On Conflict and Consensus
a handbook on Formal Consensus decisionmaking
by C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein
If war is the violent resolution of conflict,
then peace is not the absence of conflict,
the ability to resolve conflict
Consensus, as a decisionmaking process, has been developing for centuries.
Many people, in diverse communities, have contributed to this development.
From them, we have borrowed generously and
1 The Advantages of Formal
2 On Decisionmaking
Characteristics of Formal Consensus
The Structure of Formal Consensus
3 On Conflict and Consensus
The Flow of Formal Consensus
The Rules of Formal Consensus
Foundation Upon Which Consensus Is Built
4 The Art of Evaluation
Impediments To Consensus
On Degrees of Conflict
Purpose of Evaluation
Uses of Evaluation
Types of Evaluation Questions
Group Discussion Techniques
There are many ways to make decisions. Sometimes, the most efficient way
to make decisions would be to just let the manager (or CEO, or dictator)
make them. However, efficiency is not the only criteria. When choosing a
decisionmaking method, one needs to ask two questions. Is it a fair process?
Does it produce good solutions?
1 The Advantages of Formal
To judge the process, consider the following: Does the meeting flow smoothly?
Is the discussion kept to the point? Does it take too long to make each
decision? Does the leadership determine the outcome of the discussion? Are
some people overlooked?
To judge the quality of the end result, the decision, consider: Are
the people making the decision, and all those affected, satisfied with the
result? To what degree is the intent of the original proposal accomplished?
Are the underlying issues addressed? Is there an appropriate use of resources?
Would the group make the same decision again?
Autocracy can work, but the idea of a benevolent dictator is just a dream.
We believe that it is inherently better to involve every person who is affected
by the decision in the decisionmaking process. This is true for several
reasons. The decision would reflect the will of the entire group, not just
the leadership. The people who carry out the plans will be more satisfied
with their work. And, as the old adage goes, two heads are better than one.
This book presents a particular model for decisionmaking we call Formal
Consensus. Formal Consensus has a clearly defined structure. It requires
a commitment to active cooperation, disciplined speaking and listening,
and respect for the contributions of every member. Likewise, every person
has the responsibility to actively participate as a creative individual
within the structure.
Avoidance, denial, and repression of conflict is common during meetings.
Therefore, using Formal Consensus might not be easy at first. Unresolved
conflict from previous experiences could come rushing forth and make the
process difficult, if not impossible. Practice and discipline, however,
will smooth the process. The benefit of everyone's participation and cooperation
is worth the struggle it may initially take to ensure that all voices are
It is often said that consensus is time-consuming and difficult. Making
complex, difficult decisions is time-consuming, no matter what the process.
Many different methods can be efficient, if every participant shares a common
understanding of the rules of the game. Like any process, Formal Consensus
can be inefficient if a group does not first assent to follow a particular
This book codifies a formal structure for decisionmaking. It is hoped that
the relationship between this book and Formal Consensus would be similar
to the relationship between Robert's Rules of Order and Parliamentary Procedure.
Methods of decisionmaking can be seen on a continuum with one person having
total authority on one end to everyone sharing power and responsibility
on the other.
The level of participation increases along this decisionmaking continuum.
Oligarchies and autocracies offer no participation to many of those who
are directly affected. Representative, majority rule, and consensus democracies
involve everybody, to different degrees.
A group, by definition, is a number of individuals having some unifying
relationship. The group dynamic created by consensus process is completely
different from that of Parliamentary Procedure, from start to finish. It
is based on different values and uses a different language, a different
structure, and many different techniques, although some techniques are similar.
It might be helpful to explain some broad concepts about group dynamics
While decisionmaking is as much about conflict as it is about agreement,
Formal Consensus works best in an atmosphere in which conflict is encouraged,
supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, nonviolence, and creativity.
Conflict is desirable. It is not something to be avoided, dismissed, diminished,
Majority Rule and Competition
Generally speaking, when a group votes using majority rule or Parliamentary
Procedure, a competitive dynamic is created within the group because it
is being asked to choose between two (or more) possibilities. It is just
as acceptable to attack and diminish another's point of view as it is to
promote and endorse your own ideas. Often, voting occurs before one side
reveals anything about itself, but spends time solely attacking the opponent!
In this adversarial environment, one's ideas are owned and often defended
in the face of improvements.
Consensus and Cooperation
Consensus process, on the other hand, creates a cooperative dynamic. Only
one proposal is considered at a time. Everyone works together to make it
the best possible decision for the group. Any concerns are raised and resolved,
sometimes one by one, until all voices are heard. Since proposals are no
longer the property of the presenter, a solution can be created more cooperatively.
In the consensus process, only proposals which intend to accomplish the
common purpose are considered. During discussion of a proposal, everyone
works to improve the proposal to make it the best decision for the group.
All proposals are adopted unless the group decides it is contrary to the
best interests of the group.
Characteristics of Formal Consensus
Before a group decides to use Formal Consensus, it must honestly assess
its ability to honor the principles described in Chapter Three. If the principles
described in this book are not already present or if the group is not willing
to work to create them, then Formal Consensus will not be possible. Any
group which wants to adopt Formal Consensus needs to give considerable attention
to the underlying principles which support consensus and help the process
operate smoothly. This is not to say each and every one of the principles
described herein must be adopted by every group, or that each group cannot
add its own principles specific to its goals, but rather, each group must
be very clear about the foundation of principles or common purposes they
choose before they attempt the Formal Consensus decisionmaking process.
Formal Consensus is the least violent decisionmaking process.
Traditional nonviolence theory holds that the use of power to dominate is
violent and undesirable. Nonviolence expects people to use their power to
persuade without deception, coercion, or malice, using truth, creativity,
logic, respect, and love. Majority rule voting process and Parliamentary
Procedure both accept, and even encourage, the use of power to dominate
others. The goal is the winning of the vote, often regardless of another
choice which might be in the best interest of the whole group. The will
of the majority supersedes the concerns and desires of the minority. This
is inherently violent. Consensus strives to take into account everyone's
concerns and resolve them before any decision is made. Most importantly,
this process encourages an environment in which everyone is respected and
all contributions are valued.
Formal Consensus is the most democratic decisionmaking process.
Groups which desire to involve as many people as possible need to use an
inclusive process. To attract and involve large numbers, it is important
that the process encourages participation, allows equal access to power,
develops cooperation, promotes empowerment, and creates a sense of individual
responsibility for the group's actions. All of these are cornerstones of
Formal Consensus. The goal of consensus 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.
Formal Consensus is based on the principles of the group.
Although every individual must consent to a decision before it is adopted,
if there are any objections, it is not the choice of the individual alone
to determine if an objection prevents the proposal from being adopted. Every
objection or concern must first be presented before the group and either
resolved or validated. A valid objection is one in keeping with all previous
decisions of the group and based upon the commonly-held principles or foundation
adopted by the group. The objection must not only address the concerns of
the individual, but it must also be in the best interest of the group as
a whole. If the objection is not based upon the foundation, or is in contradiction
with a prior decision, it is not valid for the group, and therefore, out
Formal Consensus is desirable in larger groups.
If the structure is vague, decisions can be difficult to achieve. They will
become increasingly more difficult in larger groups. Formal Consensus is
designed for large groups. It is a highly structured model. It has guidelines
and formats for managing meetings, facilitating discussions, resolving conflict,
and reaching decisions. Smaller groups may need less structure, so they
may choose from the many techniques and roles suggested in this book.
Formal Consensus works better when more people participate.
Consensus is more than the sum total of ideas of the individuals in the
group. During discussion, ideas build one upon the next, generating new
ideas, until the best decision emerges. This dynamic is called the creative
interplay of ideas. Creativity plays a major part as everyone strives to
discover what is best for the group. The more people involved in this cooperative
process, the more ideas and possibilities are generated. Consensus works
best with everyone participating. (This assumes, of course, that everyone
in the group is trained in Formal Consensus and is actively using it.)
Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming.
Decisions are not an end in themselves. Decisionmaking is a process which
starts with an idea and ends with the actual implementation of the decision.
