, also known as blocking. It is the ability to prevent the will of the rest of the group that gives consensus its special power, and it’s also what many people are most scared of. Blocking is never to be undertaken lightly. It is the responsibility of any participant with concerns to bring them up as early in the process as possible, and normally the ideas and feelings of every member are naturally woven in as the discussion moves along. In a well-functioning consensus group, the frequency of blocks ranges from nonexistent to extremely rare.

However, occasionally in the course of years, it may happen that a member perceives a proposal as representing a disastrous direction for the group. Not a big risk or a decision that they personally don’t like, but an action that would contradict the group’s purpose, mission, or values, irrevocably injuring the organization or its members. It takes significant ego to presume that you have more wisdom than the rest of the group; yet paradoxically, one must never block from an egotistical place or from personal preference.

When the alternative is catastrophe, it becomes a member’s responsibility to serve the group by stopping it from moving forward. Anyone considering blocking a decision is obligated to thoroughly explain the reasons and make every effort to find a workable solution. Caroline Estes of Alpha Farm, a respected consensus teacher, says that if you have blocked an emerging consensus half a dozen times, you’ve used up your lifetime quota.

Making a Plan

I lived at Acorn Community in rural Virginia for over four years. When i first arrived, the standard procedure at meetings was for the group to gather around the breakfast table, eating and chatting until someone picked up the clipboard with the list of meeting topics and suggested one for the group to start with. When that topic was finished, we’d move on to another one, until at some point a gardener would complain that the day was moving on and it was time to get to work outside. Discussion would be wrapped up, perhaps by agreeing in a bit of a rush to whatever was proposed most insistently, and the clipboard would be hung on a hook until the next meeting.

Some months later, Formal Consensus teacher CT Butler came through and suggested we consider planning our agendas in advance. “Huh?” “What’s that?” “Wouldn’t that take too much time?” He suggested that our meetings would move along so much more efficiently that it would be worth the time.

We decided to try it as an experiment. Three of us formed a committee and drew up a form for each meeting. We worked out in advance which items would be discussed when. We clarified which community member would present each item, for how long, and who would facilitate each week. We tried to give the harder items to more experienced facilitators, and used team facilitation for newcomers to learn skills. All the roles were rotated among willing volunteers, and we made sure no one tried to present an item at the same time as they facilitated or took notes. We reserved a few minutes at the end of every meeting for brief evaluations, so we could give ourselves feedback on what worked well and what could be improved.

In order to deal with the concern that we not lose out on any of our precious meeting time, we started adding an “overflow” item to the plan too, so that if we finished all the other items faster than we expected, we’d be ready to go with something to fill in the rest of the time.

Once we saw how much more effective we could be, there was no turning back. Factors that influenced the agenda included who was home that week to sponsor or participate in the discussion, urgency of action needed, balancing heavy and light items at each meeting, which items had been waiting longest for attention, and so on. The agenda planners posted clearly whether the item would be an introduction, discussion, or possible decision. While at the beginning it could take two hours of person-time to work it all out, later we became so accustomed to juggling the different factors that one person could plan a week’s agendas in twenty minutes.

Delegate, Delegate

Acorn’s approach to agenda planning illustrates an important principle for making consensus process work. How many times have you seen a meeting bog down in details to the point of exhaustion? Learning to distinguish when an item is small enough to fit in the box of a committee or manager’s domain can save everyone countless hours of frustration and boredom.

Committees fall into two categories: standing and ad hoc. Standing committees perform ongoing tasks for an organization. Typical examples for a community might include Membership, Finance, or Road Maintenance. Ad hoc committees are formed for a one-time task, such as planning a party or doing legal research on land zoning.

When a committee is set up, it’s important to be clear about the extent of their power. What is the purpose of the committee? Are they doing research only and reporting back? Making recommendations for the larger group to implement? Making decisions and following through themselves? Committees need a mandate from the larger group and a timeline. Even if the committee’s work isn’t finished for a while, reporting back in a timely manner keeps the committee and the larger group in touch with each other.

The most functional size for a committee is usually three to five people. A balanced committee includes representatives of the breadth of opinion on a subject, as well as depth of expertise. You probably need people who are energetic initiators, thorough on follow-up, skilled at writing, smooth interpersonal communicators, linear thinkers and gestalt thinkers—luckily each person does not need to have all of these qualities, so long as they are represented in the group! One person should be designated as the convenor, who sets up the first meeting.

If the committee is open to it, posting when and where its meetings will take place so that others may observe can help defuse possible tensions. Once trust is built and the relationship is established, the larger group will naturally send items to the committee for seasoning and input. When the committee returns its ideas to the larger group for final decisions, a sense of wider ownership and participation is created.

Minutes

Have members of your group ever sat around arguing or scratching their heads, wondering just what it was you decided about that guideline eight months ago? Figuring it out can take ten minutes or three hours or be impossible. Minutes make all the difference. They serve as the memory of the group and create a common record that everyone has access to.
The notetaker’s goal is not to record who said what when. Rather, the information readers will likely want to know is:

  • date of the meeting
  • who was present
  • title of each item clearly labeled
  • main points of discussion
    • questions answered
    • range of opinion
    • concerns raised
      • whether each concern was resolved or not
    • “sense of the meeting”
    • new ideas
  • agreements and decisions
    • reasons and intentions for a decision
  • name and reason of anyone standing aside
  • next steps

If that’s all too much to cover, then just go for the core: if there is a proposal, and especially if there is a consensus decision, that needs to be stated clearly and explicitly. During the meeting, if the group is nearing consensus, the facilitator should state the sense of the meeting and then have the notetaker read out the proposed minute, because it’s the minute that will actually serve as the record of what was agreed to.

Finally, minutes will be most useful when the information is clearly organized. Acorn found it useful to index them by both subject and date. If no one is enthused at the prospect of taking on this task, you may consider hiring the services of a professional indexer.

The Role of the Facilitator

As Caroline Estes has previously written, the role of the facilitator cannot be over-emphasized. The facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting on track. Yet every member is also responsible for each other and the group, and every person can engage in facilitative behaviors such as soliciting input from quieter members, bringing the discussion back to the main topic, and summarizing what’s been said.

