acknowledging that not everyone who uses this guide will want to work
with a consensus decision making approach to meetings, the following
has been included for those who are as yet unfamiliar with this process.
is a process for group decision-making. It is a democratic method by
which an entire group of people can come to an agreement. The input
and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesized to arrive
at a final decision acceptable to all. Through consensus, we are not
only working to achieve better solutions, but also to promote the growth
of community and trust.
is a means by which we choose one alternative from several. Consensus,
on the other hand, is a process of synthesizing many diverse elements
together. Voting assumes that people are always competitive and that
agreement can only be reached through compromise.
Consensus assumes that people are willing to agree with each other,
and that in such an atmosphere, conflict and differences can result
in creative and intelligent decisions. Another important assumption
made in consensus is that the process requires everyone's participation,
in speaking and in listening. No ideas are lost, each member's input
is valued as part of the solution, and feelings are as important as
facts in making a decision. It is possible for one person's insights
or strongly held beliefs to sway the entire group, but participation
should always remain equal.
Does Consensus Mean?
fundamental right of consensus is for all people to be able to express
themselves in their own words and of their own will. The fundamental
responsibility of consensus is to assure others of their right to speak
and be heard. Since our society provides very little training in these
areas, we have to unlearn many behavior patterns in order to practice
good consensus process. Consensus does not mean that everyone thinks
that the decision made is the most efficient way to accomplish something,
or that they are absolutely sure it will work. What it does mean is
that in coming to that decision, no one felt that her or his position
on the matter wasn't considered carefully. Hopefully, everyone will
think it is the best decision; this often happens because, when consensus
works properly, collective intelligence does come up with better solutions
than could individuals.
Process of Consensus Agreement, at least informally, should be sought
on every aspect of group meetings, including the agenda, the times the
group should take for each item, and the process the group should use
to work through its tasks. The following is an outline of formal consensus,
the process a group uses to come to agreement on a particular course
the problem should be clearly stated. This might take some discussion,
in order for the group to identify what needs to be solved. Then discussion
should take place about the problem, so the group can start working
towards a proposal. The biggest mistake people make in consensus is
to offer proposals too soon, before the group has had time to fully
discuss the issue. Tools a group can use during this preliminary period
of discussion include brainstorms, go-rounds, and breaking up into small
groups. When it is apparent that the group is beginning to go over the
same ground, a proposal can be made which attempts to synthesize all
the feelings and insights expressed. The proposal should be clearly
stated. Then discussion is held on the proposal, in which it is amended
or modified. During this discussion period, it is important to articulate
differences clearly. It is the responsibility of those who are having
trouble with a proposal to put forth alternative suggestions.
the proposal is understood by everyone, and there are no new changes
asked for, someone (usually the facilitator) can ask if there are any
objections or reservations to the proposal. It helps to have a moment
of silence here, so that no-one feels coerced into agreeing. If there
are no objections, the group is asked "Do we have consensus?" All members
of the group should then actively and visibly signal their agreement,
paying attention to each member of the group. After consensus is reached,
the decision should be clearly restated, as a check that everyone is
clear on what has been decided. Before moving away from the subject,
the group should be clear who is taking on the responsibility for implementing
in Reaching Consensus
enough discussion has occurred, and everyone has equally participated,
there should not be a group decision which cannot be supported by everyone.
But depending on the importance of the decision, the external conditions,
and how the process has gone, the group might be on the verge of reaching
a decision you cannot support. There are several ways of expressing
: "I don't see the need for this, but I'll go along with the group."
"I think this may be a mistake, but I can live with it."
Aside: "I personally can't do this, but I won't stop others from doing
"I cannot support this or allow the group to support this. It is immoral."
If a final decision violates someone's moral values, they are obligated
to block consensus. A decision by an affinity group spokescouncil can
only be blocked by an entire affinity group, not by an individual. Blocks
will rarely occur if the group has fully discussed a proposal.
from the group: Obviously, if many people express non-support or reservations,
or leave the group temporarily through standing aside, there may not
be a viable decision even if no-one directly blocks it. This is what
as known as a "luke-warm" consensus and is just as desirable as a lukewarm
bath or a lukewarm beer. If consensus is blocked and no new consensus
is reached, the group stays with whatever the previous decision was
on the subject, or does nothing if that is applicable. Major philosophical
or moral questions that come up with each affinity group should be worked
through as soon as the group forms. Discussions about values and goals
are as important as discussions about actions to be taken, and too frequently
get pushed aside by groups who feel time pressures.