While it may be true in an autocratic process that decisions can be made
quickly, the actual implementation will take time. When one person or a
small group of people makes a decision for a larger group, the decision
not only has to be communicated to the others, but it also has to be acceptable
to them or its implementation will need to be forced upon them. This will
certainly take time, perhaps a considerable amount of time. On the other
hand, if everyone participates in the decisionmaking, the decision does
not need to be communicated and its implementation does not need to be forced
upon the participants. The decision may take longer to make, but once it
is made, implementation can happen in a timely manner. The amount of time
a decision takes to make from start to finish is not a factor of the process
used; rather, it is a factor of the complexity of the proposal itself. An
easy decision takes less time than a difficult, complex decision, regardless
of the process used or the number of people involved. Of course, Formal
Consensus works better if one practices patience, but any process is improved
with a generous amount of patience.
Formal Consensus cannot be secretly disrupted.
This may not be an issue for some groups, but many people know that the
state actively surveilles, infiltrates, and disrupts nonviolent domestic
political and religious groups. To counteract anti-democratic tactics by
the state, a group would need to develop and encourage a decisionmaking
process which could not be covertly controlled or manipulated. Formal Consensus,
if practiced as described in this book, is just such a process. Since the
assumption is one of cooperation and good will, it is always appropriate
to ask for an explanation of how and why someone's actions are in the best
interest of the group. Disruptive behavior must not be tolerated. While
it is true this process cannot prevent openly disruptive behavior, the point
is to prevent covert disruption, hidden agenda, and malicious manipulation
of the process. Any group for which infiltration is a threat ought to consider
the process outlined in this book if it wishes to remain open, democratic,
Decisions are adopted when all participants consent to the result of discussion
about the original proposal. People who do not agree with a proposal are
responsible for expressing their concerns. No decision is adopted until
there is resolution of every concern. When concerns remain after discussion,
individuals can agree to disagree by acknowledging that they have unresolved
concerns, but consent to the proposal anyway and allow it to be adopted.
Therefore, reaching consensus does not assume that everyone must be in complete
agreement, a highly unlikely situation in a group of intelligent, creative
2 On Decisionmaking
Consensus is becoming popular as a democratic form of decisionmaking. It
is a process which requires an environment in which all contributions are
valued and participation is encouraged. There are, however, few organizations
which use a model of consensus which is specific, consistent, and efficient.
Often, the consensus process is informal, vague, and very inconsistent.
This happens when the consensus process is not based upon a solid foundation
and the structure is unknown or nonexistent. To develop a more formal type
of consensus process, any organization must define the commonly held principles
which form the foundation of the group's work and intentionally choose the
type of structure within which the process is built.
This book contains the building materials for just such a process. Included
is a description of the principles from which a foundation is created, the
flowchart and levels of structure which are the frame for the process, and
the other materials needed for designing a variety of processes which can
be customized to fit the needs of the organization.
The Structure of Formal Consensus
Many groups regularly use diverse discussion techniques learned from practitioners
in the field of conflict resolution. Although this book does include several
techniques, the book is about a structure called Formal Consensus.
This structure creates a separation between the identification and
the resolution of concerns. Perhaps, if everybody in the group has
no trouble saying what they think, they won't need this structure. This
predictable structure provides opportunities to those who don't feel empowered
Formal Consensus is presented in levels or cycles. In the first level, the
idea is to allow everyone to express their perspective, including concerns,
but group time is not spent on resolving problems. In the second level the
group focuses its attention on identifying concerns, still not resolving
them. This requires discipline. Reactive comments, even funny ones, and
resolutions, even good ones, can suppress the creative ideas of others.
Not until the third level does the structure allow for exploring resolutions.
Each level has a different scope and focus. At the first level, the scope
is broad, allowing the discussion to consider the philosophical and political
implications as well as the general merits and drawbacks and other relevant
information. The only focus is on the proposal as a whole. Some decisions
can be reached after discussion at the first level. At the second level,
the scope of the discussion is limited to the concerns. They are identified
and publicly listed, which enables everyone to get an overall picture of
the concerns. The focus of attention is on identifying the body of concerns
and grouping similar ones. At the third level, the scope is very narrow.
The focus of discussion is limited to a single unresolved concern until
it is resolved.
The Flow of the Formal Consensus Process
In an ideal situation, every proposal would be submitted in writing and
briefly introduced the first time it appears on the agenda. At the next
meeting, after everyone has had enough time to read it and carefully consider
any concerns, the discussion would begin in earnest. Often, it would not
be until the third meeting that a decision is made. Of course, this depends
upon how many proposals are on the table and the urgency of the decision.
Clarify the Process
The facilitator introduces the person presenting the proposal and gives
a short update on any previous action on it. It is very important for the
facilitator to explain the process which brought this proposal to the meeting,
and to describe the process that will be followed to move the group through
the proposal to consensus. It is the facilitator's job to make sure that
every participant clearly understands the structure and the discussion techniques
being employed while the meeting is in progress.
Present Proposal or Issue
When possible and appropriate, proposals ought to be prepared in writing
and distributed well in advance of the meeting in which a decision is required.
This encourages prior discussion and consideration, helps the presenter
anticipate concerns, minimizes surprises, and involves everyone in creating
the proposal. (If the necessary groundwork has not been done, the wisest
choice might be to send the proposal to committee. Proposal writing is difficult
to accomplish in a large group. The committee would develop the proposal
for consideration at a later time.) The presenter reads the written proposal
aloud, provides background information, and states clearly its benefits
and reasons for adoption, including addressing any existing concerns.
Questions Which Clarify the Presentation
Questions are strictly limited by the facilitator to those which seek greater
comprehension of the proposal as presented. Everyone deserves the opportunity
to fully understand what is being asked of the group before discussion begins.
This is not a time for comments or concerns. If there are only a few questions,
they can be answered one at a time by the person presenting the proposal.
If there are many, a useful technique is hearing all the questions first,
then answering them together. After answering all clarifying questions,
the group begins discussion.
Discussion at this level ought to be the broadest in scope. Try to encourage
comments which take the whole proposal into account; i.e., why it is a good
idea, or general problems which need to be addressed. Discussion at this
level often has a philosophical or principled tone, purposely addressing
how this proposal might affect the group in the long run or what kind of
precedent it might create, etc. It helps every proposal to be discussed
in this way, before the group engages in resolving particular concerns.
Do not allow one concern to become the focus of the discussion. When particular
concerns are raised, make note of them but encourage the discussion to move
back to the proposal as a whole. Encourage the creative interplay of comments
and ideas. Allow for the addition of any relevant factual information. For
those who might at first feel opposed to the proposal, this discussion is
consideration of why it might be good for the group in the broadest sense.
Their initial concerns might, in fact, be of general concern to the whole
group. And, for those who initially support the proposal, this is a time
to think about the proposal broadly and some of the general problems. If
there seems to be general approval of the proposal, the facilitator, or
someone recognized to speak, can request a call for consensus.
Level One: Broad Open Discussion
Call for Consensus
The facilitator asks, "Are there any unresolved concerns?" or
"Are there any concerns remaining?" After a period of silence,
if no additional concerns are raised, the facilitator declares that consensus
is reached and the proposal is read for the record. The length of silence
ought to be directly related to the degree of difficulty in reaching consensus;
an easy decision requires a short silence, a difficult decision requires
a longer silence. This encourages everyone to be at peace in accepting the
consensus before moving on to other business. At this point, the facilitator
assigns task responsibilities or sends the decision to a committee for implementation.
It is important to note that the question is not "Is there consensus?"
or "Does everyone agree?". These questions do not encourage an
environment in which all concerns can be expressed. If some people have
a concern, but are shy or intimidated by a strong showing of support for
a proposal, the question "Are there any unresolved concerns?"
speaks directly to them and provides an opportunity for them to speak. Any
concerns for which someone stands aside are listed with the proposal and
become a part of it.
Level Two: Identify Concerns
At the beginning of the next level, a discussion technique called brainstorming
(see page 55) is used so that concerns can be identified and written down
publicly by the scribe and for the record by the notetaker. Be sure the
scribe is as accurate as possible by checking with the person who voiced
the concern before moving on. This is not a time to attempt to resolve concerns
or determine their validity. That would stifle free expression of concerns.
At this point, only concerns are to be expressed, reasonable or unreasonable,
well thought out or vague feelings. The facilitator wants to interrupt any
comments which attempt to defend the proposal, resolve the concerns, judge
the value of the concerns, or in any way deny or dismiss another's feelings
of doubt or concern. Sometimes simply allowing a concern to be expressed
and written down helps resolve it. After all concerns have been listed,
allow the group a moment to reflect on them as a whole.
List All Concerns
Group Related Concerns
At this point, the focus is on identifying patterns and relationships between
concerns. This short exercise must not be allowed to focus upon or resolve
any particular concern.