Facilitation is an art and a skill, a science and an intuition; every facilitator has room for growth. If your group is inexperienced in facilitation, consider bringing in someone to give a workshop or sending a few people off for more training, who can then teach others when they return. There are also books and other resources listed at the end of this article.

Rotating everyone through the role helps minimize power differences in the group. If the least skilled members get more practice, it brings the level of the whole group up a notch. Being thrust into the facilitator role makes people better meeting participants too. However, it makes sense to call upon more skilled facilitators for more challenging or controversial topics.

he facilitator is the servant of the group. She or he must never push their own agenda. While everyone has biases, for the duration of the meeting it is the facilitator’s job to leave their attachments aside in order to be a clear channel for what the group needs. Neutrality and objectivity are essential. If you are in the facilitator role, a few minutes before you start, clear your mind of worries and fatigue; breathe and center; ground yourself. All your attention will be needed for the task at hand.

As the facilitator, you carry an attitude of group success. For every group, in every situation, there is common ground that can be discerned—your job is to see that and reflect it back, over and over. As each person speaks, listen carefully, and every few minutes step in to weave together what’s been said. Look for the reasons behind the positions. If someone’s contribution is hard for others to take, search for what’s underneath that others will be able to relate to and name it. If someone becomes frustrated, look for what’s not being heard. Unity is present, waiting to be discovered. Have faith.

Energy, tone and body language will tell you at least as much as the words spoken. Don’t be afraid to name openly what you see happening, yet be gentle and concentrate on the positive. Some groups employ a vibes-watcher to pay special attention to this. The vibes-watcher may suggest a break, or a moment of silence. Silence is a powerful tool. Sometimes a moment to think is all that’s needed to break a tension. Seek the path forward, but don’t be afraid of conflict; it’s a natural experience and it shows that people care enough to put energy in. Highly skilled facilitators are able to take that energy and use it to help the group.

If someone proffers a premature block, you can work with the substance of their objection in the moment, or you can acknowledge the seriousness of their concern and ask them to hold it and listen with an open mind to more discussion. If you come to a stuck point, remember that you have options. An item can be laid over for future discussion. You or someone else can talk one-on-one with an individual during a break. Items can be sent to a committee for further consideration. The group can request help from an outside facilitator. With patience and effort, agreements can nearly always be reached.

* * *

Conclusion

Facilitator Paul DeLapa sees consensus as a creative route to collective discovery. More than a decision-making method, “Consensus is a process that leads to agreements that people are unified on,” he says. “It requires a different mind-set . . . to create and build out of what’s present.” All our lives we’re taught that we’ll be rewarded for delivering the “right” answer—suddenly there is no right answer. Instead, there is a cooperative search for elegant, creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs.

In a culture where we’re taught that every person must struggle for themselves and we can’t get ahead without stepping on others, consensus is a radical, community-building alternative. Consensus teaches that no one can get ahead by themselves: our success with the method depends utterly on our ability to work with others. Competition is no longer the root of experience; instead, we honor and integrate the diverse life surrounding us. Consensus is interdependence made visible.

Tree Bressen, facilitator and teacher, has been assisting intentional communities, nonprofits, and other organizations with group process since 1994. Pages from her website are available for copying and distribution free of charge as long as you continue to include these credit lines and contact information.

Tree Bressen
Eugene, Oregon
541-343-3855

Using Modified Consensus in Occupy Movement

by Tim Hartnett, PhD
http://www.GroupFacilitation.net

A New Arena for Consensus

Consensus decision making is getting a lot of use recently, especially in the Occupy movement. A whole new generation of organizers are leading public meeting and reviving a sense of direct democrasy to counter the apathy so many of us have fallen into. There is a lot of excitement and fresh commitment to actively countering the creeping corporate control over our governement and our economy. Whatever your view of the goals or effectiveness of this movement, the decision making processes are fascinating to observe.

The challenge is enormous. How do you take large groups of diverse people, charged with high emotions, and strangers to each other, and facilitate them to discuss, and then decide how to organize themselves? The Occupy Movement has consistently chosen to tackle this challenge with the highest vision possible. The process used must be consistent with the goals we seek. The means must be exemplify the ends.

This principle is not just important in some ideological way. The Occupy protests are being carefuly watched by the whole nation. Much of the public does not understand and may not trust the intentions of the protesters. By using a process that reflects the values of direct democracy, the movement communicates what it stands for. Using a process with values that resonate with people, one that includes everyone and invites real participation is a vital way to attract potential supporters.

Learning a New Way

The past forty years of experience using consensus in activist groups is a great resource to help us avoid the mistakes that have been made. When using consensus, it is especially important to avoid the pitfalls of ideological rigidity that have sometimes dogged well-intentioned groups. Fortunately, if we pay attention to what experience has shown, we can find a way to effectively implement our highest ideals in whatever group we participate.

One of the greatest lessons of experience in consensus decision making is that different groups benefit from custom choosing the final decision rule they use. Some use a consensus process that requires full consent to pass a proposal. Others use various degrees of super-majority (90%, 80%, 70%, etc.). This flexibility allows groups to realistically allow everyone to participate, without giving individuals or small factions the power to stifle the group’s forward momentum.

Occupy Oakland used this wisdom very effectively in a recent large assembly. The group was deciding whether to call a general strike. Over 1600 people participated in a “modified consensus” process. The organizers established a 90% decision rule (not including abstentions). After an open discussion that considered the many different perspectives the vote was taken. The results were 1484 in favor, 46 votes against, and 77 abstaining. The motion carried with a 96% support. Widespread agreement was reached and the group moved forward with excitement and strong momentum. This would not have been possible if the organizers had allowed “blocking”.

How to Use Modified Consensus

Facilitating groups is a complicated art. So all that can be offered in a short article are some key pointers. The first is to realize that modifying consensus is often the best way to accomplish the goals of a consensus process. There is no gain in allowing a group to be controlled by stubborn individuals or small factions. If everyone’s voice is heard and incorporated into the group’s decision as well as possible, then the primary function of using consensus has been accomplished.