in Consensus Process
large groups, it is helpful to designate roles for people to help the
process move along. It is important to rotate these responsibilities
for each meeting so that skills and power can be shared. Ideally, such
responsibilities should belong to everyone, and not just the designated
facilitator's job is to help the group move through the agreed-upon
agenda, and to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak by calling
on them in order. Facilitators should see that speaking opportunities
are evenly distributed; that quiet people get a chance to speak and
people who talk too much are given a chance to listen. The facilitator
should observe when the discussion seems to be nearing the point when
a proposal could be made. S/he can then call for a proposal or offer
one to the group, and after more discussion if necessary, s/he can then
guide the group through the check for consensus as outlined above. Facilitators
should not use their position as a platform from which to offer solutions;
solutions should arise from the group, and no-one should facilitate
if they find they have strong opinions on a given issue. A facilitator
can always hand over her or his responsibilities temporarily if s/he
feels it necessary to step down. The group should not rely upon the
facilitator to solve process problems, but should be ready to help with
suggestions on how to proceed. Very large groups should use two or more
are useful in large groups where people don't know each other, and their
job is to be attuned to the emotional state of the group. Is the group
tense, or bored, or too silly? The vibeswatcher might suggest a game,
or more light, or open windows, or a group hug. Sometimes simply calling
attention to an emotional undercurrent that may be affecting group process
is helpful. Vibeswatchers should also call the group's attention to
a person whose anger or fear is being ignored, or to people who may
be involved in a dialogue that has its causes outside of the group's
activities. Vibeswatchers also should assume the role of "gatekeeper,"
taking care of any external disturbance for the group.
timekeeper keeps the group on track by giving the group a warning halfway
through that discussion time is running out and by asking the group
if it wants to contract for more time on a given issue. Timekeepers
should ask if people want to set specific time limits on brainstorms
or time allotments to each speaker on go-rounds. Before speaking themselves,
timekeepers should be sure that someone else is timekeeping for that
notetaker tries to clearly record key points of discussions, the consensus
decisions reached by the group, things that were left to be decided
later, and who has taken on responsibilities for particular tasks. The
group (or the facilitator for the next meeting) should be able to use
the notes to construct the agenda for the next meeting. A notetaker
can also be helpful during the meeting to remind the group of key points
covered in discussion if the group is having trouble formulating a proposal.
important to emphasize that every member of the group should try to
facilitate, vibeswatch, timekeep, and notetake. Sharing the responsibility
ensures that power is distributed equally within the group and makes
consensus easier on everyone.
is clear that consensus is a time consuming activity. It is therefore
important for affinity groups to make their fundamental decisions prior
to going to an action. Discuss in advance such questions as: What do
we do if faced with a provocateur in our group or a nearby group? How
long do we want to stay on site? How do we respond to police strategies
designed to keep us away from the site? It helps for an affinity group
to define for itself its particular goals, or tone. Such general definitions
as "Our group will always go where numbers are most needed," or "We
want to be where we will get media coverage," or "We want to leaflet
workers inside the site," will help a group make decisions under stressful
and changing circumstances. Be prepared for unexpected circumstances
by selecting a spokesperson and a facilitator for your group for quick-decision
making process during the action. It will be the spokesperson's responsibility
to communicate the group's decisions to the action or cluster spokescouncil.
It is the facilitator's responsibility to quickly and succinctly articulate
the problem to be discussed and to eliminate those points where agreement
has already been reached. It is the responsibility of everyone in the
group to keep the discussion to a minimum if quick action is called
for. If your point has already been made by someone else, don't restate
it. A calm approach and a clear desire to come to an agreement quickly
can help the process. Don't let anxiety overwhelm your trust in each
other or your purpose in the action. Strong objections should be limited
to matters of principle.
Tools for Consensus Process
used for introductions, but besides names, people can tell the group
how they're feeling (anxious, silly, tired),or what they expect from
the meeting (certain decisions, certain length). A group might adjust
their agenda according to the emotional state or practical
needs revealed by the group during check-in.
person is given a certain amount of time to speak on a particular subject,
without having to comment on other contributions, or defend their own.
Should be used at the beginning of discussion on an issue, if only a
few people are doing the talking, or if the group
seems stuck for good solutions.
a short time during which people can call out suggestions, concerns,
or ideas randomly, sometimes without being called on. Helps to get out
a lot of ideas fast, stimulates creative thinking. It's not a time for
discussion or dialogue. Someone can write down brainstorm
ideas on a large sheet of paper so everyone can see and remember them.
up into small groups
on the size of the original group, this could be from three to a whole
affinity group. A small group gets a chance to talk things over for
a specified amount of time before reporting back to the large group.
This gives people a chance to really listen to each
other and express themselves, and is very useful when a group seems
unable to come to consensus. In a spokescouncil meeting, breaking up
into affinity groups to discuss issues or to make specific decisions
is often necessary.
a large group, or a small group which seems hopelessly divided, a fishbowl
helps to make clear what's at stake in particular positions. A few people,
particularly those who feel strongest about an issue, sit down together
in the middle of the group and hash things
out freely for a designated period of time while the group observes
them. The people in the middle don't come to any decisions, but the
fishbowl gives everyone a chance to hear the debate without involving
the whole group; often hidden solutions are revealed.