Level Three: Resolve Concerns
Often, related concerns can be resolved as a group.
Resolve Groups of Related Concerns
Call for Consensus
If most of the concerns seem to have been resolved, call for consensus in
the manner described earlier. If some concerns have not been resolved at
this time, then a more focused discussion is needed.
Restate Remaining Concerns (One at a Time)
Return to the list. The facilitator checks each one with the group and removes
ones which have been resolved or are, for any reason, no longer of concern.
Each remaining concern is restated clearly and concisely and addressed one
at a time. Sometimes new concerns are raised which need to be added to the
list. However, every individual is responsible for honestly expressing concerns
as they think of them. It is not appropriate to hold back a concern and
spring it upon the group late in the process. This undermines trust and
limits the group's ability to adequately discuss the concern in its relation
to other concerns.
Questions Which Clarify the Concern
The facilitator asks for any questions or comments which would further clarify
the concern so everyone clearly understands it before discussion
Discussion Limited to Resolving One Concern
Use as many creative group discussion techniques as needed to facilitate
a resolution for each concern. Keep the discussion focused upon the particular
concern until every suggestion has been offered. If no new ideas are coming
forward and the concern cannot be resolved, or if the time allotted for
this item has been entirely used, move to one of the closing options described
Call for Consensus
Repeat this process until all concerns have been resolved. At this point,
the group should be at consensus, but it would be appropriate to call for
consensus anyway just to be sure no concern has been overlooked.
If a decision on the proposal can wait until the whole group meets again,
then send the proposal to a committee which can clarify the concerns and
bring new, creative resolutions for consideration by the group. It is a
good idea to include on the committee representatives of all the major concerns,
as well as those most supportive of the proposal so they can work out solutions
in a less formal setting. Sometimes, if the decision is needed before the
next meeting, a smaller group can be empowered to make the decision for
the larger group, but again, this committee should include all points of
view. Choose this option only if it is absolutely necessary and the whole
Send to Committee
Stand Aside (Decision Adopted with Unresolved Concerns Listed)
When a concern has been fully discussed and cannot be resolved, it is appropriate
for the facilitator to ask those persons with this concern if they are willing
to stand aside; that is, acknowledge that the concern still exists, but
allow the proposal to be adopted. It is very important for the whole group
to understand that this unresolved concern is then written down with the
proposal in the record and, in essence, becomes a part of the decision.
This concern can be raised again and deserves more discussion time as it
has not yet been resolved. In contrast, a concern which has been resolved
in past discussion does not deserve additional discussion, unless something
new has developed. Filibustering is not appropriate in Formal Consensus.
After having spent the allotted agenda time moving through the three levels
of discussion trying to achieve consensus and concerns remain which are
unresolved, the facilitator is obligated to declare that consensus cannot
be reached at this meeting, that the proposal is blocked, and move on to
the next agenda item. The Rules of Formal Consensus The guidelines and techniques
in this book are flexible and meant to be modified. Some of the guidelines,
however, seem almost always to be true. These are the Rules of Formal Consensus:
1. Once a decision has been adopted by consensus, it cannot be changed without
reaching a new consensus. If a new consensus cannot be reached, the old
decision stands. 2. In general, only one person has permission to speak
at any moment. The person with permission to speak is determined by the
group discussion technique in use and/or the facilitator. (The role of Peacekeeper
is exempt from this rule.) 3. All structural decisions (i.e., which roles
to use, who fills each role, and which facilitation technique and/or group
discussion technique to use) are adopted by consensus without debate. Any
objection automatically causes a new selection to be made. If a role cannot
be filled without objection, the group proceeds without that role being
filled. If much time is spent trying to fill roles or find acceptable techniques,
then the group needs a discussion about the unity of purpose of this group
and why it is having this problem, a discussion which must be put on the
agenda for the next meeting, if not held immediately.4. All content decisions
(i.e., the agenda contract, committee reports, proposals, etc.) are adopted
by consensus after discussion. Every content decision must be openly discussed
before it can be tested for consensus. 5. A concern must be based upon the
principles of the group to justify a block to consensus. 6. Every meeting
which uses Formal Consensus must have an evaluation.
Conflict is usually viewed as an impediment to reaching agreements and disruptive
to peaceful relationships. However, it is the underlying thesis of Formal
Consensus that nonviolent conflict is necessary and desirable. It provides
the motivations for improvement. The challenge is the creation of
an understanding in all who participate that conflict, or differing opinions
about proposals, is to be expected and acceptable. Do not avoid or repress
conflict. Create an environment in which disagreement can be expressed without
fear. Objections and criticisms can be heard not as attacks, not as attempts
to defeat a proposal, but as a concern which, when resolved, will make the
3 On Conflict and Consensus
This understanding of conflict may not be easily accepted by the members
of a group. Our training by society undermines this concept. Therefore,
it will not be easy to create the kind of environment where differences
can be expressed without fear or resentment. But it can be done. It will
require tolerance and a willingness to experiment. Additionally, the values
and principles which form the basis of commitment to work together to resolve
conflict need to be clearly defined, and accepted by all involved.
If a group desires to adopt Formal Consensus as its decisionmaking process,
the first step is the creation of a Statement of Purpose or Constitution.
This document would describe not only the common purpose, but would also
include the definition of the group's principles and values. If the group
discusses and writes down its foundation of principles at the start, it
is much easier to determine group versus individual concerns later on.
The following are principles which form the foundation of Formal Consensus.
A commitment to these principles and/or a willingness to develop them is
necessary. In addition to the ones listed herein, the group might add principles
and values which are specific to its purpose.
Foundation Upon Which Consensus Is Built
For consensus to work well, the process must be conducted in an environment
which promotes trust, respect, and skill sharing. The following are principles
which, when valued and respected, encourage and build consensus.
Foremost is the need for trust. Without some amount of trust, there will
be no cooperation or nonviolent resolution to conflict. For trust to flourish,
it is desirable for individuals to be willing to examine their attitudes
and be open to new ideas. Acknowledgement and appreciation of personal and
cultural differences promote trust. Neither approval nor friendship are
necessary for a good working relationship. By developing trust, the process
of consensus encourages the intellectual and emotional development of the
individuals within a group.
It is everyone's responsibility to show respect to one another. People feel
respected when everyone listens, when they are not interrupted, when their
ideas are taken seriously. Respect for emotional as well as logical concerns
promotes the kind of environment necessary for developing consensus. To
promote respect, it is important to distinguish between an action which
causes a problem and the person who did the action, between the deed and
the doer. We must criticize the act, not the person. Even if you think the
person is the problem, responding that way never resolves anything.
(See pages 7- 8.)
Unity of Purpose
Unity of purpose is a basic understanding about the goals and purpose of
the group. Of course, there will be varying opinions on the best way to
accomplish these goals. However, there must be a unifying base, a common
starting point, which is recognized and accepted by all.
Nonviolent decisionmakers use their power to achieve goals while respecting
differences and cooperating with others. In this environment, it is considered
violent to use power to dominate or control the group process. It is understood
that the power of revealing your truth is the maximum force allowed to persuade
others to your point of view.
It is easy for people to unquestioningly rely on authorities and experts
to do their thinking and decisionmaking for them. If members of a group
delegate their authority, intentionally or not, they fail to accept responsibility
for the group's decisions. Consensus promotes and depends upon self empowerment.
Anyone can express concerns. Everyone seeks creative solutions and is responsible
for every decision. When all are encouraged to participate, the democratic
nature of the process increases.
Unfortunately, Western society is saturated in competition. When winning
arguments becomes more important than achieving the group's goals, cooperation
is difficult, if not impossible. Adversarial attitudes toward proposals
or people focus attention on weakness rather than strength. An attitude
of helpfulness and support builds cooperation. Cooperation is a shared responsibility
in finding solutions to all concerns. Ideas offered in the spirit of cooperation
help resolve conflict. The best decisions arise through an open and creative
interplay of ideas.
The free flow of ideas, even among friends, inevitably leads to conflict.
In this context, conflict is simply the expression of disagreement. Disagreement
itself is neither good nor bad. Diverse viewpoints bring into focus and
explore the strengths and weaknesses of attitudes, assumptions, and plans.
Without conflict, one is less likely to think about and evaluate one's views
and prejudices. There is no right decision, only the best one for
the whole group. The task is to work together to discover which choice is
most acceptable to all members.