Secondly, one must consider each group uniquely. When groups are large, diverse, not well connected, or pressed for time, using modified consensus is especially useful. There is no universal “right” decision rule. Every group needs to find a criteria that it can successfully attain consistently enough to allow it to be effective.

For more information on how to actually facilitate a consensus process or a modified consensus process, please consult my book, Consensus-Oriented Decison-Making (New Society Publishers, 2011).

Consensus or Alignment?

Beatrice Briggs

When I heard recently that in management circles, the term consensus is “out” and alignment is “in,” I felt instantly relieved. “Finally”, I thought, “people can stop using the wrong word!” As a consultant, I discourage most groups from using the term “consensus” to describe their decision-making process. In most cases the realities of their formal structure make giving everyone an equal voice unrealistic. Their leaders have decision-making responsibilities that they cannot and should not delegate.

Furthermore, achieving 100 percent agreement among team members is often either impossible or unnecessary. Under these conditions, so-called “consensus” typically produces one of the following scenarios: (1) hours of debate, leading to decisions that everyone allegedly agrees to but that no one really likes or (2) presentation of an idea by the leader who, upon hearing little opposition, declares that consensus has been achieved. (“Anyone got a problem with this? Good! We have consensus.”)

Neither of these scenarios does justice to the power and potential of effective consensus process. In situations like these, I welcome “alignment” as a more useful description of how to address the challenges of leadership in complex situations where team commitment is desired and timely decisions need to be made. To me “alignment” suggests getting team members facing in the same direction. It means making a concerted effort to help people understand the issues and what their respective roles are. It’s about asking questions and listening to feedback both from the internal team, as well as others knowledgeable about or affected by the initiative. It means making the necessary adjustments in personnel and strategy as conditions change. In short, while “alignment” uses many of the consultative aspects of consensus process, it also acknowledges the leaders’ ultimate decision-making responsibility.

Effective leaders need valid information to make their decisions and teams committed to implementing them. Their best efforts can be thwarted by internal behaviors ranging from apathy to power struggles and external forces beyond their control. Given these challenging conditions, unanimity might be desirable, but alignment is essential. Not confusing the two can save everyone a lot of angst and free us to get on with the
task at hand.

What do others think about the distinction between consensus and alignment?

www.iifac.org
Beatrice Briggs , founding director of the International Institute for Facilitation
and Change (IIFAC), is a consultant and trainer who helps groups around the
world to work together for positive change. A native of the United States who
has lived in Mexico since 1998, Beatrice can be reached at bbriggs[@]iifac.org.
IIFAC © www.iifac.org

A SHORT GUIDE TO CONSENSUS BUILDING

by The Public Diputes Program. Part of the Inter-university
Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

An Alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order for Groups, Organizations and Ad Hoc Assemblies that Want to Operate By Consensus

Let’s compare what this Short Guide has to say with what Robert’s Rules of Order requires. Assume that a few dozen people have gotten together, on their own, at a community center because they are upset with a new policy or program recently announced by their local officials. After several impassioned speeches, someone suggests that the group appoint a moderator to “keep order” and ensure that the conversation proceeds effectively. Someone else wants to know how the group will decide what to recommend after they are done debating. “Will they vote?” this person wants to know.

At this point, everyone turns to Joe, who has had experience as a moderator. Joe moves to the front of the room and explains that he will follow Robert’s Rules of Order. From that moment on, the conversation takes on a very formal tone. Instead of just saying what’s on their mind, everyone is forced to frame suggestions in the cumbersome form of “motions.” These have to be “seconded.” Efforts to “move the question” are proceeded by an explanation from Joe about what is and isn’t an acceptable way of doing this. Proposals to “table” various items are considered, even though everyone hasn’t had a chance to speak. Ultimately, all-or-nothing votes are the only way the group seems able to make a decision.

As the hour passes, fewer and fewer of those in attendance feel capable of expressing their views. They don’t know the rules, and they are intimidated. Every once in a while, someone makes an effort to re-state the problem or make a suggestion, but they are shouted down. (“You’re not following Robert’s Rules!”) No one takes responsibility for ensuring that the concerns of everyone in the room are met, especially the needs of those individuals who are least able to present their views effectively. After an hour or so, many people have left. A final proposal is approved by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent of those remaining.

If the group had followed the procedures spelled out in this Short Guide to Consensus Building, the meeting would have been run differently and the result would probably have been a lot more to everyone’s liking. The person at the front of the room would have been a trained facilitator — a person with mediation skills — not a moderator with specialized knowledge about how motions should be made or votes should be taken. His or her job would have been to get agreement at the outset on how the group wanted to proceed.

Then, the facilitator or mediator would have focused on producing an agreement that could meet the underlying concerns of everyone in the room. No motions, no arcane rituals, no vote at the end. Instead, the facilitator would have pushed the group to brainstorm (e.g. ” Can anyone propose a way of proceeding that meets all the interests we have heard expressed thus far?” ) After as thorough consideration of options as time permitted, the facilitator would ask: “Is there anyone who can’t live with the last version of what has been proposed?” “If so, what improvement or modification can you suggest that will make it more acceptable to you, while continuing to meet the interests of everyone else with a stake in the issue?”

What’s Wrong With Robert’s Rules?

Robert’s Rules of Order was first published in 1870. It was based on the rules and practices of Congress, and presumed that parliamentary procedures (and majority rule) offered the most appropriate model for any and all groups. The author presumed that the Rules of Order would “assist an assembly in accomplishing the work for which it was designed” by “restraining the individual” so that the interests of the group could be met. [Cite] In the more than 125 years since Robert’s Rules was first published, many other approaches to group work and organizational activity have emerged. The goal of this Guide and the full Handbook is to codify the “best possible advice” to groups and organizations that prefer to operate with broad support, by consensus, rather than simply by majority rule. When we say consensus, we do not mean unanimity (although seeking unanimity is often a good idea). We believe that something greater than a bare majority achieved through voting is almost always more desirable than majority rule. Moreover, the formalism of parliamentary procedure is particularly unsatisfying and often counterproductive, getting in the way of common sense solutions. It relies on insider knowledge of the rules of the game. It does not tap the full range of facilitative skills of group leaders. And, it typically leaves many stakeholders (often something just short of a majority) angry and disappointed, with little or nothing to show for their efforts.

