Consensus Basics

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The consensus process is a powerful tool for bringing groups together to move forward with inspired and effective decisions. Like many tools, consensus requires a particular set of skills. Groups who try to use consensus 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 polarities experienced in 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.

Typically, a member brings forward a topic for discussion. It may be in the form of a question, a statement of a problem, or a proposal for action. After the item is framed by the presenter, it 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 allows everyone to understand the idea and its context before entering into a discussion.

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, support an idea, or make suggestions. A natural, free-flowing discussion can build energy, but if the pace gets too fast less assertive members may feel excluded. The facilitator may suggest the group use alternative methods to general discussion, 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 the facilitator integrates the participants’ comments, a sense of the group’s direction emerges. When the facilitator attempts to identify the direction and reflect it back to the group, it also becomes clear where there is not yet alignment. This is the main challenge in using consensus. If an environment is created where everyone’s piece of the truth is welcome, the inherent wisdom and creativity of the group comes through.

Once issues have been aired 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.

While everyone likes to get their way, it is simply not possible for a group to fulfill every individual’s desire on every issue. Therefore, agreement in consensus does not necessarily indicate high enthusiasm or that the proposal fulfills a personal preference. Rather, it means the member sees how the proposal benefits the group and can live with it. How-ever, if no one is excited about an idea, it will likely fall flat during the implementation stage. It’s up to each group to determine how much energetic support is necessary to feel comfortable moving forward with a decision.

A person may choose to stand aside due to personal conscience or strongly differing individual opinion. Either way, the individual owes the group an explanation. In the Quaker tradition, standing aside means that the person would not be called upon to implement a decision, though they would still be bound by it. Even though a member may vehemently disagree, they honor the group’s need or desire to move in that direction. If more than one or two people stand aside, it is a signal that the group is not yet in alignment.

Standing in the way of a decision is also known as blocking. The ability to prevent the will of the rest of the group is what gives consensus its special power—it’s also what many people are most scared of. Blocking is never to be undertaken lightly. It is the responsibility of participants to bring up concerns as early in the process as possible, as 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 it happens that a member perceives a proposal to represent a disastrous direction for the group. Not a big risk or a decision they personally don’t like, but an action that contradicts the group’s purpose, mission, or values, or would irrevocably injure the organization or its members. It takes significant ego to presume one has 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 standing in the way. Anyone considering blocking a decision is obligated to thoroughly explain the reasons and make every effort to find a workable solution. Respected consensus teacher Caroline Estes 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. In my early days there, the standard meeting procedure was to gather around the breakfast table, where we ate and chatted until someone picked up the clipboard with the list of meeting topics and suggested one as a starting point. 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. We would wrap up discussion, 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 meeting agendas in advance. ‘Huh?’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Wouldn’t that take too much time?’ He suggested our meetings would move along so much more efficiently that it would be worth the extra time.

We decided to try it as an experiment. Three of us formed a committee and drew up an agenda for each meeting. We worked out in advance which items would be discussed when. We clarified who would present each item, for how long, and who would facilitate the meeting. We tried to give difficult items to more experienced facilitators, and used team facilitation, pairing experienced facilitators with those just learning the 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 of losing our precious meeting time, we added an ‘overflow’ item to the plan. If we finished all the other items faster than 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. Many factors influenced the agenda, including who was home that week to sponsor or participate in the discussion; urgency of action needed; the balance of heavy and light items at each meeting; and which items had been waiting longest for attention. The agenda planners posted ahead of time whether the item would be an introduction, discussion, or possible decision. In the beginning it could take our committee 40 minutes to work it all out. Later, as we became accustomed to juggling the different factors, one person could plan a week’s agendas in about 20 minutes.

Delegate, Delegate

Acorn’s approach to agenda planning illustrates an important principle for making the 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 of standing committees in 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 its power. What is the purpose of the committee? Is it to do research only and report back? Make recommendations for the larger group to implement? Make decisions and follow through itself? Committees need a mandate from the larger group and a timeline. Reporting back regularly 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 to set up the first meeting.

If the committee is open to it, posting the time and place of its meetings so that others can 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 10 minutes, 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 can access.

The note taker’s goal is not to record who said what when. The information readers will likely want to know is:

  • date of the meeting
  • who was present
  • clear description of each item
  • 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 there is a proposal, and especially if there is a consensus decision, that needs to be stated clearly and explicitly in the minutes. During the meeting, if the group is nearing consensus, the facilitator should have the note taker read out the proposed minutes to ensure there is agreement.
  • 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 wrote in a previous edition of the Communities Directory, the role of the facilitator cannot be overemphasized. The facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting on track. Yet every member is also responsible for each other and the group. Every person present at the meeting 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 both 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 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 of facilitator helps minimize power differences in the group. As the members with the least experience get more practice, the level of the whole group is brought 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.

The 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 an ability to see all points of view are essential. If you are serving as facilitator, a few minutes before the meeting starts clear your mind of worries and fatigue, breathe and center, ground. All your attention will be needed for the task at hand.

The facilitator carries an attitude of group success. For every group, in every situation, there is common ground that can be discerned—the job of the facilitator is to see that and reflect it back, over and over. As each person speaks, listen carefully and step in every few minutes to weave together what’s been said. Look for the reasons behind the positions. When 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 reveal 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 tension. Seek the path forward, but don’t be afraid of conflict—it’s a natural experience and it shows that people care. Highly skilled facilitators are able to take the energy generated by conflict and use it to help the group.

If someone proffers a premature block, the facilitator can either work with the substance of their objection in the moment, or acknowledge the seriousness of the concern and ask them to hold it and listen with an open mind to more discussion. If you come to a stuck point, remember 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.

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 É 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.

Resources

  • CANBRIDGE (Consensus And Network Building for Resolving Impasse and Developing Group Effectiveness) offers consultation and assistance with consensus facilitation and training. Contact Laird Schaub, tel: 660-883-5545. Email: [email protected]
  • Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA) offers training in facilitation techniques.
  • International Association of Facilitators (IAF) sponsors an annual conference, and publishes a journal. 7630 West 145th St, Suite 202, St Paul MN 55124, USA. Tel: 612-891-3541. Email: [email protected]http://www.iaf-world.org/

Books

  • Auvine, Brian, et al. A Manual for Group Facilitators. Rutledge, MO: Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1978. Tel: 800-995-8342. Email: [email protected]
  • Avery, Michel, et al. A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making: Building United Judgment. Rutledge, MO: Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1981. Tel: 800-995-8342. Email: [email protected]
  • Butler, CT and Amy Rothstein. On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus. Portland, ME: Food Not Bombs Publishing, 1987. Tel: 800-569-4054. Email: [email protected]
  • Kaner, Sam. Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. San Francisco: Community at Work, 1996. Tel: 415-641-9773.
  • Kelsey, Dee and Pam Plumb. Great Meetings! How to Facilitate Like a Pro. Portland, ME: Hanson Park Press, 1997. Tel: 888-767-6338. Email: [email protected]
  • Schwarz, Roger. (1994) The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1994. Tel: 415-433-1740.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Lysbeth Borie, Paul DeLapa, Betty Didcoct, and Caroline Estes for their contributions to this article.

Author Biography
Tree Bressen is a consensus facilitator and teacher living at the Du-m‡ Community house in Eugene, Oregon. She lived at Acorn Community from 1994Ð99, and served as delegate to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC). She currently serves on the board of Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC). Her favorite ways to spend time include walking on the beach, folk singing, making love, and playing frisbee.