Avoid blaming anyone for conflict. Blame is inherently violent. It attacks
dignity and empowerment. It encourages people to feel guilty, defensive,
and alienated. The group will lose its ability to resolve conflict. People
will hide their true feelings to avoid being blamed for the conflict.
Avoidance of conflicting ideas impedes resolution for failure to explore
and develop the feelings that gave rise to the conflict. The presence of
conflict can create an occasion for growth. Learn to use it as a catalyst
for discovering creative resolutions and for developing a better understanding
of each other. With patience, anyone can learn to resolve conflict creatively,
without defensiveness or guilt. Groups can learn to nurture and support
their members in this effort by allowing creativity and experimentation.
This process necessitates that the group continually evaluate and improve
Commitment to the Group
In joining a group, one accepts a personal responsibility to behave with
respect, good will, and honesty. Each one is expected to recognize that
the group's needs have a certain priority over the desires of the individual.
Many people participate in group work in a very egocentric way. It is important
to accept the shared responsibility for helping to find solutions to other's
We all have an inalienable right to express our own best thoughts. We decide
for ourselves what is right and wrong. Since consensus is a process of synthesis,
not competition, all sincere comments are important and valuable. If ideas
are put forth as the speaker's property and individuals are strongly attached
to their opinions, consensus will be extremely difficult. Stubbornness,
closedmindedness, and possessiveness lead to defensive and argumentative
behavior that disrupts the process. For active participation to occur, it
is necessary to promote trust by creating an atmosphere in which every contribution
is considered valuable. With encouragement, each person can develop knowledge
and experience, a sense of responsibility and competency, and the ability
Equal Access to Power
Because of personal differences (experience, assertiveness, social conditioning,
access to information, etc.) and political disparities, some people inevitably
have more effective power than others. To balance this inequity, everyone
needs to consciously attempt to creatively share power, skills, and information.
Avoid hierarchical structures that allow some individuals to assume undemocratic
power over others. Egalitarian and accountable structures promote universal
access to power.
Consensus cannot be rushed. Often, it functions smoothly, producing effective,
stable results. Sometimes, when difficult situations arise, consensus requires
more time to allow for the creative interplay of ideas. During these times,
patience is more advantageous than tense, urgent, or aggressive behavior.
Consensus is possible as long as each individual acts patiently and respectfully.
Impediments To Consensus Lack of Training
It is necessary to train people in the theory and practice of consensus.
Until consensus is a common form of decisionmaking in our society, new members
will need some way of learning about the process. It is important to offer
regular opportunities for training. If learning about Formal Consensus is
not made easily accessible, it will limit full participation and create
inequities which undermine this process. Also, training provides opportunities
for people to improve their skills, particularly facilitation skills, in
a setting where experimentation and role-plays can occur.
External Hierarchical Structures
It can be difficult for a group to reach consensus internally when it is
part of a larger group which does not recognize or participate in the consensus
process. It can be extremely frustrating if those external to the group
can disrupt the decisionmaking by interfering with the process by pulling
rank. Therefore, it is desirable for individuals and groups to recognize
that they can be autonomous in relation to external power if they are willing
to take responsibility for their actions.
Everyone has been exposed to biases, assumptions, and prejudices which interfere
with the spirit of cooperation and equal participation. All people are influenced
by these attitudes, even though they may deplore them. People are not generally
encouraged to confront these prejudices in themselves or others. Members
of a group often reflect social biases without realizing or attempting to
confront and change them. If the group views a prejudicial attitude as just
one individual's problem, then the group will not address the underlying
social attitudes which create such problems. It is appropriate to expose,
confront, acknowledge, and attempt to resolve socially prejudicial attitudes,
but only in the spirit of mutual respect and trust. Members are responsible
for acknowledging when their attitudes are influenced by disruptive social
training and for changing them. When a supportive atmosphere for recognizing
and changing undesirable attitudes exists, the group as a whole benefits.
On Degrees of Conflict
Each individual is responsible for expressing one's own concerns. It is
best if each concern is expressed as if it will be resolved. The group then
responds by trying to resolve the concern through group discussion. If the
concern remains unresolved after a full and open discussion, then the facilitator
asks how the concern is based upon the foundation of the group. If it is,
then the group accepts that the proposal is blocked.
- Consensus is a process of nonviolent confict resolution. The expression
of concerns and conficting ideas is considered desirable and important.
When a group creates an atmosphere which nurtures and supports disagreement
without hostility and fear, it builds a foundation for stronger, more creative
Herein lies a subtle pitfall. For consensus to work well, it is helpful
for individuals to recognize the group's involvement in determining which
concerns are able to be resolved, which need more attention, and, ultimately,
which are blocking consensus. The pitfall is failure to accept the limit
on an individual's power to determine which concerns are principled or based
upon the foundation of the group and which ones are resolved. After discussion,
if the concern is valid and unresolved, it again falls upon the individual
to choose whether to stand aside or block consensus.
- From this perspective, it is not decided by the individual alone if
a particular concern is blocking consensus; it is determined in cooperation
with the whole group. The group determines a concern's legitimacy. A concern
is legitimate if it is based upon the principles of the group and therefore
relevant to the group as a whole. If the concern is determined to be unprincipled
or not of consequence, the group can decide the concern is inappropriate
and drop it from discussion. If a reasonable solution offered is not accepted
by the individual, the group may decide the concern has been resolved and
the individual is out of order for failure to recognize it.
All concerns are important and need to be resolved. It is not appropriate
for a person to come to a meeting planning to block a proposal or, during
discussion, to express their concerns as major objections or blocking concerns.
Often, during discussion, the person learns additional information which
resolves the concern. Sometimes, after expressing the concern, someone is
able to creatively resolve it by thinking of something new. It often happens
that a concern which seems to be extremely problematic when it is frst mentioned
turns out to be easily resolved. Sometimes the reverse happens and a seemingly
minor concern brings forth much larger concerns.
- The individual is responsible for expressing concerns; the group is
responsible for resolving them. The group decides whether a concern is legitimate;
the individual decides whether to block or stand aside.
The following is a description of different types of concerns and how they
affect individuals and the group.
When a person disagrees with the proposal in part, but consents to the overall
idea, the person has a reservation. The person is not completely satisfed
with the proposal, but is generally supportive. This kind of concern can
usually be resolved through discussion. Sometimes, it is enough for the
person to express the concern and feel that it was heard, without any actual
- Concerns which can be addressed and resolved by making small changes
in the proposal can be called minor concerns. The person supports the proposal,
but has an idea for improvement.
A blocking concern must be based on a generally recognized principle, not
personal preference, or it must be essential to the entire group's well-being.
Before a concern is considered to be blocking, the group must have already
accepted the validity of the concern and a reasonable attempt must have
been made to resolve it. If legitimate concerns remain unresolved and the
person has not agreed to stand aside, consensus is blocked.
- When a person does not agree with the proposal, the group allows that
person to try and persuade it to see the wisdom of the disagreement. If
the group is not persuaded or the disagreement cannot be resolved, the person
might choose to stand aside and allow the group to go forward. The person
and the group are agreeing to disagree, regarding each point of view with
mutual respect. Occasionally, it is a concern which has no resolution; the
person does not feel the need to block the decision, but wants to express
the concern and lack of support for the proposal.
Meetings can often be a time when some people experience feelings of frustration
or confusion. There is always room for improvement in the structure of the
process and/or in the dynamics of the group. Often, there is no time to
talk directly about group interaction during the meeting. Reserve time at
the end of the meeting to allow some of these issues and feelings to be
4 The Art of Evaluation
Evaluation is very useful when using consensus. It is worth the time. Evaluations
need not take long, five to ten minutes is often enough. It is not a discussion,
nor is it an opportunity to comment on each other's statements. Do not reopen
discussion on an agenda item. Evaluation is a special time to listen to
each other and learn about each other. Think about how the group interacts
and how to improve the process.
Be sure to include the evaluation comments in the notes of the meeting.
This is important for two reasons. Over time, if the same evaluation comments
are made again and again, this is an indication that the issue behind the
comments needs to be addressed. This can be accomplished by placing this
issue on the agenda for the next meeting. Also, when looking back at notes
from meetings long ago, evaluation comments can often reveal a great deal
about what actually happened, beyond what decisions were made and reports
given. They give a glimpse into complex interpersonal dynamics.