Even with these weaknesses, many social groups and organizations, especially in community settings, adhere to Robert’s Rules (by referencing them in their by-laws or articles of incorporation) because they have no other option. The Short Guide to Consensus Building (and the Handbook on which it is based) offers an alternative that builds on several decades of experience with effective consensus building techniques and strategies. No longer must groups and organizations settle for Robert’s Rules of Order or parliamentary procedure when they would be better off with an alternative that puts the emphasis on cooperation and consensus.

Definitions

In order to explain what has been learned about consensus building over the past several decades, certain terms are important. Indeed, they are central to the presentation in this Short Guide. They are not part of everyday language and, thus, require some explanation. The key terms we will define are consensus, facilitation, mediation, recording, convening, conflict assessment, single text procedure, creating and claiming value, maximizing joint gains, and circles of stakeholder involvement. These definitions have been developed over the past two decades. There is still not complete agreement among dispute resolution professionals about how they should be defined; so, where important disagreements remain, we will point them out.

Here are the most important definitions:

Consensus (which does not mean unanimity)

Consensus means overwhelming agreement. And, it is important that consensus be the product of a good-faith effort to meet the interests of all stakeholders. The key indicator of whether or not a consensus has been reached is that everyone agrees they can live with the final proposal; that is, after every effort has been made to meet any outstanding interests. Thus, consensus requires that someone frame a proposal after listening carefully to everyone’s interests. Interests, by the way, are not the same as positions or demands. Demands and positions are what people say they must have, but interests are the underlying needs or reasons that explain why they take the positions that they do. Most consensus building efforts set out to achieve unanimity. Along the way, however, it often becomes clear that there are holdouts — people who believe that their interests will be better served by remaining outside the emerging agreement. Should the rest of the group throw in the towel? No, this would invite blackmail (i.e. outrageous demands that have nothing to do with the issues under discussion). Most dispute resolution professionals believe that groups or assemblies should seek unanimity, but settle for overwhelming agreement that goes as far as possible toward meeting the interests of all stakeholders. It is absolutely crucial that this definition of success be clear at the outset.

Facilitation (a way of helping groups work together in meetings)

Facilitation is a management skill. When people are face-to-face, they need to talk and to listen. When there are several people involved, especially if they don’t know each other or they disagree sharply, getting the talking, listening, deciding sequence right is hard. Often, it is helpful to have someone who has no stake in the outcome assist in managing the conversation. Of course, a skilled group member can, with the concurrence of the participants, play this role, too. As the parties try to collect information, formulate proposals, defend their views, and take account of what others are saying, a facilitator reminds them of the ground rules they have adopted and, much like a referee, intervenes when someone violates the ground rules. The facilitator is supposed to be nonpartisan or neutral.

There is some disagreement in various professional circles about the extent to which an effective facilitator needs to be someone from outside the group. Certainly in a corporate context, work teams have traditionally relied on the person “in charge” to play a facilitative role. The concept of facilitative leadership is growing in popularity. Even work teams in the private sector, however, are turning more and more to skilled outsiders to provide facilitation services. In the final analysis, there is reason to believe that a stakeholder might use facilitative authority to advance his or her own interests at the expense of the others.

Mediation (a way of helping parties deal with strong disagreement)

While facilitators do most of their work “at the table” when the parties are face-to-face, mediators are often called upon to work with the parties before, during, and after their face-to-face meetings. While all mediators are skilled facilitators; not all facilitators have been trained to mediate. The classic image of the mediator comes from the labor relations field when the outside “neutral” shuttles back-and-forth between labor and management, each of which has retreated to a separate room as the strike deadline looms.

These days, mediators work in an extraordinarily wide range of conflict situations. Mediation is both a role and a group management skill. A group leader may have mediation skills and may be able to broker agreement by putting those skills to use. But, again, when the search for innovative solutions rests in the hands of one of the parties, it is often hard for the others to believe that the leader/mediator isn’t trying to advance his or her own interests at their expense.

The big debate in professional circles is whether any mediator really can (or should) be neutral. The referee in a sporting match must be nonpartisan; he or she can’t secretly be working for one team. The referee tries to uphold the rules of the game to which everyone has agreed. This is what is commonly meant by neutrality — nonpartisanship. However, some people have argued that a mediator should not be indifferent to blatant unfairness.

They believe that the mediator should not turn a blind eye to potentially unfair or unimplementable agreements, even if the “rules of the game” have not been violated. Yet, if a mediator intervenes on behalf of a party that may be about to “give away the store,” why should the others accept that mediator’s help? The answer probably depends on the level of confidence the parties have in the mediator and the terms of the mediator’s contract with the group.

Before the parties in a consensus building process come together, mediators (or facilitators) can play an important part in helping to identify the right participants, assist them in setting an agenda and clarifying the ground rules by which they will operate, and even in “selling” recalcitrant parties on the value to them of participating. Once the process has begun, mediators (and facilitators) try to assist the parties in their efforts to generate a creative resolution of differences.

During these discussions or negotiations, a mediator may accompany a representative back to a meeting with his or her constituents to explain what has been happening. The mediator might serve as a spokesperson for the process if the media are following the story. A mediator might (with the parties’ concurrence) push them to accept an accord (because they need someone to blame for forcing them to back-off the unreasonable demands they made at the outset). Finally, the mediator may be called upon to monitor implementation of an agreement and re-assemble the parties to review progress or deal with perceived violations or a failure to live up to commitments.

“Facilitation” and “mediation” are often used interchangeably. We think the key distinction is that facilitators work mostly with parties once they are “at the table” while mediators do that as well as handle the pre-negotiation and post-negotiation tasks described above. Some professionals have both sets of skills, many do not. Neither form of consensus build assistance requires stakeholders to give up their authority or their power to decide what is best for them.

Consensus is not Unanimity:
Making Decisions Co-operatively

Adapted from Randy Schutt
by Starhawk

What is consensus?

