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Consensus Process

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Decision-making by consensus: A Brief Introduction

© 2000 by Skip Spitzer

What is consensus?

Consensus is a process that groups use for making high quality decisions that are acceptable to all of its members. That is not to say that everyone necessarily feels that the adopted decisions are best, but that everyone supports them.

This differs from "majority rule," the model most of us are brought up to equate with democracy itself:

  • With majority rule, proposals are presented and modified to secure enough votes to approve them. With consensus, group members present and modify proposals to make them agreeable to all.
  • With majority rule, it's often hard to be heard. With consensus, special efforts are made to hear those who are often not heard.
  • With majority rule, the goal is to please a majority, often paying little attention to the needs of the minority. With consensus, the aim is to recognize the needs of everyone, especially if they are in a minority.

Consensus can be incredibly satisfying. But it can also be very challenging. A bad consensus process might make you wish for a quick vote, or even a friendly dictator. So, if you are going to do it, it's important to put in the effort to do it well.

How consensus works

The basic idea works like this. Deliberation of an issue generally begins with a discussion in which group members raise concerns, ask questions, and say what they think. This generally leads to proposals about how to resolve the issue.

As proposals are discussed, they may be amended by their owners based on the comments and requests of the other members, and restated to reflect such changes. If a proposal seems to be going nowhere, or no longer seems like a good idea, the maker can withdraw it.

Based on how the discussion proceeds, the group's facilitator can test for and attempt to work out a consensus on a proposal by eliciting concerns and accommodations. Periodically, the facilitator will restate the proposal at hand (or have the maker restate it) to make sure it's clear to everyone and then ask the group how it feels about it. Members can then react to it in one of several ways:

  • As a supporter ("I think that's a great idea. Let's do it")
  • With ambivalence ("I don't see the need for that, but I'll go along with it")
  • With reservation ("I think that's a mistake, but I can live with it")
  • By standing aside ("I won't participate in that, but it's fine if others do")
  • By blocking consensus ("I cannot support this or allow the group to do it")

If the proposal is blocked, the blocker should clearly state his or her reasons. If such major objections cannot be resolved, the proposal is not enacted. Another proposal can be offered, or the issue can be dropped or put off until later.

If no one blocks, consensus is reached. Note, though, that consensus can be achieved without sufficient support, even if no one stands aside or blocks. This kind of "lukewarm consensus" might make the proposal maker withdraw it, despite a consensus having been reached. Some things are best hot or cold.

Special roles in consensus

Of course, all that doesn't just happen. Several key roles help make consensus work. There may be one or more members playing each.

The Facilitator. This is the most important role. The facilitator is generally responsible for:

  • Limiting speakers taking up too much time and encouraging quiet people to talk
  • Keeping the discussion on track
  • Looking for agreement
  • Presenting or calling for proposals and clarifications
  • Working through consensus (without ignoring or overemphasizing his or her own input)
  • Making procedural decisions in a popular way, without bogging the group down by securing a formal consensus on every little thing

That's quite a lot to do. Typically the facilitator is also responsible for other aspects of a meeting:

  • Seeing that an agenda is made
  • Prioritizing or helping to prioritize agenda items
  • Arranging the implementation of decisions
  • Making sure a subsequent meeting is set
  • Inviting evaluation

A good facilitator can make a difficult meeting great. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true! A bad facilitator can drive members away for good. For a more in-depth discussion of how to facilitate, see Embracing Facilitation.

The Note-taker. Often, a note-taker writes down what happens at a meeting, or at least the decisions reached and commitments made. This is important--it increases clarity during a meeting and prevents disagreements afterwards. It's amazing how often group members agree on something and later wonder if they were all even at the same meeting!

The Time-keeper. For more efficient sessions, a time-keeper brings to the group's attention the amount of time used for items that are time-allocated. If time runs out for an item, the group can decide to "contract for" (or budget) more time, or move on. Watch out for long discussions about short additions of time!

The Vibes-watcher. Often, a vibes-watcher focuses on the mood and dynamics of the group. He or she can watch speaking time and tone, body language, underlying emotions, distractions, and so on. This really helps highlight domineering and other behavior that prevents participation and cooperation.

Everyone else

Even if a member does not play one of these roles, he or she must pay attention to how the process is going, and try to participate in a way that supports consensus. As a participant you should:

  • Freely express what you want to express, but don't speak just because there is something you could say. Consensus is an inviting process and can easily be flooded. Try to avoid comments about things that are not really that important to you or the issue at hand, defensive explanations, comments that just show how knowledgeable you are, etc.
  • Respect the comments of others. Make sure you are really listening.
  • Respect the roles of others, especially that of the facilitator. Help the facilitator by making suggestions. Do not unexpectedly "co-facilitate."
  • Block consensus only when something is very important! Recognize the impact of blocking a decision that would otherwise be accepted. Be prepared to state your reasons so that others can try to accommodate your concerns.
  • Don't be afraid to disagree. Conflict is a natural part of social life and can make for better ideas and outcomes.
  • Compromise when you can.

Racism, sexism, and classism

The consensus model helps prevent racism, sexism, and classism from entering into group process. But it doesn't happen automatically. Men, for example, generally speak and block consensus more than women. Generally, they accommodate and take notes less. Everyone needs to remain aware of such domineering behaviors to help ensure that consensus process actually produces real consensus.