Purpose of Evaluation
Evaluation provides a forum to address procedural flaws, inappropriate behavior,
facilitation problems, logistical difficulties, overall tone, etc. Evaluation
is not a time to reopen discussion, make decisions or attempt to resolve
problems, but rather, to make statements, express feelings, highlight problems,
and suggest solutions in a spirit of cooperation and trust. To help foster
communication, it is better if each criticism is coupled with a specific
suggestion for improvement. Also, always speak for oneself. Do not attempt
to represent anyone else.
Encourage everyone who participated in the meeting to take part in the evaluation.
Make comments on what worked and what did not. Expect differing opinions.
It is generally not useful to repeat other's comments. Evaluations prepare
the group for better future meetings. When the process works well, the group
responds supportively in a difficult situation, or the facilitator does
an especially good job, note it, and appreciate work well done.
Do not attempt to force evaluation. This will cause superficial or irrelevant
comments. On the other hand, do not allow evaluations to run on. Be sure
to take each comment seriously and make an attempt, at a later time, to
resolve or implement them. Individuals who feel their suggestions are ignored
or disrespected will lose trust and interest in the group.
For gatherings, conferences, conventions or large meetings, the group might
consider having short evaluations after each section, in addition to the
one at the end of the event. Distinct aspects on which the group might focus
include: the process itself, a specific role, a particular technique, fears
and feelings, group dynamics, etc.
At large meetings, written evaluations provide a means for everyone to respond
and record comments and suggestions which might otherwise be lost. Some
people feel more comfortable writing their evaluations rather than saying
them. Plan the questions well, stressing what was learned, what was valuable,
and what could have been better and how. An evaluation committee allows
an opportunity for the presenters, facilitators, and/or coordinators to
get together after the meeting to review evaluation comments, consider suggestions
for improvement, and possibly prepare an evaluation report.
Review and evaluation bring a sense of completion to the meeting. A good
evaluation will pull the experience together, remind everyone of the group's
unity of purpose, and provide an opportunity for closing comments.
Uses of Evaluation
There are at least ten ways in which evaluation helps improve meetings.
- Improve the process by analysis of what happened, why it happened, and
how it might be improved
- Examine how certain attitudes and statements might have caused various
problems and encourage special care to prevent them from recurring
- Foster a greater understanding of group dynamics and encourage a method
of group learning or learning from each other
- Allow the free expression of feelings
- Expose unconscious behavior or attitudes which interfere with the process
- Encourage the sharing of observations and acknowledge associations with
- Check the usefulness and effectiveness of techniques and procedures
- Acknowledge good work and give appreciation to each other
- Reflect on the goals set for the meeting and whether they were attained
- Examine various roles, suggest ways to improve them, and create new
ones as needed
- Provide an overall sense of completion and closure to the meeting
Types of Evaluation Questions
It is necessary to be aware of the way in which questions are asked
during evaluation. The specific wording can control the scope and focus
of consideration and affect the level of participation. It can cause responses
which focus on what was good and bad, or right and wrong, rather than on
what worked and what needed improvement. Focus on learning and growing.
Avoid blaming. Encourage diverse opinions.
Some sample questions for an evaluation:
- Were members uninterested or bored with the agenda, reports, or discussion?
- Did members withdraw or feel isolated?
- Is attendance low? If so, why?
- Are people arriving late or leaving early? If so, why?
- How was the overall tone or atmosphere?
- Was there an appropriate use of resources?
- Were the logistics (such as date, time, or location) acceptable?
- What was the most important experience of the event?
- What was the least important experience of the event?
- What was the high point? What was the low point?
- What did you learn?
- What expectations did you have at the beginning and to what degree were
they met? How did they change?
- What goals did you have and to what degree were they accomplished?
- What worked well? Why?
- What did not work so well? How could it have been improved?
- What else would you suggest be changed or improved, and how?
- What was overlooked or left out?
A role is a function of process, not content. Roles are used during a meeting
according to the needs of the situation. Not all roles are useful at every
meeting, nor does each role have to be filled by a separate person. Formal
Consensus functions more smoothly if the person filling a role has some
experience, therefore is desirable to rotate roles. Furthermore, one who
has experienced a role is more likely to be supportive of whomever currently
has that role. Experience in each role also encourages confidence and participation.
It is best, therefore, for the group to encourage everyone to experience
A well planned agenda is an important tool for a smooth meeting, although
it does not guarantee it. Experience has shown that there is a definite
improvement in the flow and pace of a meeting if several people get together
prior to the start of the meeting and propose an agenda. In smaller groups,
the facilitator often proposes an agenda. The agenda planning committee
has six tasks:
There are at least four sources of agenda items:
- collect agenda items
- arrange them
- assign presenters
- brainstorm discussion techniques
- assign time limits
- write up the proposed agenda
Once all the agenda items have been collected, they are listed in an order
which seems efficient and appropriate. Planners need to be cautious that
items at the top of the agenda tend to use more than their share of time,
thereby limiting the time available for the rest. Each group has different
needs. Some groups work best taking care of business first, then addressing
the difficult items. Other groups might find it useful to take on the most
difficult work first and strictly limit the time or let it take all it needs.
The following are recommendations for keeping the focus of attention on
- suggestions from members
- reports or proposals from committees
- business from the last meeting
- standard agenda items, including:
- agenda review
- review notes
- decision review
Usually, each item already has a presenter. If not, assign one. Generally,
it is not wise for facilitators to present reports or proposals. However,
it is convenient for facilitators to present some of the standard agenda
- alternate long and short, heavy and light items
- place reports before their related proposals
- take care of old business before addressing new items
- consider placing items which might generate a sense of accomplishment
early in the meeting
- alternate presenters
- be flexible
For complex or especially controversial items, the agenda planners could
suggest various options for group discussion techniques. This may be helpful
to the facilitator.
Next, assign time limits for each item. It is important to be realistic,
being careful to give each item enough time to be fully addressed without
being unfair to other items. Generally, it is not desirable to propose an
agenda which exceeds the desired overall meeting time limit.
The last task is the writing of the proposed agenda so all can see it and
refer to it during the meeting. Each item is listed in order, along with
its presenter and time limit.
The following agenda is an example of how an agenda is structured and what
information is included in it. It shows the standard agenda items, the presenters,
the time limits and the order in which they will be considered. It also
shows one way in which reports and proposals can be presented, but each
group can structure this part of the meeting in whatever way suits its needs.
This model does not show the choices of techniques for group discussion
which the agenda planners might have considered.
Agenda Item Presenter Time
INTRODUCTION Facilitator 5 min
AGENDA REVIEW Facilitator 5 min
REVIEW NOTES Notetaker 5 min
REPORTS 20 min
PROPOSALS 15 min
BREAK 5 min
REPORTS 10 min
PROPOSALS 30 min
ANNOUNCEMENTS 5 min
REVIEW DECISIONS Notetaker 5 min
EVALUATION 10 min
CLOSING Facilitator 5 min
TOTAL 2 hours
The word facilitate means to make easy. A facilitator conducts group business
and guides the Formal Consensus process so that it flows smoothly. Rotating
facilitation from meeting to meeting shares important skills among the members.
If everyone has firsthand knowledge about facilitation, it will help the
flow of all meetings. Co-facilitation, or having two (or more) people facilitate
a meeting, is recommended. Having a woman and a man share the responsibilities
encourages a more balanced meeting. Also, an inexperienced facilitator may
apprentice with a more experienced one. Try to use a variety of techniques
throughout the meeting. And remember, a little bit of humor can go a long
way in easing tension during a long, difficult meeting.
Good facilitation is based upon the following principles:
Facilitators accept responsibility for moving through the agenda in the
allotted time, guiding the process, and suggesting alternate or additional
techniques. In this sense, they do lead the group. However, they do not
give their personal opinions nor do they attempt to direct the content of
the discussion. If they want to participate, they must clearly relinquish
the role and speak as an individual. During a meeting, individuals are
responsible for expressing their own concerns and thoughts. Facilitators,
on the other hand, are responsible for addressing the needs of the group.
They need to be aware of the group dynamics and constantly evaluate whether
the discussion is flowing well. There may be a need for a change in the
discussion technique. They need to be diligent about the fair distribution
of attention, being sure to limit those who are speaking often and offering
opportunities to those who are not speaking much or at all. It follows that
one person cannot simultaneously give attention to the needs of the group
and think about a personal response to a given situation. Also, it is not
appropriate for the facilitator to give a particular point of view or dominate
the discussion. This does not build trust, especially in those who do not
agree with the facilitator.