Is it a co-operative, process in which people share their best ideas and come up with superior decisions or a coercive, manipulative, time-wasting process in which those which are most treacherous, are most verbal, or have the most time can get their way? Or is it an idealistic fantasy where every problem always has a good simple solution that incorporates everyone’s ideas (no matter how ridiculous) and satisfies everyone completely?

Consensus is not Unanimity.

Many people think of consensus as simply an extended voting method in which every one must cast their votes the same way. Since unanimity of this kind only rarely occurs in groups with more than one member, groups that try to use this kind of process usually end up being either extremely frustrated or coercive. Either decisions are never made (leading to the demise of the group, its conversion into a social group that does not accomplish any tasks), they are made covertly, or some group or individual dominates the rest. Sometimes a majority dominates, sometimes a minority, sometimes an individual who employs “the Block”. But no matter how it is done, it is NOT consensus.

Consensus is a process for deciding what is best for a group.

The final decision is often not the first preference of each individual in the group and they may not even like the final result. But it is a decision to which they all consent because it is best for the group.

Consensus is a Co-operative Process.

Consensus is a process for people who want to work together honestly in good faith to find good solutions for the group It cannot be used by people who do not, can not or will not co-operate. Consensus should not be attempted in a group with people who want to maintain their wealth and privilege or want to dominate or control others. In these situations, nonviolent struggle would be more appropriate.

Consensus is Not Just a Process, but a Valuable Goal.

Consensus is a process that allows everyone in a group to participate and work together nonviolently to make decisions – the ultimate realisation of a true democracy and very attractive to anyone who has ever been dominated or oppressed. It gives people the power to make decisions and also demands that they take responsibility for those decisions. Rather than abdicating power to an individual or representative, it demands that that we take complete responsibility.

Consensus is One of the Best Processes.

If not consensus, then what? Usually voting is proposed as a reasonably democratic alternative. But voting is not a meeting process, it is simply a procedure. The goal of a vote is to tally the (existing ) preferences of a group of people, and in some logical, fair, and equitable way come up with a good decision. Kenneth Arrow received a Nobel Prize for proving it was impossible to do this except under very simple circumstances e.g. Situations when there are only two possible options. Furthermore, voting necessarily ignores the intensity of preference, each individual feels or the distribution of consequences that a decision imposes. And even under the best of circumstances, voting necessarily means that some group of people will not get what they want and if severely trampled by the majority, may leave the group or retaliate.

Voting can therefore only produce satisfying decisions where everyone is extremely tolerant or there is unanimity of opinion. Unanimity can sometimes be achieved if one person or group can persuade everyone else of the validity of their perspective and solution. But it the problem has no easy, clear solution, some people are personally devoted to a particular solution, or there is competition for power in the group, the process, will quickly bog down, factionalize , and/or revert to coercion.

Good consensus process gets around these problems by allowing the members of the group to explore in depth the complete range of options and concerns in a non-adversarial, co-operative atmosphere. Discussions in small groups allows everyone, even those who are not verbally adept, to express their ideas, concerns and opinions. Members of the group get a chance to learn from each otherís experiences and thinking, empathise with people with other experiences and backgrounds, and gracefully change their minds as they hear these new ideas and arguments. They can challenge dumb, obsolete, or immoral assumptions and solutions, and they can explore unusual solutions ( radical transformations, compromises, bargains etc ) that are often overlooked when the discussion gets polarised or restrained by formal proposals. Individuals can offer to give of their time or wealth or to suffer a loss for the good of the group. And people can be persuaded, inspired, loved, or counseled out of their prejudices, biases, and other rigidities or if this fails, nonviolently prevented from acting immorally.

Of course a good process that ends in a vote can also have all these co-operative aspects. In fact, a good voting process may be indistinguishable form a good consensus process until the end. But non-consensual processes usually rely on formal proposals, debates, and other parliamentary procedures that interfere with co-operation. Knowing that there will be an up-down vote at the end often polarises the discussion. Also, if the group should develop a lynch mob or group thinking mentality , there is no avenue for an individual or minority to slow or thwart their immoral decisions.

Consensus is Not Conflict – Free or Painless.

Good consensus process relies heavily on problem-solving, questioning, empathy, self-sacrifice, and nonviolent direct action. In a good process, conflict is not ignored or covered up, but encouraged. Issues and proposed solutions are thoroughly thrashed out until a good solution is found. Like any good nonviolent action, the ideas are severely challenged, but the people involved are listened to loved, and supported. When there are no easy solutions, then individuals must be willing to sacrifice for the good of the group or the group must divide or disband. When one person or a group (minority or majority refuses or is unable to work co-operatively, everyone else must boldly, yet tenderly resist and challenge them, or if necessary throw them out of the group (ideally, offering support and guidance to their next endeavor).

The Different Approaches to Consensus

by Tim Hartnett, PhD
www.GroupFacilitation.net

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 consensusreally 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.

Group Campouts

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.

The Special Place of Blocking in Consensus

by Tree Bressen

Funny as it may seem, people who teach consensus process are not in consensus on what constitutes an appropriate block.
Standards vary widely, and i’d be willing to bet it’s a disagreement that goes back many years before the 1981 publication of the classic manual Building United Judgment. That book describes how the collective producing it almost broke up over their inability to come to agreement on how to address blocking. In their case, the breakthrough came when the authors agreed to include multiple viewpoints in the text, each set off in its own box.
That solution met the needs of that particular situation. But what are practicing groups to do who need clarity in order to move ahead? My aim here is to describe different standards in use, explain roles and functions that blocking can serve, and leave it up to you to decide.

* * *

First, let’s be clear on the areas of agreement, which are substantial. I have seen no source of information on consensus that allows for blocking based on individual preference. That is, all the trainers and books agree that blocks must be based on a member’s perception of group needs rather than on something they want for themselves. This is a key point on blocking and the one most often overlooked by newcomers to the process. Consensus is not extreme voting—it’s a genuinely different method that requires participants to adopt a bigger perspective and focus on group needs.
Second, it’s essential that any blocks which emerge are fully understood as to what the blocker’s concern is and why they feel that way. Accessing that knowledge will assist a meeting in discerning whether to continue further work on the proposal or to lay it down.
Third, in a well-functioning group, blocks shouldn’t happen very often. Consensus guru Caroline Estes is known for saying that a person should only block up to half a dozen times in their lifetime, total, for all the groups they participate in. If blocking is happening often, the group probably needs more training in consensus process.

* * *

C.T. Butler, in his Formal Consensus booklet, sets a high bar. He maintains that the entire group must agree that a block is based in a group principle or the group’s well-being in order for the block to hold. This standard is a reasonable response to the context that C.T.’s methodology was developed in: political groups who had to deal with government infiltrators and provocateurs.  This is similar to the interpretation offered by one Quaker elder at my local Friends’ Meeting:  

“When an individual cannot unite with a decision, it is the group that allows the individual’s truth to stand in the way. The individual does not have veto power. In other words, a person cannot stand in the way of the meeting. Rather, the meeting allows that person’s truth to stand in its way. The meeting takes this action, not the individual. Although it is done rarely, the meeting may decide to go forward even though an individual is not in unity.”

In contrast, communitarian Laird Schaub says that the blocker only needs to be able to convince at least one other member of the group that the block is based in an explicitly held group value. (The other person doesn’t need to feel the same way as the blocker, they just need to admit the validity of the analysis.)
Using that model, blocks are most likely to arise either when two different values that a group holds come into conflict with each other (e.g., ecological sustainability vs. affordability when constructing a community building) or when there are different interpretations of an existing common value. As Laird puts it: “I urge a community to not be dismayed by discovering that different members have different spins on what a common value means. You weren’t really thinking you all thought the same way on everything, were you? I didn’t think so. So expect differences to arise.”
The standard used by Quaker elder Caroline Estes is that one can only block when the outcome for the group would be otherwise catastrophic. Not just bad, but disastrously bad. She also says that it’s not okay for one person to prevent the group from taking risks, so long as the group is making an informed choice.
As an example, she tells a story of Pacific Yearly Meeting which, during the Vietnam War, wanted to send a ship bearing humanitarian aid to the North Vietnamese. Such an act fell under the official definition of treason, but the Quakers have long been a determined, pacifist people, and energy was building in support. Near the end of the meeting, one person stood to speak. This person pointed out that technically such an act would put in a liable position not only all the Friends in the room, but all the members of Pacific Yearly Meeting, many of whom were not in attendance at the meeting that day to give their assent to such a drastic risk. The person sat down, and the clerk (facilitator) announced, “Friends, we will now adjourn for lunch.”
The correctness of the person’s action was clear, as there was widespread agreement that it wouldn’t have been fair to subject absent members to severe legal penalties. Over lunch, the people in support of the proposal got together and went forward with their plans to charter the ship—just not in the official name of Pacific Yearly Meeting. Note that the strong desire to act did find an outlet, and one that truly addressed the concern which had been raised.

* * *

However, the story above brings up an interesting question. Why didn’t the person object sooner? Could they not get a turn to speak? Did the concern not occur to them until the eleventh hour? It seems to me that if they’d spoken up earlier, the rest of the group would have seen the wisdom of the statement, and rather than ending at a block, the whole group would have shifted to a search for new solutions.
In fact i’ve sometimes suggested this as a filter to people who are wondering whether a block is appropriate; i tell them that if there’s not a sense of resonance from others who hear the block, then it’s probably based in self-interest rather than the group’s needs, and therefore the blocker should likely stand aside instead. In that sense appropriate blocks cease to exist, because they result in a shift in group insight which converts them from barriers held by one person into concerns to be integrated by the whole.
However, blocks also serve as a safety valve in the system. I once worked with a land trust that reported a high frequency of blocks. As i inquired further, i discovered that in their process blocking was the only way to say, “I need more time for discussion on this item before we make a decision.” I encouraged the group not to rush so much, and to include an option in their decision-making for “I have some concerns and would like to dialogue more” that would feel different and more positive than blocking, thus reserving blocking for catastrophic-level concerns that emerge after substantial discussion.
While we all wish for good process with people who listen fully to each other, there are a lot of real groups out there that aren’t operating that way. For those groups with weak process, blocking is the way to ensure that if someone is being railroaded, they have a way to stop the train.
On the other hand, the blocking option is much more likely to be invoked by assertive personalities who can resist peer pressure from the group, and sometimes these are the “problem” members of the community.
That’s why teacher Rob Sandelin advocates a voting fallback, so that one member can’t exercise a “tyranny of the minority” over the group. If someone knows they can be outvoted, Rob thinks they’ll be more likely to act cooperatively. Other trainers, however, raise the concern that groups with voting fallbacks may avoid the hard work of coming to consensus. I’ve been happy to see that cohousing communities, which all have voting fallbacks in their bylaws due to requirements arising from conventional bank financing, rarely if ever invoke them in practice.
N Street Cohousing in Davis, California has another safety mechanism in place to protect the integrity of the consensus process. Part of their standard for blocking is that the person who blocks must meet multiple times with the people who made the proposal in order to try to craft something that will meet all the needs and concerns. If this requirement is not met, then the block doesn’t count and the decision can proceed. That policy is a way of codifying the need for anyone who is considering blocking a decision to work constructively on ways to resolve their concerns, which is an essential part of making consensus work.
When teaching consensus i tend to de-emphasize blocking, focusing on the process as “the power to listen” rather than “the power to block.” However, as a key feature that distinguishes consensus from majority voting, it’s critical to recognize the place of blocking in the system.

Tree Bressen, facilitator and teacher, has been assisting intentional communities, nonprofits, and other organizations with group process since 1994. Pages from her website are available for copying and distribution free of charge as long as you continue to include these credit lines and contact information.

Tree Bressen
Eugene, Oregon
541-343-3855

 

What if You Needed a Town Planning Decision Supported by (Almost) Everyone?
by Rick Lent, PhD
www.BrownfieldandLent.com

This story of successful consensus building involves all registered voters in a New England town who must agree on a complex town planning decision: the building of a new school and the potential de-commissioning of an existing school. Final decisions would have to be made by the whole community through a town meeting and subsequent voting. The process is guided by an appointed committee that reports to the town board of selectmen which approves the proposals to be brought to the town meeting, although citizen groups can and sometimes do offer competing proposals.