Clarity of Process
The facilitator is responsible for leading the meeting openly so that everyone
present is aware of the process and how to participate. This means it is
important to constantly review what just happened, what is about to happen,
and how it will happen. Every time a new discussion technique is introduced,
explain how it will work and what is to be accomplished. This is both educational
and helps new members participate more fully.
The facilitator is responsible for honoring the agenda contract. The facilitator
keeps the questions and discussion focused on the agenda item. Be gentle,
but firm, because fairness dictates that each agenda item gets only the
time allotted. The agenda contract is made when the agenda is reviewed and
accepted. This agreement includes the items on the agenda, the order in
which they are considered, and the time allotted to each. Unless the whole
group agrees to change the agenda, the facilitator is obligated to keep
the contract. The decision to change the agenda must be a consensus, with
little or no discussion.
At the beginning of the meeting, the agenda is presented to the whole group
and reviewed, item by item. Any member can add an item if it has been omitted.
While every agenda suggestion must be included in the agenda, it does not
necessarily get as much time as the presenter wants. Time ought to be divided
fairly, with individuals recognizing the fairness of old items generally
getting more time than new items and urgent items getting more time than
items which can wait until the next meeting, etc. Also, review the suggested
presenters and time limits. If anything seems inappropriate or unreasonable,
adjustments may be made. Once the whole agenda has been reviewed and consented
to, the agenda becomes a contract. The facilitator is obligated to follow
the order and time limits. This encourages members to be on time to meetings.
Always try to assume good will. Assume every statement and action is sincerely
intended to benefit the group. Assume that each member understands the group's
purpose and accepts the agenda as a contract.
Often, when we project our feelings and expectations onto others, we influence
their actions. If we treat others as though they are trying to get attention,
disrupt meetings, or pick fights, they will often fulfill our expectations.
A resolution to conflict is more likely to occur if we act as though there
will be one. This is especially true if someone is intentionally trying
to cause trouble or who is emotionally unhealthy. Do not attack the person,
but rather, assume good will and ask the person to explain to the group
how that person's statements or actions are in the best interest of the
group. It is also helpful to remember to separate the actor from the action.
While the behavior may be unacceptable, the person is not bad. Avoid
accusing the person of being the way they behave. Remember, no one
has the answer. The group's work is the search for the best and most
creative process, one which fosters a mutually satisfying resolution to
any concern which may arise.
The role of peacekeeper is most useful in large groups or when very touchy,
controversial topics are being discussed. A person who is willing to remain
somewhat aloof and is not personally invested in the content of the discussion
would be a good candidate for peacekeeper. This person is selected without
discussion by all present at the beginning of the meeting. If no one wants
this role, or if no one can be selected without objection, proceed without
one, recognizing that the facilitator's job will most likely be more difficult.
This task entails paying attention to the overall mood or tone of the meeting.
When tensions increase dramatically and angers flare out of control, the
peacekeeper interrupts briefly to remind the group of its common goals and
commitment to cooperation. The most common way to accomplish this is a call
for a few moments of silence.
The peacekeeper is the only person with prior permission to interrupt a
speaker or speak without first being recognized by the facilitator. Also,
it is important to note that the peacekeeper's comments are always directed
at the whole group, never at one individual or small group within the larger
group. Keep comments short and to the point.
The peacekeeper may always, of course, point out when the group did something
well. People always like to be acknowledged for positive behavior.
Like the peacekeeper, advocates are selected without discussion at the beginning
of the meeting. If, because of strong emotions, someone is unable to be
understood, the advocate is called upon to help. The advocate would interrupt
the meeting, and invite the individual to literally step outside the meeting
for some one-on-one discussion. An upset person can talk to someone with
whom they feel comfortable. This often helps them make clear what the concern
is and how it relates to the best interest of the group. Assume the individual
is acting in good faith. Assume the concern is in the best interest of the
group. While they are doing this, everyone else might take a short break,
or continue with other agenda items. When they return, the meeting (after
completing the current agenda item) hears from the advocate. The intent
here is the presentation of the concern by the advocate rather than the
upset person so the other group members might hear it without the emotional
charge. This procedure is a last resort, to be used only when emotions are
out of control and the person feels unable to successfully express an idea.
The role of timekeeper is very useful in almost all meetings. One is selected
at the beginning of the meeting to assist the facilitator in keeping within
the time limits set in the agenda contract. The skill in keeping time is
the prevention of an unnecessary time pressure which might interfere with
the process. This can be accomplished by keeping everyone aware of the status
of time remaining during the discussion. Be sure to give ample warning towards
the end of the time limit so the group can start to bring the discussion
to a close or decide to rearrange the agenda to allow more time for the
current topic. There is nothing inherently wrong with going over time as
long as everyone consents.
The role of public scribe is simply the writing, on paper or blackboard,
of information for the whole group to see. This person primarily assists
the facilitator by taking a task which might otherwise distract the facilitator
and interfere with the overall flow of the meeting. This role is particularly
useful during brainstorms, reportbacks from small groups, or whenever it
would help the group for all to see written information.
The importance of a written record of the meetings cannot be overstated.
The written record, sometimes called notes or minutes, can help settle disputes
of memory or verify past decisions. Accessible notes allow absent members
to participate in ongoing work. Useful items to include in the notes are:
After each decision is made, it is useful to have the notetaker read the
notes aloud to ensure accuracy. At the end of the meeting, it is also helpful
to have the notetaker present to the group a review of all decisions. In
larger groups, it is often useful to have two notetakers simultaneously,
because everyone, no matter how skilled, hears information and expresses
it differently. Notetakers are responsible for making sure the notes are
recorded accurately, and are reproduced and distributed according to the
desires of the group (e.g., mailed to everyone, handed out at the next meeting,
- date and attendance
- brief notes (highlights, statistics...)
- verbatim notes
- proposals (with revisions)
- decisions (with concerns listed)
- next meeting time and place
- evaluation comments
Doorkeepers are selected in advance of the meeting and need to arrive early
enough to familiarize themselves with the physical layout of the space and
to receive any last minute instructions from the facilitator. They need
to be prepared to miss the first half hour of the meeting. Prior to the
start of the meeting, the doorkeeper welcomes people, distributes any literature
connected to the business of the meeting, and informs them of any pertinent
information (the meeting will start fifteen minutes late, the bathrooms
are not wheelchair accessible, etc.).
A doorkeeper is useful, especially if people tend to be late. When the meeting
begins, they continue to be available for latecomers. They might briefly
explain what has happened so far and where the meeting is currently on the
agenda. The doorkeeper might suggest to the latecomers that they refrain
from participating in the current agenda item and wait until the next item
before participating. This avoids wasting time, repeating discussion, or
addressing already resolved concerns. Of course, this is not a rigid rule.
Use discretion and be respectful of the group's time.
Experience has shown this role to be far more useful than it might at first
appear, so experiment with it and discover if meetings can become more pleasant
and productive because of the friendship and care which is expressed through
the simple act of greeting people as they arrive at the meeting.
There are a great many techniques to assist the facilitator in managing
the agenda and group dynamics. The following are just a few of the more
common and frequently used techniques available to the facilitator. Be creative
and adaptive. Different situations require different techniques. With experience
will come an understanding of how they affect group dynamics and when is
the best time to use them.
The facilitator is responsible for the fair distribution of attention during
meetings. Facilitators call the attention of the group to one speaker at
a time. The grammar school method is the most common technique for choosing
the next speaker. The facilitator recognizes each person in the order in
which hands are raised. Often, inequities occur because the attention is
dominated by an individual or class of individuals. This can occur because
of socialized behavioral problems such as racism, sexism, or the like, or
internal dynamics such as experience, seniority, fear, shyness, disrespect,
ignorance of the process, etc. Inequities can be corrected in many creative
ways. For example, if men are speaking more often than women, the facilitator
can suggest a pause after each speaker, the women counting to five before
speaking, the men counting to ten. In controversial situations, the facilitator
can request that three speakers speak for the proposal, and three speak
against it. If the group would like to avoid having the facilitator select
who speaks next, the group can self-select by asking the last speaker to
pass an object, a talking stick, to the next. Even more challenging, have
each speaker stand before speaking, and begin when there is only one person
standing. These are only a handful of the many possible problems and solutions
that exist. Be creative. Invent your own.
To help the discussion flow more smoothly, those who want to speak can silently
signal the facilitator, who would add the person's name to a list of those
wishing to speak, and call on them in that order.