Challenge: Ten Years without A Decision
For 10 years, the town had been unable to make a decision regarding the need for a new school. Several committees had brought proposals to town meeting for approval only to be rejected. In the most recent attempt, the school building committee’s proposal was defeated when an ad hoc group of citizens offered a competing proposal based on different assumptions and resulting cost estimates. The town was paralyzed and polarized around the decision.

Building a school is one of the most expensive undertakings a town can take on. It will affect the property taxes of every resident. Good schools are important to everyone, but at what cost? Meanwhile there are competing needs for town resources, and in this case pressing needs for a senior center and new recreation fields. The stakeholders in this effort included parents, senior citizens, the school administration and teachers, and every town taxpayer (some of whom were very concerned about any increase in their tax rates). Finally, the state was a stakeholder too as they would (hopefully) agree to fund a significant portion of the building project if it met state guidelines and priorities.

Critical variables in this picture included the lack of suitable town-owned land, a desire to reuse existing school property/buildings if this was feasible, and the importance of minimizing the impact on current school children. And then there was the big variable of cost and what the state might cover or not.

Approach: Open the Process Up to Engage More of the Stakeholders
To change ten years of failed efforts, the first step was to involve a wide range of stakeholders in the planning committee. While this committee did not include the “whole system” it did include a wide range of views—not only those wanting better schools for their children, but also those whose commitment to a new school was tempered by its impact on local taxes. This committee was to be a microcosm of the whole town, which made it unusually large and required good facilitation and leadership just to keep it together and moving forward.

Over many weeks of meeting together, committee members were able to share their perspectives and see how their own thinking was evolving. They got to know each other and develop some basis for arriving at consensus. What helped this process along were the time spent together, good facilitation, and the “simple” decision to not begin taking any formal votes for some months. In time, the committee was ready to add technical expertise and eventually hired consulting architects with expertise in school building projects.

All of this committee work, however, would likely be wasted if the whole town was not informed and involved in shaping the decisions in a different way than had been true before. Some means had to be developed to keep the process open to the whole town in a way that supported the committee’s ongoing work. We needed a process that would help the committee engage the town as a whole in a way that would lead to a productive decision.

Special Town Forums Make It Possible to Engage Everyone in the Process. To engage the community effectively, we used the nine months leading up to the town meeting to conduct a series of four, specially designed meetings or “town forums.” These forums were designed to:

  • Update the town on the progress of the committee’s thinking, one step at a time (breaking the content into more accessible pieces; providing a framework for a complex discussion).
  • Gather the community’s comments in a timely way to influence the committee’s ongoing work.
  • Provide multiple opportunities for people to get engaged.
  • Let the town see that each person on the committee – including some person who they identified with for their views – was invested, committed and bought into committee and the process.
  • Demonstrate the openness and structure of a process of sharing information and decisions that would evolve over time to a limited set of final choices.

What was most important about these “forums” was that they were not structured like the usual town committee hearings. Such hearings followed a typical form with committee members behind a table making presentations and fielding questions “thrown” at them by attendees. Such meetings were often contentious with “sides” and people trying to “score” points for their views while the committee tried to maintain control. By comparison, community forums were designed to build engagement, not just advocacy (and opposition), and to promote conversations rather than manage positions or “win” some point.

The innovative, if simple, design of these forums emphasized the following characteristics:

  • Short presentations
    * So information was short and to the point so there was plenty of time for town participants to get engaged with the information provided
  • Presentations were always followed by some opportunity for participants to engage with each other and individual committee members
    * So participants had a chance to check out their thinking in a smaller group before “lobbing” some query at the committee in public.
  • Presentations and answers to most questions handled by committee members, not the architects
    * So it was community member to community member
  • Meetings began and ended on time, and were kept to a reasonable duration
    * So as to be respectful to all.
  • There was a special room set-up to spread out information, expertise and participation.
    * Chairs placed around the room
    * Information displays placed around the room
    * Microphones were brought to participants – rather than having participants go to a stand at the front of the room. This meant that participants had to look around at each other as they raised questions, making it more of a conversation among the community, not just between the questioner and the committee member.

There were four town forums with an average attendance of 60 (in a town of 5000) plus those who watched at home via local cable TV. Across these forums, the options and information became increasingly more specific. At the last forum, the options being discussed were very close to the final proposal to be put to the whole town at annual town meeting.

Results: Overwhelming Approval of the Plan
At the annual town meeting, the committee’s final proposal was presented. This meeting had very heavy attendance with hundreds of voters present. After a relatively brief presentation and discussion from the floor, the motion to approve the school building proposal passed on a voice vote. At a special town election a week later, the proposed plan for the school building passed again by an overwhelming margin.

What Went Right?
The point here is not so much that a particular building project was approved, but that a divided town system was now able to come together with broad support for a formerly contentious decision. How? Through broad engagement, step by step within the committee and through multiple, carefully designed open town meetings. Throughout this process, the whole system was present and all information as well as the process was transparent. People were engaged in a different dialogue by design that enabled new meaning and agreements to evolve around what previously had been an intractable planning problem. The final solution reflected much of the learning from this process and the town as a whole was wiser about its choices.

A Checklist for the Consensus Process

— Edited by Randy Schutt, P.O. Box 608867, Cleveland, OH 44108 Vernal Project.org.

These are just some of the many ways to conduct a meeting using the consensus process. Roles should be carried out by everyone as needed — not just the person specially designated.

Basic Procedure


Before the meeting (or at previous meeting):
Choose facilitator(s)
Gather agenda items
Determine presenter/initiator for each item
Determine item type: announcement, report,
discussion, decision
Bring materials/supplies needed
At the meeting:
Connect (game, song, ritual, etc.)
Check-in/excitement-sharing
Agenda review: agree on order and time
Choose notetaker, timekeeper, vibeswatcher
Step through the agenda
Set next meeting
Evaluation (good, bad, better)
Closing (game, song, ritual, etc.)


The Flow of a Cooperative Decision-Making
Process


Issue raised — what is the problem?
Clarify problem — put it in context
Discuss, bring out a diversity of ideas, concerns, and
perspectives — look at possible solutions and the
problems with those solutions
Encourage heartfelt dissent and challenge
Note agreements and disagreements and the underlying
reasons for them — discuss those underlying reasons
Synthesize proposed ideas/solutions or come up with
totally new ideas in the supportive atmosphere of the
meeting (find a “third way”)
Evaluate the different ideas until one idea seems right for
the group
Establish how the decision will be implemented
Make sure there are no loose ends
Restate the decision for the notetaker (including
implementation)


Discussion/Problem-Solving Tools


Brainstorms
Go around the circle
Small-group discussion (3-7 people)
Advantages/disadvantages chart
Visual aids
Visible notes
Goals-/priorities-setting techniques
Challenges/devil’s advocate questions


Process/Empowerment Tools


Participation equalizers (pebbles, etc.)
Active listening in pairs
Support groups/caucuses
Feelings sharing
Fishbowls
Role plays


Typical Tasks of Facilitator(s)


Helps formulate agenda
Helps establish a hopeful, upbeat, and safe atmosphere
Helps group work through decisions:
Asks for clarification
Summarizes and sorts discussion — lists threads of
thought, agreements, and disagreements
Helps focus and order discussion topics
Brings out all viewpoints
Restates final decisions
Encourages equal participation
Draws out quiet people
Asks windy speakers to be brief
Encourages everyone to perform leadership tasks
Calls on speakers
Stays neutral while facilitating


Typical Tasks of a Vibeswatcher


(“Caretaker”)
Watches the process of the meeting
Notices underlying feelings from tone of voice and body
language, points out tension and weariness,
recommends changes
Stops bad process (domineering, guilt-tripping,
interrupting, put-downs, bulldozing, defensiveness,
space-outs, etc.)
Helps resolve conflicts
Helps work out negative emotions (fear, anger, anxiety,
hopelessness)
Suggests tools to improve meetings
Helps create a safe, accepting tone
Deals with outside distractions


Stress-Reduction Techniques


Stretch breaks/cooperative games
Singing
Humor
Affirmations
Feelings sharing
Silence (mediation, prayer)
Calm voice
Eye contact
Breathing (deep)
Back rubs


Conflict Resolution Tools


Appreciations/affirmations
Active listening
I-messages
Restating other’s viewpoint
Six-step problem solving technique
Support groups
Venting emotions somewhere else
Gripe sessions
Resentment sharing
Fishbowls

Why Bother with Consensus Building?
Hal Movius

The business world, where I practice, lags behind other sectors in making use of consensus building
techniques. Too often leaders ask for input, write notes on flipcharts, foster debate- and then make a
decision behind closed doors without clear criteria.[…] If you listen to any cable or radio news show for an hour, chances are that someone will ask whether there is
consensus in Washington, Wall Street, or Main Street. As defined by Merriam- Webster dictionary,
consensus means 1) unanimous or general agreement; 2) group solidarity of sentiment or thought. These
days such solidarity can be hard to come by.

When I ask audiences what consensus building means, the most common response is that it involves
discussion or debate that leads to some minimal agreement or watered- down compromise. But that’s a far
cry from the creative and collaborative efforts and outcomes that I see in our work. Practiced well,
consensus building involves:

1. Bringing additional players into the process who can add new or different information and
perspectives;

2. Creating ground rules for conversation that make it possible for parties to understand one
another’s interests;

3. Identifying areas in which technical data are conflicting, ambiguous, or subject to different
interpretation;

4. Supporting “joint fact finding” to help move the deliberations beyond positional claims and
counterclaims and to establish shared assumptions or baselines around past findings and current
or future risk and uncertainty;

5. Fostering the invention of new ideas and options that meet the parties’ interests more substantially
than the options that had previously existed.

It’s this last aspect that most people miss. Often, the new ideas and options that emerge through consensus
building are the ones to increase the legitimacy of solutions, making widespread endorsement and
implementation more likely.

When I describe what CBI practitioners are up to – conflict assessments and negotiation audits; consensus
building; tailored training and coaching; neutral assistance in complex negotiations- audiences are surprised
at the range of problems we tackle using a common theory, the Mutual Gains Approach. But as Kurt Lewin
once remarked, there is nothing so practical as a good theory. When parties collaborate to invent options
that address their goals and concerns, they create agreements that are more efficient, more valuable, and
more sustainable than what they could have created in isolation or in positional haggling. It does not matter
whether they are negotiating a billion dollar commercial venture, an international trade agreement, an
environmental policy initiative, or the design of a local public school.

The most common objection (and misconception) that I hear is that consensus building “takes too long.” This
was the opinion of a CEO with whom I spoke recently. In his mind, consensus required ceding control to a
large group that would bat around a few options until everyone assented to one of them, perhaps in a
modified form. Summoning a bit of courage, I asked, “How long will it take if you try to implement a bad
www.iifac.org
The most common objection (and misconception) that I hear is that consensus building “takes too long.” This
was the opinion of a CEO with whom I spoke recently. In his mind, consensus required ceding control to a
large group that would bat around a few options until everyone assented to one of them, perhaps in a
modified form. Summoning a bit of courage, I asked, “How long will it take if you try to implement a bad
idea?” He looked irritated but then laughed, saying, “I get the point.” I suggested that an outside facilitator
could draw out hidden interests and concerns, focus discussions, identify missing information, help generate
new ideas, pinpoint sources of disagreement, and give both creativity and ownership to the group – without a
lot of extra time.

Consensus building is not about badgering parties into compromise. Instead, it is about creating a
collaborative workspace where new ideas can lead to better agreements. In CBI Reports, and at our
website, you will find examples of the kind of work we are doing around the world. We hope you will spread
the word: consensus building can help leaders and organizations to create better solutions to complex,
pressing problems.

Hal Movius is a Principal at the Consensus Building Institute and directs its Assessment, Coaching and
Training services. Hal helps organizations to understand how well they are currently negotiating, and to
develop systems and structures that improve how individuals and teams negotiate. He has trained more
than a thousand executives and advised organizations of all sizes.

December, 2009. For further information visit cbuilding.org/
This article is an excerpt of the one appeared in the winter issue of
CBI Report, December 2009