If many people want to speak at the same time, it is useful to ask all those
who would like to speak to raise their hands. Have them count off, and then
have them speak in that order. At the end of the stack, the facilitator
might call for another stack or try another technique.
The pace or flow of the meeting is the responsibility of the facilitator.
If the atmosphere starts to become tense, choose techniques which encourage
balance and cooperation. If the meeting is going slowly and people are becoming
restless, suggest a stretch or rearrange the agenda.
Checking the Process
If the flow of the meeting is breaking down or if one person or small group
seems to be dominating, anyone can call into question the technique being
used and suggest an alternative.
If the pace is too fast, if energies and tensions are high, if people are
speaking out of turn or interrupting one another, it is appropriate for
anyone to suggest a moment of silence to calm and refocus energy.
Taking a Break
In the heat of discussion, people are usually resistant to interrupting
the flow to take a break, but a wise facilitator knows, more often than
not, that a five minute break will save a frustrating half hour or more
of circular discussion and fruitless debate.
Call For Consensus
The facilitator, or any member recognized to speak by the facilitator, can
call for a test for consensus. To do this, the facilitator asks if there
are any unresolved concerns which remain unaddressed. (See page 13.)
The facilitator might choose to focus what has been said by summarizing.
The summary might be made by the facilitator, the notetaker, or anyone else
appropriate. This preempts a common problem, in which the discussion becomes
circular, and one after another, speakers repeat each other.
Reformulating the Proposal
After a long discussion, it sometimes happens that the proposal becomes
modified without any formal decision. The facilitator needs to recognize
this and take time to reformulate the proposal with the new information,
modifications, or deletions. Then the proposal is presented to the group
so that everyone can be clear about what is being considered. Again, this
might be done by the facilitator, the notetaker, or anyone else.
Stepping out of Role
If the facilitator wants to become involved in the discussion or has strong
feelings about a particular agenda item, the facilitator can step out of
the role and participate in the discussion, allowing another member to facilitate
during that time.
Passing the Clipboard
Sometimes information needs to be collected during the meeting. To save
time, circulate a clipboard to collect this information. Once collected,
it can be entered into the written record and/or presented to the group
by the facilitator.
Polling (Straw Polls)
The usefulness of polling within consensus is primarily clarification of
the relative importance of several issues. It is an especially useful technique
when the facilitator is confused or uncertain about the status of a proposal
and wants some clarity to be able to suggest what might be the next process
technique. Polls are not decisions, they are non-binding referenda. All
too often, straw polls are used when the issues are completely clear and
the majority wants to intimidate the minority into submission by showing
overwhelming support rather than to discuss the issues and resolve the concerns.
Clear and simple questions are best. Polls that involve three or more choices
can be especially manipulative. Use with discretion.
(This technique and the next are somewhat different from the others. They
may not be appropriate for some groups.) If someone speaks out of turn consistently,
the facilitator warns the individual at least twice that if the interruptions
do not stop, the facilitator will declare that person censored. This means
the person will not be permitted to speak for the rest of this agenda item.
If the interrupting behavior has been exhibited over several agenda items,
then the censoring could be for a longer period of time. This technique
is meant to be used at the discretion of the facilitator. If the facilitator
censors someone and others in the meeting voice disapproval, it is better
for the facilitator to step down from the role and let someone else facilitate,
rather than get into a discussion about the ability and judgement of the
facilitator. The rationale is the disruptive behavior makes facilitation
very difficult, is disrespectful and, since it is assumed that everyone
observed the behavior, the voicing of disapproval about a censoring indicates
lack of confidence in the facilitation rather than support for the disruptive
If an individual still acts very disruptively, the facilitator may confront
the behavior. Ask the person to explain the reasons for this behavior, how
it is in the best interest of the group, how it relates to the group's purpose,
and how it is in keeping with the goals and principles. If the person is
unable to answer these questions or if the answers indicate disagreement
with the common purpose, then the facilitator can ask the individual to
withdraw from the meeting.
Group Discussion Techniques
It is often assumed that the best form of group discussion is that which
has one person at a time speak to the whole group. This is true for some
discussions. But, sometimes, other techniques of group discussion can be
more productive and efficient than whole group discussion. The following
are some of the more common and frequently used techniques. These could
be suggested by anyone at the meeting. Therefore, it is a good idea if everyone
is familiar with these techniques. Again, be creative and adaptive. Different
situations require different techniques. Only experience reveals how each
one affects group dynamics or the best time to use it.
It is good to address each other by name. One way to learn names is to draw
a seating plan, and as people go around and introduce themselves, write
their names on it. Later, refer to the plan and address people by their
names. In large groups, name tags can be helpful. Also, when people speak,
it is useful for them to identify themselves so all can gradually learn
each others' names.
The value of whole group discussion is the evolution of a group idea. A
group idea is not simply the sum of individual ideas, but the result of
the interaction of ideas during discussion. Whole group discussion can be
unstructured and productive. It can also be very structured, using various
facilitation techniques to focus it. Often, whole group discussion does
not produce maximum participation or a diversity of ideas. During whole
group discussion, fewer people get to speak, and, at times, the attitude
of the group can be dominated by an idea, a mood, or a handful of people.
Breaking into smaller groups can be very useful. These small groups can
be diads or triads or even larger. They can be selected randomly or self-selected.
If used well, in a relatively short amount of time all participants have
the opportunity to share their own point of view. Be sure to set clear time
limits and select a notetaker for each group. When the larger group reconvenes,
the notetakers relate the major points and concerns of their group. Sometimes,
notetakers can be requested to add only new ideas or concerns and not repeat
something already covered in another report. It is also helpful for the
scribe to write these reports so all can see the cumulative result and be
sure every idea and concern gets on the list.
This is a very useful technique when ideas need to be solicited from the
whole group. The normal rule of waiting to speak until the facilitator recognizes
you is suspended and everyone is encouraged to call out ideas to be written
by the scribe for all to see. It is helpful if the atmosphere created is
one in which all ideas, no matter how unusual or incomplete, are appropriate
and welcomed. This is a situation in which suggestions can be used as catalysts,
with ideas building one upon the next, generating very creative possibilities.
Avoid evaluating each other's ideas during this time.
This is a simple technique that encourages participation. The facilitator
states a question and then goes around the room inviting everyone to answer
briefly. This is not an open discussion. This is an opportunity to individually
respond to specific questions, not to comment on each other's responses
or make unrelated remarks.
The fishbowl is a special form of small group discussion. Several members
representing differing points of view meet in an inner circle to discuss
the issue while everyone else forms an outer circle and listens. At the
end of a predetermined time, the whole group reconvenes and evaluates the
fishbowl discussion. An interesting variation: first, put all the men in
the fishbowl, then all the women, and they discuss the same topics.
If the group is having a hard time understanding a point of view, someone
might help by active listening. Listen to the speaker, then repeat back
what was heard and ask the speaker if this accurately reflects what was
A caucus might be useful to help a multifaceted conflict become clearer
by unifying similar perspectives or defining specific points of departure
without the focus of the whole group. It might be that only some people
attend a caucus, or it might be that all are expected to participate in
a caucus. The difference between caucuses and small groups is that caucuses
are composed of people with similar viewpoints, whereas small group discussions
are more useful if they are made up of people with diverse viewpoints or
even a random selection of people.
The agenda contract is made when the agenda is reviewed and accepted. This
agreement includes the items on the agenda, the order in which they are
considered, and the time allotted to each. Unless the whole group agrees
to change the agenda, the facilitator is obligated to keep to the contract.
The decision to change the agenda must be a consensus, with little or no
Complete agreement, with no unresolved concerns.
If the allotted agenda time has been spent trying to achieve consensus,
and unresolved legitimate concerns remain, the proposal may be considered
blocked, or not able to be adopted at this meeting.
A point of departure or disagreement with a proposal.
The expression of disagreement, which brings into focus diverse viewpoints,
and provides the opportunity to explore their strengths and weaknesses.
A decisionmaking process whereby decisions are reached when all members
present consent to a proposal. This process does not assume everyone must
be in complete agreement. When differences remain after discussion, individuals
can agree to disagree, that is, give their consent by standing aside, and
allow the proposal to be accepted by the group.
Acceptance of the proposal, not necessarily agreement. Individuals are responsible
for expressing their ideas, concerns and objections. Silence, in response
to a call for consensus, signifies consent. Silence is not complete agreement;
it is acceptance of the proposal.
The end product of an idea that started as a proposal and evolved to become
a plan of action accepted by the whole group.
A group analysis at the end of a meeting about interpersonal dynamics during
decisionmaking. This is a time to allow feelings to be expressed, with the
goal of improving the functioning of future meetings. It is not a discussion
or debate, nor should anyone comment on another's evaluation.
An occasion in which people come together and, in an orderly way, make decisions.
methods of decisionmaking
one person makes the decisions for everyone
a few people make the decisions for everyone
a few people are elected to make the decisions for everyone majority rule
democracy the majority makes the decisions for everyone
everyone makes the decisions for everyone
A written plan that some members of a group present to the whole group for
discussion and acceptance.
To agree to disagree, to be willing to let a proposal be adopted despite
a manual for group facilitators
Brian Auvine, Betsy Densmore, Mary Extrom,
Scott Poole, Michel Shanklin
The Center for Confict Resolution: 1977
731 State Street, Madison, WI 53703
A Manual on Nonviolence and Children
Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends
Peace Committee, Philadelphia
New Society Publishers: 1977
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
Beyond Majority Rule
Michael J. Sheeran
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the
Religious Society of Friends: 1983
1515 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102
Building United Judgment
Brian Auvine, Michel Avery,
A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making
Barbara Streibel, Lonnie Weiss
The Center for Confict Resolution: 1981
731 State Street, Madison, WI 53703
Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice
Hugo A. Bedau
New York, NY
Clearness: Processes for Supporting Individuals &
Groups in Decision-Making
New Society Publishers: 1977, 1984
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
In Place of War
American Friends Service Committee
Grossman, NY: 1967
Meeting Facilitation: The No Magic Method
New Society Publishers
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
More Power Than We Know
The People's Movement Toward Democracy
Anchor Press/Doubleday: 1976
Garden City, NY
No Bosses Here!
Karen Brandow, Jim McDonnell, and
a manual on working
collectively and cooperatively (2nd ed.)
Vocations for Social Change
Alyson Publications 1981
P.O. Box 2783 Boston, MA 02208
Vocations for Social Change
PO Box 211, Essex Station, Boston, MA 02112
Nonviolence In America
Staughton Lynd, ed.
A Documentary History
Bobbs-Merrill, NY: 1966
Nonviolent Direct Action
A. Paul Hare and Herbert H. Blumberg
Corpus, Washington: 1968
New York, NY
Peace & Power
Charlene Eldridge Wheeler, Peggy L. Chinn
Buffalo, NY, 1984
People With People
John D. Swanson, ed.
A Compendium of Group Process Theories
PO Box 196, Jamestown, RI 02835
Resource Manual for a Living Revolution
Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon,
A Handbook of Skills and Tools for Social Change Activists
Charles Esser, Christopher Moore
New Society Publishers: 1985
4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143
The Politics of Nonviolent Action
Porter Sargent: 1973
War Resisters League Organizer's Manual
Edited by Ed Hedemann
War Resisters League: 1981
339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012
We Cannot Live Without Our Lives
New York, NY
(these numbers refer to pages in the printed version of On Conflict
active listening 56
active participation 25
agenda 11, 17, 19, 31, 34, 37-39, 40, 42, 45-47, 49, 52-53
agenda contract 17, 20, 42-43, 45
agenda planner 37, 39
block 17, 20, 28-30
blocking concern 29, 30
brainstorming 14, 55
break 38, 40, 45, 51
checking the process 51
clarifying questions 12, 15
clarity of process 42
commitment 2, 21-22, 25, 44
cooperation 2, 5, 8, 22, 24, 27-28, 32, 44, 50
decisionmaking 1-3, 5, 7-9, 21, 23, 26-27, 41
disrespect 32, 49, 53
empowerment 5, 23-24
equal access to power 5, 26
equalizing participation 49
evaluation 20, 31-34, 38, 40, 46
facilitator 11-17, 19, 28, 32-33, 37, 39-41-47, 49-56
facilitation techniques 49
good will 8, 25, 43
group discussion techniques 10, 15, 19, 39, 54
introduction 10-11, 38, 40
meeting 2, 6, 11, 17, 19-20, 29, 31-56
non-directive leadership 41
notetaker 14, 40, 46
participation 2-3, 5, 9, 25, 27, 34, 37, 49, 55-56
passing the clipboard 52
patience 7, 25-26
power 2, 5, 17, 23, 26, 29
public scribe 46
reformulating the proposal 52
respect 3, 5, 22, 23, 25-27, 30, 32, 46, 49, 53
role 6, 19, 27, 32, 34, 37-48, 52-53
silence 13, 44, 51
small group 7, 44, 46, 51, 55
social prejudice 27
standard agenda 40
stand aside 16, 29-30,
stepping out of role 52
structure 2-3, 6, 9-10-11, 26-27, 31, 39, 55
taking a break 51
techniques 3, 6, 10-11, 15, 19, 34, 38-39, 41, 49-56
unity of purpose 19, 23
whole group 5-6, 13, 16-17, 24, 28, 42, 44, 46, 54-56
Front Matter from the Printed Book
C.T. wrote the first edition of this book for the Pledge of Resistance in
Boston when it had over 3500 signers and 150 affnity groups. All policy
decisions for the organization were made at monthly spokesmeetings, involving
at least one spokesperson from each affnity group. Members from the coordinating
committee were charged with managing daily affairs. Spokesmeetings were
often attended by over one hundred people; they were usually seventy strong.
For almost two years the process of consensus worked well for the Pledge,
empowering very large numbers of people to engage confdently in nonviolent
direct action. The forerunner of the model of consensus outlined in this
book was used throughout this period at spokesmeetings and, particularly
well, at the weekly coordinators meetings. However, it was never systematically
defned and written down or formally adopted.
For over two years, C.T. attended monthly spokesmeetings, weekly coordinating
meetings, and uncounted committee meetings. He saw the need to develop a
consistent way to introduce new members to consensus. At frst, he looked
for existing literature to aid in conducting workshops on the consensus
process. He was unable to fnd any suitable material, so he set out to develop
The frst edition of this book is the result of a year of research into consensus
in general and the Pledge process in particular. It was mostly distributed
to individuals who belonged to various groups already struggling to use
some form of consensus process. The fourth printing included an introduction
which added the concept of secular consensus. The secular label distinguishes
this model of consensus from both the more traditional model found in faith-based
communities and the rather informal consensus commonly found in progressive
Unfortunately, the label of secular consensus gave the impression that we
were denying any connection with spirituality. We wanted to clearly indicate
that the model of consensus we were proposing was distinct, but we did not
want to exclude the valuable work of faith-based communities.
Therefore, since the sixth printing we have used the name Formal Consensus
because it adequately defnes this distinction. We hope that Formal Consensus
will continue to be an important contribution to the search for an effective,
more unifying, democratic decisionmaking process.
Formal Consensus is a specifc kind of decisionmaking. It must be defned
by the group using it. It provides a foundation, structure, and collection
of techniques for effcient and productive group discussions. The foundation
is the commonly-held principles and decisions which created the group originally.
The structure is predetermined, although fexible. The agenda is formal and
extremely important. The roles, techniques, and skills necessary for smooth
operation must be accessible to and developed in all members. Evaluation
of the process must happen on a consistent and frequent basis, as a tool
for self-education and self-management. Above all, Formal Consensus must
be taught. It is unreasonable to expect people to be familiar with this
process already. In general, cooperative nonviolent confict resolution does
not exist in modern North American society. These skills must be developed
in what is primarily a competitive environment. Only time will tell if,
in fact, this model will fourish and prove itself effective and worthwhile.
We are now convinced more than ever that the model presented in this book
is profoundly signifcant for the future of our species. We must learn to
live together cooperatively, resolving our conficts nonviolently and making
our decisions consensually. We must learn to value diversity and respect
all life, not just on a physical level, but emotionally, intellectually,
and spiritually. We are all in this together.
-- C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein
-- August 1991
Food Not Bombs Publishing
(c) C.T. Butler, 1987.
295 Forest Avenue #314
Portland, ME 04101
This internet version is free. You may copy it to other computers, and you
may print it.
If you'd prefer a pretty printed book with a binding that lays flat for
use during meetings, or if you'd like to arrange a workshop or consultation,
contact C.T. The book costs $15 US, including postage.
If you need a freelance typographer and page production artist, contact
C.T. Butler's email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Amy Rothstein's email: email@example.com